Written by Pastor Ed
Restore Us, O God! We hope.
April 9, 2017 Palm Sunday
Philippians 2: 5-11
Matt. 21: 1-11
Back in the Fall of ’71 then mayor of New York, John Lindsey was contemplating a run for the presidency in the US. He was testing the waters by making a cross country speaking tour, and one of the people setting up the tour was a graduate of Valparaiso University, where I was in my final year and the leader of a political education group on campus. Thus it was that I learned some of the inside ways that a campaign ran and how advance men worked at stirring up the crowd. It is also how I managed the few seconds of my face appearing on the national news that evening as I greeted Mayor Lindsey and led him into the hall. It is also how I became even more cynical of the whole political process.
Now I’m not sure who the two advance men were that Jesus sent on ahead to get the donkey and the colt; Matthew doesn’t name them, he just says it was two disciples. Nor do we know what else they did to gather a crowd along the parade route, although it seems highly unlikely that this was just a spontaneous gathering. Somebody got the word out and suggested that this was an occasion you wouldn’t want to miss. Not that Jesus was an unknown, but neither was he a great military or political leader. Yet this was perhaps the most political of all his actions.
Throughout history oppressed people have always looked for a leader to free them. When times are desperate, anyone who offers the hope of a better life is seen as a possible saviour. We can look to the rise of most of the dictators and tyrants of the world as coming out of such circumstances. If the recent election in the US told us anything it is that people were looking for someone to “save” them and make everything “great” again.
And the same was true in first century Palestine. The people of Palestine were living under the oppressive rule of the Roman government which had placed puppet rulers over the people. Those rulers were given free hand, so long as they remained loyal to Rome, and often tried to prove their loyalty by further oppressing the people, raising taxes, and outlawing religious practices, particularly of the Jews.
And so the people were eager for a saviour, anyone who could potentially throw off the hated Romans and restore the Kingdom to the good old days, usually seen as the time of David. And Jesus wouldn’t be the only one who was seen as holding out that promise, but he was certainly seen as a possibility. And I wonder, given what we know from later on in the story, if Judas might not have been one of those advance men.
Scholars have argued that one of the reasons that Judas eventually betrayed Jesus was because Judas realized that Jesus was not going to fulfill that political role of throwing off the Roman oppressors. So perhaps it was Judas who spread the word and stirred up the crowd. He might have handed out a few palm branches and arranged for the girls to scream as Jesus passed by. Perhaps it was Judas who handed out the note cards with the suggested phrases to shout – Hosanna to the son of David. “Hosanna” “Save Us” the people shouted, “Make Israel great again!”
But what they failed to comprehend, and what perhaps Judas came to realize only too late, was that Jesus had not asked them to get him a mighty stallion to ride on, but rather a lowly donkey. That Jesus’ agenda, while certainly speaking to the political reality of the day, was not about overthrowing the Romans, but about creating a new political reality that would challenge not only the Romans but every other political system by creating a group of followers who would transcend political boundaries and form a world-wide body of followers. And Jesus methods were those, not of a conquering warrior, but of the suffering servant of Isaiah and Philippians 2, of the one who could have claimed superiority, but rather humbled himself and took the form of a servant, becoming obedient to God, as he asks us to become.
It seems to me that Christians through the years have often gotten the meaning of Palm Sunday wrong in one of two ways, although they share come common threads.
On the one hand, we become simply spectators shouting praises on the sidelines and admiring what Jesus once did. We are told that Jesus “paid it all” and therefore nothing is required of us but simply to worship Jesus. We’re even glad to be a part of the procession so long as it doesn’t mean getting too involved. We can enjoy the hoopla, maybe even get recognized as one of the followers of Jesus. An article I read recently critiqued much of “contemporary worship music” because there were very few songs of lament.
The problem with this approach, as Richard Rohr pointed out in a recent article is that:
“Rather than being taught that we can and should follow Jesus as ‘partners in his great triumphal procession’ (2 Corinthians 2:14), we were told to be grateful spectators and admirers of what he once did. Instead of a totally ‘Inclusive Savior’ we made Jesus into an object of exclusive and exclusionary worship. Then we argued and divided over what kind of worship he preferred. Jesus never asked for worship, only that we ‘follow’ him (Mark 1:18) as fellow attractors (‘fishers of people’) and partners in ‘his triumphal procession.’” (Richard Rohr Daily Meditations, April 5, 2017)
The other trap that Christians fall into is the same one that I suggested Judas may have chosen. We’re glad to join in the procession and follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. But we are still looking for that saviour on a white stallion, the conquering hero of legends. We want a political leader who will right all the wrongs of society and make everyone wish they had listened. We want victory in Jesus, and a leader who will use all the methods at his disposal to achieve that victory. It’s the model of Christendom where nations conquered in the name of Christianity, where you could wipe out the enemy if they didn’t agree to convert.
It is a viewpoint of Jesus that is all too prevalent today, I’m afraid, as so-called Christians call for punishment and hatred, fan the flames of fear against those who are different, and use the name of Jesus to justify war. They are ready to follow Jesus so long as it’s only on the road into Jerusalem, but once you get to the part about taking up the cross, or suffering and dying, well, then you can count them out. That view also overlooks the donkey that Jesus rode on into Jerusalem.
Jesus called his disciples, not to stand on the sidelines and cheer nor to become a militant political force, but rather to follow Jesus on his path to the cross. Jesus told his disciples three times what was ahead of him and warned them on numerous occasions that the way he was following would lead to suffering and even death. While I don’t believe Jesus courted death, he also didn’t shy away from the possibility, knowing that if he didn’t fulfill the role that people wanted him to, they would quickly turn against him.
And so it is that the shouts of “Hosanna” which echo through the streets of Jerusalem today turn into the shouts of “Crucify him” that we hear on Good Friday. It has been the same for Christians through the centuries who have taken Jesus’ call to follow the way of love and service seriously and have often been ridiculed and declared weak or out of touch. But the early church was clear in their view that it was only through the way of the cross that Jesus could become triumphant. They said it clearly in what is considered one of the earliest hymns of the church, the passage we read from Philippians 2. Paul recorded this song as a reminder of how Christians were supposed to conduct themselves, following in the path of 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 n human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2: 6-11 NRSV)
May we choose to join the procession and follow Jesus not only when the shouts of joy ring out, but even in the face of opposition. Not only accepting the person of Jesus, but also the way of Jesus, that we too may bring glory to God.
Please join me in the prayer of confession as it is projected.
Leader: Jesus, our Lord, you came to us humbly—riding on a donkey.
In peace, you showed us the way of your kingdom.
We confess that our vision of the kingdom is not pure.
It is stained with our own selfish desires.
People: We shout hosannas to praise you,
—only out of our need to survive.
We lay down our cloaks and palms to adore you
—only to strip your garment away and humiliate you.
Leader: Forgive us, O Lord, when our mouths that seek to praise you often deny and defy you.
People: Renew in us an obedient spirit,
that we may fully accept and follow your will.
(Pause for silent confession)
Leader: God, our true Hope,
All: restore us.
Leader: Our times are in your hands, O God. Let your face shine upon your servants who pursue your will, and save us in your unfailing love.