Jesus and the Deeds of Power

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Luke 19:28-40

I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about.

The Triumphal Entry points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “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.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.

In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.

The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.

There are parallels and contrasts between Harry’s story and Jesus’. Both stories have murderous tyrants trying to kill a baby. Both stories have times when the baby’s potential power causes a world-wide stir—and then things quiet down for years. Famous, then living in obscurity, then famous again.

Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is. Did everyone forget those Magi and how the whole city of Jerusalem was frightened by word of an infant king?

When the Harry Potter saga begins, and Harry starts at Hogwarts, he causes commotion because of his famous name and family. When Jesus starts his ministry, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?”

It doesn’t take long, however, before the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor”(Mt. 11:4-5). Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.

On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has finally spread around.

The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus hears, asks the man what he wants, and heals the blind man’s sight. The man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about, but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree. As Jesus walks by, he looks up and calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down

from the tree, but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich, and his wealth is corrupt, ill-gotten gain.

During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).

Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. These deeds of power would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved by greed and corruption. Both men are described as “saved.” Deliverance and salvation through Jesus is spiritual and social, economic, and physical.

Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air.

Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.

This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.”

I’ve spoken on the historical, cultural significance of the Triumphal Entry before—and there is a ton to unpack about Roman and Jewish military history. There is much to say about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but we have little time today with our Love Feast. Even though he has great power and the signs and symbols point to Kingship, Jesus demonstrates

Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. Even with all of his deeds of power, Jesus is not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but to demonstrate the wholeness and the saving that God’s reign brings: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the rich and greedy are set free, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

There are several streams of how people approach the Bible and how Jesus changes our lives and our world: for some, the gospel is solely spiritual, while for others, the Good News is about social transformation. However, the gospel of Jesus in scripture does not make it an either/or: the saving that Jesus did affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.

The saving that we celebrate in Holy Week is saving that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here at Washington City Church of the Brethren is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.

Where do you need Jesus’ deeds of power in your life? Is it in your relationships? Is it in your pride and arrogance? Is it in your integrity? Is it in how you treat the earth, or the people on the margins of society? Do you need Jesus’ deeds of power to bring you mercy and grace, unburdening from guilt? Do you need Jesus’ power to bring hope and comfort amidst deep pain and loss?

The message of Palm Sunday and Holy Week is that we follow Jesus, whose deeds of power can raise the dead, heal the blind, comfort the hurting, free the greedy and corrupt. Jesus entered Jerusalem and stands ready to enter and re-enter our lives to enact the deeds of power that transform our souls, our wallets, our bodies, and our relationships.

Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.

THERE WILL BE NO TOMAHAWK MISSILES IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11

Micah Bales

Our gospel reading this morning is about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, just days before he would be arrested and executed.

Jesus is riding on a donkey, and the people are all around him. There were massive crowds in town for Passover, and Jesus’ arrival in the city is perfectly time to cause a stir. The thousands of pilgrims are waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The crowd was hopeful that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that the king of Israel would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. As Jesus enters this city, this is a royal procession. He is the Messiah, coming king of Israel! The crowds welcome him, waving palm branches and laying them down on the ground before Jesus.

It wasn’t an accident that the crowds were waving palm branches. I know most of us grew up seeing palm branches as part of Palm Sunday, but Jesus didn’t invent palms as a religious symbol. In fact, palm branches were a very potent political symbol throughout the ancient world. Think about the wreaths and garlands that ancient athletes and rulers would wear. Think of the laurels of Olympic champions. The palm was a similar symbol for the ancients. The palm was a symbol of victory.

It was also a sign of resistance. The palm branch was a major symbol in the Macabeean revolt (167-160 BC) that freed Israel from the rule of the Seleucid Greeks. Waving palm branches was a symbol of power, resistance, and Messianic expectations. It was a big middle finger to Rome. It expressed the hope that this Jesus of Nazareth might be the one who would finally throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor. Would Jesus finally establish the long-awaited Jewish kingdom in the mold of King David? That was the burning hope and desire of thousands of Jews that day.

Our other reading this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This passage provides us a deeper understanding of what Jesus is going through during his entry into Jerusalem. Paul talks about how Jesus rejected the way of power and domination. He writes about how Jesus was willing to be humbled and take on the form of a slave to serve others. Because of this humility and self-emptying, God highly exalts Jesus. He went as low as you can go, and God lifted him up. The one who suffered and died was given the name that is above every name. Absolute power, joy, triumph.

With Paul’s words as background, I want to take us back to the Passover crowds in Jerusalem. Hear their cheers. Feel the hope they have for Jesus. The desire to see Israel become a great nation again. To have a king, a military ruler who can end the Roman oppression and bring justice to the land. That’s what the crowds are expecting from Jesus.

But God never desired his people to have a king like the nations. God has always wanted to lead his people himself. For generations, the Hebrews wandered with God in the wilderness. He lived in a tent – no temple built by human hands could contain him. He was a mobile God. A mysterious God. A God who dwelt among his people and guided them directly.

It was only after Israel got a king that God “settled down.” It was only during the time of Solomon that God moved from the tent to the temple. And it was never clear that God was entirely willing to make that move. The God who says, “I AM what I AM,” will not be contained, immobilized, and idolized.

Before Israel had a king, the people got their marching orders directly from God. They listened to God together – when they were still in the desert, it says that Moses would speak to God at the Tent of Meeting, and everyone else in the camp would stand at the entrance to their tents and look on as Moses spoke with God. He spoke with God like one speaks to a friend.

When Israel became a monarchy, there was no more speaking among friends. Instead, one man would call the shots, according to his own judgments. One man would be exalted above all the others, and Jewish society would begin to take on the pyramid shape of the social order that God had liberated them from in Egypt.

When Israel instituted a kingship, the prophet Samuel warned them: “OK, you can do this. But this new king you’re asking for, he’s going to take your daughters for his harem and servants. He’s going to take your sons for military service, and get them killed in foreign wars. He’s going to demand huge taxes and tributes to feed his royal court. By the time this is all over, you’re going to wish you’d never asked for a king. This isn’t what I want. It’s definitely not God wants. But if you insist on going this way, he’s not going to stop you.”

Despite his warnings, Israel decided to anoint a king anyway. This was really depressing for Samuel, who know what this decision represented. But God told Samuel, “Don’t make this personal. This isn’t about you. They’re not rejecting you, Samuel. They’re rejecting me.”

To have a king is to reject God.

But when the people of Israel looked at Jesus, a king is what they wanted to see. They saw a military leader. They saw a strong man. They dreamed of a new King David, someone who would fit into this kingship model that so displeases God. They all knew the story. They knew that kingship was, at best, a compromise solution. And yet it was the best outcome they could imagine.

But Jesus isn’t the Messiah they’re looking for. Jesus isn’t a messiah at all, according to the Davidic model. If anything, he’s an anti-messiah. Rather than doing the killing, he’s going to be the one getting killed. Rather than doing the humiliating and torturing, he’s going to be the one being humiliated and tortured. Instead of being in a position of strength, he’ll be in a position of weakness. He’s not going to be the master, he’s going to be the slave – the slave of all.

Things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. We’re still looking for a king. A military messiah. A strongman who can shout orders, sit on top of the pyramid, and bring order to a hierarchical, unequal society. What was true for the Jews is true for all of us: even in our dreams of liberation, we sow the seeds of tyranny and oppression.

We were reminded of this reality last week, when the president ordered missile strikes on another country. This was a revealing moment – not in what the president did, but in how our country reacted. We all know that American presidents wield almost godlike destructive power without any apparent checks and balances. They can drop high explosives on another country without most of us even considering it an act of war.

We know this. We know that America is the most powerful empire in human history. It’s not surprising that the president can throw his weight around and attack weaker nations with impunity. What is remarkable, is the way the American elites view this kind of violent action. As Donald Trump rained millions of dollars in high explosives on Syria, the news media and virtually the entire US political establishment praised his actions as “presidential.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle who had long been pushing for military strikes in Syria cheered the president for dropping the bombs. News outlets that are normally critical of the president lined up to endorse this new war. The New York Times praised Trump for “following his instinct.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that, with this attack on Syria, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams waxed poetic about the beauty of Tomahawk missiles. He quoted Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Those crowds waving palm branches 2,000 years ago – they were guided by the beauty of their weapons. The Romans with their legions were most definitely guided by the beauty of their weapons. By the beauty of their weapons, they nailed the prince of peace to a cross. By the beauty of their weapons, they embraced the kingship of Caesar and rejected the living presence of God. By the beauty of our weapons, America is embracing the broad way of death. By the beauty of our weapons, we will inherit the legacy of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.

The kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of this world. As followers of Jesus, we know this. Yet it’s so hard to break away from the mentality of death that grips our society. God has called us to be his people in this world. But just like the ancient Israelites, we’d rather have a king. A winner. A champion who will deliver us from suffering, even if it means forcing others to endure it.

I’ll be honest, I’m more comfortable with the way of Caesar than with the way of Jesus. Most of the time when I’m looking for salvation, I don’t want someone who’s going to be humbled. I’m not looking for someone who’s going to be put to death.

When I’m picking my leader, I want someone who’s going to triumph. I want someone who’s going to defeat my enemies. I want someone who’s going to establish a new kingdom, a new political order based on coercion and violence. Because that’s the only way I really know how to deal with human beings.

“But from the beginning it was not so.” That’s not the way God wants to deal with us. The God we serve is not a violent God – though we have often imagined him to be so. Our God is a creative intelligence. He wants to build and grow and cause life to flourish, not to break down and destroy.

The way of kingship is built on aggression, coercion, violence, and threats. It’s built on the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It’s founded on the beauty of our weapons and the arrogance of our intellect.

But God’s intention is for us to live together as one family, with one Father and Mother. God calls us to become humble servants to one another, to put the interests of others beyond our own. God calls us to lower ourselves, so that we all might be lifted up. Not by the beauty of our weapons, but by the life of the Spirit.

True greatness in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like triumph in the eyes of the world. It doesn’t look like being a billionaire. It doesn’t look like launching Tomahawk missiles on distant lands whose refugees you have denied hospitality. It doesn’t look like becoming popular with politicians and having the corporate news media singing your praises.

Greatness in the kingdom of God looks like being willing to receive suffering out of love for others. It’s being willing to lay down your own prerogatives so that others can get what they need. The kingdom of God doesn’t always feel like joy and light. Sometimes, it can seem like darkness.

We’re in the midst of that darkness this morning, together with Jesus. We’re with him as he marches into Jerusalem, marching into this city that will put him to death in the most terrible way. We also know that, because of his humility and yieldedness to the Spirit, God will exalt Jesus and give him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Jesus has the victory. It’s not a victory that the world understands. It’s a victory that comes through compassion, service, and emptiness before God. We can share in this victory. When we reject the pyramid scheme of Empire and embrace Jesus’ upside down kingdom, we experience the triumph of the resurrection.

In the midst of all the darkness this morning, I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate the victory of Jesus. Even though the world misunderstands him. Even as our nation’s leaders insist that they want a King David rather than a King Jesus. Even as Jesus marches into this city that will be his judge, jury, torturer, and executioner. Jesus is victorious.

We can participate in this victory. We can embrace his humble way of self-emptying. We can be set free by his fearless love, without regard for the consequences. Despite this world’s bombs, lies, and terror, we can be God’s bold, peaceful, and triumphant people.

KING JESUS AND THE DEEDS OF POWER

 Luke 19:28-40

Jennifer Hosler

I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about—and therefore framing the context for how we follow him.

The Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “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.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. Second, the Triumphal Entry points us to Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. For followers of Jesus, calling Jesus “King” turns the world’s understanding of allegiance and citizenship upside down, causing us to question our relationship to the society that we live in. Really, what the Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.

Jesus and the Deeds of Power

In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.

The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.

There are some surprising parallels (but definitely also contrasts) between Harry’s story and Jesus’, in how they understand their identity and purpose in relation to their deeds of power. For Jesus, there is a miraculous conception and a virgin birth; we see angels, shepherds, Magi, and an angry murderous King out to kill an infant. Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is.

In fact, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that when he starts his ministry, they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?” But then the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.

On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has spread around. The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks those around him to bring the man over. Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus heals the man, and the man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree.

As Jesus walks by, he looks up, calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down from the tree but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich and his wealth is ill-gotten gain. As a chief tax collector, he’s been taking money on behalf of the enemy and likely was also forcing his fellow Jews to give him money beyond their taxes. Zacchaeus was involved in oppression and economic injustice—and was even doing it to his own people.

During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).

Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. You could say that Jesus transforms two blind people—the physically blind man and the spiritually blind man, Zacchaeus—enabling them to see by the power of God. These were two deeds of power that would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved with materialistic greed. Both men are described as “saved.”  Jesus’ deeds of power are not just something having to do with individual beliefs or spiritual healing: salvation that comes through Jesus is spiritual, and also social, economic, and physical.

Donkey-riding, coat-throwing, palm-waving king making

Beyond reminding us about Jesus’ deeds of power, the Triumphal Entry also, especially, emphasizes Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. To understand why it was provocative, it’s helpful to get an overview of the sociohistorical context. Pilgrims are journeying from all over the land and making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Like all of what was called Judea, the area is occupied by the Roman Empire. Whenever there were Jewish feast days, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, would come to Jerusalem from his outpost at Caesarea and bring with him extra military reinforcements.

So while Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward the city, Roman soldiers are also piling into the city, just “in case national fervor and religious fanaticism threaten the Roman peace” (Craddock, p. 223). The Jewish people, after all, had a history of uprisings and rebellions against their previous Greek and current Roman occupiers. In Jesus’ day, there were nationalist movements—zealots—who wanted to kick out Roman rule once and for all.

Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’” This seems really strange to us, but this donkey request actually fits into a “common procedure of a ruler (or a rabbi) procuring transportation, using the royal right of impressment,” or the act of borrowing something for a specific purpose for an important person (Losie, p. 859). It also fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.

The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air. Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.

This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.” Why exactly were the Pharisees nervous? What exactly does the donkey-riding and coat-throwing and palm-waving mean?

The processional entry had cultural significance for people in Jesus’ day. Roman and Jewish history each had a background of emperors or rebel military leaders entering cities in triumph. After they’d completed victories in battle, they’d come into the city on horseback, together with their soldiers.

With this history in mind, the Triumphal Entry procession would have been seen as subversive, as a challenge to the existing rule and authority of Rome—potentially as one of those scenarios that Pontius Pilate was in town to subdue. If someone’s followers are declaring them to be King and all the signs and symbols point to kingship, thoughts of a coup or a revolt are inevitable. And yet at the same time, Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. He’s not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but offering his message of God’s Kingdom for people to either accept or reject.

The cloaks on the road also serve as important symbols – harkening back to another King-making time in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 9, a man named Jehu is anointed King of Israel by a prophet under Elisha’s orders. When Jehu’s followers hear about the anointing, they enthusiastically proclaim him King, blow trumpets, and spread their cloaks down before him.

While there are parallels, Jesus’ story actually differs from Jehu’s. After Jehu is celebrated as King, Jehu and his followers go and kill the existing king and wipe out his whole family line. Jesus doesn’t head into the city to slaughter the existing ruler; instead, Jesus himself is the one who is sentenced to death and dies, without a fight, after coming in peace to heal the sick and save the lost.

While it’s called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, Jesus’ triumph actually comes after the procession. The victory involves nonviolence and self-sacrifice. While Jesus’ followers declare him King on the way into Jerusalem, they don’t fully understand that it is only after Jesus is willing to die—and dies a real physical death—that God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life in victory.

Salvation and Allegiance

I said at the beginning that the Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. This shows us what he was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Good News that Jesus preached was sight for the blind, repentance for the rich, freedom from the captive, healing for the sick. The salvation that Jesus brought affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.

The gospel that we celebrate in Holy Week is one that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.

I also said that the Triumphal Entry does a second thing: it points us to Jesus’ role as King, and I said it was a provocative notion in both his day and our own. In Jesus’ day, Jesus being King meant that his followers stood apart of the allegiances, protections, and statuses in their society. The early church was loyal to Jesus, instead of Caesar, and by saying that Jesus was Lord instead of Caesar is Lord, they were persecuted and marginalized. For followers of Jesus today, calling Jesus Lord or King should turn our understanding allegiance, citizenship, privilege, and status upside down, causing us to question our relationship and roles to the society that we live in.

As followers of Jesus, we commit to proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, to enacting the deeds of power that transform souls and wallets and bodies and relationships. We commit to proclaiming Jesus as King over our lives and circumstances—even when some leading rulers and authorities might say, “You’d better settle down. We don’t want any trouble. We don’t want to hear your talk about justice or mercy or peace.” Yet we are called to boldly and loudly proclaim how Jesus’ deeds of power can transform our hearts and relationships and economy and society.

We don’t know what lies ahead for our country: uncertainty, hatred, unrest, bigotry, and violence. But standing here on Palm Sunday, we know we have a humble, peaceful servant king whose gospel transforms us spiritually, politically, socially, and economically, and as we’ll see this week, this King walked through injustice, beatings, and death, that we might be empowered to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice in this world.

Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.

Victor, King, Servant?

Victor, King, Servant? – Jennifer Hosler

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is the name that the church has given to mark the events in Scripture which are referred to as the Triumphal Entry.  The Triumphal Entry, which we just read, involves palm branches waving and coats flying and people shouting, “Hosanna!” Something big is going on with what Jesus is doing: the people around him realize it and rejoice.

What is the Triumphal Entry, besides a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration? What does it tell us about who Jesus is? What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus?

I spent a few moments this past week musing on the word triumph. When we use a word or phrase phrase regularly, we can forget the meaning within. Triumph—the word indicates victory, glory, overcoming, winning. “Triumphal Entry”, then, isn’t just any old entrance. It’s not casually walking into a room or strolling into town on a whim. A triumphal entry is a victor’s entrance into a crowd or a setting or place.

What is a modern example of a triumphal entry? The first one I thought of involved sports teams, athletes coming home after winning a national championship.  It is usually a very big deal when the winning baseball or hockey team comes home: there are parades of victory throughout the streets.  The streets are decorated, signs go up. Everyone gets talking about the victory. Everyone is celebrating the glory of the team and of the city.  While this isn’t something that DC knows much about in recent years, we can all picture the excitement there would be if the Nats won the World Series or the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

While DC might not be too familiar with sports team glory in recent years, DC does know another modern form of a triumphal entry. Every four years, the city rolls out an impressive extravaganza for the Presidential Inauguration. After battles in primaries and in the general election, the electoral victor is finally sworn in at the US Capitol building, surrounded by crowds and dignitaries. There is then a processional march from the Capitol to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands and thousands cheer and celebrate and strain their necks for a glimpse at the new President of the United States.

People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders. In fact, there was a typical format each entry took: there was victory; the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage; the crowds welcomed and rejoiced; the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering up to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855). Small heroes and large entered cities in this triumphant fashion after military conquests, including renowned warriors like Alexander the Great and Judas Maccabeus.

For Jewish people in first century Roman times, triumphal entries had historic and cultural implications but also eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others preached to Israel), the Jewish people had been oppressed by Greek and Roman occupation. The prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a person sent from God to deliver the nation of Israel, to restore its faith, and to usher in God’s kingdom and reign over the whole earth. As the oppression continued year after year, the hope and longing for a Messiah grew and grew. Various people claimed to be messiahs and Jewish political revolts rose up and were crushed down. The words of the psalmist (Ps. 13) rang true for many, “How long, O LORD, will you forget us forever?” Some yearned for freedom from foreign occupation, some for yearned political domination and a Jewish empire, some yearned for the presence of YHWH to once again dwell in the temple.

When we meet Jesus in Matthew 21, Jerusalem was teeming with people. Thousands and thousands were making their way into the city from all over the country, in order to head to the temple for Passover. As DC tourist season is once again in full swing, you can picture what it means for a city to be teeming with people (especially if you walked along the tidal basin this past week). The temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover marks YHWH’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus’ request of his disciples in Matthew 21 seems strange to us. “Go and get me a donkey, please.” Jesus isn’t tired of walking (but he probably should be, since they’ve come from 80 miles north in Galilee over many days). This donkey riding is “a deliberate act, meant to be noticed” (France, 1994, p. 931). Jesus knows his scriptures (as do the crowds, apparently) and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a colt (a young donkey). In the passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King.

By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives, a place linked in Zechariah to YHWH’s deliverance—Jesus is symbolically claiming to be the King of his people, the promised heir of David, the Son of David.

We enter the scene in Matthew amidst the throngs of pilgrims. Jesus pulls aside and sends his disciples in search of a donkey, in a specific location. The colt is brought with its mother, the disciples place their coats on its back, and Jesus begins to ride to Jerusalem on a young donkey. The crowds around Jesus—probably pilgrims and disciples, interested people and hangers-on—recognize what this means and embrace his act. They throw their coats on the ground for Jesus to pass on, just as people did for King Jehu in 2 Kings 9. People grab palm branches and other tree branches and spread them out on the road and wave them in exaltation, shouting praises. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens.”

It is clear that the celebrating crowds were only a portion of Jerusalem. They may have primarily been people from Galilee, Jesus’ northern region that was not of the highest esteem. Matthew writes that “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” There was a commotion in the city. Not everyone knew who Jesus was but word spread quickly, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mt. 21:10-11)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not always verbally open as to who he was. Jesus would heal the sick and raise the dead—but often stopped short of saying who he really was. With the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is openly declaring that he is the Messiah—but is also relying on people to make the symbolic connections from Scripture. The Triumphal Entry is a picture to illustrate that Jesus is the One whom the prophets foretold, come to deliver God’s people and to usher in the Kingdom of God’s reign.

The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King. The Triumphal entry is also important because it shows us what type of King He is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king.

Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has enthralled the world and media over his first year. He has chosen modest housing accommodations over a palace, simple garments over lace and gold and handmade shoes, and a twenty-year old used car over new, luxury models. These steps have been a welcome change by many who saw the Vatican as overflowing with wealth.

Yet perhaps the most meaningful actions by Pope Francis have been ones that diminish the distance between the everyday person and the Pope. Personal phone calls, unannounced visits, refusing to be encased in the Popemobile bubble, footwashing of prisoners, embracing a disfigured man: Pope Francis clearly tries to be a humble servant. Humble servants are not in large supply in this world and we are used to people using their power and privilege to support themselves and their own comfort. Pope Francis is a contrast to our dominant culture and values. People around the world are moved by his actions, by a person in power, with great means, who chooses humility, simplicity, and service.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege, but to serve and deliver others. Jesus’ ethic of service and humility can be seen throughout the book of Matthew, particularly in passages close to the Triumphal Entry and the Cross.

In Matthew 20, the chapter prior to today’s text, the mother of disciples James and John comes to Jesus with a request. Basically, “Give my sons glorious positions of power when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus says no and the other disciples, when they hear about it, are furious. Jesus takes it as a teaching opportunity, “Rulers and kings lord their power over their subjects. But not so with you. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant” (paraphrased, Mt. 20:25-26). Commentary author R.T. France states that, “Not so with you well sums up the theme of this whole section of the gospel; the kingdom of heaven creates an alternative society which challenges conventional values” (1994, p. 930). Jesus’ Kingdom is defined by service, not privilege or power.

Another passage in Matthew 20 reminds me of Francis’ acts of caring for the sick (or rather, I should say that Francis reminds me of Jesus). On the way to Jerusalem (but before the donkey), the crowds are following Jesus and two blind men on the side of the road hear who is coming. The two men cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The blind men realize who Jesus is. Yet the crowds shout them down: Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with you, blind beggars on the side of the road, literally on the margins. But Jesus doesn’t look at outward appearances and everyone is worthy of his care, his healing, his grace. The blind men are healed and begin to follow Jesus.

After the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple. He looks around and sees that the temple area (about 30 acres) was filled with money changers and animals for sale. These commercial activities were crowding out the main purpose of the area—worship, prayer—and were probably exploitative. Jesus clears out the money changers and merchants and, soon after, “the blind and lame” come to him there and he cures them (21:14). Jesus’ acts illustrate that he is a servant king, using his authority to bring justice and grace.

From the Triumphal Entry and the clearing of the temple, we move forward to the Upper Room on Thursday. Just a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus the Servant King holds a Passover meal with his disciples. In the book of John, we read that Jesus, knowing that he would be put to death, took the last opportunity to teach his disciples by choosing to humbly serve them.

In New Testament times, people would have their feet washed upon entering a room, probably by a servant. The disciples and Jesus didn’t come with servants and no one had apparently been moved to be the one to serve. So the teacher Jesus girds himself with a towel, bends down, and washes his disciples’ feet.

After he is done washing, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you not know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live out Jesus’ example of service. Our lives are meant to be defined by gratitude, simplicity, humility, and service, rather than clutching onto status or privilege or some authority that we might have. We are called to live our lives by Jesus’ ethic of service—and also to model his act together. This week, we worship together on Thursday for Love Feast, where we, like Jesus and the disciples, partake of the bread and cup, share a meal together, and wash one another’s feet. As we go through this week and as we join for Love Feast, may we meditate on Jesus our model, the Servant King. AMEN.

 

 

References

France, R.T. (1994). Matthew. In G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 904-945). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Losie, L.A. (1992). Triumphal Entry. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 854-859). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.