In the year 30 AD, a grand procession entered the city of Jerusalem to pay tribute to an important Roman leader. Drums and trumpets and a thousand soldiers preceded him as he strode into the city wearing a coat of silver armor and sitting in on a pure white stallion. It was an exhibition of military power, not unlike what Germany witnessed in the late 1930’s or what Russians and North Koreans have experienced in our time.
Three years later, in the spring of 33 AD, there would be another procession in Jerusalem. It was quite a different scene. An unemployed, homeless young Rabbi would enter on a donkey accompanied by a group of his scruffy, country bumpkin followers and greeted by folks waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!” It is Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Son of God.
I think Palm Sunday is one of the most challenging liturgical observances in the Christian Church. When this service was fashioned in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was intended to provide a full taste of the entire span of Holy Week all in one day with the thought that most people in attendance would not be back in church until Easter morning. So it began with unusual energy and a procession with palms and grand music and within twenty minutes the congregation stood in their pews listening to the long narrative—what we know as the Passion—recounting the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.
They say there are three things we shouldn’t talk about: Religion, sex, and politics. But, well, we do. We just do it badly. I think the one thing we really don’t want to talk about is death. So I’d imagine that it may come as a relief that if we don’t talk a lot about the death of Jesus today. Certainly, we’ve heard enough about death in the past few weeks. Some of us may have lost people we know to this horrible, insidious virus. Still, death is unavoidable and confronting the death of Jesus is as well. Without death there would be no resurrection.
So we will wait until Good Friday—which, sadly, will have profound meaning this year—to hear the familiar account of the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
What about Palm Sunday? If we’ve intentionally veered away from the sadness of the passion and made the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey our centerpiece today, what does it mean for us? Getting back to that ostentatious procession of the Roman governor in 30 AD, we find there a Jerusalem that is rife with conflict and tension. There were religious factions within the Jewish community, Roman authorities tried to impose their culture on the people, Caesar levied taxes on them. The political rhetoric was fierce and oppressive. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer. Marginalized people were demonized by the mainstream religious community. And there was disease—for them things like leprosy which was contagious and debilitating. In short, things were not much different from what they are today.
The elite members of the Jewish community wanted a king, a powerful leader to free them from the tyranny of Roman oppression and the common folk wanted a savior to get them from under the dominance of the religious authorities. They probably expected that he would arrive on a white horse instead of a donkey and be led by a formidable army rather than a dozen bedraggled disciples.
Instead, they got an unemployed, homeless, young rabbi who taught them to forgive one another, make peace with one another, and love one another as he loved us. They got a Messiah, yes, but not the one they expected. Jesus completely overturned our expectation and definition of God.
These are rather trying times, not unlike the political and emotional climate in which Jesus lived so long ago. It is a polarized and scary time in the world. We are living in high anxiety mode, hearing frightening news every day, watching the number of new Corona virus cases skyrocket and deaths increase exponentially. Some people feel that the only solution to deep, complex problems is to react to others with hatred, blame and violence. Others just ignore the directions for safety we’ve been asked to follow. Our present day world is not very different from the world in which Jesus lived and died.
What about us? What are we looking for in Jesus, our Messiah and Savior, the Son of God? Would we have him ride into town on a white horse, in a parade that demonstrates our military prowess? That’s not who the people in first century Palestine got on that first Palm Sunday and it’s not who we get today. God expresses power in ways that are totally beyond our comprehension.
We still get an unemployed, homeless, young rabbi riding on a jackass but who happens to be the very face of God, a God who embraces us just as we are, weeps for us when we are hurting and forgives us when we do wrong.
Jesus walked through that toxic environment in which he lived as a peace maker and reconciler with a message of love and compassion for one another rather than one of mistrust and hate. He came to lift up those around him, making whole what was broken, healing the sick, comforting the broken hearted, bringing others to know God’s mercy and all-embracing, unconditional love.
A reflection I received on Friday morning included this brief story, most appropriate, I thought, for this Palm Sunday:
Agatha Christie was once part of one of those conversations about great people who have changed my life. She offered this surprising reminiscence: "I can’t recall for you her name, but I remember that she was short and spare and I can still see her eager jutting chin. Quite unexpectedly one day, in the middle of an arithmetic lesson, she suddenly launched forth on a speech on life and religion. ‘All of you,’ she said, ‘Every one of you, will pass through a challenging time when you are called upon to give of yourself. To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived. In addition to the joy, promise, hope and peace, you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane and to empty oneself for others.’ "