Today is the day, the day of the triumphal entry. Jesus enters into Jerusalem and people praise his name. The crowd shouts, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:9-10) The crowd is excited and so sure that Jesus is the one, the Messiah, the mighty leader who can immediately turn their unjust world upside down—take the kingdom back from the Romans, liberate them from the oppression, and restore their glorious days in the coming new kingdom of justice and peace.
But honestly, Jesus’ entry was not exactly a triumphal one. In fact, it was quite far from the “triumphal” entry. The crowd of Jesus’ days knew well what a triumphal entry meant in the Roman world and how it looked like. The so-called “Roman Triumph” was a spectacular and extravagant ceremony. It was a public show-off celebrating a success of a military commander who led Roman forces to victory or successfully completed a foreign war. On the day of his triumphal entry, the commander wore a crown of laurel and the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal robe that made him look like a near-divine person. And he rode in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome with the array of his army, captives, and the spoils of his war.
Compared to this magnificent triumphal entry, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was just a poor, small town parade. Of course, Jesus didn’t wear all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal robe to show off his divinity. He was just in his humble cloths that may have been worn out through his long and rough journey to Jerusalem. There was never a four-horse chariot as such for Jesus to ride. He only asked his disciples to bring a donkey…a poor little donkey for a ride! Jesus had no army to display his power. He only had his disciples, just a disorderly bunch including a rebel, a tax collector, and many Galilean fishermen.
As I imagine the day of Jesus’ entry, I’m quite confident that the crowd couldn’t find any triumphant features from Jesus and his disciples. Instead, his entry was lowly. I think they were very frustrated. But they were somehow still cheering and keeping their expectations because they heard so many stories about Jesus’ miracles and great things he had done. But, as we know, it didn’t take too long for them to turn their back from Jesus completely. As soon as the crowd realized that their expectations would never be met by Jesus, as soon as they knew that Jesus could never be that kind of leader they wanted and waited for, some of them just returned to their mundane lives, some of them got infuriated and shouted before Pilate, “Crucify him!” To this crowd, Jesus was no longer ‘Jesus the mighty’ or ‘Jesus the victor’. He could be called ‘Jesus the humble’ or ‘Jesus the little.’ And the crowd…finally, all of them left Jesus, as he walked his way to be ‘Jesus the crucified.’
Even though the crowd despised Jesus and left him, some people still stayed with Jesus. They were people without power, without honor. They were just little people. But the Gospel of Mark doesn’t overlook them. Mark gives us at least a brief sketch of these little people. Here, I’m talking about the two disciples who were sent into a village to get a donkey for Jesus. Although they didn’t understand why Jesus wanted a donkey as his transportation—not a grand four-horse chariot, they anyway obeyed Jesus. And through this obedience, they prepared the way of him. And I’m also talking about Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. He was just a passer-by, but he was pulled out of the crowd to carry the cross for Jesus. Although he was compelled to do so, he certainly shared Jesus’ burden that day. And I shouldn’t forget to tell you about the faithful women disciples of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. They had been the sincere helpers of Jesus since his days in Galilee. They had been following him all the way to Jerusalem and keeping Jesus’ side even at the moment of his crucifixion. Contrastingly from the crowd, these little people didn’t impose their own desires on Jesus or see him as they wanted him to be. They just followed Jesus or stayed around him. So when Jesus needed someone, it was these people who could serve him even in little ways.
On this Palm Sunday, as we enter into Holy Week, I hope and pray that we ask ourselves these questions in all seriousness: Where am I standing? “Am I standing among the crowd now?” Or “Am I standing beside Jesus?” “Just like the crowd, am I asking Jesus to be my super hero, asking him to make something triumphal and spectacular in my life?” Or “Am I standing beside Jesus and preparing his way even in a little way, although I don’t understand his way fully, although I may get burdened to bear his cross, although for now I may see only the suffering way of Calvary?” “Where am I standing now?”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, this week, let us stay away from the crowd and stay close to Jesus a little more. Whenever we want our ways to be the ways of triumphal procession, whenever we want Jesus to change our lives in the way we are pleased, let us stop there and think about the little people who closely served Jesus. And let us do little things for Jesus. We can say a little prayer for those who need it; or share some food with the people around us; or participate in our church’s ministry; or call someone who is in illness or you haven’t seen for a while. We can show a little kindness to our friends and families. I believe these little things we do in the name of Jesus…even though they don’t receive a good recognition or reward, I am sure that they can be great steps for God’s mission to advance. Where are you standing now? Let us stay closer to Jesus and follow him. And let us focus more on what we can do for Jesus even in our little ways than what we want from Jesus. In our little ways, in this Holy Week, let us pave his great entry into this world, into our church, into more people’s life and heart, and prepare the way of his coming Kingdom on earth. Amen.
Two Sundays ago, I shared with you a prayer request for my grandmother. At that time, she went unconscious after a stroke. She’s ninety-three, and the doctor said there was not much time left for her. So my family had to prepare for her funeral. But incredibly, she recovered her consciousness and is now fully back to her life. Thanks be to God.
While my grandmother was unconscious, I thought more about her weaving the pieces of my memories of her and her life stories I’ve heard. Like most Koreans in her generation, my grandmother’s life reflects the tragic modern history of Korea. During the Japanese occupation, my grandfather was forcibly taken to a coal mine. And so many people like him died there from harsh conditions of the forced-labor camps. So, my grandmother had to take care of her children by herself. Luckily, my grandfather escaped one day and came back to the family, but soon Korean War separated them once more. Although he survived again, he was not like before with many traumas and inner wounds. With no special skills, my grandmother made her living by cultivating a small farmland with him in a deep rural area. That was her life.
I heard how much she struggled to live—she had to travel by foot village to village to sell some small goods carrying her baby on her back, she helplessly lost her two children during the war, and she fed her family working day and night as a peasant. In my memory, she always toils away in a field; her back is badly hunched for the intensive labor, and her rough hands and feet are deformed. At a single glance, anyone can tell that life has been tough for her.
True, people may see my grandmother’s life as a pathetic life with deficiency, with tragic events, with no desirable achievement. But no matter how they see it, I am so sure that her life has been a great life, a beautiful life, because the life she has lived is the life of genuine faith. Through her uncertain journey, she has learned one thing for sure: how to live by faith—how to trust God, and how to entrust her life to God. It’s been nothing but this faith that has enabled my grandmother to find contentment in poverty, to bear hope in trouble, and to cultivate joy in suffering. And I am also so sure that her faith will continue to let her live her life with gratitude no matter how many days are left for her here, and some day, it will lead her way to the Lord beyond death.
While she went unconscious, I reflected on her life and legacy, and I asked to myself, “What is the most important thing in life?” “What does really matter?” Our achievements, honor, trophies, financial portfolios, the number of publications, the number of zeros in our salary? Not at all, I could easily answer. When we stand before death, none of them really matters. Among many uncertainties in life, the most unpredictable uncertainty of all is death. Our time of death will surely come, and nobody can escape from this last passage of life on earth. So if we look at our lives from the viewpoint of death, what really matters in life is nothing but our faith in God. Indeed, faith is the only thing that matters, and the life most well lived is the life of faith, the life that is entrusted to God by faith.
Then, why? What’s the reason that our faith in God only matters in our lives? I believe, it’s because our God is the one who promises new days and new life when we are in uncertain time and when we confront dead ends in our lives. Let’s look at today’s Hebrew Bible reading. The Prophet Jeremiah is delivering God’s word to the people of Israel living in Babylon for about seventy years. After Babylonia destroyed Jerusalem, many people were held hostage and brought to Babylon. And for the past seventy years, the people of Israel have gradually lost their dignity and identity as God’s people. In a foreign land, as captives, they went through all kinds of discriminations, hardships, and toils we can possibly imagine. To this people, Jeremiah asks one thing: keep your faith in God, because God promises, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33). Live a life of faith in whatever circumstances you are in. God is the one who will bring new days and new life to you beyond all uncertainties and dead ends in your life… Jeremiah assures the people of Israel in Babylon and assures us living our own troubled life today.
Seeing Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, I find another reason why our faith matters the most in our lives. It’s because Jesus is the one who actually experienced suffering and death as the same human like us and on our behalf. The God who humbles Godself to be like us, shares the same human experience with us, and opens up the way beyond suffering and death in Jesus Christ…I am sure that we can trust this God, this God of incarnate love. In the Gospel story, Jesus knows that his time of death approaching inexorably toward him. When some curious Greeks come to see Jesus, he speaks of himself and his life as a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies in order to bear much fruit (John 12:24). Here we find the story of our God who wins victory, not through the conventional means of power and control, but through suffering and death, through the way of the cross. Some people may see this as a shameful tragedy, the complete failure, but Christians know that it is God’s great victory over sin and death; it is God’s incredible way of paving a way to salvation for us. Yes, we can trust God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, when we are in trouble, when we walk on our lives’ uncertain ways, when we sometimes face the power of death holding dominion over us, let’s keep the faith. Let’s hold onto faith one more time. Truly, faith is what matters, nothing else. Let us trust God and entrust our life to God because God will bring us new days and new life, and because God even suffered and died just like us to open up the heavenward way for us. As we keep our faith, we will be able to see our lives through the eyes of faith. Then we will realize, no matter where life takes us, God is always there even in our valleys of the shadow of the death. And no matter what people see, our lives can be great and beautiful in our daily walking with Jesus. So let us rejoice and be glad as God gives us the gift of grace and enables us live the life of faith. And let us walk by faith not by sight. Amen.
When I was a kid, I loved going to Vacation Bible School every summer. I used to bring my friends with me, and together, we had a lot of fun doing many activities. Among those many activities, I remember one simple and meaningful activity. That was called “the game of trust.” It’s like a blindfold game played by a group of three.
In the group, two persons become the navigators and the other the follower. But the follower needs to cover the eyes with a blindfold while the navigators guide him/her to a destination. On the way, the group meets a maze with obstacles, steps, and walls. So the navigators must be very attentive and carefully guide the follower. And the follower should trust and hold onto the navigators to get to the destination safely.
In reality, however, this activity didn’t go as the teachers expected. My friends and I, we were just a bunch of mischievous kids who were always more than ready to play a prank on each other. So what do you expect from these kids when they have a prime chance to do anything to their friends wearing a blindfold? As you can imagine, my friends had a good time leading me to bump against a wall and trip over obstacles on purpose. And of course, I did the same to them too. Yes, we had a lot of fun. And because it was so funny that I can still recall what this activity was all about. The whole point of the game was about the trust—most importantly, our trust in God. Playing the follower, we got to think about how important it is to trust God when we cannot see anything. Playing the navigator, we got to feel how God closely guides us and cares for us when we walk on an uncertain way.
For sure, it was a fun and meaningful activity for kids. But as I thought about the game last week, I found that if we could do it now, it would be also quite meaningful and even more relevant to us, grown-ups. It would give us a great opportunity to reflect on our trust in God when we walk in darkness, when we cannot see any possibility like we are wearing a blindfold. Indeed, the longer we live our lives, the more challenges we face in trusting God and the more doubts we have about our faith. Kids may just play this game of trust at Vacation Bible School, but grown-up believers would realize that our whole life is, to a certain degree, the game of trust full of walls and obstacles.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, we see the people of Israel who are tired of their uncertain journey in the wilderness after the exodus. They complain to God and Moses that they cannot trust God anymore, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5). This is not their first time. They have spoken against God many times before. And one time God even appeared at the tabernacle and said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Numbers 14:11-12). God’s argument makes good sense here. How can the people of Israel possibly complain and not trust God? They witnessed God’s mighty power to liberate them from the slavery in Egypt; they saw and walked on the dry ground through the middle of the sea; they experienced close guidance of God in the wilderness. How can they possibly complain and not trust God? We may ask. And some of us may think it is right for God to punish them by sending poisonous serpents to bite them. Yes, they seem to deserve it.
However, as we read their story, we should not forget that they were not a group of unfaithful or disloyal people; they were ordinary people just like us. Yes, they experienced all kinds of miracles, but they have been wandering around the wilderness for forty years—not forty days. You would probably think that the Promised Land is really far from Egypt. But surprisingly, it’s less than 400 miles. Google Maps tells us that it takes about six days to travel by foot. Nonetheless, they had to spend forty years in the wilderness. (4) Look at this route of their travel.
They wandered and took the longest possible roundabout route. Anyway, the people of Israel finally arrived the edge of the Promised Land, the Mount Hor. They couldn’t wait any longer. They were ready to take their blindfold off and see the long-awaited destination. But at this mountain, God asks them to go around again. And that was it. They lost their mind and lost their faith.
On our journey of faith, we, like this people of Israel, experience some moments when we want to throw in the towel, give up everything, and just walk out. When we continuously meet tragedies and crises, experience fears, and uncertainties in our lives, when we are deeply hurt by someone, when there seems no hope of change, when we feel that God doesn’t answer our prayers, when our joy gets overwhelmed by our duties, when there is no spiritual renewal in our lives but only wandering in the wilderness, we lose our trust in God. We say, “I am done,” “I am sick of doing this.” At these moments of despair, what can we do? How can we hold onto our faith?
At those moments, I hope we remind ourselves of the simple game of trust. If we compare our life to the game of trust, we must be the followers who should wear a blindfold. True, as humans, we live with a certain kind of blindfold blocking our sight. Life is always uncertain and the future is always unforeseeable. We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know how our journey would unfold. But anyway, the game is on already. We have to take our steps. So it doesn’t really help us to focus on the fact that we cannot see. There will be more fear, anxiety, and despair that overwhelm us and stop us from moving forward. This same thing happened to the people of Israel.
What can we do then? One thing we can do is…to shift our focus away from what we cannot see, from the unknown obstacles and walls on our uncertain way, and then, try to focus on the things that we can surely see. As Christians, we see, there is the Navigator beside us, the navigator who provide us the guiding arms. We see, whatever we are going through, this Navigator, our God is always with us. And we see, this God loves us and gives us the everlasting light through Jesus Christ. Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Sisters and brothers in Christ, along life’s uncertain journey, we may have many challenges, and we may lose our trust in God. But that’s the moment when we need to shift our focus from what we cannot see to what we can see. And that’s the moment when we need to see the lifted Jesus who eternally assures God’s love for us, and God’s presence in our lives. Begin from what we can surely see. From there, we will be able to take our step forward with courage and faith again. And I am sure that as we trust our Navigator, we will find confidence and joy in our hearts. So let us trust the Lord leaning on the everlasting arms always. Amen.
A couple of years ago, I read a book written by Bishop William Willimon who is a great preacher and a prolific author. He wrote many books on Methodist faith. In the book, he shares a story that I still can’t forget. Back in high school, young Bishop Willimon went on a date every Friday and Saturday night. Whenever he was leaving home, his mother bid him farewell at the front door with the weighty words, ‘Will, don’t forget who you are.’ He didn’t know what she meant. She didn’t mean that he could forget his name or his street address. Rather, she meant that alone on a date, in the midst of a party, in the presence of some strangers, he might forget who he was. She knew, in a moment of fun, in an effort to be accepted by the group of his friends, he might forget who he was. He might lose sight of his family values and priorities in life. He could be persuaded to do something against his faith, something he would regret later. Bishop Willimon recalls, at those moments of uncertainty, ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ this maternal benediction actually worked like an anchor to hold him.
It’s not just Bishop Willimon and his high school days. It is quite difficult for us not to forget who we are in our daily lives. It’s hard for us, as the people of faith, to hold onto a certain ground that keeps our integrity. Our world looks like a shifting ground where all kinds of claims collide, all kinds of personal convictions and identities are muddled, and all kinds of desires are indiscreetly pursued. Every day, we experience a strong social atmosphere of relativism. In it, our Christian virtues become ambiguous. And our moral values and standards become so uncertain that nobody wants to know clearly right or wrong, true or false. Indeed, we are living in an uncertain time, and it is easy to misunderstand who we are and forget whom we are called to be. It is easy to live our lives blindly drifting here and there, and mindlessly striving for what others crave—success, recognition, fame, money, and so on. So living through this unsteady time, how can we not forget who we are? What should be our practice to ground ourselves on faith so that we shouldn’t forget ourselves?
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, the people of Israel receive God’s Ten Commandments. As we know well, the Commandments give instructions about worshipping God only, honoring parents, and keeping the Sabbath, as well as prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and coveting. But the Ten Commandments are not just a set of laws to keep. They were much more than that in the situation the people of Israel were going through. They just escaped from the land of Egypt and entered into the wilderness of Sinai. They just started their uncharted journey toward the Promised Land that they had never heard of or seen. There’s no map or itinerary for this journey. This is such a challenging and confusing time to them. And as you know, they were just freed from slavery. This must have been an immense transition that brought them a major identity shift. Into the unexplored wilderness, with unexpectedly given freedom, on an unknown journey, they were truly on a shifting ground. Everything is uncertain.
Now God suddenly asks them to stop, camp under the Mount Sinai, and consecrate themselves. Then, God descends upon the mountaintop, summons Moses, and gives the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. To the bewildered people, God provides a sure ground on which they can build up their new life. Here, it becomes clearer: the Ten Commandments are not just a set of rules. It is what defines who God is, who they are, whose they are, and whom they are called to be. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). God tells them, “Now build up your new life on my holy ground, the ground of my Word and promise.” Standing on our life’s shifting ground, how can we not forget who we are? We better know that God is always shaping ourselves into God’s people through the uncertainty. And we should keep building up our new life on the sure ground of God, the ground of grace and love.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus teaches us to remember who we are. There we find the radical Jesus who is quite wild and furious. In the temple Jesus sees people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and moneychangers sitting at their tables. They are there because visitors need to purchase those animals to sacrifice at the altar. Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives all of them out of the temple with their sheep and cattle. He also pours out the coins of the moneychangers and overturns their tables and says, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14-16) What’s going on here? What is Jesus doing?
In short, Jesus cleans up. Jesus cleans up the ritual of animal sacrifice, religious formality because the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross will replace it permanently. Jesus cleans up the Temple, the physical separation between divine presence and human life because Jesus’ own body will be the living temple where God and humanity converge: the body that he lays down for us, the body that rises for us, the body that he invites us to be part of. Then we will know God for ourselves. By cleaning up the temple, Jesus opens up the way that God directly reaches us and the stream that grace flows right into our lives through faith. This Jesus is asking us today, “Clean up what’s not essential, clean up the things that hinder your relationship with God, clean up the stains of your sins and fear on your spiritual window, clean up your church. Clean up so that you can clearly see who you are and who died and lives for you.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, when life is confusing and uncertain, when we feel like we are on a shifting ground, losing ourselves, and forgetting who we are, let us press on to build up our life on a sure ground of grace and love and clean up the things that falsely claim us. Our journey of faith may not always be a smooth sailing. God sometimes leads us through the wilderness to shape us into God’s people. No matter how our journey may be, let us keep building up and cleaning up so that we may never forget who we are, whose we are, and whom we are called to be, always. Amen.
 William H.Willimon, Remember who you are: Baptism a Model for Christian Life (Upper Room, 1998), 105.