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Sermons

The Holiest Week

March 13, 2011

Bible Reading

It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

(II Samuel 6:12-15)


When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

(Matthew 21:1-11)

Reading from Swedenborg

For Jerusalem was the inmost of the land, and by it was signified the Lord’s spiritual kingdom; and the house of God was the inmost of Jerusalem, because by it was signified the Lord’s celestial kingdom, and in the supreme sense the Lord Himself. Hence people spoke of “going up” to them. From all this it is evident what is signified by “arise, go up to Bethel,” namely progress toward the interiors.

(Arcana Coelestia 4539(3))

Sermon

This past week we observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which marks the forty days before Holy Week and the Lord’s death and resurrection. This is the most important event in the life of Christ, and by far the most important event in the life of every Christian. We call the week before Christ’s resurrection Holy Week. It begins with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which we call Palm Sunday, and ends with Jesus’ resurrection and first appearance to the disciples, which of course we call Easter. This is the holiest of weeks because many of the Lord’s most important teachings were given and the most important events took place during this final phase of the Lord’s earthly life, which occurred in and around Jerusalem, the holy center of Israel.

This morning I would like to do a quick overview of the events of Holy Week and their significance to us in our own spiritual journeys. Holy Week is a time of joy and expectation, of betrayal and disappointment, of profound grief and depression, of deep reverence, of soul-stirring thanksgiving and praise. In this one week, the disciples then, and we by virtue of our discipleship now, are taken from the depths to the heights and challenged to the cores of our beings. In the end, the one ultimate purpose for the Lord’s life on earth is revealed and the single most important question of belief is put to all of the Lord’s disciples. We think of our lives as being busy and intense. Well, we are about to find out how to pack some serious living into the space of one short week!

Our scripture readings for this morning are about David and then Jesus going up to Jerusalem. As we heard in our reading from Swedenborg, the city of Jerusalem and the temple represent the center of the heavenly realm, the spiritual core of the Lord and heaven, and being created in the image and likeness of God—and therefore the spiritual core of each one of us as well. This is significant because it tells us that the events of Holy Week are not about things going on at the periphery of our lives, but at the very center of all that is important to us, the very center of all that is us! The events of Holy Week are about spiritual challenge and decision and the resulting transformation of the deepest elements of our character, our spirit, our soul. This is not superficial stuff; it is about what is going on at our core: our beliefs, the nature of our commitment to God, the nature and ultimate object of our love and loyalty.

We read about Jesus “going up” to Jerusalem, and what we should hear in that narrative is that each one of us “going in” to the center of our being, to our deepest connection to God and the realm of heaven. It is here that the events of Holy Week and all that they represent in terms of our spiritual regeneration take place: at the center.

This week is about being willing to go there, being willing to face the challenges of going deep within our own hearts and minds, being willing to go deep within to the very essence of our relationship with God. To do that takes courage and commitment. It is easy to skirt around the edges, to stay superficial, to be content and self-satisfied with our illusions of who we are. It takes guts to go within and face the inner reality of who we are. For to do that is to risk disappointment, to expose to ourselves our own weakness, to bring out into the light those aspects of ourselves that would betray what we claim to hold dear. When Jesus took that triumphant ride up to Jerusalem, even while all the cheering and adulation were going on around him, he knew full well that he would not only be facing attempts on the part of the Pharisees and the powers that be to discredit him and destroy him, but also bringing to light the true nature of Judas and the rest of the disciples, those in whom he trusted, those who claimed to be his loyal and true followers. And they were—it’s just that they were filled with human fears and weaknesses.

And, given that we are human, if we have the courage to take our ride to the center of our being, why should we not expect to find, amid all of the beautiful and wonderful things of our spiritual center, the fears and weaknesses and things that, in the moment of truth, will seek to betray us? After all, we are human. So we have before us an invitation and a challenge. God is calling us to the events of this most holy of weeks, and we must decide whether we are willing to go.

Now, it is no coincidence what happens first. It is a preview in microcosm of all that is to happen in the remaining days of Holy Week. It is a symbolic acting out of Jesus’ ultimate purpose for being there in the first place. What do you suppose was his first public act? He went to the temple, and, with a braided rope in one hand and a righteous fury in his heart, created a near riot! The temple that was intended to be for the people a place of worship and a place to make sacred offerings to God had become a marketplace for those who were commercializing, who were cashing in, who were making material fortunes off the very act of spiritual worship. See, we think it is only we, here in the twentieth century, who are materialistic, that it is only now that capitalism seeks to commercialize and profit from every good thing that people try to do. No, no, the desire to materialize, to trivialize, to commercialize and profit from people’s spiritual needs has existed since time began. We have no corner on the market of greed and superficiality. It is a tendency that has been in the hearts and minds of people for all time. It was there in the people in the time of Jesus, it is here in the people of our time, and it is here within the hearts and minds of you and me. Each one of us has within us that element that seeks to materialize and bring personal gain from our own deep spiritual need for God. There is that element within us that is more concerned with looking good for the people around us than being good for God. There is within each of us that which is seeking to buy our way into heaven with material and superficial offerings—trying to bribe God, actually—rather than seeking to find the way to let heaven into our own hearts and minds. For that is what comes with a price: for that to happen we must let go of our pride, our fear, our personally motivated jealousies and hatreds.

And while we are often willing to pay the price to fulfill the outward rituals of external worship, the price of becoming a child of God, the price of being loving and forgiving, of honoring the truth that inevitably humbles us, that price is often much more difficult to pay. And so it is that Jesus begins his final week of ministry on earth by cleaning house. That is why Ash Wednesday and Lent are about repentance—not because we need to punish ourselves, going around looking sad and forlorn to impress everyone with how devout and sincere we are, but to get the cobwebs and misguided motives out of our spiritual centers, to get our hearts and minds open and free from selfdeception and hypocrisy, so that we may move past the appearances of superficial ritual and action and get down to the reality of truly being in relation with God, not just on the surface where everyone can see, but at the core where only we can see! Repentance is about preparing to worship God in spirit and in truth, not about worshipping our own images in appearance and in suits. Swedenborg says many times that true worship is the life of charity. Jesus went to the temple and drove out the sellers and money changers before he did anything else. And so it is, as we enter Holy Week, that we must go to our spiritual centers and drive out the misunderstandings, the distortions and hypocrisies, that would and do distract us from the true worship of God: the true love of our neighbor. It is a hard and painful lesson, but the holiest of weeks begins with a thorough house cleaning.

Now, with that unpleasant task out of the way, Jesus moves on to bigger and better things, and so must we. The next several days are filled with some of his most inspired and inspiring teachings. They are not as gentle and forgiving as his earlier messages. They are not filled with the kindly reassurances of, say, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows the end is near, and he is getting down to it. He talks a lot about what heaven is like. He talks a lot about the joys and pleasures of truth and kindness and charity, about the blessedness of loving God and our neighbors. But he also talks a lot about the pain and desperation of deception and cruelty and selfishness, about the curse and loneliness of loving oneself above all else and not caring for anyone else except for how they can benefit us. This is a place of gnashing teeth and immense suffering. It is a place where people suffer the flames of frustrated lust and addiction, where people are afflicted with punishments that they have inflicted and continue to inflict upon themselves from a lifetime of habits, a lifestyle they are too weak to change. It is a place where people’s illusions about who they are only fool themselves. As Jesus describes it, it is not a pretty sight.

But he talks even more about the wonders of heaven. He describes a place, a state of being, where whatever good we might have is multiplied many times over; a place where whatever love we have for God and others is returned to us magnified beyond measure; a place where joy and happiness and peace and fulfillment fill us to overflowing; a place where we are able to be with those we love and who love us in a kind of closeness we can only dream about now; a place where we are separated from and protected from all that would seek to hurt us and pull us down; a place that is everything wonderful about life on earth, but so very much better that words just don’t do it justice. I suppose that is why Jesus could only speak about heaven in parables: words just don’t do it justice.

And of course, the week leads to the Last Supper and what we call Good Friday. I would love to meet the person who came up with that phrase. I never have been able to figure out why we say “Good Friday” to describe the day Jesus was betrayed, beaten, ridiculed, run through a mock trial, and then killed in one of the most cruel tortures ever devised by the mind of man. The only good thing about that particular Friday is that it came before that particular Sunday.

To put it simply, the events of what we now call Easter Sunday are the very foundation of Christian faith and life. In the glorification and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have the message of every sermon ever given all rolled into one. That day gives us our reason for being. It is the final proof positive that the purpose of all we go through here on earth is the preparation of our souls for the ongoing life hereafter. It is that simple and that profound. If you don’t get this, you don’t get it, period. There is nothing more important than understanding that human life is not about what we amass or even accomplish in terms of worldly values; it is about what we accumulate, what we accomplish in terms of heavenly values—the love of God and the love of the neighbor. The body will fall away in time. For the young it may seem like that day will never come; for the middle-aged it seems like it will happen eventually; for the elders among us it perhaps seems to be coming all too soon. But it happens, and it happens to all of us. It has been proven experientially that life is fatal. Forget taxes—the only thing that is sure is that we will die and go to meet our maker. And how we feel about that experience is directly related to what we believe and how we have lived our life. If that is not important to you, well, I would just as soon not have to watch when it happens. For, as I said before, it will not be a pretty sight. But if it is important to you, as it is to me, then I look forward to the moment we celebrate together in the loving and joyous house of God, our next home, which will be just heavenly.

All in all, Holy Week is quite a week. It is a challenge. It is a calling. And so I put the question to you, “Who is willing to make that ride with Jesus up to Jerusalem?”

Prayer

Come, let us enter the inner chamber of our soul, offering prayers to the Lord and crying aloud: Our Father, who art in heaven, remit and forgive our debts, for thou alone art compassionate.

Showing joyfulness of soul in the fast, let us not be of a sad countenance; for the change in our way of life during these blessed days will help us to gain holiness....

Uncreated Unity, the God of all, we exalt thee above forever and ever.

- Matins in Lent, Orthodox

Rev. Ken Turley