Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Servant King

Last week I began a sermon series in church called All Hail King Jesus! We're poking around Jesus' Passion Week in John's Gospel looking at dimensions of Jesus' kingship. Jesus is no ordinary king. As He walked on the earth Jesus lived in no palace, wore no crown, had no money, employed no servants, owned no land, collected no taxes, had no horse and carriage to ride around in. Jesus was a poor man who walked everywhere he went. And Jesus was more the servant than the served. He said as much to His disciples: “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Jesus is a servant King. Few stories capture that part of Jesus' kingship like the time He washed the disciples' feet the night of His betrayal. I wonder if Simon Peter's retelling of that event might sound something like this …


I can be a little thick-headed at times. I’ve never been all that good at interpreting signs and symbols. I’m a straight-forward man. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Don’t speak in riddles. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t dress it up with 20-dollar words and a bunch of poetry. Just say it. Be clear. Be blunt. Just say it. Whether chasing fish on the Sea of Galilee, bartering for the best price at the market, or hashing out things with my wife, straight talk has always served me well.

When I left my fishing business to be a disciple of Jesus, straight talk paved the way. “Follow me,” said Jesus. It doesn’t get much clearer than that—“Follow me.” I know what that means: Jesus is the leader, I’m the follower, I go where He goes, and I do what He tells me. “Follow me.” I can understand that.

But there were times when Jesus didn’t talk so straight and when He wasn’t easy to understand. The story you heard in the Scripture this morning is one of those times.

Though we didn’t grasp it in the moment, Jesus was just a day away from being nailed to a cross. We were in Jerusalem for the Passover and had gathered in the evening for a meal. It had been a tense week. The week began on a high note with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the cheers of an admiring crowd. The week had spiraled down from there. Opposition to Jesus seemed to be growing larger and bolder. Most of us sensed we were at some kind of turning point here but none of us could put our finger on it. You could just sort of feel the tension in the room that night as we ate our meal. Conversation was limited and Jesus seemed lost in his thoughts.

And that’s when Jesus did a very strange thing. He got up from the table. Every head craned to see what He was up to. Strangely, Jesus took off his robe, draped it across a chair, grabbed a towel, and wrapped it around his waist. Caught off guard by this strange behavior, none of us said a word. When He got the towel squared away, Jesus took hold of a pitcher and poured the water into a large basin. I thought to myself, “Surely He’s not going to do what I think He’s going to do. Not Jesus. Not the Master. Not for us.”

But that’s exactly what He did. He knelt down and began to wash our feet—patiently, carefully, tenderly, individually. Messiah Jesus was washing our feet.

Our feet! Feet are rarely one’s most distinctive feature. I’ve seen them all—hammer toe, corns, bunions, fungus, crooked toes, missing toenails, toenails a half-inch thick, crusty, callused, filthy, stinking feet. You walk our dusty, muddy roads in sandals, and you are going to have foot issues. I don’t even like washing my own feet let alone anybody else’s. Yet King Jesus knelt down to wash our feet.

The men were in shock. And why wouldn’t we be? Most people washed their own feet. Washing feet was about as low as it gets. The task of foot-washing was so menial that even Jewish slaves were exempt. That job was kept for Gentiles. Foot-washing was a degrading and lowly task. When done by a wife for her husband, a child for her parents, a student for his teacher, it was viewed as an act of extreme devotion. But I’ll tell you what never happened in regard to washing feet: never did persons with a higher status wash the feet of those beneath them. Well, anyway it never happened until that night in the upper room when King Jesus washed our feet.

We were in shock all right. Nobody said a word as Jesus worked His way around the table. One would look at another and just sort of shrug his shoulders. What are you going to do?

Well, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to refuse. My brother disciples may stand for such a thing, but I won’t. Jesus is better than this. He’s certainly better than me. “Lord, you wash my feet?”

“I know it seems strange to you now, Simon, but you’ll understand it later.”

And as I pulled my feet away from Him and up underneath me, I said, “Understand it later or not, you will never wash my feet.”

Jesus sighed (I heard that a lot in our relationship). “Simon, if I don’t wash you, then you won’t belong to me.”

Hmm. That shed a different light on things. I didn’t know exactly what He meant at the time, but I couldn’t bear not to be one of His. So I thrust my feet toward Him, bowed my head and extended my hands: “Lord, then don’t stop with my feet. Wash my hands and my head as well.”

“That’s not necessary,” Jesus replied. “A person who has bathed already only needs to wash his feet to be completely clean. And you are clean—well, all of you except one.” (I realized later the unclean one was Judas—but that’s another story. Jesus washed Judas’ feet too, by the way.)

But back to Jesus’ conversation, and if His words sound a bit confusing to you, it’s because they were confusing to me. Like I said before, I prefer straight talk, and Jesus was talking in riddles here. But He was right. I did understand it later—as in after the cross and the resurrection. That’s when it became clear. Jesus wasn’t talking about hygiene here; He was talking about holiness. His washing our feet was a picture of a greater thing, a greater, deeper cleansing. Only that cleansing wouldn’t come from a stooped over Jesus holding a basin and a towel; it would come from a stretched out Jesus nailed up on a cross. Jesus washing our feet with water was a picture of Jesus washing our souls with His blood. When He washed our feet, I didn’t think He could stoop any lower than that. I was wrong. The cross was lower, much lower. And Jesus stooped that low so He could wash more than our feet; He could wash out the stubborn stains of our sin and set us in relationship with Him—make it so we belong to Him. I shudder when I think that my pride almost got in the way of receiving Jesus’ gracious gift. What was I thinking?

Like I said, I prefer straight talk, and that’s what came next. When Jesus finished, He left us with our thoughts while He washed his hands, put his robe back on, and took His place again at the table. Once He was settled He said, “Do you understand what I have done to you?”

We looked at one another thinking, “Honestly, no.”

“You call me Teacher and Lord,” Jesus explained. “You’re right, that’s who I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, wash your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. Look, I’m trying to set an example for you here. As I’ve done for you, you do for others. No servant is greater than his master; no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. So now that you know these things, do them … and you’ll be blessed.”

Now that I could understand! Straight talk—it sounded a lot like “Follow me!” The whole mystery of the cross bound up in Jesus’ washing of our feet was beyond me at the time, but this “do for one another as I’ve done for you” I could understand. I still found it strange. It broke pattern with foot-washing’s social standards, etiquette, and customs. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do. Jesus was asking us to stoop awfully low to serve one another—washing feet of all things—not my deal. But King Jesus is greater than us. And if He would humble himself to serve us in this way, how can I think myself too great to follow His example? It doesn’t seem very kingly, but Jesus is no ordinary king. He is a servant King, willing to get His hands dirty and do the lowest task to grace His people with His love.

And since I like straight talk, I’ll give it to you straight: as Jesus did for us, He wants you and me to do for one another. We can’t die on the cross for anyone, but we can serve others in humble love and in so doing, we can help them experience something of the touch of the Servant King Jesus. And Jesus can work with that to do greater things than we can imagine. So humble yourselves, and serve one another in Jesus’ name.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Lowly King

I’m calling my Easter sermon series All Hail King Jesus! We’re using the four Sundays leading into Easter to consider various dimensions of the kingship of Jesus. As part of my research for this series, I asked our crowd at a Wednesday night Bible study to do a little word association game with me. I asked them to tell me the first word that came to their mind when they heard the word king. Here are some of the responses: royalty, throne, crown, power, Jesus, sovereign, palace, wealth, queen, and majesty. All of those are dead on. And other than the word Jesus, those are the same words I’d have heard if I asked the question at the mall instead of at a Bible study. None of those word associations is a surprise. I’m likewise not surprised at the words I didn’t hear: meek, humble, lowly. Any king those words describe is ripe for overthrow. And yet those words describe King Jesus.

Each week in the series we’ll be considering a dimension of Jesus’ kingship and we’re doing it, in part, by hearing the story from someone who was there. We looked first at Jesus the lowly king. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday captured the lowliness and humility of King Jesus. And the disciple John tells us about that event.


I was there, you know … on the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt. We’d been to Jerusalem before, but we never made an entrance like this.

We had just come from Bethany and there was still quite a buzz about what Jesus did there. He raised a man from the dead. The man’s name is Lazarus. He and his sisters Mary and Martha are friends of Jesus. Lazarus got sick and died. We got word of his sickness, but Jesus just sort of blew it off and took his sweet time getting to Bethany. Lazarus didn’t have that time. His sickness got the best of him and he died.

We got there too late. We even missed the funeral. By the time we arrived, Lazarus was four-days-dead, wrapped in burial clothes, and laid out in a tomb. Lots of mourners were still there. And nobody seemed particularly happy to see Jesus. First Martha and then Mary got in their little dig at Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The crowd got into the act too saying, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept Lazarus from dying?” It was pretty tense. They didn’t need Jesus now that Lazarus was dead and all Jesus could do was pay His respects.

But Jesus didn’t come to pay His respects; Jesus came to raise Lazarus from the dead. And that’s exactly what He did. “Move the stone away from the grave,” Jesus said.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Martha replied. “The odor is going to stink to high heaven.”

“Wait till you smell the fragrance of the glory of God,” countered Jesus. “Now somebody move the stone!”

The stone was moved. The smell was bad. Everybody covered their noses except Jesus. Jesus did two things. The first thing He did was talk to God. The second thing He did was talk to Lazarus. Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out of that tomb.” Guess what—Lazarus came out. He was wrapped up like a mummy. He walked out stiff-legged, but he walked out alive. And Jesus said, “Unwrap the man and let him go.”

A lot of the people who saw it believed in Jesus on the spot. But the religious leaders did not. They got their heads together and said, “Jesus has to die. If we let him go on like this everyone is going to believe in him. It will create chaos. Rome will come down and take away what little freedom we have left. It’s going to get ugly around here.” The high priest Caiaphas piped up and said, “It is better that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Caiaphas was dead on, but in a different way than he thought.

So word got out that Jesus was a wanted man. We pulled back to a more wilderness area for a short time to let things cool a bit.

But things didn’t cool much. People were still buzzing over Lazarus’ resurrection. And now it was Passover time. Jesus wanted to celebrate it in Jerusalem, so we headed back to Bethany on route. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary threw a big thank you dinner for Jesus. Mary got so carried away she ended up anointing Jesus’ feet with about a year’s salary worth of nard. Leave it to Judas to raise a stink in a room that smelled like flowers. “The woman’s crazy,” he said. “That’s a lot of help we could have given to the poor.” Don’t believe Judas for a second. He didn’t care about the poor; he was the keeper of our purse and sometimes he even helped himself to the proceeds.

Judas didn’t like what Mary did, but Jesus liked it a lot. He said that she had anointed Him for burial. Huh? Burial? We had no idea at the time what Jesus was talking about. But it wouldn’t take long till we’d know exactly what he was talking about.

The next day was Sunday. The Passover was this week. It was time to go to Jerusalem, and we went. We didn’t go alone. You wouldn’t believe the crowd that came along and the crowd that was there to greet us. It seems that everybody had heard about Lazarus and wanted to see for themselves this man who raised him from the dead. That miracle was such a crowd-pleaser that the religious leaders said, “We better not stop at killing Jesus. We need to kill Lazarus too”—you know, get rid of the evidence, so to speak. But they made no move in that direction on that Sunday.

How could they? There were too many people in a crowd that was Jesus-friendly. If they tried to take Jesus or Lazarus that day, they would have instigated the very riot they were trying to avoid. So they had to sit back and watch with everyone else.

It was quite a parade really. I admit that I don’t tell the story with the detail of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They explained how Jesus got the donkey’s colt on which he rode. I chose to cut to the chase. I did mention the donkey. That’s important. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, by choosing a donkey’s colt Jesus was fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy: “Fear not, daughter of Zion, behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”

That whole processional was both glorious and bizarre. It was glorious because with knives gleaming in the sun, people were cutting palm fronds from trees along the trail. They were waving those palm fronds and laying them in Jesus’ path. You roll out the red carpet; we laid down palm branches. And the people were shouting phrases right out of the messianic psalms: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna means save us now. Those were big words, big praises and prayers. I know what the crowd was thinking—probably the same thing we disciples were thinking: is this the signal that Messiah Jesus is going run those pagan Romans out of town? It was glorious. It was like worship. It was like a royal procession.

And believe me, we knew all about royal processions: kings or generals making their grand entrance into the city mounted on bleached chargers, surrounded by soldiers and guards with their swords and their spears and their shields, people lined up along the route shouting and cheering the heroic conqueror. Such processions were a common occurrence.

And that’s why Jesus’ procession was also a bit bizarre. He sat not upon a great stallion but upon a donkey’s colt. Those who surrounded him were not soldiers armed to the teeth but the poor and the peasant and the common and the weak. If Jesus was trying to make a political statement here, He failed miserably. If He was trying to stir fear in the hearts of the occupying Romans, the best he got from them was a chuckle. If He was trying to signal Jerusalem that King Messiah had finally arrived, well, He sure didn’t enter like the Messiah they were expecting. Jesus was sending a signal all right, but not one of us picked up on at the time.

But still the people loved Him. They loved Him that day anyway. The religious leaders didn’t. They were up in arms: “What are we going to do now?” they said to one another. “He’s got the whole world eating out of the palm of His hand.” None of us—not us disciples nor the religious leaders—had clue one that by the end of the week this city, this crowd, would turn on Jesus like a rabid dog on its master. People wouldn’t be eating out of the palm of His hands any longer; the Romans would be driving nails into those palms instead.

Hmm … not exactly what you’d expect … from a king.

Unless that King is Jesus.