Palm Sunday, March 28th 2021
Gospel Text: John 12:1-19
I have a long-winded friend named – who shall remain nameless. This person’s stories always have lots of details, too many details I sometimes think. One time they were was telling me about a friend who came to visit them from some distance. Their visitor had gotten lost on the way. But it wasn’t enough to say that they’d gotten lost… the story included the directions they’d been given, the road that they’d taken in error and even where they had lunch, what they had for lunch and how they called to get new directions. By the time the story was over I wasn’t sure which directions were right and which were wrong, and I wasn’t sure why it mattered.
In some ways the gospel of John is like that. The gospel writer is a vivid storyteller and their telling of a story that is told in other gospels often includes many additional details. It’s the opposite of the gospel of Mark – which of course is the earliest gospel.
Mark tells the shortest version of the story of Jesus. Whenever we see details in his stories, you better believe they matter – and the two details that the gospels of Mark and John agree on, are that Jesus road a donkey and people greeted him waving palm branches shouting ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes…’
When I see similarities in two stories that are otherwise so different, I sit up and take notice and I ask myself, what’s going on here?
And as I’ve thought about this over the past week and looked back on other research and reflections, I’ve shared on the Palm Sunday text, the more I am convinced that the gospel writers are trying to convey to us that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem didn’t just happen on the spur of the moment. That as much as it is an attractive idea that it was a spontaneous parade, it wasn’t. It was a carefully orchestrated piece of street theatre or a non-violent demonstration.
Think about it.
Jesus is coming into Jerusalem, the capital city, the center of religious and political and economic power on the eve of a major religious festival.
In the same way that the insurrection that took place on Capital Hill didn’t just happen… in the same way that no protest march ever just happens… there was planning and much symbolism at work.
Today if you want to make a statement, you go to Ottawa or to the G20 summit. In Jesus’ day, you went to Jerusalem.
So the author of the gospels go out of their way to include the details so that we will know that Jesus’ action is deliberately planned and executed to convey a particular message.
Biblical scholars suggest that on the day we call Palm Sunday there were actually two processions into Jerusalem. On the west side of the city, Pontius Pilate entered the city at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers, probably at least 600 of them. With blaring trumpets, shining armor and powerful war horses, the massive display of military power was a show of force to intimidate the people and keep the peace during the Passover.
On the east side of the city, Jesus rode a donkey down from the Mount of Olives surrounded by a crowd of Galileans, fishermen, beggars and women, who were welcoming him with tree branches and rough cloaks. They were yelling ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! ìBlessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.’
On both sides of the city then, there is a carefully orchestrated display. Pilate arrives in pomp and circumstance, embodying the power, the glory, the violence, of the empire. Without saying a word, Jesus on his donkey, symbolizes the way of peace. It’s subtle, but to those who can see, he is mocking the power of Rome, of the governor, of all those soldiers marching along in their armor and helmets.
He comes into Jerusalem on a route taken by previous revolutionaries. And the people say ‘Hosanna!’ which means ‘Save us.’ They invoke the memory of King David, who reigned 1000 years earlier, but there hasn’t been a king like him since.
‘Bring back the good old days.’
They have good reason to long for the good old days. The Romans have occupied their country for the last century. The rich are getting richer. The powerful are getting more powerful, while the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless are being pushed more and more to the margins. It;s a system of political oppression and economic exploitation that the world has seen over and over again. But the system is not acceptable to Jesus.
From the beginning Jesus worked to undermine this system. He challenged social norms by welcoming the marginalized and restoring outcasts into full participation in the community. He challenged legal authorities who were intent on keeping the letter of the law, but violating its spirit, and causing great harm to human beings in the process. He told stories about unexpected, unimagined success from small, hidden beginnings, and about reversals of fortune with the first being last and the last being first.
The people have followed him because they have seen the effect of his ministry. They know the truth of his teaching. But . . .they don’t get all of it.
They want Jesus to save them, to continue to undermine the system, but they seem still to expect a military leader, a violent revolutionary. They don’t quite understood the full message of Jesus’ street theatre.
If Pilate comes in on a prancing war horse, Jesus comes in on a jackass. If Pilate comes in on a tank, Jesus is driving a tractor.
What kind of liberator is that? He may deliver them, but it’s not going to be in the way they expect. Or maybe not in the way we expect either.
Jesus didn’t have to do this. He could have avoided Jerusalem altogether, just skipped Passover this year. Or he might have snuck in and out, hiding among the throngs of pilgrims there for the celebration. But he chooses to go to Jerusalem and to call attention to the fact that he is there. He cares enough to get involved, to stand up and say ‘this is not right.’
The crowd is caught up in the celebration, the joy and hope that Jesus seems to offer them. Probably only Jesus knows that this is, in some sense, his funeral procession. A few years earlier, Zaduk the Pharisee led a revolution in and around Jerusalem and two thousand of his followers were killed. The Romans crucified them; they hung them up on crosses — two thousand dead men hanging on crosses for the entire world to see.
You know what the closest modern-day equivalent to a crucifixion is? Lynching.
Lynching, like crucifixion sends a message about what would happen to people who messed with power. Jesus knows what he is risking, but he does it anyway, on purpose – and he calls us to do the same, to question power and privilege, to poke the bear of greed and profits…
Jesus stood against the system that oppressed the poor in his time and calls us to do the same. The apostle Paul calls these systems principalities and powers. He says that the principalities and powers are at work in this world, but that in Christ, God takes on the principalities and powers.
In Jesus’ teachings about love of neighbor and of self, in his modeling of non-violent resistance to oppression, in his laying down his life for others, through all of this Jesus takes on the principalities and powers. The powers throw everything they’ve got at Jesus. They mock him, torture him and finally execute him.
Tex Sample, professor and contributor to the Living the Questions faith development DVD series says, if you want to live free, say to yourself, “they can mock me… they can torture me… and they can kill me, that’s all they can do.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but to me, it seems that ‘they’ can do quite a lot…
Someone once said that the desired modern-day paradigm of the Messiah is not Jesus, but Superman.
We don’t want a savior who does a stupid thing going up against the powers that be, dying and then rising from the dead. We want one who never dies.
Next Sunday most of us will be celebrating Easter. It will be a celebration with festive music and bright hopeful colours.
Easter is fun, Easter is life and resurrection. Easter is the triumph of Jesus, the good guy, right?
But Easter only happens because Jesus is willing to live free, willing to risk lynching at the hands of the powers and principalities, because he does not give in.
They do not break his resolve or his spirit. He acts boldly, but lovingly. He does not return evil for evil , violence for violence. He is not Superman. He confronts the powers, by living and dying fully.
Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. Every year at this time, we tell the story of the events of this week from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem through his last Passover with his friends through his betrayal, trial, and execution.
If you’ve heard it once, you know the story. So why do we tell it again and again? Why do we dwell on it? There are many reasons, but one reason is that the events of Holy Week remind us again and again of what it is to be a follower of the Way – a way of courage in the face of the principalities and power and allow ourselves to be strengthened by Jesus’ example.
If being Jesus’ followers means anything, it must mean that we will follow him to Jerusalem, to the place of confrontation with the powers, following to death if necessary. Keep in mind that our death might not be physical. It might be the death of certain aspirations or dying to our need for social status or an easy life.
Our place of confrontation will not likely be Jerusalem. It may be the playground, the pub, the boardroom or the family dinner table or the place we work.
The powers we confront will not be the Romans or the Sanhedrin. They may seem familiar and normal, even benign. Our task will be to perceive their true nature, the ways they subtly bring death and destruction.
As a disciple of Jesus, as a follower of the Way of Jesus, we will have to summon his courage, to intervene when it would be easier to hide in the crowd, to make a spectacle of ourselves when we would much rather not be noticed.
It will take courage: to refuse to comply with other’s expectations of us, to say No to demands on our time and energy that are not life-giving, to stand with a friend who is marginalized because of their skin color, their sexual orientation or their income level, to resist the pressure to seek the glory days of the past and instead to claim boldly that God is doing something brand new and that it is good.
Where do you need courage? To visit the doctor? To speak your hurt and truth? To trust that your date for vaccination will come? To endure illness and painful treatment for the sake of family and friends who need you? To keep hope alive?
Jesus chooses to walk a hard road this week. Do we have the courage to follow?