Sunday, March 20, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus into the Holy City: From "Hosanna!" to "How Dare You?!?" (Luke 19:29-42)

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31  If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.

33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said,

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

41 As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. 42 He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  With apologies to Charles Dickens, so it is on this Palm Sunday.  It is the start of Holy Week, for people of Christian faith, the most important week of the year.

Palm Sunday is one of the great days of the church year.  Most Palm Sunday sermons focus on Jesus riding into the city.  Other Palm Sunday sermons focus on the donkey – leaving no shortage of word plays at the creative preacher’s disposal.  Others talk about the disciples, how they obeyed Jesus’ command to get the donkey and serve as an example of faithful obedience.

All of these would make a fine Palm Sunday sermon, but today, I want to talk about the crowd – that great multitude no one could number who lined the road from the Mount of Olives to the Great Eastern Gate of Jerusalem.

Through the season of Lent, we have been on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we have been walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  The hope, of course, is that we each find our own footsteps – our own place, our own face – in the story.

Walker Percy once asked, “Why is it that when we see a photograph of a crowd the first thing we do is to look for ourselves?”  When we look at a church directory or a high school yearbook or ESPN crowd shots, the first thing we do is look for ourselves.

On Palm Sunday, as we look at the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem, I guarantee you, your face and my face, all of us, are somewhere in that crowd.  This week, in that crowd, we will see the best of human nature, and the worst of human nature, both on full display for all to see.  We should all know by now that the crowd can be fickle.  The tide of public opinion can turn on a dime.  Today’s breath of fresh air can quickly turn to tomorrow’s foul wind.

Why?  Much of it has to do with unrealistic, and therefore, unrealized, expectations.  Have you ever had unrealistic expectations placed upon you, and then, when you failed to fulfill those expectations, disappointed someone?  If so, then perhaps you know how Jesus feels today.  Have you ever placed unrealistic expectations upon someone else, and then been disappointed when they didn’t live up to them?  If so, then perhaps you know how the crowd felt.

That’s what I’d like you to consider today, that the crowd who greeted Jesus had unrealistic, and therefore, unrealized, expectations about who Jesus was, and what he was there to do.  It’s not that Jesus was unable to fulfill them, it’s that these expectations simply missed the mark in terms of Jesus’ mission.

Throughout history, Israel had been alternately independent and occupied by various foreign powers.  Every time they were independent, they soon let the power go to their heads, drifted away from God, made stupid decisions as a nation; and the natural result of this was that they gave up their independence yet again.

During the entire lifetime of Jesus, the nation of Israel didn’t exist as an independent nation, it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.

The events of Palm Sunday took place at the beginning of Passover week in Jerusalem.  Passover is one of the great, high holy festivals of the Jewish religious calendar.  It commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from oppression and bondage in Egypt.  Passover was sort of an Independence holiday, although more in spiritual terms than national ones.

However, as often happens, the line between the things of God and the things of the nation became blurred.  The people of Israel began to conflate the two, and the Passover festival became a political powderkeg, as everyone’s nationalistic hopes crept into, and then took over, this celebration of spiritual liberation.

Our hindsight allows us to read the story of the Palm Sunday parade in an overly-spiritualized way.  The palm branch, a symbol of royalty, because Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Cloaks laid in the road, symbolically preparing the way for Jesus to enter the stronghold of the human heart.  Cries of “Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” repentant cries of confession from people who needed to be liberated from their sin.

And while all of that is true, those reasons were far from the minds of those who cheered Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.  The palm branch was a national symbol, meant to be interpreted as the mark of an armed rebellion against Rome.  The salvation they wanted was political – namely, a warrior who would lead an armed rebellion against the Roman government and drive them out.  They laid their cloaks in the road as a way of rolling out the red carpet for their conquering hero.

Many who cheered Jesus along the Palm Sunday road did so with hopes that were more political and nationalistic than spiritual.

To be sure, Jesus is the promised King.  The Messiah.  The Savior.  He’s just not the one they hoped for or wanted.  Before the week is over, King Jesus will declare that he is not there to restore the fortunes of Israel.  His kingdom will be one of peace, not war.  Those in his kingdom will be called to serve rather than to be served, and that what matters in this life has more to do with what we give than what we get.  He’ll tell his disciples to stand down when they want to defend him with violence, and gives instruction that those who want to be great in his kingdom will take up a cross rather than a sword.

When he teaches that his kingdom is greater than the kingdoms of this world, he’ll be a great disappointment and irritant to those who want him to make Israel great again.  Hopeful cries of “Hosanna!” will give ways to incredulous accusations of “How Dare You?!?” and finally, the cruel and angry shouts of “Crucify Him!”

As I scan the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, looking for my own face in the crowd, I’m challenged by those who cheered for Jesus, but for all the wrong reasons.  For those who came to the party with preconceptions, prejudices, and presumptions, those who came with agendas they wanted to co-opt Jesus to fulfill, those who had boxes they wanted Jesus to fit inside.

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding in who Jesus and what he’s about.  Jesus does not conform to our way; he invites us to follow in his way.  Then and now, Jesus continues to be a great disappointment and irritant to those who place unrealistic expectations upon him.

When God sent us a king, God didn’t necessarily send the one we wanted.  God sent the one we needed.  Not one who would baptize our self-serving agendas – whether those are political or national or economic.  God sent us a king who would save us from our worst selves; we cheered him on Sunday, and we tried to send him back on Friday.

Even there, against the cruel, hard wood of the cross, Jesus continued to teach and show what his kingdom was about.  He showed a strength that’s made perfect in weakness, victory in what the world counted as his greatest defeat, and up until the very end, was pronouncing words of forgiveness for those who caused his pain.

Jesus shows us the true nature of the kingdom of God.  A kingdom of peace, and love, and forgiveness.  A kingdom of grace rather than judgment, a kingdom where all humanity is welcome to sit at the table with God.  A kingdom where enemies are made friends, where the weak are lifted up, where the proud are brought low.  A kingdom where lives are transformed, where the blind see, where the lame walk, where the deaf hear.  A kingdom where the love of God rules in every heart, and the very fiber of everyone’s being become instruments tuned for praise.

On that first Palm Sunday, the crowd was a mixed lot.  There were those who were against Jesus.  There were those who were initially for him, but then when they began to understand the implications of actually following him, turned on him quickly.  But there were also those who got it.  And friends, that’s where should hope to see ourselves.

Earlier, the disciple Thomas had said to the others, “If he is going to Jerusalem to die, then let’s go die with him.”  Thomas understood at least that much of it.  Mary Magdalene loved him so much that she refused to leave his side when the other disciples fled and hid; she understood it was about the forgiveness of sins and the amazing self-giving love of a Savior.  There were those in the crowd who understood.  They understood Jesus’ message, they realized the true cost of God’s love and grace, they understood the sacrifices they would make to be his followers.

That’s where I want to find my face, and my feet, in the crowd.  How about you?

The old hymn says, “Where he leads me, I will follow.  I’ll go with him, all the way.”  Friends, that’s the cost of discipleship – a willingness to follow Jesus all the way.  Jesus does not call us to a life that is easy, safe, or comfortable.  All the way through suffering, all to the way through death, all the way to changed and new life on the other side.

There were those in the crowd who were willing to follow him all the way.  I pray we find ourselves among them.

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