Written by Bryan Niebanck
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.Psalm 118:29
I heard a story somewhere about a trucker. This trucker would go around to all the different states and bring home a rock from each state to give to his daughter. They labeled what state it was from and put it on her shelf. She loved these rocks, and it was something that she could look forward to when her dad came home after long trips. Imagine the different experiences each rock had had in their state – the different weather, the different people it had seen, for example. It is almost like seeing old coins and imagining the places and people it may have been and seen and, more spectacularly, the time that it had lived in. In a way, just by being there, they call out their histories. They are not just old rocks and coins. Perhaps when Jesus told the Pharisees, “I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out,” he understood that the things that the rocks had seen would speak for themselves. For, though it may be difficult to imagine, some of this rock on this planet dates back to the age of the dinosaurs. There are places where you can go see layers and layers of rock exposed because of a river having cut through it. Could you imagine that some of the rock around during Jesus’ time could have been witness to the very creation that God spoke? Could the rocks have been there when Adam and Eve walked on them, when Moses hiked up the mountain to retrieve the law of God on tablets, when David cut the cloak of King Saul in the cave? If you have ever been to an ancient city, have you been excited at the thought that some famous person must have walked on that very road that you were walking on? In Jerusalem, the thought came to me multiple times that this was the same stone road that Jesus would have walked on two centuries ago. Yes, the rocks have witnessed an incredible history.
We have reached Palm Sunday, a day of triumph as Jesus walks into Jerusalem. He is welcomed by everyone who is there as they wave palm branches and lay some down on the road for him to pass over. It is nearly a red carpet event. The people are ready to receive Jesus; they are ready to welcome him. They are amazed to have him in their city and in their presence. As you wave your palm branches today, ask yourselves how triumphant you are. Have you readied yourself to receive the king as they had? Do you have a welcoming heart?
We have walked a journey of six themes this Lent to prepare us to receive Christ at all moments of our lives. First, we recognized the need for repentance. We need to admit when we falter. Second, we need remembrance. To truly worship God we cannot forget what God has done before. Perhaps we count on the rocks to cry out what they have seen. Third, we learn to accept others as God does and Jesus does, even when we do not approve of their ways. We are called to accept our neighbors into the church of Jesus Christ and let the wayward come back home even while they may still be wayward. Fourth, we forgive others for their wrongs done to us, knowing that holding on to blame and resentment only hinders our ability to hold on to the traits that God wants us to embrace. Fifth, we need to express gratitude so that we are not weighed down by the things that have and can go wrong. Having an attitude of gratitude helps us to grow closer to God and also helps us to spread the kingdom and attitude of God throughout the world. Finally, we are ready to embrace Jesus at the gate of Jerusalem, just as Jesus embraces us. And as Jesus embraces us, we also embrace one another, for when we embrace the ones among us, we also are embracing the Christ. Repentance, remembrance, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, and embracing. If you have followed these steps accurately these past few weeks, and committed yourself to them, Jesus will tell you now that he does in fact know you. You do represent the church of God well. And of course you will be welcomed to walk with him in the kingdom. In our final message of this Lenten series, we will consider how we truly embrace God. The first step, of course, is to follow all of the first five steps we have already outlined. If we skip to the last step first, we may embrace, but we do so without commitment. It is too shallow.
First, then, embracing needs commitment. It is misleading to embrace someone if you are not committed to their wellbeing. Does anyone hug someone just to hug, or do people instead hug someone because they really care about the other person? In most cases, it is the latter. We should be the same way with God. When you hug a child, or a friend, for example, you are showing them and telling them that you love them, that you care for them, and that you always want the best for them. We don’t need to and should not change our language when we are dealing with God. You can show your commitment many ways, by following devotions, by praying, and of course by sharing the embrace of God with others. Again, when you embrace another person with the spirit of God, you are also embracing God.
Second, embracing needs trust. At least one, and many times both, parties involved are understanding that they trust one another. They will do whatever they can to help each other get through. There is a powerful statement in trust. You believe that with this embrace, you can get through the challenges. As long as you have each other, you will be fine. With God, the power of this trusting embrace is even more powerful. Even when we lose the one we trusted for life, and embraced for life, God offers us an embracing and a love that we may not have ever imagined. We just have to accept it. With God, we are trusting that no matter what the future holds, we will be okay. God will take care of us. And we envision a future where God is a regular part of our lives every day. This allows you to truly pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” You may also know this prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There are some things that we will never be able to change, such as the fact that life is just plain hard. We will never abolish suffering in this life. But maybe we can change someone’s attitude about it. We can change the way someone looks at life, if we have the courage to approach them. We can show others that there is some hope, that there is someone that they can trust, even with everything seems to be going wrong for them. Something can go right.
Third, embracing needs affirmation. If you regularly pray to God, you may hear affirmations by God to you. Even though you do happen to mess up a lot, God often doesn’t focus on those things because God is happy that you have chosen to come to him in this moment. God will affirm you and things that you do well. Maybe you have felt this. Maybe you need to lean into God more so that you do feel it. But when we feel God embrace us, we feel God’s affirmation. We hear God tell us, “You are my child. I love you. I will hold you tight.” Maybe you have told that to someone yourself. Allow someone to tell it to you. Allow God to tell it to you. Embracing goes both ways. When we affirm God, as we choose to embrace him, we are signing our songs of praise from the pews, maybe also from home. We are praying with trust that all will be well, even when things do not seem that way around us. We are reciting what we have believed and heard from the beginning. And that includes some of what we heard in our psalm today: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1, 29). We also recite our statement of faith from time to time to remind ourselves of what we believe in.
In the three acts of embracing, then, you have your three challenges this week: Show commitment, trust, and affirmation toward God, and also toward one another. And while you do this, remember to continue forward with your attitude of gratitude and all the rest you have taken with you from this journey. May you proclaim the words as the prophet Isaiah did: “I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced” (Isaiah 50:6-7). Jesus did not hide his face; neither do we have to. Let the stones speak God’s glory for themselves, or proclaim along with them. If you are still here – If I have not scared you away yet – you obviously want to be closer to God. We do not grow closer by standing idly by and waiting for something to happen. I had a fortune this week at the Chinese Restaurant in Tiffin where I had lunch with Dan Busch: It read, “Waiting sometimes has consequences.” While the Bible does affirm waiting for the Lord in hope so that we can gain back our strength, it does not support a passive waiting. While we wait, we are to embrace one another and God. We are still to seek God out, however we best do that, through a devoted life toward God. We read Scripture, we pray, and we embrace one another. In this commitment, you and I are truly ready to walk with Jesus on this road of suffering. Even where life lets us down, walking with Jesus does not. It will have it’s trying moments, and there will be times that we recognize this week where we will be tempted to turn away for fear of our lives or our reputation, but when we hold true to the path, we will always be victorious in the end. Hold true. Hold steady. And may all glory and honor be to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
118:1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
118:2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
118:19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
118:20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
118:21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
118:23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
118:25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
118:26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.
118:27 The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
118:28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
118:29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,
19:30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.
19:31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”
19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.
19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
19:34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”
19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.
19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.
19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,
19:38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
19:40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
50:5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
50:6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
50:7 The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
50:8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
50:9a It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?