A Palm Sunday Sermon based on Luke 19: 28-40
Every year when we observe the season of Lent, we journey back into last few weeks of Jesus’ ministry on earth. It also is a season when we as followers of Jesus are reminded of our baptism, and the responsibilities that come with that baptism. Lent prepares us to follow the gospel story of his ministry and teachings that led to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Today, Palm Sunday, we commemorate the beginning of the final week of Jesus’ life on earth. In our Christian tradition this final week is called the holiest of weeks because in these seven days we see the summation of the very essence of his ministry on earth.
The gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ final seven days on earth are full of profound lessons for the church. We see see Jesus crying over Jerusalem, we see his confrontation with the religious powers who were in cahoots with imperial Rome, the cleansing of the Temple, the Last Supper and the disciples competition for superiority among themselves, the lonely agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter, the humiliation before Pilate and Herod, the shouts of the crowd for his death. Palms were waved as you recall and placed on the road by the cheering crowds when he entered Jerusalem. But for the most part, the same crowd who cheered him on this Sunday would shout “crucify him!” on Good Friday. The culmination of Lent, in the final week of Jesus, is most telling in its portrayal of the very essence of Jesus’ mission. That final week began with a king’s welcome and ended with a prisoner’s execution.
The gospel accounts of Jesus’ final week on earth upend our understanding of the usual ways of power in the world. When we enter those texts, we know that Jesus turns the world upside down.
Now we know that “royalty” these days do not have to mean only the folks of the monarchy. They can also be the celebrities of our day, people who are given the “royal treatment” because of their importance. We have secular celebrities in entertainment and society, but we also have “celebrities” in religion, and in politics. In whatever stripe they come, the usual ways of power in the world accompany them – pageantry, wealth, fame, luxury, power and influence, and the adulation of many. And for the most part, those who arrive at this height of power only tend to want and get more of what they already have.
And then there is the power that we commonly see exercised through might, wielded by tyrants and despots. The way of this kind of power is the way of greed, domination, oppression, and even of violence. As a young man coming of age in the Philippines during the almost 20-year reign of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, I have experienced what tyranny of power really looks like and feels like when one person holds absolute, unquestioned political power over a whole nation.
And so power, defined in familiar terms, is the ability to effect change by way of one’s influence, might and control. During the time of Jesus, Israel’s hope for a messianic deliverer was at its height. By the time of Jesus there was already a well-formed understanding of the role of the messiah in the tradition of Israel. Its long history of oppression has formed in the people of Israel a dominant expectation of a messiah who was going to be a military and political deliverer, one who was to liberate them from the empire and reestablish the state of David. Jesus, as a Jew, was so very familiar with this messianic image in the culture.
But Jesus brought a scandalous understanding of power because, upon closer examination of the gospel accounts, he was intentionally mixing conflicting images of the messiah in the culture. In Luke 19: 28-40, we encounter the larger context of Jesus’ activities after he had entered Jerusalem for the last time. His teachings on servanthood around the Last Supper is distilled in v. 27, “I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus redefined power for his disciples. The symbols surrounding Jesus entry into the city was loaded with powerful political and religious significance for those who were there. And the text arguably demonstrates that Jesus understood these symbols deeply and utilized them to proclaim once again – on his final week on earth – the central message of his ministry, that “the kingdom is in your midst.”
On the one hand, the image of Jesus processing into Jerusalem to the revolutionary chants and cries of “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”, brought back the memory of Simon Maccabaeus, the great guerrilla general who liberated Palestine from Greek rule some two centuries before. Every year, 45 minutes north of where I live in New Jersey, at the Washington’s Crossing National Landmark that preserves both sides (PA and NJ) of the Delaware River where the crossing took place, General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware is reenacted. We all know that this crossing symbolized the decisive victory against the British in Trenton and Princeton during the American Revolution. Everyone who witnesses this reenactment is reminded of that pivotal victory of General Washington. Witnessing Jesus enter Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosannah!” would bring back a similar memory to the people about Simon Maccabaeus. According to I Maccabees 13:51, Simon entered Jerusalem “With praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.”
But on the other hand, by entering on a donkey Jesus also stirred up an ugly stereotype hidden beneath the minds of people in that culture. The 1st century Jewish historian named Josephus, wrote of a Jewish rebel in Babylon who captured the king’s son-in-law and then paraded him naked on a donkey, which the people of that time considered the worst kind of humiliation one can experience. At the same time, the parade brought back to mind the words of the prophet Zechariah who in chapter 9:9 said, “Look, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious…humble and riding on a donkey…” It must have been a bewildering experience to the observers during that time, to be so bombarded by mixed messages and symbols about messianic power.
It was a scandal – this surrendering, self-emptying, going meekly to the cross kind of messiah. They wanted a rebel leader to lead them in an insurrection, one who could call on God to do a miracle to free them from the Romans in the same tradition as Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites.
This scandalously new understanding of power comes from an unspeakably strange kind of love. One of the dictionary definitions of the word “strange” is “something outside of one’s previous experience.” Indeed, for God’s love is love that, up until Jesus Christ, we have never known. The central message of the gospel is about the kingdom of God that has come to us through Jesus Christ, an only son given by God out of undeserved love so that, through faith in him, we may find eternal life. By following his way, his new way, the new way of Jesus, we find life in God.
It is a love that willingly suffers for and on behalf of the other. In the eyes of the world, a strange love indeed that issues forth from a scandalous kind of power.
False pride and hubris, the desire to be better than the other, is the most ancient of sins. It is what alienated us from fellowship with God in the beginning of time, when humanity wanted to be like God. Even at the Last Supper, an argument still arose among the disciples – people closest to Jesus – as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. It is still easy to overlook the reality that in the life of discipleship to Jesus, to lead means to serve, to live means to be willing to die.
Thomas a’Kempis, a contemplative who spent most of his life at the Augustinian monastery of Mt. St. Agnes in the Netherlands, wrote the classic devotional book in the early 15th century entitled, “The Imitation of Christ.” It was one of the most widely read writings in the Middle Ages. The devotional book counsels Christians to imitate Christ as their model by turning away from worldly matters, and to truly seek to live spiritually and inwardly. This means humility, the disciplined contemplation of thing invisible, rooting out one’s faults, resisting temptations, enduring hardships. It means surrender to and dependence on God. It calls Christians to cultivate the inner life, converse with Christ, to enter into the lifelong discipline of dying the false self, and to commune devoutly and place hope and trust in God.
But the journey of the inner life is not completed if that life is not lived out in the world and with others.
Bill Leonard offers wise counsel when he said that, “Lent forces us to confront the ‘hard sayings’ of the Bible, ancient insights into the way God apparently sees things, promotes virtue and demands obedience of those who dare to claim the Spirit…Lent drags us into a moral and spiritual wilderness that we’d just as soon avoid. It points us toward an inward and spiritual grace that is itself comforting and disturbing. At its best, Lent is dangerous territory of spirituality and action.”
And so what is the way for the disciple of Jesus for today? When Jesus said to the disciples at the Last Supper upon breaking the bread, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me”, Jesus disclosed that if we are to be his disciples we must hear him in the cries of the ones who are struggling, and to see his suffering as the suffering of others. Jesus transformed a Jewish devotional meal into the Lord’s Supper, a continuing expression of association with himself in death and in victory. Scandalous power, strange love!
God’s way is the way of love, peace and reconciliation. And when God’s love insists itself in a world full of violence, hate, alienation and fear, the necessary consequence of this collision is one of suffering love. This love delights in protecting the weak and the powerless, in the righting of wrongs; this love laments prophetically where there is injustice because love is incompatible with oppression and cruelty; this love pursues the lost and the separated and longs for its return. Jesus told his disciples, “As the father has sent me, so send I you.” And so if the church is the embodiment of Jesus in the world, in the same way that Jesus was the embodiment of God, then the way of Jesus must be the way of the faithful church.
We live in a time full of antagonisms, and those in power and who desire to stay in power are driving these divisions deeper by making us fear each other more and more. As disciples of Jesus we are called to resist any form of hate. We are called to be “farmers of reconciliation” – those who cultivate and sow a land of forgiveness, forgiveness that transforms the other closer into the image of Christ. We are to bring those who are in the margins into the fold of community, to walk alongside those who are burdened by the weight of oppression so that through our companionship they might find hope and renewal. We are to lift up the weak among us, helping them to stand until they can stand on their own.
Jesus brought God’s reign into the world. It is here, it cannot be denied. If we don’t acknowledge it even the stones will cry out. We are called to watch and see – but not just to watch and see, but to act.