Oh, oh, magnificent

I was born, I was born
To be with you in this space and time
After that and ever after
I haven’t had a clue only to break rhyme
This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue, oh, oh

Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar

I was born, I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice from the womb
My first cry, it was a joyful noise, oh, oh

Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar
Justified, till we die you and I will magnify, oh, oh
Magnificent, magnificent, oh, oh

Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love unites our hearts
Justified, till we die you and I will magnify, oh, oh
Magnificent, magnificent, magnificent

Magnificent, U2


We are such jerks.

Seriously. I wouldn’t trust a human being as far as I could throw one.  Would you?  I’m not sure why.  We don’t have a very good record at being trustworthy.

About this Sermon
Part 6 of the series “Lent and Easter with U2
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
April 17, 2011—Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4–9aMatthew 27:11-26

There is the famous betrayal of Julius Caesar by his friend Brutus.  There is the betrayal of the Romans by a German king who far from actually helping the Romans to hunt down renegade German tribes, led them into the woods and slaughtered them all.  There is Benedict Arnold, who despite having been a glorious commander for the American forces, decided to turn coat and support the British during the Revolution.  There is Ephialtes who helped the Persians find a secret passage through the mountains during the battle of Thermopylae (if you’ve seen the movie 300, you know all about that one). Oh, and let’s not forget Brett Favre’s signing with the Vikings.

Of course, Biblically we only need to get to the fourth chapter when the deception and betrayal begin to take place.  Cain betrays Abel and murders him.  Joseph is betrayed by his brothers.  David betrays Uriah and has him killed.  David’s son betrays David and launches a coup. And then of course, we get to Peter denying Jesus and Judas betraying Jesus to the Temple leadership.

Of course, our duplicity and faithlessness are not individual affairs alone.  No, sometimes we enjoy that kind of treachery in groups as well.


That is nowhere seen as clearly as in the story we read tonight.  Actually, in both of them.  The passage from Matthew that began our service tonight and the one that we just heard from.

In the twenty-first  chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is making what we call the “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.  He rides into Jerusalem and the crowds greet him with “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They use titles of lordship and royalty, claiming Jesus to be the son of David, the King of Israel.

And then we jump ahead six chapters and five days, and Jesus is before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who offers the crowds of Jerusalem a choice of prisoner to be released: Jesus or Jesus Barabbas, a “notorious prisoner”.  And the crowds shout for Barabbas.  And when Pilate asks what should be done with Jesus of Nazareth, they answer “Let him be crucified!”  A complete turnaround.


Some years ago, I preached a sermon in which I explored the reasons we human beings engage in such treachery.  We looked at the historical circumstances and the expectations of the people at that time.  We talked about rejection and disappointment.  We talked about frustrated expectations and the anger with which such a circumstance is met.  Oh, and we looked at mob psychology.  Diffusion of responsibility. The Kitty Genovese Syndrome and all of that.  We explored all of the reasons that human beings might turn and betray someone they had previously supported.  Why a crowd that had shouted “Hosanna” on a Sunday was shouting “Crucify Him!” on a Friday.  In the end, we could only conclude one thing: this is simply what we do.

We are sinners.  Broken. Unfaithful. As quick to betray someone for whom we’d declared fidelity as to follow him in the first place, especially if changing sides means some perceived advantage for us. And it doesn’t even need to be a major figure. Anyone who’s spent any time in high school knows all about shifting loyalties and betrayals.

No, this is who we are, isn’t it?  Isn’t it the rare and praiseworthy person who sits down to lunch in the high school cafeteria with the student everyone else is picking on?  Isn’t it the rare person who is able to demonstrate loyalty to a cause, an idea, a person when all around her are peeling away?  Do we not all to easy break fidelity with one another?  All this psychology, all the historical context will not change the simple fact that the crowds went from singing “Hosanna” to “Crucify him!” because that’s just what human beings do.  Don’t kid yourselves: if we’d have been there, we’d have done exactly the same thing. (That’s why in a few minutes, as a congregation, we will be the ones who read the words of the crowd during the Passion Play.)

And so, I’ve stopped wondering that question.  I began to wonder another question.  I began to reflect on the fact that Jesus must surely have known of our impending betrayal.  After all, he’d been predicting his betrayal, death, and resurrection for some time.  And so, when he came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the crowds were shouting “Hosanna”, I wonder just how hollow those words must have seemed to him.  For he had to know that if he was destined to be turned over and crucified, then these would be the same people calling for that crucifixion.

And so I began to wonder, why on earth would he do it?  What does it take to know that the people who are shouting your name in praise today will five days hence be shouting for your death, and to go into Jerusalem anyway.

I don’t know about you, but I know that when I hear that someone has been presenting themselves to me in one way but really thinks of me another, it doesn’t incline me to be helpful to that person.  I might be able to be polite, especially if the person doesn’t know that I know what they really think about me.  But I can’t imagine going out of my way for that person.  I certainly can’t imagine laying my life down for such a person.

And so, I find that when I think about the story of Palm Sunday, I start with one mystery—the mystery of the behavior of the crowd–and wind up quickly with another mystery—the behavior of the Christ.

What accounts for that?


About a year ago, I was in my car and was listening to some music I’d recently purchased.  I’ll admit, that when I drive, I listen more to the music than to the lyrics, especially when the windows are down and I’m enjoying the drive.  But suddenly, a lyric in a song I was listening to caught my attention.  It was not a new song to me.  It was not the first time I’d listened to the song.  It was not even the first time I’d paid attention to the lyrics.  But suddenly, somehow, these words were in my ear in a way they hadn’t been before.  And I had stop whatever train of thought I’d been on and begin to focus on the words being sung.

…only love can leave such a mark…

As I said, I’d heard the song many times before.  I’d even listened to the words and imagined them as words of heartbreak.  The songwriter singing of the pain caused when you fall in love with someone and it’s unrequited or you get hurt.  But now, as I heard those words again–“only love can leave such a mark”–my mind was filled with a vision of Christ on the cross.

When the song was over, I played it again and listened to the words in that light, and was stunned at what I’d found.  Here was one of the best tracks on U2’s new album, a great rock song with a good beat and a good hook, and suddenly I found myself listening to a romance on Christian theology.  A song of the Son singing to the Father:

I was born, I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice from the womb
My first cry, it was a joyful noise…

And a song of the Son singing to those he’d come to save:

I was born, I was born
To be with you in this space and time
After that and ever afterI haven’t had a clue only to break rhyme
This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue..

Only love, only love can leave such a mark…

It was a profound moment, and not just because it gave rise to the idea of this entire sermon series we’ve been doing, but because there was something so wonderful and profound about the sentiment.

Given how central the cross is to Christian theology, it’s interesting to note just how problematic the cross is.  The early Christians knew from their experience at Easter that Jesus was their messiah, Lord, and savior.  What they didn’t know was why Jesus had been crucified.

Very early on, those Jewish followers of Jesus reinterpreted the symbols and meaning of the Passover holiday and applied them to Jesus.  Jesus, the Passover lamb, sacrificed for the salvation of the people.  The blood of the lamb no longer put on the lintels and doorposts of the houses of the people, but put upon their hearts and through that blood, they are saved from death.

And so, the idea of Christ’s sacrifice was an early idea.  Of course, the questions were only just beginning: why had this sacrifice been necessary?  Why did Jesus do it?

One of the ideas that became the most popular in the Western church was the idea of substitutionary atonement–that Jesus paid a price that was meant for us to pay.  To this was added an idea that our sinfulness had so offended God’s holiness, our crimes were so great that someone had to pay the penalty, otherwise God’s justice would not be satisfied.  And since no one was worthy to take the punishment for all of humanity except God, the Son of God is to be the one to take the punishment for us.  (In case you’re wondering, this is the theology behind the sacrifice of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia.)

But there’s something about that theology that doesn’t always speak to people.  Among them are the idea that our sins required someone to die and if it wasn’t going to be all of us, it would have to be God’s Son; the idea that sins are “crimes” against God. The continued idea that the only way to make God happy is to sacrifice: either a lamb, a pigeon, some grain, or God’s Son.

Because, what if you have a different understanding of sin, say, they way that the Orthodox Christians do? Or the way that John Wesley did, for that matter? Where you see sin not as a crime for which vengeance must be exacted, but an illness for which healing must be prescribed.

When you look at the question somewhat differently, seeing it not as a legal requirement to be fulfilled, but as an action of grace voluntarily taken, then it becomes clear what the reason for Christ’s sacrifice is: only love.

It was out of love that we were made.  Formed in love to be the objects of love. To be in relationships of love with God and with one another.  And we have been defined by love ever since.  In the words of the communion liturgy, “When we turned away and our love failed, your love remained steadfast…”

And it is out of that love that Christ acts for us.  Not to satisfy some blood debt.  Not as a legalistic requirement in order that our crimes find some expression in a punishment exacted.  Christ comes to us out of love.  Only love.

The more I reflect on this mystery, the more I understand what is at the heart of the Gospel, and it is this: solidarity.  There are fewer more loving things than to stand side by side with someone in the midst of brokenness.  There are few more powerful things.  And in Jesus we encounter one who demonstrates God’s solidarity with us.

We see that solidarity begun with the Incarnation at Christmas, but we only understand the significance of that solidarity during Christ’s passion.  When we see that God does not remain untouched by our brokenness, that God does not remain unaffected by our sorrow, that God does not remain removed even from the separation of death.  In Christ, God takes on all of this and more.  What could motivate the Eternal God to engage in such self-limitation, to the point of death on a cross as a common criminal?

Only love.


The cross remains something of a mystery.  If only because the love that lies behind it is too wondrous for us to understand.

For it is a love that is reckless.  A love that is risk taking.  A love that takes up suffering, sorrow, even death, for the sake of declaring to us that we do not walk this road alone.  That even in our brokenness, God is with us.  And it is a love that heals us.

It is an observation not left unmade by our friends in U2.  For Bono sings not only that “only love can leave such a mark” but follows it with the poignant words “only love can heal such a scar…”  An observation made by another songwriter nearly 2,600 years earlier who wrote:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

For we are a broken, sinful people.  We are quick to break faith with one another. Quick to turn our backs on God.  Quick to succumb to all the temptations of the world, and to seek our own wellbeing rather than do what is right.

But we are not left in that state.  In spite of our brokenness, we are confronted by a love that overwhelms us.  A love that transforms us.  A love that does not expect us to be perfect, but that meets us where we are as sinful, broken people, and heals us.

We are healed by a love so wondrous and amazing that it defies our understanding.  A love so radical that it should cause the Lord of History to take upon our brokenness that that brokenness might be redeemed.

But in reality, that should not surprise us, for while only love can leave such a mark, only love can heal the scars of our brokenness.  Only love can unite our hearts to the very heart of God.

 The Texts

Isaiah 50:49

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

Matthew 27:11–26

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

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