I have mixed feelings about Palm Sunday. I have mixed feelings about the waving of palm branches, the smiles, laughter and the exuberant music. Don’t get me wrong: I love it. And I would sorely miss it if we did not celebrate Palm Sunday with jubilation. But, I also feel uneasy – in my gut – because underlying all the pageantry, we all know where the story is heading this week. God knows that there is a lot of pain and suffering between this Sunday and the next.
Yes, we start holy week with the story of what Bibles refer to as the “triumphant entry”–Jesus riding into Jerusalem, the city of God, on the back of a donkey. The story sounds close to ridiculous; at the very least, strange. This is the kind of story that we don’t want to dwell on for too long. What’s the point of it? Instead of asking what is the point, the better question is: How do we let this story marinate in our imaginations to flavor the whole passion narrative?
I’ve shared before a poignant experience I had several years ago while I was at playground with my children where we lived in Florida. There were two young mothers sitting on a bench. I overheard one mother with great enthusiasm sharing with the other the story of Jesus– his life, death and resurrection. She was authentically sharing her personal faith in Jesus, the One to whom she entrusted her heart and life.
The unnerving thing for me was that while I listened to this earnest woman sharing the good news, I was utterly taken aback at how strange and frankly silly it all sounded. I suppose I had heard the story for so long I had become immune to its peculiarity. Mind you, I was already a minister; I was preaching regularly this story. I had staked my life and vocation on this story. And yet, I had my own faith crisis right there standing in the shade of the slide. Did I really believe in and desire that story, that Jesus, to shape my life?
To overhear the strange story, and to be disturbed by it, turned into a gift for me. I think God was reminding me, a minister of the Gospel, again of my call to the story of Jesus, to following the Jesus way. I found in overhearing the gospel that I was being invited to claim again a very peculiar God.
Jesus came to show us what God looks like. Jesus also came to show us what it is to be fully human. If you want to see God, gaze at Jesus. If you want to see humanity, fully actualized, as Maslow said, look at Jesus. Jesus’ humanity IS what God intended for all humanity. Sometimes, when we mess up, we say, “Well, I am only human.”
Ah, but in Jesus we see what it is to be fully human.
So, we find this one, fully human, fully divine, where we least expect him: on the back of a donkey.
If we read Matthew’s account literally, it appears that Jesus actually rode in on two beasts simultaneously. But Matthew was using the words from the Prophet Zechariah’s ancient poetry that used parallelism as a literary device. Most likely, there were not two beasts. However, I like scholar John Dominic Crossan’s proposal that perhaps what Matthew was saying was that Jesus not only rode in a donkey, he rode in on a female, nursing donkey with her foal in tow. Could there be a more gentle image for the King of Kings to choose for his entrance? Upon the back of a nursing creature the world is presented the most peaceful entry by the one who holds all authority in heaven and on earth.
Jesus came into Jerusalem through one gate, welcomed as one with royal blood. And it’s likely that at the same time the Roman ruler, Pilate, entered Jerusalem through another gate across town, on a white stallion with his military in tow. Pilate, showing who was really in charge. After all, it was the start of Passover when the Jews recited the Exodus story proclaiming God’s liberation of the Jews from the oppressive powers of Pharaoh. Pilate did not want any confusion about Rome being the one in control.
Clearly, Jesus showed the city a very different way of having power. The contrast could not have gone unnoticed. In fact, the text says that the city was in turmoil. The Greek verb for turmoil is used elsewhere in the NT always referring to momentous events such as earthquakes, storms, and apocalyptic events.
Who is this one who rocked their city? The crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from that small village of Nazareth in Galilee.” Of course, everyone knew what happened to prophets. Their life spans were never long.
Where was Jesus heading on that peculiar ride?
Jesus rode straight to the Jewish Temple.
He proceeded to perform what might have been his most passionate, and authoritative acts. He drove out the business men, turned over the tables of the money-changers, and he healed the blind and the lame within the Temple walls.
There was no doubt that the shift of power had taken place. Jesus was the new Temple manifesting God’s presence and power.
There was no doubt about what the prophet from Galilee was intending-to take back his Father’s house.
Jesus’ compassionate authority filled the Temple.
By whose authority did he overturn the corrupt powers in God’s house?
By whose authority did he cure the blind lame and sick?
By whose authority did he bring shalom– wholeness and healing– to God’s Temple?
Jesus’ compassionate authority came from his certainty of his identity as God’s beloved son, (remember his baptism and the voice from heaven?). And authority rooted in Jesus’ obedience to the difficult call of God on his life.
If Jesus would have stayed on that donkey, paraded around for a while, and then left the city, would there have been such a stir?
One writer put it aptly: “It’s fine when Jesus stays in the suburbs or in the hospital where it’s safe to talk about him. But Jesus wants to go down to the city and get mixed up in the stuff of the world. In Law offices, financial districts, brokerage houses, halls of government; and that is where the trouble really gets started. ” Rev. Dr. Hugh Eichelberger
Isn’t it astonishing that those who were blind and lame, never allowed into the Temple because they were deemed unclean, followed Jesus right inside? Where else should one go to seek wholeness than to God’s house of prayer?
The Temple authorities had lost sight of God because those in authority are always in danger of growing blind to God’s presence.
Pastor John last week shared that while in Turkey and Greece he was struck again by the truth that the early Christian faith grew up in the shadows of human power; in the shadows of the Temples of the gods of Artemis, Athena, Zeus and Apollo.
Indeed in each city- Ephesus, Sardis, Pergamum, Athens, Corinth- on the highest hill, stood a glorious temple that undeniably was the place where that city’s god was worshiped and where the power of the city dwelt.
Our group of travelers celebrated communion amidst the ruins of Corinth with the Temple to Apollo looming in the background. As we sang, Come, O Come Fill this Temple, I was struck by the words of the apostle Paul to the early believers: “Now you are the Temple of God.” His words must have been revolutionary. They knew about Temples. No one messed with the Temple and its god. Paul’s metaphor was not lost on them.
In his letter to the Corinthian church Paul asked, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple? Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit with you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” 1 Cor. 6
And to the Ephesians, “In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;” Eph. 2.21.
Each of those ancient magnificent temples fell. Our group climbed over the scattered stones of their remains. But the Temple still standing is the one built on Jesus Christ. We are the living Temple.
And in God’s Temple, none are excluded. Bring in the lame and the blind and the poor and the outcast for God, Jesus showed us, intends to heal us all. We are each broken in our own way. But it was always God’s peculiar plan to build a holy house, not with perfect stones, but with imperfect, broken, but redeemed stones. Built upon the powerful foundation of love, forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Imagine the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus: 377 feet long, 180 feet wide, 127 60-foot columns, the whole thing made of pure marble. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens. That was the temple that the people of Ephesus saw as they heard Paul’s words:
So JESUS came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Eph. 2.17-22
We are no ordinary Temple.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”
Yes, it is! Your body.
Do we not know that we have been built together as a dwelling place for God?
Yes, it is! Our church, this church.
We are a peculiar people telling a peculiar story about a God who shows up in the unlikeliest places, who uses the unlikeliest people to manifest the glory of the Lord; in whose name we give honor, and praise forever.