Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Blessed Is the King -- Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
March 20, 2016

I love spontaneity -- actually, it's more accurate to say that I like the idea of spontaneity, but I can't say that I'm great at being spontaneous. It's not that I don't want to be spontaneous, I do. But I crave routine and order. I like to-do lists. I want to be productive. I feel like I need to finish one project before I can jump to the next. But spontaneity doesn't work like that, does it? To be spontaneous, you have to be able to let go of whatever it is you are doing or feel you should be doing, and go with the flow. I can't always do that easily or gracefully, but I will say that those times when I have been able to let go of routine and embrace spontaneity have given me fun and wonderful experiences. Being willing to embrace spontaneity has led to impromptu dinner parties and day trips, seeing enthralling movies, meeting new people, etc. I am wholeheartedly a creature of routine and order, but I'm glad for the times when I've let go and been spontaneous. A full life requires both. It's just that for me spontaneity takes some work.

At first reading the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, seems to be the epitome of spontaneity. A long time back, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and he and the disciples were finally at the proverbial gates of the city. Jesus sent a couple of the disciples ahead to get an unridden colt. They brought it back to him. He was set upon the animal's back, and they continued their procession into Jerusalem. But as they walked, all of the people who were gathered around Jesus began to shout and exclaim praises to their teacher, their Rabbi, their King. Suddenly, spontaneously, the people began to throw their cloaks on the ground in a strange and unexpected way before him. This entry became a noisy, uproarious parade. It was a joyful throng and a celebratory cacophony of the man they called Lord.

It got to be so noisy, that some of the Pharisees who were also there asked Jesus to hush up his followers. But Jesus told them that would be of no use.

"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

If even inanimate objects would cry out the praises of God in his Son, then there was no point in telling the people who were making up this spontaneous parade to be quiet. If the people were silent, all of creation would fill that noiseless void with exclamation. Spontaneity indeed. Except, I don't think this story is quite the example of spontaneity we think it is. I think some of it was staged. And I think Jesus did the staging.

I know that's a provocative thing to say. But hear me out. When I speak of Jesus staging this moment, this entry into Jerusalem, I'm not claiming that Jesus was being manipulative or controlling. The word "staging" has all sorts of negative connotations for us. At least it does for me. Precisely because I tend to think of it as an act of manipulation. But I'm not comparing Jesus to present day politicians. When I say that Jesus staged this moment, I think it was not about control but about him making a profound point; a pointed point. He was entering Jerusalem as a king. He was not the kind of king anyone would expect or even desire, nor was his kingdom. I have preached over and over again about the ways Jesus defied and overturned the people's expectations of what a Savior would look like and act like and be like. So why would this triumphal entry be any different?

As far as we know and from what the gospels record, Jesus did nothing but walk from place to place to place or cross the water in a boat. But as he prepared to enter Jerusalem, he commanded two of his disciples to go and take a colt from someone's home. If anyone wondered why they were attempting donkey theft, Jesus told them to simply reply, "The Lord needs it."

When the disciples brought back the colt, Jesus didn't climb on the creature's back and start riding. The disciples set him on it. That kind of action would have been done for royalty. A king worth his salt would never jump up on the steed he would ride. Servants would have lifted him up and placed him on it.

Furthermore what was happening in Jerusalem when Jesus arrived? Indeed, what major event is the backdrop for every moment of Jesus' passion? Passover.  According to biblical scholars, Passover was not the largest festival, but it was certainly the most politically charged. Passover is the collective remembering of liberation. Passover remembers the Israelites being rescued out of slavery; the defeat of the Egyptians, God working on behalf of his children. Death passed over the Israelites who put lamb's blood on their doorways. It did not pass over the homes of the Egyptians.

Although Israel at that time was not enslaved per se, their land and their lives were under occupation by the Romans. The Romans must have scrutinized the festival of Passover for any sign of trouble or uprising. After all, if the people you ruled over celebrated a monumental event such as liberation from slavery, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility for folks to get the notion they could do it again. It makes sense that some of the Pharisees would have asked, begged, pleaded with Jesus to quiet his followers. Rome's powers that be would not just punish Jesus and his motley crew, they would punish them all.

This is the festival, this the context into which Jesus rode a colt like a king would ride a mighty horse. This humble man who never sought to ease his journey by riding any kind of animal, now rode a colt into the heart of Jerusalem and Passover. He knew what he was doing, and I think he knew the statement he was making. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a king. True, he was a king of a kingdom that no one, not even his closest disciples, understood. But he rode into Jerusalem as a king. It was staged -- not to manipulate but to make a profound point.

Jesus also let everyone watching know that he was not afraid. This was an act of defiance and courage. What would the upcoming week have looked like had he walked into Jerusalem quietly, drawing no attention to himself? What would have happened had Jesus sneaked into Jerusalem, or stayed in the shadows to avoid notice? Jesus rode into Jerusalem, refusing to silence the people who shouted and threw down their cloaks before him. He would not halt this raucous parade.

While I may believe that Jesus staged this entrance, I do not think that was true of the people's response to his royal arrival. I think that was spontaneous. I think they were caught up in the spectacle and the excitement. I think they, consciously or unconsciously, responded to this kingly moment. I doubt that they planned on throwing cloaks before him or determined ahead of time that they would take up the shout, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

I don't believe this was staged at all. I think it was spontaneous and joyful. They responded to the arrival of a king. Perhaps their pomp and circumstance didn't quite look like it would be if the king approaching was Roman royalty, but it was pomp and circumstance nonetheless. The people in Luke's telling did not shout, "Hosanna," as in other gospels.  These people shouted, "Blessed is the king." Jesus set that stage and they responded in kind.

To say that Jesus staged at least some of this does not take away from the power of this moment. I believe it adds to it. When I was a kid, I thought of Palm Sunday as just the Sunday before Easter. It was a marker of time. On Palm Sunday I knew that the next Saturday we would get to dye eggs, and the next Sunday I would wake up and have an egg hunt even before breakfast. I would get to put on the new dress and shoes my mother and I had picked out. We would go to church as a family, and I would hear again the story of Jesus' resurrection, and the rock rolled away revealing an empty tomb. Palm Sunday was fine, but it was really just the gateway to Easter.

I may put more emphasis on the meaning of Palm Sunday than I did as a child, but that attitude has not completely disappeared. Palm Sunday is kind of a welcome hurrah during the somber days of Lent, and a quick moment of celebration before we enter into the growing darkness of Holy Week. After all the crowds with Jesus threw a spontaneous parade, why shouldn't we throw one as well?
Yet, the more I think of Jesus staging his entrance into the city, pointedly and defiantly sending the message to Roman and Jew alike that a king unlike any other was in their midst, the more I believe that Palm Sunday is a call to intentionality.  Jesus was intentional in the way he chose to enter Jerusalem. He was intentional about the message he sent. He was intentional and courageous about the confrontation that would happen between him and the powers that be, between his kingdom and the world's. He was intentional about what he must do. He was obedient to the point of death on a cross.

It seems to me that Palm Sunday calls us to that same intentionality. It's easy to enter this Holy Week focused solely on making it to Easter. But every day of this week draws us closer to Good Friday, closer to the cross. While the days may be getting longer and lighter, each day of this week calls us to remember that the Darkness of the world grew stronger and stronger. It reminds us that for a time, the Light of the World was extinguished. Jesus entered Jerusalem with intention and purpose, with defiance and courage. May we do the same. May we walk this week with him to the cross and its darkness, trusting that the Light will return.

Let all of God's children say, "Amen."

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