Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sermon: “Recipe for Repentance: Looking Forward”, Mark 11:1-11 (March 28, 2021--Palm Sunday)

(This is the sixth sermon in our Lenten series, "Recipe for Repentance". Previous sermons can be found hereherehere, and here, and the Ash Wednesday message can be found here.)


It’s so good to be back worshiping with you again. I wasn’t in worship last Sunday because, as many of you know, I’d just gotten my second COVID vaccine on Saturday and, given all the horror stories I’d heard about side effects, Session and I decided that it made the most sense for me to stay home the next day. As it turned out, my side effects weren’t all that bad—a headache was the worst of it—so I took the opportunity to look ahead and work on our worship videos for Holy Week.

It occurred to me that this was an especially appropriate way to spend the days leading up to and immediately following my second shot, because these vaccines are ALL about looking forward towards the future—in the short term, it takes two weeks after (in some cases) a SECOND injection for you to be fully protected against the virus, and in the long term, it’ll still be a long, gradual road to herd immunity (and therefore back to “normal”). The excitement of this scientific breakthrough being achieved in record time is tempered by the fact that it can’t offer the results we want RIGHT NOW.

Holy Week works much the same way. Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, and shout, “Hosanna!” along with the enthusiastic crowd (or at least, we think it really loudly when we’re together and shout it when we get home). It’s an exciting moment for the Jewish people: they’ve been waiting so long for the arrival of their Messiah, the one they expect to deliver them from the oppressive rule of the Roman empire. And it’s finally happening! This very moment, they see the one “who comes in the name of the Lord” processing down the road towards Jerusalem RIGHT BEFORE THEIR OWN EYES! Even the word they shout conveys a sense of urgency: “Hosanna” literally means “save now”. You could interpret these words as a plea or as a proclamation meant to honor Jesus (along the same lines of “God save the queen”), but either way, their cries express a craving for immediacy.

Meanwhile, Jesus is taking his sweet time. He gives his disciples strangely specific instructions and waits for them to return before beginning his journey into Jerusalem. (Mark even depicts an equally detailed account of the disciples’ actions in retrieving the colt, adding to the overall sense of inertia in the narrative.) The procession itself would have taken a while, as a colt unused to passengers would have been a challenge to ride anywhere, let alone through a rambunctious crowd. And after all’s said and done, Jesus looks around at everything and…does nothing. For all the anticipation that the Jewish people had been feeling, the actual events must be a bit of a let-down for them. They want “now”, and God says, “wait”.

Those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to receive a COVID-19 vaccination already can relate. It’s exciting to FINALLY be able to sign up, to have your appointment confirmed, to fill out the paperwork, to feel that little “poke” that means it’s done, and of course, to get the sticker that says, “I was vaccinated!” But then we all have to go home and keep living that COVID lifestyle for at least another two weeks before we’re fully protected, and realistically longer, since scientists still aren’t exactly sure whether or not the virus can spread through a fully vaccinated person. We’re all ready to visit family, hug our friends, travel across state lines, heck—even to go to the grocery store without wearing a mask. But we’re not there yet. And we don’t know for sure when we will be. It turns out, this vaccination isn’t a moment in time—it’s a journey that requires us to live outside of the present moment, be patient, and look towards the future. We’re all ready to be “saved” now, but the medical community says, “wait”.

And then on top of all that, of course, there are the side effects. As I said, I was fortunately spared the worst potential side effects, so it’s largely just a waiting game for me. But for many, the vaccine comes with consequences they didn’t want, didn’t ask for, maybe even didn’t expect. For them, it’s not just time, but discomfort or even suffering that stands between them and the goal that they long for.

The people celebrating with their cloaks and branches and “Hosannas” didn’t realize it, but Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was merely the first step in their salvation, their “vaccination”, so to speak, and they would still have to wait through the awful side effects before they could begin to see the results that they craved. They would first have to watch their long-awaited savior surrender, suffer, and die. That was NOT what they thought they were signing up for on Palm Sunday (even though Jesus had been dropping hints and warning them all along).

They should have known that Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem didn’t mean “now”; it meant “wait”. There was still a lot of work to be done. God’s plan was much bigger than a spontaneous coup to overthrow the government…but the people didn’t understand. They were tired of waiting, and if God hadn’t been determined to save them in spite of their impatience, they would have never received the even greater prize that God had in store for them. All because they wanted something less, now.

Holy week and COVID vaccination are each a process, a journey. With each of these major events, the greater reward comes if we’re willing to look to the future, to wait for the bigger payoff at the end. With the gifts of hindsight and scientific guidance, most of us are able to understand that. What we might not realize, though, is that this can also apply to smaller, more everyday events. The practice of repentance, for example, works the same way.

Genuine repentance exists outside of the times that we’re actively in prayer. It’s tempting to think that a moment of contrition leads to instantaneous righteousness, an immediate “clean slate”, since we know that God has already forgiven us before we even open our mouths to pray. It’s tempting to think that when we express regret in the moment, it should be enough to make everything better. We cry, “Hosanna, forgive now!” But that’s not how it works. Repentance requires more than just our momentary penitence; it requires a long-term vision. Just because our bodies immediately start working on antibodies when we get a shot doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the story. Just because the messiah finally enters Jerusalem doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the story. In the same way, just because we’ve said, “I’m sorry” (even with an attitude of full humility, trust, and surrender) doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the story. We must not only BE sorry, but ACT sorry—make an effort to change our behavior and do better going forward.

We cry, “now,” but God keeps insisting, “wait,” not because God likes to watch us suffer, but because God has something far better in mind. God doesn’t just want “now” for us; God wants “forever”. So we have to be patient and keep working towards the future. With the COVID vaccine, this means enduring the side effects and lingering pandemic precautions before arriving at herd immunity. With Palm Sunday, this means being present with the terrible events of Holy Week before arriving at the joy of Easter. With repentance, this means engaging in a process of self-rehabilitation before arriving at righteousness. THIS is where we meet God most directly: not in the moment of contrition, of triumph, of inoculation, but in the work that WE undertake afterwards to create a better future for ourselves and for others.

Don’t get me wrong; looking to the future can be scary because it’s a mystery. There are too many opportunities for something to go wrong between now and then—another excuse to sin, a new wave of infections, our one hope for salvation nailed to a cross. We KNOW what’s happening now, and we like the idea of everything being neatly tied up in a bow with minimum effort. But that’s not realistic, and it’s DEFINITELY not how we achieve the greatest good. It’s not the life to which God calls us.

As we stand in this strange, liminal space between Hosanna and resurrection, between personal vaccination and herd immunity, between repentance and redemption, resist the temptation to stop short where you are. Remember that this big picture, forward-looking plan, as frustrating as it can be at times, is how God works, how God has ALWAYS worked, and how God calls us to work. That the time we spend looking forward is integral to perfecting the “now” (in the sense of completion) and making it all worth it.

So know that, even as you settle in to wait still longer after already waiting for ages, God is with you. Know that, even as you suffer and struggle before finding the redemption you seek, God is with you. Know that, even as you choose reform instead of settling for “good enough”, God is with you. God is with you, and God has a plan for the future better than any we could possibly imagine in the now. Amen.

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