When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
(Preached on Sunday, April 09, 2017)
What a strange and confusing day. Palm/Passion Sunday, like its name, is a day filled with paradox and confusion. It reminds me of a cartoon. A man is reading the newspaper to a woman. “Well, I’ll be! This is Passion Week.” “You’ve got to be kidding!” says the woman. “How low have we sunk?” What has happened to old-fashioned values? Sex! Sex! Sex! Our society has simply gone way overboard on the subject of sex!” To which he responds by reading, “Passion Week begins on the fifth Sunday in Lent – the week before Holy Week.” “Oh!” she meekly replies.
We can be misled and confused by the title. But that is only the beginning. Since the church has telescoped Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday into one day now, it becomes even more confusing. We began our worship hearing the Palm Sunday gospel read, where the crowd greets Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem with loud shouts of “Hosanna!” Now we have just listened to the passion gospel where another crowd calls for Jesus’ death. Yet, there is something appropriate about celebrating both Palm Sunday and the Passion of Jesus on the same day; especially this year as we read the gospel from Matthew’s account. For of all the gospel accounts Palm Sunday actually works for Matthew’s telling. His portrait of Jesus as king is perhaps the most developed. Here is a Jesus who is immediately perceived as a threat to the throne, a danger to the established powers. And yet, Matthew tells us that as Jesus entered Jerusalem that day the city was in turmoil and the people were asking one another “Who is this?” Which is the same question raised clearly in the passion story: “Who is this Jesus?”
Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan draw a wonderful picture of that “Palm Sunday” long ago. They describe not one but two processions into the city that day: one, from the west, was led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor coming into the city to keep order during the Passover; the Jewish High Holy Day celebrating Israel’s long-ago release from captivity in the Egyptian empire. “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city,” they write: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling dust. The eyes of silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
This was the power of empire on display, but it was also a kind of theology, too, because the Roman emperor claimed to be the son of God. So, “the way things were” were that way because their “god” decided it should be so. That works out well for the Romans and the wealthy, but not so much for the people under their heel.
Now, on the other side of town, from the east, came a very different procession; the one we read about in Matthew’s Gospel account today. This “king” rides in not on a warhorse but on a donkey, surrounded not by cavalry or foot soldiers with helmets and banners but by peasants, the urban poor, and the spiritually hungry as well. They are holding palm branches and are exuberantly full of praise and hope that has been kept alive by those prophets who promised a time of peace, and justice, and a leader who would inaugurate that great and glorious day.
In contrast to the other procession Jesus enters Jerusalem in humble fashion, riding on a donkey and a colt. Even so, he is proclaimed a king, the Son of David. Before the week is out we will see how the powers that be of the temple and the powers that be of the empire will feel so threatened by this “king” that they will collude together to put him to death. That’s what empires do.
That’s what these two processions are really about: one kind of power confronting another. For a while, it will appear that the empire, that violence and suffering, injustice and greed have won. But we know they will not ultimate triumph. We will return again next Sunday to celebrate that God will say no to the power of empire; the power based on violence and suffering, injustice and greed, fear and oppression. On the third day after the death of Jesus God will say yes to the power of love and justice, compassion and peace; yes to the power of new life.
Saying yes, and saying no. Jerusalem had to make a decision that day, about what to “do with a Messiah who ushers in a reign of peace, not warfare.” That wasn’t really what some folks had in mind, so their expectations were disappointed. They wanted a different kind of glory, a king who would rise up against Rome. Jesus, you might say, did not fulfill popular expectations.
But the wonderful preacher Fred Craddock cautions us against picking on the Holy City, here at the beginning of Holy Week. “What city is there today,” he asks, “with its values, its centers of power, its established institutions that would not resist strongly the radical realignment of values and relationships, or priorities and commitments, that Jesus teaches and models in his own life?”
So it is that we face the same question today as they did on that first Palm Sunday: Who is this Jesus? Who do we understand him to be and what will we do about it? Palm Sunday is not simply a day of adulation. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is just that – the arrival in the city where his fate will be decided and his future determined. Just as on that day when Jesus rode into the city, this Palm Sunday today holds in tension for us God’s reality and the world’s reality. That tension resides inside us as well, brought on by the truth that the Christ in whom we believe is the Jesus who died on a cross. Palm Sunday presents us with the confession that we can kill the King of the Jews, but we cannot take away his sovereignty. His governance has ushered in a reign where those who are blessed at the poor in spirit, the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
It is so much easier to say that Jesus died for my sins and washed them all away, than it is to take up the cross of the suffering of the world, to make a choice between one procession and another. It is a tough choice: to choose the power and promised security of the empire with all of its might and promise of glory and success; or to choose non-violence, and justice, generosity and peace.
Are we there with Jesus, willing to pay the price with him for holding onto that dream of God? As the prophet Isaiah says, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The prophet Micah speaks these same words, but he adds, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
No more hunger. No more war. We dream with God of that great day, as we hear this story at the beginning of another Holy Week. As we answer the question of who is this Jesus, we find ourselves in that story and find ourselves in one procession or the other. As we make our own decision, let us remember what Margaret Farley has written about what it means to be a follower of Jesus: “Christianity,” she writes, “is a religion of resistance and hope. The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds. There is a love stronger than death.”
That is who Jesus is: the beloved of God, who never wavered from his trust in God and God’s way. Jesus held firm to that trust even as all of the society, the core of his religious home, the powers of the empire, even his own friends and followers, all turned on him, abandoned him, and conspired to execute him. Still, Jesus never wavered from his reliance on God, his trust in God’s love, and his belief in God’s way as the only way to lead to life. And next week we will return to celebrate that victory.