Sunday, May 5, 2019

God's Greatest Promise: A Different Kind of King

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
        and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
    you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. Matthew 21:1-17 (NRSV)

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! Amen.

In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan write that there were two processions that entered Jerusalem on the spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover. The most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since that time, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. The first day of the last week of Jesus’ life. The most sacred week of the Christian year.

One of those two processions was a peasant procession. From the east - from the Mount of Olives - came Jesus. No longer walking, but riding. [If you read the text carefully in Matthew, it sounds as if Jesus was some kind of trick rider. I have a cousin who, before she was married and had children, was a trick rider. The ultimate trick, one which she was never able to accomplish, was to be able to ride two horses at the same time. Standing, with one foot on each.] In Matthew, we read that Jesus rode two donkeys. At the same time. Now, this likely didn’t happen in quite this way. But, as we’ve seen before, it is important for Matthew to help his readers understand that this Jesus was the complete fulfillment of the promised Messiah in Hebrew scripture. Particularly in the prophet Zechariah. “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

This Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth. His message was about the kingdom of God. And his followers came from the peasant class. Throughout the gospel, Jesus has proclaimed the in-breaking reign of heaven. It has now fully arrived on that day in Jerusalem.

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, a second procession - an imperial procession - entered Jerusalem. It is led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. They were not riding donkeys, but horses. In ancient times, horses were instruments of war. They were not used for agriculture or transportation. But to wage war. Or, in Pilate’s case, as a visible display of his power. Or, more specifically, a display of Roman power. 

Imperial processions like this were well-known in Palestine in the first century. It was the standard practice for the Roman governor to be in Jerusalem for major Jewish festivals. They didn’t do this out of reverence for the religious devotion of their Jewish subjects. But to be in the city in case there was trouble. In case there was an uprising. A rebellion.  And at Passover - the festival that celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another earlier empire - there often was trouble. 

Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. The Romans believed that the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. So, Pilate’s procession was not only a rival social order, it was also a rival belief system. 

Can you already sense the coming conflict? 

The rest of the Zechariah passage describes what kind of king the Messiah - the other Son of God - would be. “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and a battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” This coming king, riding a donkey, will banish war from the land. This coming king, riding a donkey, will be a king of peace. The first part of today’s story is this symbolic act. Jesus. Son of God. Coming to Jerusalem as a direct challenge to Rome.

The confrontation between these two kingdoms, between these two Sons of God, will continue through the last week of Jesus’ life. As we know, it will end with the execution of Jesus by the powers who ruled his world. Holy Week is the story of this confrontation. But, before we go further, we must first set the stage. And so, we come to Act 2 of our story today. And to Jesus’ second symbolic act on that first Palm Sunday.

We know that Jerusalem was the heart of Israel’s religion. It was also to be the ruling seat of the Messiah. The new King David would rule a restored kingdom from Jerusalem. So, Jerusalem was connected to Israel’s hope. Central to that hope was the temple. 

When it was first built by King Solomon, it became the sacred center of the Jewish world. It was called the “navel of the earth,” finding its source in God. Here, and only here, was God’s dwelling place on earth. To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence.

The temple was was also the source of God’s forgiveness. It was the only place of sacrifice. And for Israel, sacrifice was the means of forgiveness. It was only through sacrifice in the temple that certain sins could be forgiven and certain kinds of impurities could be cleansed. The temple was the place of mediation between God and God’s people. So, to stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand fully in the presence of God. So, it was the center of Israel’s religion and the destination of pilgrimage. Three times a year, the Jews would come from distant lands. We call these Jews the diaspora. After the exile and after Israel had been restored to their homeland, these Jews had chosen to remain in their countries of exile. Yet, they would still travel to Jerusalem. Three times a year. To go to the temple to offer sacrifice and receive forgiveness. 

Jerusalem, although the center of Jewish hope, was also a place with very negative associations. Beginning with King Solomon, it had become the center of a system of domination. This phrase, “domination system” is used by Borg and Crossan to describe the most common way of organizing a society in ancient and premodern times. It was a system that allowed the political and economic domination of the many by a few. A system that allowed those with wealth and power to use it to exploit others and to accumulate more wealth and power. And to use religion to justify it.

Under Solomon, power and wealth were increasingly concentrated in Jerusalem. This system of domination had continued in Jerusalem even under Roman rule. The high priest and the authorities were, in effect, the rulers of the Jewish people, although they owed allegiance to their Roman overlords. They were wealthy, from the local aristocracy. And, as long as they were loyal to Rome and maintained order, they were given a relatively free hand in ruling their people. So, by Jesus’ time, the temple was not only the center of sacrifice and hope for the Jewish people, but it had also become the center of the system of domination.

This is the Jerusalem that Jesus entered on that first Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and its role in the domination system. From his early ministry and that of John the Baptist, both had pronounced forgiveness  apart from temple sacrifice. They had pronounced this forgiveness primarily to peasants. The hungry. The thirsty. The stranger. The naked. The sick. The imprisoned. Those not in power. 

So, when Jesus, in his second symbolic act that day, entered the temple and overturned the tables, he was not protesting the commerce happening in the temple. This commerce was necessary, because people traveling from far away needed animals for sacrifice. They needed to exchange their foreign coins into silver shekels to pay the temple tax. Jesus was not protesting this, but against the system of domination that was being legitimized in the temple by using God’s name. A system that was radically different from what the present and coming kingdom of God - the dream of God - was to be. A kingdom where Jesus, as the true Son of God, would be its king. Where Jesus, as the true Son of Man, would be a different kind of king. A humble king. A healing king.

Two processions entered Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. The same question, the same alternative, faces those of us who would be faithful to Jesus today, just as it did the people of Jesus’ day. Which procession are we in? We, who have been given this gift of life in Christ in baptism - which procession are we in? We, who called to live lives transformed - lives worthy of that gracious gift of life that Jesus has given each of us. Which procession are we in? Are we choosing to follow the king of dominations systems, systems that continue in our world today? Or are we choosing to following the king called Jesus? The king who sides with the poor. With the weak. With those rejected by the world. Those with no power. 

We - who know the rest of the story - are we choosing to follow the king called Jesus? This Jesus, who is a different kind of king? 

This, for us, is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. 

Which procession will you be in? 

Preached April 14, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Palm Sunday
Readings: Matthew 21:1-17, Psalm 118:25-29

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