Luke 19:29-40 (NRSV). When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Wait a minute. Hang on just a second, before I get started. I want to take a picture. I want to take a selfie for my Facebook page. Pastor Mark, will you come up and take a picture with me so I can post it? Cool. A picture of me and my supervisor! But wait. You’ve gotta make a selfie face.
Hey, I have an even better idea. How about all of you?? What about the entire congregation? What if I stand up here and turn around and all of you can smile and wave and be in my selfie? Ready? Make the selfie face! Perfect.
Now, let me post these pictures on my home page.
Great. Now everyone can see how great my internship is going--that I have a great relationship with my supervisor and with the congregation. They’ll think I’m doing really well and that I’ll be a really great pastor.
Now everyone can see what a success I am! Because that’s what everyone expects, right? That’s what the world expects, what our culture demands. That we should all be successful, be the best, be number one. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Be the winner!
And, it’s not only us as individuals, but our country, too. That we should be the best and the biggest and the most powerful in the world. We hear it everyday on the news, don’t we? “Make America great again!” Losers don’t count, especially in this season of March Madness. Who, after all, cares about the team that lost in the NCAA championship game last year? Gotta be a winner. Not a loser.
The situation wasn’t much different in New Testament times. Both of our texts for today are set in the midst of a similar setting--the Roman empire. In the previous hundred years, this powerful empire had grown dramatically and was experiencing a period of unprecedented political stability and prosperity--a time called the “Pax Romana.” The Romans believed they had brought about a “golden age” for all of humanity.
It was a time when social standing was everything--that the most admired were those who were strong and self-reliant, the ones who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” regardless of their humble beginnings. Humility was a flaw. To be successful in this world meant that you did what it took to get ahead.
But, even though some enjoyed this time of peace and prosperity, it had come at a price to many others. The empire generated deep feelings of hatred and contempt among those it had conquered--in particular, the Jews. As one ancient historian wrote: “The Romans rob, they slaughter, they plunder--and they call it ‘empire.’ Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace.’”
Under the empire, Israel had been subjected to many burdens placed upon them, both financial and political. They grew increasingly angry and frustrated. It is no wonder that their hope for the Messiah translated into a desire for a powerful king who would free them from hated Roman rule.
Could Jesus have been that kind of king? Yes. There’s no doubt. But this wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t God’s plan.
Instead, in our Philippians text today, in the words that come from a hymn in the early church, we read that “he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings” and then “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
He emptied himself. He humbled himself. Jesus came to earth completely vulnerable. Empty. Humble. Vulnerable.
Over this Lenten season, in our Wednesday worship and in the Sunday morning adult forum, we’ve been exploring the history and ritual of the Easter Vigil service. We’ve connected this ancient ritual to our understanding of our worship today--an understanding that is deeply grounded in the teachings of Luther’s Small Catechism. Over and over, we’ve explored in different ways the themes of death and resurrection that are present in both the Easter Vigil service and in our own worship today. Themes of loss and gain, brokenness and wholeness, dying and rising.
I’ve challenged many of you to be vulnerable as Jesus was--to look into places of death, brokenness, and loss in your own lives and to identify where God has been or may still be at work, transforming those dark places into new places, places of beauty and light.
And I’ve challenged some of you, in particular, confirmation students and mentors, to be vulnerable enough to share these really hard things with each other. It is not easy. I know that. It is not easy to drop the facade. To drop the Facebook facade that everything is perfect.
It is not easy for us. It was not easy for Jesus.
As we begin our Holy Week journey today on Palm Sunday, there is much joy and celebration. With the early disciples, we celebrate Jesus’ kingly entrance into Jerusalem. With those disciples, we also journey through the rest of Holy Week, knowing, perhaps better than they did at the time, what lay at the end--that Christ would humble himself and take on our brokenness and that of the whole world. To be a king in a way that the world did not then and does not now understand. A king who was fully humble. Fully open. Fully vulnerable.
There is a hymn in our hymnal, which we’ll sing more fully this week. However, the opening verse reads like this:
Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.
When we go against our culture, which tells us to be strong and self-reliant. When we are like Christ and we drop the facade...when are fully vulnerable with each other, open and honest, sharing all of our heartache and brokenness, well, we are being Christ to each other. And, as we know from that early Easter morning, that when we are vulnerable just as Christ was vulnerable, well, amazing things happen. This we know. And on this, we rest secure.
May God grant you a blessed Holy Week as we enter it in all vulnerability, learning more about our Savior and, in turn, more about ourselves. Amen.
(Preached on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016.)