No Substitute

“In order for Holy Week to make any sense at all, I think we have to come to terms with the idea that there is no substitution for Jesus. We can’t simply swap in one donkey stuffed animal for another; one would-be messiah for another; one prophet for another. Instead we are invited to sink into this awareness that the life that Jesus led, and the death that Jesus died, have a significance for us that surpasses all our human understanding.”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, April 10, 2022 at Trinity on the Green

Palm Sunday, Year C: Luke 19:28-40 | Isaiah 50:4-9a | Philippians 2:5-11Luke 23:1-49 | Psalm 31:9-16

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O God. Amen.

The story we just heard, and participating in reading, is an intense one. It takes us from the celebratory heights of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a colt or donkey, and whisks us away to a very different place, emotionally. It is a place of fear and uncertainty, as we hear the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday is all about this pendulum swing of emotion. It is about how we, as human beings, can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows – one after the other. Palm Sunday is about how Jesus, in becoming human, subjected himself to this same pendulum swing that we ourselves experience.

Following this rhythm of “highs” and “lows,” I’d like to tell a story that is very different from the one we just heard – a story about when I was a child, as it has been told to me.  The story goes like this:

I was a grumpy child; a serious child. The second daughter of my parents, I was supposedly very skeptical of the overtures of adults to make an infant smile or laugh. Stuffed animals, silly faces – they all had very little effect on me. I’m sure even my sister, a toddler, had one hell of a time breaking through my outer shell. My mother has since described the facial expression of my early infancy as “the death stare.” I’m not certain whether to be proud of that or not.

In any case, one day we were passing through a department store when I saw a bin a full of stuffed animal donkeys. They were supposed to be “Eeyore” from Winnie the Pooh – though I’ve never seen a stuffed animal quite like them since. They were a dark bluish-grey color, standing on four legs, with sadly upturned eyes. It was a stuffed animal as serious and as grumpy as me – and I feel in love immediately. In my parents’ telling of this story, they say that I grabbed hold of one of the donkeys and would not let go. After rejecting so many other stuffed animals, there was no question that I was coming home with this donkey.

However, there was something that I didn’t know. After my parents had purchased my first Eeyore, they went back to the store at another time and bought two more. Like wise parents, they knew the likelihood that I would lose my stuffed animal – and they knew of the devastation that would accompany that loss. And so, they acquired extras.

Just as predicted, over time I lost one donkey, and then another. Each time the donkeys were magically replaced, and I had no idea. However, it is also true that lost things are sometimes found. Over time my parents recovered each of these donkeys, stashing them high up in a closet for when they were next needed.

There is one final chapter to this story, when one day I explored my parent’s closet and found (much to my surprise and disturbance) – two identical donkeys, to match the one I carried with me. Imagine my reaction: shock! Betrayal! And, eventually, some measure of relief and satisfaction at finding myself the companion of not one, but three donkeys. And they all lived happily ever after, as we say.

Why do I share this story today? Well first of all, I imagined that I would be preaching this story with a donkey just beneath me near the pulpit [at our 10am service later today], and I knew that I simply can’t compete with that kind of attention. I knew that it had to be a donkey-themed sermon – because if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

Beyond that, I’ve been thinking deeply about this childhood story, and how it relates to the passion narrative that we have just heard. I’ve been wondering about that act of substitution – that act of switching out one donkey stuffed animal for another – and how a similar but very different kind of substitution happens in the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. I’m not talking about substitutionary atonement, for those who are familiar with that theological term. Instead, I’m interested in how eager the people of Jerusalem are to substitute Jesus for another person – thinking one criminal is just as good as another; one person claiming to be the messiah is just as good as another. And this substitution happens in multiple ways.

First, there is the obvious substitution of the crowd asking for Pilate to release Barabbas, instead of Jesus. They substitute one criminal for another, with barely a thought to what they are doing. Now I don’t want to make Barabbas out to be a villain in this story, and I don’t want to suggest that he deserved worse than he got. Mostly, I want to reflect on what it means for the crowd to be so eager to make this substitution in the first place. Clearly, they have failed to see the significance of Jesus – the significance of this man who was more than a wise person or a controversial rabbi. They have failed to see the significance of this man who was the son of God.

It’s important to note that Jesus was not the only one claiming to be the messiah in the first century. The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in the latter half of the first century, described a number of people who claimed to be the messiah before Jesus. In this, we see a second way that people were prone to substitute Jesus for anyone else. For them, Jesus was just one more person claiming to be the messiah. Just one more teacher. Just one more prophet. And after his trial and crucifixion, Jesus became just one more person to hang from a cross – since we recognize that this was a form of punishment reserved not only for Jesus, but for numerous enemies of the Roman Empire in the first century.

On some level, perhaps we today might also wonder – what sets Jesus apart from all the others? Was Jesus simply an exemplary moral leader, on the same level as other moral leaders throughout history? What made Jesus’ death on the cross more significant than any number of other crucifixions that surely took place? What made Jesus’ teaching different from all the rest?

The answer to these questions rests in our faith. We, as Christians, believe that Jesus was who he said he was – not merely a teacher or a rabble-rouser, but the Son of God. We, as Christians, believe that Jesus was both human and divine. We believe that God’s plan for salvation is tied not only to Jesus’ death, but also to Jesus’ life – to the fact that God chose to become human, to expose God’s self to the same joys and vulnerabilities that we as humans experience. And we believe that death was not the end for Jesus. We believe in the resurrection – and we affirm that Jesus conquered death, so that we might find new life today.

Now before we get to that resurrection, we have to walk the journey of Holy Week. And in order for Holy Week to make any sense at all, we have to embrace the idea that there is no substitution for Jesus. We can’t simply swap in one donkey stuffed animal for another; one would-be messiah for another; one prophet for another – we can’t. Instead we are invited to sink into this awareness that the life that Jesus led, and the death that Jesus died, have a significance for us that surpasses all our human understanding. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. And somehow – in the process of living, dying, and rising from death – Jesus ripped open the fabric of our lives and offered us a new way of being.

It is hard for us to wrap our minds around the significance of Jesus. And so, because it is hard, we are all too quick to find our salvation in other things – in substitutes. We look for our salvation in philosophy, in trendy spirituality, in other role models or teachers. We even look for salvation in our own success and merit. And yet, at the end of the day, whatever truth we find through these other things shines most brightly in the person of Jesus. It shines most brightly in the affirmation God became human, and that has made all the difference.

This week I invite you to ask yourself: who is Jesus to me? Is Jesus simply a historic figure? A moral teacher? A swear word we whisper under our breath? An imaginary friend? Or is Jesus the key, the cornerstone, the foundation for how you make sense of this life? I invite you to reflect on these things. Because knowing who Jesus is to you will change not only your experience of Holy Week; it will change your entire life. Ask yourself these questions. Be honest with yourself. Because whatever answers you might have at this moment, whether they are full of doubt or faith – either way you are making space. And perhaps that is space where God, someday, can enter in – just as Jesus entered through the gates of Jerusalem on a humble donkey. Amen.

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