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April 9, 2017 Palm Sunday

“Who is This? Who Are We?” Psalm 118:19-29: Matthew 21:1-15

 

 

Years ago while I was still in seminary, I was required to spend time as a hospital chaplain, part of my clinical pastor experience. I ended up spending 6 months as a chaplain for the people of the Sonoma Developmental Center- a place for people who struggled to live and be accepted, despite their birth defects, diseases and abnormalities. It was a huge task for me to figure out how to communicate as best I could with folks who either were unable to speak, or could speak very little. In time, I was able to meet with certain patients there and connect- through touch, or through facial expressions as they came to know who I was. Then I would pray with them, and move on to the next person. But a larger challenge was given to me by the person overseeing my chaplaincy there. I was given the task of preaching and trying to teach the residents about Palm Sunday.

 

We gathered together that Sunday morning, with about 50 residents in the chapel, some of them in beds, some in wheelchairs, and some with walkers. I thought about how the feasting table in God’s kingdom includes the blind & the lame. We sang a couple of Palm Sunday hymns, and then I decided to try to reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On either side of the chapel, the residents were asked to shout Hosanna, while a resident who was able to walk came down the center aisle, holding a flashlight (since Jesus was the light of the world). As he walked down, the excitement in the room was everywhere, and the young man who played Jesus had a huge smile on his face, being the center of attention. When he got to the front, I gave him a high five, and let him sit back down. Then I talked about the meaning of Palm Sunday-The Son of David enters David’s city as King, but the only throne he will find is a cross. The city that could’ve welcomed him rejected him instead. I hope, in some small way, the residents that day understood that Jesus was not the conquering king, but rather the suffering servant who would die to save the people from their sins. It remains one of my most meaningful memories of Palm Sunday.

 

 

 

 

Trumpet fanfares, powerful hymns and stories like the one I just shared take us back to this scene of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  It must’ve been quite a sight, considering it was the biggest festival of the year- Passover, which meant the city of Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all over who made their annual journey to give thanks to God.

 

In the first part of the story (vv. 1‑5) Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ role as messiah by setting the scene as a glimpse from the book of Zechariah, where many drew hope for a conquering king. The prophet describes a final, apocalyptic battle on the Day of the Lord that God will launch against Jerusalem’s enemies from the Mount of Olives,  which will be split in two by the weight of his feet as the inhabitants of Jerusalem flee and God’s armies come to defeat their enemies and bring renewal to the city (Zechariah 9:9). In Matthew’s account of this scene, Jesus' entry point into the holy city is the very same location also mentioned in Zecharaiah14:4-5, the Mount of Olives. The passage in Zechariah tells of the coming of Messiah. "On that day, his feet will be set on the Mount of Olives."

 

Those large crowds who gathered, who had been waiting for hundreds of years for Messiah, must’ve been excited in what was unfolding before their eyes. Who were they?  First of course, there were the disciples, the original 12, and others who had begun to follow. Many of them still did not understand that Jesus as Messiah would be a suffering servant, rather than a conquering King. Many of the disciples were likely caught up in delusions of power- Especially since in the passage just before this one, the mother of James and John asks Jesus that her sons be seated in power on Jesus’ right and left when he takes over all of Jerusalem. As they prepare the animals to serve as a royal mount, they are no doubt measuring the drapes for the windows of the King’s palace, and wondering how much gold will be on their thrones...

 

 

Who else was in the crowd? Disciples of John the Baptist were likely there as well. By this time in Matthew’s gospel, John had heard back from his own disciples that the blind see and the lame walk, and indeed Jesus was the real deal. Some of them must’ve been there to witness this scene, which likely erased any remaining doubts they had about Jesus. 

 

Then, there were those whom Jesus had healed in his ministry, many of whom must’ve followed him. They had experienced his healing, his power first hand. They believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Son of God was riding in procession before them. There were also women and children, those whom society deemed as unimportant property, yet whom Jesus valued as children of God and part of his flock.

 

Then there were others, many of whom who had witnessed Jesus’ miraculous acts- the healings, his teachings. Some of them may’ve been part of the crowd that was fed by the multiplying of loaves and fish. And so they followed Jesus, perhaps hoping for more to fill their stomachs. Others may’ve been curious bystanders or pilgrims headed to the temple to celebrate Passover, getting caught up in the excitement. Some were likely zealots, just like Judas, who were waiting for a leader to overthrow the puppet king Herod and throw out their Roman occupiers. This Jesus and his crowds might prove useful to their cause. 

 

All of these people were the ones who shouted proclamations “Hosanna to the Son of David!  "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" Many in this crowd understood that something messianic was happening- They cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” There are two meanings here- Hosanna means “Save us now”. But it was also used as a proclamation of praise, much like when we say “Alleluia!” Proclaiming Jesus to be the son of David tells us those who were gathered knew that the one like David, Israel’s faithful King was riding before them. Then they shouted, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”- This phrase was often used by pilgrims who were attending festivals. In this case it refers to Jesus coming as THE one and only divine representative of God. The crowds then, in a moment of triumph and celebration, began throwing their cloaks down on the road in front of Jesus as a way to proclaim him king, hearkening back to the coronation of Israel’s King Jehu centuries before. (2 Kings 9:13)

 

 

 

 

As Jesus drew closer to the city gates, it is likely the crowd grew: These new additions to the crowd asked, “Who is this?” The additions to the crowd included beggars at the city gates, the poor and the lame who were ostracized from society. Perhaps, as Jesus passed by, hope was born for the first time in their hearts. Then there were Roman authorities, who wondered who this man was, what all the commotion was about, and just what kind of trouble this man riding on a donkey might create during one of the high holy days, which was one of the hardest times to keep the peace. And there were also likely scribes and Pharisees from the temple, (IMAGE)who saw his popular following, heard the crowd shouting messianic slogans, had heard from leaders in synagogues around Jerusalem that someone was stirring up trouble, and may’ve in that moment began worrying about this man’s challenge to their authority.

 

Jesus rode through the crowds, each with their expectations, their concerns. Who was he? He was Messiah. Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, but this kingdom would turn society upside down, and he was rejected.  Jesus did not fit into their expectations of Messiah. Despite his teachings, and telling his followers that he would suffer and die (Matthew 16:22), they didn’t listen. So in a span of seven days, most of the crowds that cheer Jesus this day are jeering Jesus by Friday of the same week. Jesus did not meet their expectations. God’s kingdom radically challenged society in Jerusalem, and folks don’t like it when you churn the waters. What did Jesus do in the Holy city?

 

 

First, Jesus challenged the chief priests and scribes – throwing the money changers and livestock handlers out of the temple - where profit was made off those who came to worship. He challenged their interpretation of scripture, and told them that tax collectors and prostitutes were ahead of them going into God’s kingdom. Jesus healed the blind and the lame in the temple. (He healed others on the Sabbath and forgave sins. Jesus challenged the way women and children were treated as property, seen with no standing. – His talking with the woman at the well, rescuing Mary Magdalene from the angry mob, sitting with Mary and Martha, allowing Mary to anoint him with costly perfume.

 

When the disciples saw people bringing their children to Jesus, they rebuked them.  But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.” By these acts he challenged the authority of the leaders of the temple, and they rejected him. Then, Jesus challenged Roman authority - He did not recognize their rule, or their God (Caesar).  Rather than conquer with the sword, he conquered with love, lifted up the powerless, fed the hungry, and welcomed the stranger. Jesus challenged Rome to worship God alone, not Caesar. For these reasons, Rome paid little attention, and also rejected him.

 

Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, but this kingdom challenged the way things were, and 1st century society rejected God’s kingdom. You and I have the advantage over the crowds in some way, in that we know the rest of the story. We understand God’s radical claim upon our lives, and that Jesus had to die upon the cross to reconcile us to our Creator.

Yet, consider, were Jesus to come riding off of I-5 into Ashland, what would he challenge about our lives, our community and world and how would we respond? 

 

What would he say about our own personal lives- the way we live, how we treat and think of others? What would Jesus say to the religious leaders of today like me? What would he say to those pastors who preach the prosperity gospel, or to those who preach exclusion from others rather than inclusion? How would he judge this churches’ annual budget and where our funds are spent?  What would he say about how we treat the marginalized in our society- the poor, the homeless? Perhaps- “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” (Matthew 25:40)  What would he say about how we treat those who speak a different language than we do,  about the alien, the immigrant, the stranger in our midst and the current hysteria over Muslims immigrating to our nation?  He might quote the book of Leviticus-“When an alien resides in your land you shall not mistreat them. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:33-34)

 

What would he say about how we value children in our community, state and nation?  What would he challenge about our versions of Rome- the state capitol and our federal government?

 It wouldn’t take Jesus long to hear about the current and future state of our schools, our medical system, the lack of affordable housing nationwide and how politicians clamor for huge budget cuts to fund additional defense spending at the expense of the poor, the lame, the elderly and the child to know his response. Perhaps he would quote the greatest commandments, “Hear o Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the lord your God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” (Mark 12:29-31)My guess is, that although many of us might find ourselves shouting Hosanna at the top of our lungs as he came into Ashland, by the end of the week, many of us would be grumbling about his intrusion into our lives.

 

 

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a call to make a choice. Different people responded in different ways. Some found Jesus to be their hope, and they followed him, through his arrest, trial, execution, burial and resurrection.  Others were only interested in Jesus if he could be used to fit their purposes. Many others rejected him because he challenged their way of life and their complacency too much. Some just couldn’t make up their minds and were indifferent to his message.

 

Who are you in the crowd this Palm Sunday? Jesus calls us to choose and follow today as well. The same attitudes toward Jesus that were in the crowds lined up along the road to Jerusalem are present here today: from a deep love for Jesus to an attempt to use him for our own purposes, to indifference, to outright rejection of his message to change our lives and follow.  Palm Sunday is a call to choose. Will we follow Jesus in our own lives this day to his arrest, crucifixion, burial and resurrection? Hosanna. God save us. Amen

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