Friday, April 19, 2019

Onward—a sermon for Palm Sunday

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 21.1-15
14 April 2019, Palm Sunday, NL1-31

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’
This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:
‘Say to Daughter Zion,
    “See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’
The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘“My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are making it “a den of robbers.”’
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant.
‘Do you hear what these children are saying?’ they asked him.
‘Yes,’ replied Jesus, ‘have you never read,
‘“From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise”?’
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.


This week we finished the six week Lent Bible Study, which looked in depth at each of the days of Holy Week. We began six weeks ago with the story of the first Palm Sunday, and it was fascinating to research together some of the background that people there in Jerusalem that day would have taken for granted, but now we no longer recognise. 

We talked about not just the lines from prophet Zechariah that Matthew references, which would have been very familiar to people, but also the rest of the verse when Zechariah talks about the blood of the covenant, God setting the people free, God’s work of justice, and the king being meek but victorious. And the study also reminded us that the literal son of David—King Solomon—entered Jerusalem in a similar manner. The people who witnessed Jesus entering Jerusalem, and the people who first heard the stories when the gospel was newly written, knew all these stories. The scripture was ingrained in them, and Amy-Jill Levine, the scholar who created the study we used, said, “because they knew those earlier Scriptures, they heard the gospel with more finely attuned ears.” (Entering the Passion of Jesus, p. 30)

I’m reminded of being a teenager, and the day I realised that my study of literature was being hindered by not knowing anything about the Bible. I grew up in an unchurched family, and so literally had no idea what Christianity, or the holy days of Easter and Christmas, or Church, was about. But when studying literature I became painfully aware that I was missing a lot of references that would make understanding stories and poetry easier, so I decided I was going to read the Bible myself. I found one somewhere and snuck it into my room, and I read at night under the covers, so my parents wouldn’t find out. It took me somewhere just under a year, but I read the whole Bible from beginning to end. And suddenly I found so much more depth in everything else—from books to movies to even just phrases that are commonly used in conversation. It was as if a whole secret layer of life had been revealed. 

As I read I also found myself feeling like this story was True with a capital T—that it revealed not just all the literary references I had been missing, but indeed a new life. I used to say that I was converted by Scripture—the Holy Spirit was at work while I was reading as an academic pursuit, and my whole life was changed by entering this story.

Sometimes I wonder if we are caught in a strange cultural phenomenon right now, where the story of God and God’s people is simultaneously too familiar and yet unknown to us. We recognise the big movements, of Incarnation and Crucifixion and Resurrection, and we almost take for granted that everyone knows at least a few of the things Jesus said and did. But we don’t often know the fullness of the story, and so we miss the references back, and the connections to different times and places that might help us make sense of what God is still doing now. Like this triumphal entry story, where we don’t easily recognise the pattern Jesus is so intentionally following. It’s hard to be fully attuned to what God is doing when we don’t have good reference points to build on, and so we have lost some of the depth of the story, I think.

Jesus intentionally evokes the prophets of the past, coming in on a donkey rather than a warhorse as the Romans would have done, joining the throngs of people who are coming up to Jerusalem for the festival. The traditional psalms that people would sing on their way up to the festival include Psalm 118, with the lines “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” So when he joins the procession, people are already chanting these words. Earlier in the year we heard Jesus teaching “blessed are the meek”—and “meek” means someone who has power but doesn’t use it in a coercive way—and now here he is, the picture of meekness and majesty together. And gospel writers report that the whole city was in turmoil, because of this, and everyone was asking who this person is, who dared to paint this picture in front of everyone. 

It caused a stir, because instantly people would have thought of Solomon, and of the prophecy of Zechariah. Jesus is practically an illustration for the Zechariah pages, of a king riding in on a donkey, bringing justice and freedom....the very things the Romans don’t want to see, of course. And more than that, Jesus will offer his blood as a sign of the new covenant, just as Zechariah wrote of the blood of the covenant, and he will do so without coercion and violence, despite that being what the people seem to long for.

The thing about evoking these past stories and building on them is that it also heightens people’s expectations. Because they recognise the symbols in front of them, they also anticipate what will come next. But Jesus is going to build on the past, not repeat it. He has no intention of actually being another David or another Solomon. He won’t be fighting for a literal kingdom of land and buildings and armies, or inhabiting the royal palace surrounded by hundreds of women, or forcing his will on people. 

So for all those people there shouting “Hosanna,” Jesus will actually turn out to be something of a disappointment. Their expectations will not be met. But that’s because their expectations are actually too low, too narrow. God, in Christ, has far bigger plans that simply expelling the Romans and installing a new human king in one small nation. Indeed, in Jesus, God is moving us forward, not backward. Think of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry: he has gathered people from all walks of life, all ages, all socio-economic levels, all ability and disability. He has taught about God’s kingdom being upside down from the way of this world. He has fed people, and healed them, and broken the rules of the day to do so. He has insisted there are no insiders and outsiders, no difference between us and them, no distance to be kept between poor and powerful. God has no intention of taking the story back to what used to be, to some glory days that people think they remember fondly. This story is always going on, because God is the God of the living, and God is doing a new thing that will move the world ever closer to his kingdom. 

But the people won’t like it.

That day they chanted and cheered, they sang Hosanna and waved branches and laid their coats in the road so that the donkey’s hooves wouldn’t churn up dust and get Jesus dirty. The word “hosanna” means “save us!” And it’s likely that their prayer that day was truly “save us...from Rome, from oppression, from being pawn in another empire’s story.” And Jesus would do that, but not the way they expected. 

In the Bible Study we were asked what our prayer is today—Hosanna, save us...from what? And almost instantly the evening group said “save us from ourselves.” From our destructive ways, from the damage we have done to the planet, to culture, to our bodies, to our spirits. Save us from the things we think we want, but are terrible for others. Save us from the political quagmire we find ourselves in. Save us from repeating the mistakes of the past.

We know what happens next in the story. Or we think we do, anyway. We will enter this week of Jesus’ passion and we know that there’s the Last Supper, when he will reinterpret and add on to the story of Passover and freedom and the bread and wine of the covenant, and that he will be betrayed, and there will be a sham trial, and he will be executed by the state in the most horrific torture humans have ever devised. We know that isn’t going to be the end of the story, and that the grief of Friday will give way to the joy of Sunday. 

But I wonder if the expectations we have for these coming days, and what we think we know of the story, are actually hindering us, much like the expectations of the crowd in the streets of Jerusalem? Because yes, Jesus will save us, answering our prayers of Hosanna. But now, as then, he isn’t going to do that by taking us back to the good old days. He isn’t going to be restoring our past, or returning us to a time where everything seemed great and Sunday schools were full and politicians were kind and businesses offered really good defined benefit pensions and summer was always warm and sunny and whatever else we think we remember. 

For one thing, the rose-coloured glasses we wear to look back at the past leave out some pretty difficult truths, about racism and sexism and poverty and imperialism. But more importantly: God is not in the business of taking us backwards. When we join this parade, following Jesus mounted on a donkey, surrounded by children and peasants and waving palm branches, making a stir in the city, we are following a new path, going forward into a future we can’t yet imagine, but that God already sees clearly. It won’t meet our narrow expectations, but if we’re willing to keep walking, it will lead us onward toward the kingdom of God. 

May it be so. Amen.

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