Why Are You Doing This?
[sermon audio above]
The year is 1977. I am nine years old. I am waiting in line to see Star Wars on the massive screen of Woodfield 1 in Schaumburg. The Star Wars phenomenon is consistently depicted by TV coverage of long lines in places far, far away from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I am standing in line with hundreds of other people, young and old, shuffling slowly to the box office to get a ticket and to be one of 1075 people to sit in the massive theater and, finally, experience this cultural spectacle.
I am not disappointed. The story is full of impetuous youth, wise old shaman-like mentors, heroes (female and male), mysterious family backstories, rural and urban landscapes, lightsabers, tractor beams, a “Death” Star, annihilation of an entire planet, and, of course, good and evil … and, perhaps most important, religious themes that do not oversimplify the distinctions between good and evil.
One of my favorite scenes in Star Wars is when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi go to the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a place where you’d “never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
They enter an urban landscape teeming with a vast array of alien species … and stormtroopers of the Empire. This is a very different corner of the world than the barren desert of Luke’s upbringing. Luke and Obi-Wan are stopped in their landspeeder by stormtroopers. They are looking for particular droids; in fact, the droids riding in the back of Luke’s landspeeder are the droids they are looking for:
- Stormtrooper: “Let me see your identification.”
- Obi-Wan: [with a small wave of his hand] “You don’t need to see his identification.”
- Stormtrooper: “We don’t need to see his identification.”
- Obi-Wan: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
- Stormtrooper: “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.”
- Obi-Wan: “He can go about his business.”
- Stormtrooper: “You can go about your business.”
- Obi-Wan: “Move along.”
- Stormtrooper: “Move along … move along.”
The droid R2-D2 holds within him a secret vulnerability of the Death Star, a vulnerability that will be exploited by the Rebellion to blow it up and save themselves from annihilation, the fate suffered by the peaceful planet Alderaan. Without Obi-Wan’s subtle, yet powerful Jedi mind trick on the stormtroopers, the story ends right then, right there, and evil triumphs.
In the Mark 11 passage we heard this morning, the scene is set for Jesus’s so-called “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem during the week of Passover, a time of hustle and bustle when many thousands of diverse people from all over the region would have gathered. The parallel between the Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem and the entry to Mos Eisley may be a tenuous one, but the brief interaction over the colt reminds Star Wars fans of the interaction with the stormtroopers when entering Mos Eisley:
Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, [waive hand] ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go.Mark 11:1-6 (NIV)
I have no idea if George Lucas patterned his Jedi mind trick on this short Bible story, but the two scenes do resonate. In both scenes, the characters are doing something that appears to be illicit: evading a search warrant in the case of Star Wars and stealing someone’s animal in the case of the Bible. Both evade the potentially troublesome situation with a few authoritative words. In both scenes people stand in the way of the next great plot point in their respective stories: in the case of Star Wars, chartering the Millenium Falcon with Han Solo and Chewbacca to get safely off of Tatooine with the droids; and in the Bible’s case, Jesus’s “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem on a colt as Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah.
People may interpret this passage and say, “Jesus prearranged with those people to lend the colt to the disciples.” Therefore, Jesus gave those words to the two disciples to say as a prearranged passphrase signaling to grant permission. The Bible is silent about any such prearrangement. I think this small story is much more meaningful if we interpret it like a Jedi mind trick. “The Lord needs it” is then seen as a subtle statement of Jesus’s persuasive authority … when the situation calls for it. Curiously, the Mark 14 reading this morning ended with a similar statement of Jesus’s persuasive authority when he gives instructions for where and how to find the Upper Room for the Last Supper.
In Matthew’s version of the entry there are two animals—a donkey and a colt, and in Luke’s version there is just the colt. The discrepancy is likely due to the Matthean author’s confusion over the Greek translation of Zechariah 9:9 leading one to read two animals in that Messianic verse. The more interesting thing, in my opinion, is that Matthew and Luke simply say, “The Lord needs it/them.” Mark’s “and will send it back here shortly” is missing in Matthew and Luke. I think the implication is clear: when the Lord needs something, the Lord’s authority is apparent to anyone and everyone … when the situation calls for it. “He can go about his business … move along … and the people let them go.”
Back to the summer of 1977. I am still nine years old. I am standing in a much longer line at the Field Museum waiting to see the exhibit of King Tutankhamun. It is the first time anything discovered by Howard Carter’s team in 1922 has been on display in the United States. The boy king of the New Kingdom in Egypt 3300 years earlier died at the age of 19, the age of Carrie Fisher when they shot Star Wars. Similar to the TV coverage of the lines to see Star Wars, the media is obsessed with the lines to see King Tut’s treasures. When the four-month exhibit is done, I will be one of nearly 1.3 million people to see King Tut’s treasures in Chicago.
I am disappointed. After waiting in line for hours, I am unable to see much because my nine-year-old stature is easily squeezed out by people much bigger than me. The congested horde of humanity moves determinedly through the exhibit. When we finish snaking through the exhibit, my parents buy the glossy book of photos of the exhibit items. In the months and years after attending the exhibit, I peruse this book many times and marvel at the amazing display of wealth, artistry, and religious symbols to accompany the king’s afterlife.
One of the artifacts in King Tut’s exhibit was an ornate alabaster container for perfume. Instead of describing this container I want to share a picture of it with you.
When they found this it still contained some of its original “perfume.” They analyzed the substance and found the primary fragrant component was spikenard, which is not native to the Middle East; it is native to the Himalayas and grows at high altitudes. The cost to import spikenard and its scarcity in the region would greatly elevate its value. The perfume nard mentioned in Mark 14 is likely similar to the expensive nard stored for the eternal journey of King Tutankhamun 1300 years before the woman broke her own alabaster jar and poured the expensive perfume on the head of Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper.
“Why this waste of perfume?” on a dead boy king sealed in a tomb?
“Why this waste of perfume?” on an itinerant preacher challenging the authority of the empire?
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”Mark 14:6-9 (NIV)
Why did they rebuke her? It had nothing to do with not wasting something expensive and instead selling it to benefit poor people. It had everything to do with not embracing the gravity of the situation that Jesus was in, one that could even lead to his death!
Sometimes in the midst of grave situations we spend precious emotional energy and intellectual arguments consumed with things we see as under our control. “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” Helping poor people is controllable, preventing state executions is way less controllable.
In Star Wars Governor Tarkin threatens to blow up Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan to compel her to reveal the location of the Rebel base. She gives in and gives a deceptive answer: “They’re on Dantooine.” Governor Tarkin replies, “You’re far too trusting. Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. But don’t worry. We will deal with your Rebel friends soon enough.” And then the Death Star shoots its massive death ray at Alderaan, a peaceful planet with no weapons.
The scene immediately jumps to the Millenium Falcon where Obi-Wan suddenly turns away and sits down, almost fainting. Luke says, “Are you all right? What’s wrong?” Obi-Wan answers, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force … as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
In Matthew 27 we read:
50 “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open.”Matthew 27:50-52 (NIV)
Governor Tarkin, “Why are you doing this?”
Darth Vader, “Why are you doing this?”
Governor Pontius Pilate, “Why are you doing this?”
High Priest Caiaphas, “Why are you doing this?”
There is no reasonable answer to the question, “Why are you doing this?” in the face of evil. But there are reasonable answers to this same question when we ask it of ourselves:
“Why am I doing this?” Hopefully we can and will answer this way:
Because the Lord needs me … needs you … needs us.
Evil wins some large scale victories, but goodness has a way of winning in the fullness of time through irresistible spiritual authority over the simplemindness of evil’s automaton nature to oppress and destroy. It is often only in hindsight that we see the difficult truth that the subtlety of irresistible spiritual authority beats the grandiosity of evil in the end.
It’s easy to point out the major evils in the world and wonder about the oppressors, “Why are you doing this?” But why does it seem much less apparent to point out the subtle, everyday “Jedi mind tricks” of the world, the irresistible spiritual authority of some people and purposes, that lead in small ways to the triumph of goodness? Evil is often abrupt, shocking, and senseless. It’s newsworthy. Goodness tends to play the long game through subtlety, persistence, and the payoffs are often only discernible in hindsight.
On Palm Sunday the disciples may have expected Jesus to enter Jerusalem as their triumphant messiah, conquer the empire, and create the eternal reign of God’s peace and justice as a result. As the week progressed, however, the disciples instead found themselves in a nightmarish storyline, one where their messiah would be wrongfully convicted in a sham trial, brutally tortured, and executed with common criminals.
On Friday Disney released the teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode 9: Rise of Skywalker. Toward the end of the two minute teaser, we hear Luke Skywalker say, “We’ll always be with you. No one’s ever really gone.” It fades to black, and then we hear what sounds like the evil cackle of Emperor Palpatine, who was destroyed by Darth Vader / Luke’s father in a dramatic born-again conversion in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
The internet is abuzz with what these two minutes may foreshadow!
But fans, let’s remember the famous line of Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi: “It’s A Trap!”
Likewise, fellow Christians, let’s remember this Holy Week to not get caught in the trap of perplexing questions in the face of evil. Let’s turn those questions outside-in and seek self-understanding and self-empowerment:
“Why am I doing this?”
Because the Lord needs me … needs you … needs us.
Let us not be distracted by the motivations of others that we do not understand and instead focus on how we have been molded by the irresistible spiritual authority of key people in our lives.
The destruction of Alderaan and the Death Star were not the end of the story in Star Wars; that was just one episode in the saga. The crucifixion and even the resurrection are not the end of the Christian story; they are just the beginning. As the Apostle Paul says:
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
2 Corinthian 5:19-20 (NIV)