This past week, I was getting some table linens out from a drawer in our dining room and I came across a few Christmas cards I had tucked in there after the holidays. On one of the cards was the scene of the shepherds’ field outside of Bethlehem with the angelic message: “And there was a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!'”
Given the text I was preaching on today, I paused to ponder the message and its connection with our story.
Here Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is announced similarly: “The great multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
So it seems we’ve come around to another scene filled with celebration over this king’s arrival. At the beginning of his story, an infant king born in a stable in a lowly town; and now, a messiah-king riding into Jerusalem, the city of peace-but not on a white stallion with a band of military protection, but on a simple colt with a band of shouting, exuberant and very humble followers. Neither of these images are what one would expect for royalty.
Jesus has come full circle returning to Jerusalem to fulfill the prophetic message and burden that the holy man, Simeon, had laid upon the eight day-old baby on the steps of the Temple. From his home in the Galilee region, Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. Into Jerusalem Jesus arrives to do what God intended for him to do–to be God’s salvation for all people, as Simeon had said. And, to be the redemption of Jerusalem, as Anna, the 84 year-old prophetess, had proclaimed on the Temple steps as well.
Jesus rides in from the Mount of Olives-about a half mile to the city gate. Jesus sends his disciples to get a never ridden colt and to tell the owners when they ask, “The “Lord had need of it.” Which indeed they did ask just as he said it would, but I am sure the disciples were mildly impressed. Yep. It happened just like he said it would.
His disciples had witnessed Jesus’ deeds of power over the years; they knew he was capable of making things happen, of shaking things up, of setting up a new reign of God in the City of Peace.
But Jesus lets on that IF his disciples had really been listening; IF they had really discerned the ways of God, they would understand that his way of peace would seem foolish to them. Now, riding in on a donkey should have tipped them off.
Jesus entered Jerusalem not to exert “power over” the world, but to empty himself of power. As the ancient hymn from Philippians 2 recites: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”
Jesus empties himself of all power in order to show God’s way to peace. This is the way to the kingdom of peace. The greeting we send our friends and loved ones at Christmas-Glory be to God and peace on earth!- has become the call that leads Jesus to Calvary. He becomes God’s glory and brings God’s peace to earth.
The images of those brief moments of the so-called Triumphal Entry are many and vivid. Last year, while standing outside the Golden Gate into Jerusalem, I tried to imagine this Palm Sunday scene.
As we enter into that world, it nearly gives us sensory overload. We see the crowd of his disciples–not just 12, but numerous ones who followed him through Galilee and to Jerusalem. We see the streets teeming with people, because it was the feast of the Passover, one of the three annual Holy Days, when men were required to come and present offerings in the Temple.
We see the cloaks strewn in order to make the path smooth for Jesus’ ride. The laying down of cloaks indicated that someone of importance was coming through. It was worth rubber necking and standing on one’s tiptoes to see for whom the raucous was being created. It must have seemed bizarre though that the man they were celebrating was riding in on a humble beast.
We hear the loud shouts of praise, and we hear the scolding of the Pharisees to Jesus, “Order your disciples to shut up.” But we also hear Jesus’ rebuttal, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
We can feel the heat, the swarming of the crowds. We can nearly smell the odor of the donkeys, the camels, and other beasts of burden. (And I have to tell you, camels are wretched smelling creatures. Cute, but highly offensive to the olfactory system.)
Most importantly, we can feel the emotion of the One riding on the colt. This scene is heavy with paradox. The disciples aren’t manufacturing their emotional responses to Jesus’ entry. They aren’t enacting a drama like we did today. They are genuinely exuberant about their lord making an entrance. They trust that this one is the promised one of God.
And yet his followers just didn’t quite get the whole picture. They did not understand what anguish was ahead for all of them.
As for Jesus: I try to imagine what emotion was expressed on his face. While the crowd praised him, was he smiling or did he wear a grimace? Was his brow furrowed?
And maybe in one of the most moving scenes in the gospels, Jesus comes near to the city and while looking over it, he weeps. He is overcome with heartache and sorrow. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. . . you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” vv. 41-44
After the entry through the gate, Jesus sets his sight on the Temple. We can feel his anger…even his rage…that impelled Jesus to turn over the tables of those who were turning profits from selling the animals that were bought for sacrifices to God.
We can feel the tension in the air. We can feel the mixture of glory and pain, joy and sorrow, praise and hatred, in this so called triumphal entry because as we sing our own Allelulias, we know in our guts that we too can feel uncertain in our belief and sometimes outright insincere in our worship.
I don’t know what it is in our human nature, but it seems to me that we are prone to turn against our heroes on a dime. The critics come out of the walls when LeBron has a couple bad games. As a girl, I was always frustrated watching Superman, Batman, or Spiderman because one minute the crowd is crying out for the superhero to save them…and the next they are screaming for the hero’s capture and punishment. It turns out, we don’t need you to save us.
A friend of mine teaches at Case and writes about the comic book hero, Superman. Brad is the go-to expert on Superman. So, I asked him why he thought people turn on their heroes. Brad’s initial response was people turn when they feel profound disappointment. When, what we expected our hero to do for us doesn’t happen, we feel foolhardy for believing. So, we turn on the one we put our hope and trust in to make things right.
Within a few days Jesus will continue toward the cross. He will be turned over for challenging the political and religious authorities and their ways of keeping the peace.
I read a quote from a Quaker pacifist: If you work for peace, prepare for conflict.
Well, Jesus, the one who ushers in God’s kingdom of peace, is the one who brings division and conflict-not only among the religious and political leaders, but eventually among his own followers.
For now his disciples are cheering him on, but soon enough, some will be in the crowd calling for his death, and others will have high-tailed it out of town, and some very close to him will deny ever knowing him.
Jesus didn’t march into Jerusalem with pomp or circumstance;
He entered in slowly and with a heart full of turmoil.
Jesus didn’t march into Jerusalem completely certain of what was ahead; nevertheless he entered with assurance that God was with him, and that even the stones would cry out to give God glory.
Jesus didn’t march into Jerusalem looking around to see who was watching him;
He entered in aware that obedience to God was for an audience of One.
So we enter the kingdom of God, not completely certain of ourselves.
We live with ambiguities in our faith.
We don’t march into church each week convinced of all our beliefs;
We enter in open to the mystery of God.
We don’t march into our faith doubt-free;
We enter our relationship with God with trust that God believes in us more than we believe in God.
We don’t march into the kingdom feeling completely accepted;
We come with all our insecurities and anxieties, but trusting that who we are is good enough.
Instead of marching into the kingdom of God with all the answers, it’s more like we stumble in. We fall down. We get picked up. We move forward a little. We move back. We might lag behind or blend in with the crowd some days. But the Spirit says: “Keep looking ahead to where the Prince of Peace is moving. Keep trying to follow a little closer. Keep your eye on the man on the donkey for his way is the way to peace. Trust.”
Why do we tell this story every year? Why will we tell the narrative of the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus again this Holy Week?
We tell the story of Jesus because his story is our story. Today’s strange story of our God on the back of a colt assures us that living into the kingdom is far from comfortable or logical. Some days living in a relationship with God feels so good and right. And other days, to have faith in God feels like the most foolish thing anyone could come up with. As one person told me this past week, sometimes he fears that maybe he’s just drunk the Kool-aid.
Well, if you have, then God bless you. It’s much harder to trust in and to follow God than it is to be cynical and apathetic. That’s easy.
Telling this story, and reenacting its drama, and worshiping God week after week in this community, helps us remember what truly matters. Worshiping God helps us take our eyes and minds off ourselves and off those things of the world that are just self-obsessed distractions.
If we let this peculiar story of our God going to the depths of suffering for the world sink into us, it is powerful enough to transform our hearts and minds into the ways of God’s kingdom of peace.
May it be so – Thanks be to God for Jesus – who was and is and ever shall be.