Weekly Seeds: Fear

Sunday, March 24, 2024
Palm/Passion Sunday | Year B

Focus Theme:

Focus Prayer:
Kindom God, we bless you name and cry out for the salvation of the world. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 12:12-16
12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

All readings for this Sunday:
Palms Sunday: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 • Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16
Passion Sunday: Isaiah 50:4-9a • Psalm 31:9-16 • Philippians 2:5-11 • Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39, (40-47)

Focus Questions:
What causes fear?
What do you fears?
How does fear impact your life or your community?
What communal fears does your faith community hold?
How might releasing those fears impact your collective ministry?

By Cheryl A. Lindsay

This is the moment you have been waiting for…generations have placed their hopes in the coming king from the line of David to restore the nation you claim to its proper position. Your hope rests on a conquering king with a heart after God. A warrior would meet your expectations for assured victory. Of course, a warring king means a people going to war. It’s not the Amalekites, Ammonites, Edomites, or the Moabites you would be fighting. You’re living under rule of the Roman Empire, and that would be your opponent. To win this battle would require divine intervention…a miracle. Yet, you’ve held onto hope, and you dare to believe the moment has arrived to declare the arrival of the new king…as Jesus enters Jerusalem along with countless others to celebrate the feast of the Passover.

Perhaps, you observe from a distance or you have joined the “great crowd” waving branches from palm trees you have quickly stripped and then placing them on the ground as you realize a king deserves a carpet. You weren’t prepared for it to happen, yet you’re still ready to give Jesus the honor that he is due.

John tells this story differently. All four gospel narratives recount the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the start of the festival observance. He is accompanied by his disciples and ends up riding a donkey. The assembled crowd lays palm branches to carpet the road he travels. They cry out, “Hosanna,” and bless his name. In the synoptic accounts found in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus instructs his disciples to secure the young colt and how to overcome any objections with assurance of his identity and need of it. John omits that detail and states that Jesus simply finds the animal. It seems almost a function of happenstance and somewhat incidental until John uniquely notes the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy.

The quotation is from Zechariah 9:9, where the Lord is portrayed not in a militaristic fashion mounted on a war-horse but as a king of peace sitting on a donkey. In fact, the following verse, Zechariah 9:10, says he will take away chariots and war-horses from Ephraim and Jerusalem, and proclaim peace to the nations. In conscious fulfillment of this prophecy Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey to show he was … not the militaristic Messiah of popular expectation but the universal prince of peace.
Colin G. Kruse

John describes the assembled as a great crowd. Great is a subjective term; it’s an opinion not a number. Notably, there are times when the gospel records the number. 5000 men plus women and children were fed from a couple of fish and loaves of bread. Peter preaches and 3000 were saved. It’s not as if they did not have the ability to capture the magnitude of the crowd in numeric terms. Yet, in this account, the description is qualitative rather than quantitative.

When depicted in film or our church school portrayals, we imagine this moment to be epic. I think of the 2016 NBA championship parade when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the trophy. It was the largest crowd I had ever been in by far, with a couple million people crammed into a few square miles in the downtown area. There was barely room to breathe. The parade’s movement was start and stop as the crowd had to be continually moved aside in order for the parade vehicles to advance. That’s the sense we get from the retelling of this story: the entrance to Jerusalem being blocked and overtaken by Jesus on a donkey, his disciples beside him, and the crowd taking up all available space as they welcomed their king.

Yet, if that were the case, would not the Roman Empire have been alerted at that moment to a seditious threat? Why would it take so much bargaining from the religious leaders to convince Herod that Jesus deserved to be tried and convicted as a treasonous enemy of the state?

Jesus orchestrated for himself a provocative, royal entry to the city. The entry thus represents a significant shift in his self-presentation to Israel and sheds light on his trial before Pilate and his crucifixion. Nevertheless, despite its dramatic tone, it was modest in size and easily overlooked by the Roman authorities at Passover.
Brent Kinman

The entry into Jerusalem was as humble as his birth. In both cases, there were witnesses who recognized his significance and power. From the shepherds and wise people to the festive crowd, Jesus was revealed to a few to testify to his identity and acknowledge his sovereignty…quietly. Any other leader would have ridden into the center of power and staked a claim or begun a military assault to overthrow their adversary. But, Jesus does not come to depose a government but to restore and establish a kindom, the reign of God on earth as in heaven so the entry is quiet and actually small in scale.

For a church that often seems overly fixated on numbers, the triumphal entry reminds us that the crowd does not need to be large in order to be great. Thousands of followers or participants are not required to fulfill the purpose of the ministry and promise of the mission.

The crowd cries out for salvation. (Hosanna means “save us.”) Jesus responds, do not be afraid. Fear, in part, is rooted in doubt and unbelief, which John emphasizes throughout this portion of the narrative:

This chapter, as well as the last 10 verses of chapter 11, records the climax of unbelief. John records the opposition Jesus encountered from the very start of His public ministry-the cleansing of the temple. Those that had special interests to protect (especially the Pharisees) opposed Jesus from the start of His ministry to the finish. Nothing Jesus did changed their hearts or minds. Chapter 12 records the culmination of their unbelief. Hopeless unbelief exists in the presence of full revelation. Jesus during His earthly ministry did all He could do, while still respecting created capacities and rights to choose, to provoke faith. The ultimate sign was the raising of Lazarus and not only did it not provoke faith in them but it hardened their hearts instead.
James W. Skeen

Remembering that they expected a warrior king as they plead for Jesus to save them provides an important insight. They were not looking to join his forces. They wanted Jesus to do the work, to fight the battle, and to bring them victory like a gift they could receive without offering their participation. Unlike other instances when followed by a crowd that wanted to coronate him, there is no evidence that Jesus tried to withdraw from them or rejected their efforts. Yet, the crowd does not stay with him, and the gospel writers do not bother to explain how the crowd dissipates. They serve as elements at this stop on the journey but do not last as long as it might have taken to sweep the palm branches away.

We do not interact with the disciples in John’s account. They serve as silent observers who do not understand what is happening but also do not interrupt the action. While confused, they wait and watch. In fact, not until the earthly ministry of Jesus has concluded are they able to make sense of these events. Likely, there were other observers in the crowd, who used the opportunity to gather evidence against Jesus that will be presented at his trial. The name proclaimed by the crowd, King of the Jews, will later be embossed upon the cross as accusation and mockery. This small event will be blown out of proportion to serve the purposes of those intent on maintaining their power, prestige, and position, which they believe Jesus threatens. Just as his journey takes him closer to the heart of the holy city, the acrimonious relationship between the religious elite and Jesus moves toward its climax.

The same sunshine, water, and soil that produce good plants also produce weeds, tares, and thistles. To put it in John’s language, the same signs that are meant to provoke and strengthen faith strengthen unbelief. The wrong beliefs that have served to bolster rebellious unbelief become more deep-seated. For example, Pharisaic unbelief moved from religious and economic exploitation, legalistic Sabbathism, and hyper-criticalism to bearing false witness and murder. Why? So that they could maintain their power and status within Israel. Unbelief becomes hardened when truth is rejected (v. 40)!
James W. Skeen

The quest for power and influence often has roots in fear:
• Fear of the costs of discipleship
• Fear of losing material resources and relational status
• Fear of uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unknown
• Fear of displacement and marginalization
• Fear of retribution, reprisal, and revenge
• Fear of sacrifice
• Fear of transformation

Fear is a powerful motivator that will cause us to war with our neighbors rather than love them. Fear will allow the world to watch political dissidents murdered in Russia, and to look away as children starve to death in Gaza, are subjected to human trafficking in Yemen, and victimized by gun violence in the United States. Fear keeps congregations erecting barricades around our sanctuaries while ignoring and even condemning the asylum seeker at the border. Fear will convince us there is nothing we can do about the problems in our world even as we proclaim the sovereignty and abiding presence of the God we worship. Fear will long for a conqueror to fix it rather than a Companion to empower us to transform it.

Jesus told them not to be afraid so we say no to fear in order to say a full yes to the coming of the Humble One who brings peace and salvation to us and through us.

Say no to fear.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Today it has become almost a truism to call our time an “age of fear.” In these days of terrifying change, bitter international tension and chaotic social disruption, who has not experienced the paralysis of crippling fear? Everywhere there are people depressed and bewildered, irritable and nervous all because of the monster of fear. Like a nagging hound of hell, fear follows our every footstep, leaving us tormented by day and tortured by night.
Our fears assume many different disguises and dress themselves in strangely different robes. There are those superstitious fears that range from the fear of walking under a ladder to a fear of Friday the thirteenth. There are those fears that fall under the category of “personal anxiety.” Everywhere we find men and women facing these fears. They fear bad health; so they begin to find evidence of disease in every meaningless symptom. They fear growing old; so they dose themselves with a succession of drugs advertised to keep them young. When they are not worried about their physical health, they are worried about their personalities. They fear others and they fear themselves; so they are driven through life with a sense of insecurity, a lack of self-confidence, and a nagging feeling of failure….
So the problem of fear is one of the most serious problems of modern life. It leaves so many people psychologically wrecked and spiritually dejected. It drains one’s energy and depletes one’s resources. This is why Emerson said, “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”
Now this does not mean that we should seek to eliminate fear altogether from human life. Such an undertaking would not only be humanly impossible but practically undesirable. Fear is the elemental alarm system of the human organism which warns us of approaching dangers. Without it man could not have survived in the primitive world, nor could he survive in the modern world.
Fear is a powerfully creative force. Every great invention and every intellectual advance has behind it as a part of its motivation the desire to escape some dreaded thing. The fear of darkness caused man to discover the secret of electricity. The fear of pain led to the marvelous discoveries of medical science. The fear of ignorance was one reason that man built great institutions of learning. The fear of war was one of the forces behind the birth of the United Nations. Angelo Patri was right in saying, “Education consist in being afraid at the right time.” If we were to take away man’s capacity to fear, we would take away his capacity to grow, invent and create. Some fear is normal, necessary, and creative.
But it must be borne in mind that there are abnormal fears which are emotionally ruinous and psychologically destructive. The best illustration of the difference between normal and abnormal fear was given by Sigmund Freud himself. A person tramping through the heart of an African jungle, he said, should quite properly be afraid of snakes. That is normal and self-protective. But if a person suddenly begins to fear that snakes are under the carpet of his city apartment, then his fear is abnormal, neurotic. Are not most of our fears so based? Psychologists tell us that a normal child is born with only two fears—the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises—and all others are environmentally acquired. Most of these acquired fears turn out to be snakes under the carpet.
When we speak of getting rid of fear we are referring to this chronic abnormal, neurotic fear. Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear is a friend that motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear is an enemy that constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. So our problem is not to get rid of fear but to harness and master it.
How, then, is it to be mastered?
Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Mastery of Fear or Antidotes for Fear”

For Further Reflection
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ― Frank Herbert
“Fear doesn’t shut you down; it wakes you up.” ― Veronica Roth, Divergent

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor, public theologian, and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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