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A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9; John 12:12-19

In preparation for this sermon, when I first typed in the word servanthood the spell checker on my word processor underlined it in red. For those of you who may be a bit computer-challenged, that means it did not recognize it as a legitimate word. Obviously, that would not have happened had I keyed in the word service. But Jesus did not epitomize service, as nice a concept as that is. I mean, Rotary clubs talk about “service above self,” and I get that. I not only get it, I participate in it. But Jesus didn’t talk about, nor did he do, community or personal service. He got down on his knees and became a servant, a servant to all.

The Romans would have entered Jerusalem on their horses and in full armor, with the golden eagle standard high above them representing their power and dominion over the Jewish people. Jesus chose a towel as his symbol, a towel with which he washed his disciples’ feet, and then he entered the city on a donkey. What does that say to you?

If you want a modern-day equivalent of a Roman, consider this… A survey was once conducted of ten top business people, all chief operating officers of such industries as banks, insurance companies, accounting firms… Of these ten people, none of them ever makes or serves coffee, none ever sharpens a pencil, none ever operates a vacuum cleaner, or writes a letter for himself. And only six drove themselves to work. The other four have chauffeurs. We won’t even mention the millions of dollars they earn.

So let me ask you: is Jesus out of touch with our modern world? Are his words passe? Is it ridiculous for us, you and I, to consider this issue in light of where our culture is today? What would happen if we really started trying to live according to Jesus’ teachings? After all, he had a lot to say about the issue of serving others…

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he announced to his hometown congregation, “because he has anointed me to give support to the wealthy in order that their affluence might filter down to the less advantaged.” No! He said he was to “preach good news to the poor.” “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,” Jesus proclaimed, “to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).

And he told all those who would follow him, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeits themselves?” (Luke 9:23-25).

And an argument arose among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest. But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by his side, and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me; for he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:46-48).

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24).

Jesus gave his would-be followers advice for when they attended a wedding banquet. He told them to sit in the lowest place, that is, as far from the seat of honor as possible. “For every one who exalts himself,” he said to them, “will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

A retired minister once visited a large, prestigious city church and told an usher he would like to meet the person most responsible for the church’s ministry. The usher thought he meant the senior pastor, of course, but that was not the person he was inquiring about. The chairman of the board? No, in the mind of the guest minister that wasn’t the most important person in the church either. What about the wealthiest person in the congregation? No. Finally, the guest minister asked to be taken to the church kitchen. There he found a modestly-dressed woman in an apron who stood at the sink, her arms plunged among dirty coffee cups and saucers. “Here, my friend,” said the old minister to the usher, “is the real secret of your church’s success. I have seen it in church after church. Jesus said, ‘If any person will be great, let that person become the servant of all.’”

When was the last time you considered Michael Hammonds, our church’s faithful custodian, as the most important person in this church? Magnolia Sanford, our housekeeper, or Stephen Porter, our chef who prepares our church’s meals? Would things change around here if we took it upon ourselves to elevate, at least in our minds and hearts, those we so often take for granted?

Four years ago I was privileged to serve as president of the Rotary Club of Little Rock. We meet downtown every Tuesday for lunch. Most weeks our gatherings take place either at the Doubletree Hotel or the exhibition hall in Robinson Auditorium. If you were to be my guest on any given Tuesday, I would be proud to introduce you to some of my friends. There would be Ernest and Rose and Renee, to name a few. But they would not be sitting at our table; they would be serving our table.

You see, I had taken little notice of them before I assumed that office, but because my duties called for me to get there early, I made it a point to talk with the servers, to remember their names and compliment them on their service. I am no longer president of the club. But when Ernest or Rose or Renee see me sit down at table with a few of my fellow Rotarians, one of them immediately comes over and pours me a cup of coffee. They are eager – eager – to serve me, and I am always deeply touched that they would do so. I think they do it simply because I learned their names and spoke a kind word to them.

Few people, I would think, judging by the biblical record, said a kind word to Jesus. Everywhere he went there were those who tried to discredit him, who challenged him, who eventually saw him to a Roman cross. But not that many, even among his group of disciples, said kind things to or about him. Yet, he got down on his knees and served them.

John, in his gospel, tells us that Jesus’ “disciples did not understand these things at first.” He means by “these things” the events of Palm Sunday when Jesus entered the Holy City on a colt and the people who lined the streets met him with palm branches. His disciples did not understand what all this meant, nor the significance of it. “But when Jesus was glorified,” John says, “then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him” (John 12:16).

Let me try to explain it this way… The scene is Jesus’ final moments with his disciples, at least as John portrays it in his gospel. John, throughout his gospel you see, has borrowed from and adds to the beautiful imagery of Genesis where the creation story is told. He does it at the beginning of his gospel. “In the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God and the WORD was God…” He goes on to talk about a world of darkness, and how into this dark world a Light comes. Now, as he finishes his gospel, he does it again; except this time, instead of merely talking about the darkness, he portrays it.

It is early morning before dawn. The disciples of Jesus are out on the sea fishing. Actually, they are just filling time because they can’t sleep and they can’t decide for themselves if they really can believe that their crucified Master is alive again. So they do what they do best – some of them anyway – they go fishing. And they don’t catch a blessed thing. I have a theory about that. I’m not sure they were  bothered by their lack of a catch. After all, they’re just biding their time, filling in the minutes, trying to figure out what in the world is going on.

They’re out in the boat, and while holding their empty nets look over at the shore. And in the midst of the darkness – remember, it’s darkest just before the dawn, they say – the fishermen see it. It’s a light. It’s not much light; just a flicker, really, but it’s light nonetheless. Where did the light come from? We know, don’t we? Jesus has come quietly and in the darkness he has made a small fire on the beach. How? Did he do it by rubbing stones or sticks together? Possibly, but we really don’t know. That’s one detail John doesn’t bother to mention. This is what we do know… the fire starts with just a spark. Maybe Jesus blows on it to get it going. Whatever, the sticks start crackling and the darkness is illuminated by its yellow light. 

Think of it… the resurrected Christ, the Light of the World, has gotten on his knees and made a fire so he can prepare breakfast for his friends!

Don’t try to analyze it. Feel it! Feel the early morning dampness. Listen to the water lapping against the shore. Look at the fire with the fish roasting on the makeshift grill. Smell it. Sense the moment, take it all in. The greatest person who ever walked on this earth –  the very Son of God, by the testimony of these men in that boat – and he chose to do the smallest and simplest of things; not just to symbolize what he wanted his followers to do and be, but because that was his Spirit, his purpose in life. That’s who he was and who he is… the Giver, the Servant. Now… how could you and I possibly want do otherwise?

Lord, give us the Spirit of Christ, that we might serve others too… however, whenever, led by your Spirit. That is our prayer in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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