Our Second Reading for today comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verses 1-11. On this Palm Sunday we enter what is known as Holy Week – a week that marks the final days of Jesus’ earthly life. This last week before the crucifixion begins with a “triumphal entry” into the holy city of Jerusalem. In what appears to be a carefully choreographed event, the disciples go into a village to retrieve a donkey and a colt. Fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah, which we heard outside on the lawn, Jesus then rides into Jerusalem as the promised king. Let us hear this Word of God.
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
This has been an eventful week for sports fans. While much of the universe has been focused on a golf tournament being played here in Augusta, the University of North Carolina Men’s Basketball team and the University of South Carolina Women’s Basketball team were both crowned National Champions with their wins in the NCAA tournament. But even more than that, the official start to spring occurred this week on Monday, April 3rd with Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.
Yes, Opening Day – it is always the first Monday in April. Several years ago, in an effort to add television viewers, Major League Baseball introduced Opening Night on the Sunday before the first Monday in April. This year they expanded Opening Night to play three games this past Sunday afternoon and evening. But for baseball purists like me, the Major League Baseball season does not officially begin until a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, the first professional baseball team in the United States, throws the first pitch on the first Monday of April. If you have not already guessed, I am a long suffering Cincinnati Reds fan and I pray continuously that their young pitchers and hitters will get it together so that this will be a great year.
One tradition that developed in Cincinnati to commemorate Opening Day is the annual parade through downtown. The parade began in 1920 to celebrate the Reds World Series Victory in 1919. It was a pretty small affair in 1920, sponsored by a few pubs downtown that the players liked to hang out in. But the tradition has continued through good years and bad years, right up until the present day. The parade is no longer sponsored by the pubs but by the large open market downtown with several corporate partners. For many years the Cincinnati Zoo even arranged for elephants to join the parade.
This past Monday, people lined the streets for blocks and blocks to watch the 183 entries in the parade, including marching bands from all over the country and, of course, representatives from this year’s team. The Opening Day Parade Grand Marshal was a retired Reds player named Sean Casey – not only a successful player but also so well liked and so talkative on the field that he was nicknamed “The Mayor.” Yes, everyone wanted to see the Mayor Sean Casey in the parade.
When I contemplate Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into the city of Jerusalem I usually think of a scene like this year’s Opening Day parade in Cincinnati. Thousands and thousands of people lining the street, waiting for Jesus to come by. People cutting branches out of the trees, throwing their cloaks on the ground, and shouting “Hosanna!” for the approaching King who will save them from their oppressors. A joyous occasion full of excitement and praise.
And yet a close reading of this text reveals an event much more like Cincinnati’s first Opening Day parade in 1920 than this past week’s. That first parade was not a huge affair. Sure, there were people there, but it was in the middle of the afternoon. Most residents of Cincinnati did not have the luxury of leaving their jobs to go to a parade, much less see a ballgame. Similarly as Matthew tells us the story of Jesus’ parade there is a crowd that puts their cloaks on the ground, cuts branches from the trees, and shouts “Hosanna – save us now!” but we are not sure how many people were there. The crowd appears to have been made up of pilgrims to the holy city, those walking with Jesus. Because the whole city of Jerusalem seems to have no idea who this guy is who has showed up with some folks calling him “The Son of David.” In a turmoil the residents of Jerusalem ask, not unlike Herod asked the magi from the east who came to Jerusalem looking for a king, “Who is this?”
Yes, who is this? “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” reply the pilgrims. The response must have satisfied the authorities. Oh – he is a prophet, not a king. He is riding on a donkey, not the horse of a conqueror. Accompanied by a colt – a common pack animal. Nothing to fear there. If the Romans even sniffed a rebellion, a Messiah, a new king was coming to town, they would have squashed him. No qualms about that. Whatever was necessary to keep the peace.
And then take a look at the crowd with him. They were not a menacing army advancing with prisoners of war. They did not appear ready to strap on armor and weapons. No, they were taking off their cloaks, probably the only the cloaks they owned, and spreading them on the ground.
The last straw leading to complete dismissal of this prophet was when they declared that Jesus was from Nazareth. Nazareth? How many of them had even heard of that no nothing town in the distant hills of Galilee. You would never expect a rival king and Messiah to come from Nazareth. Even scripture itself reminds us, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Yes, from the standpoint of the leaders, the authorities, the military, the powerful in Jerusalem, this is not much of a parade at all. And that might be precisely what Jesus had in mind. New Testament scholar Stanley Saunders puts it this way:
Jesus entry into Jerusalem is a … form of “street theater,” in which he will use the generic signals associated with the [triumphal entries] of emperors and military conquerors in conjunction with signs that point to the character of his rule. By twisting the political rituals associated with Roman and Jewish elite power to his own ends, he puts the powers into his parody parade. Jesus’ “triumphal entry” signals the triumph of God’s identification with the weak, the lowly, and the marginal … Jesus’ actions implicitly make the source and character of his power the central issue. On the world’s terms, this scene is not really triumphal at all, but an affirmation of the kind of power Jesus has displayed all during his ministry in Galilee, and simultaneously a mockery of what ordinarily passes for power among the Jerusalem elite. The “triumphal entry” tears the façade from the scaffolding that holds the Jerusalem “establishment” together.
Yes, my friends, Jesus entry into Jerusalem turns the whole system upside down. Remember, the people are shouting “Hosanna!” which is a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew imperative phrase meaning “Save now!” Yes, save us now! But the one they are calling out to save them has now outward signs of being able to fulfill that imperative. No white horse, no army, no pedigree. Really – Jesus is the one who will save us?
Yes he will.
But not in the way they expected on that first Palm Sunday, and not in the way we still expect to be saved. He will save us but not in the way that we today so often look for salvation from our political leaders, from the captains of industry, from military generals. Jesus has thrown the whole system on its head. As poet Ann Weems writes toward the end of her poem, “We Would See Jesus”:
But there’s something terribly wrong!
The world says Hate
when Jesus says Love.
The world says War
when Jesus says Peace.
The world says Mine
when Jesus says Share.
The world says Torture
when Jesus says Mercy.
The world says Kill
when Jesus says Life Abundant.
The world says Do What You Can Get Away With
when Jesus says Justice.
The world says Take Care of Number One
when Jesus says Care for the Least of These.
Yes, before we jump to your feet and join the throngs along the road shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” let me remind you that we will be joining a protest march. This is not the Opening Day in Cincinnati in which everyone wants to see the popular retired player known as “The Mayor.” This is a carefully orchestrated satire designed to pull the façade off the power structure of Jesus’ day. And it does the same for us as well. Once the elite of Rome and Jerusalem understand what is truly going on with this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, this day of celebration will be over. In the week ahead Jesus will be betrayed, unjustly accused, beaten, and crucified.
My friends, if we dare say that Jesus of Nazareth is your Messiah and Lord, if he is the one we trust to save us, then we must walk with him this week. For this king of Israel, this fulfillment of promise, this Messiah and Lord is turning everything on its head. Yes, he is on his way to the cross and all those who wish to be his disciples are invited to join this parade by picking up their cross and following him.
Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: