April 9, 2017

“Celebrate and Wait”

Matthew 21:1-11




Often, Palm Sunday has a divided focus. The story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is usually read before the procession with palms and in many liturgies is followed by the full passion reading, a preemptive move anticipating poor attendance at later holy week services. I did not do that. There is a certain cognitive dissonance that occurs when we try and marry the triumphal entry and the passion narrative.


I have chosen to give you the celebratory procession. It is something most of you are much more comfortable with, as is evident by attendance patterns being up today and next week (Easter), and pathetically low this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. So even though it’s tempting to insert some passion in here today, we won’t. Today we will celebrate. You’re welcome.


Let’s be clear about what we are celebrating. This procession is modeled on the imperial Roman procession. When a new prelate came into Jerusalem they and their accompanying army would march up the Roman road, into the gate to the city with much pomp and splendor. Think about the procession up Pennsylvania Avenue on inauguration day. This Roman procession into Jerusalem was both religious and political in so far as the prelate was not only a secular ruler but was also a representative of the ‘god’ titled Caeser.


It was quite a spectacle. Roman soldiers carrying standards with roman insignia, chariots and war horses. Gleaming armor. And then the prefect, in this case Pontius Pilate, riding into town, Cesarea by the sea the ruling seat for the Romans. Every image in this parade was an attempt to convey power and strength.


In 332 BCE, three centuries before Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance, Alexander the Great, having conquered “Tyre and Gaza after terrible sieges . . . Jerusalem opened its gate without a fight.” And we can “Imagine the victorious Alexander entering Jerusalem on his famous war-horse, the black stallion Bucephalus.”


This procession carries with it all this memory, but is decidedly different. This celebration today is not populated by the aristocracy, but it is the common religious folk. It is a scene of deep humility and risk-taking. The arrival of this ruler is not on a war horse or implement of warfare. Jesus is on the least spectacular beasts of burden, a donkey. A young donkey at that. It may be that the skeptics in the crowd see this procession as a comedy of sorts, making fun of the oppressors parades. But for the true believers, they remembered the prophet in their bible and found great hope in what they saw.


Some “paved” the road with their garments; others with layers of leaves, at least some of which were from palm trees (Jn. 12:13), hence the expression “Palm Sunday.” Spreading garments before a dignitary was a symbol of submission (see 2 Kgs. 9:13). Palm branches were employed also as token of victory (Suetonius, Caligula, 32). Some Jewish coins from the first century had palm leaf engravings with the accompanying inscription, “the redemption of Zion.” It was all very encouraging and exciting, worthy of celebration. The prophet Zechariah predicts:


Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.[1]



It should be no surprise that a crowd gathers here. Crowds have been following Jesus for years for a variety of reasons, sometimes to his own frustration. It makes sense that this same crowd would gather and welcome him into Jerusalem, potentially becoming the revolutionary and riotous mob that Rome worried about at every Jewish festival. Passover is approaching, the authorities (both religious and civil) are already upset at him. So this scene, while exciting and invigorating to the casual passer-by and for observers like us, is precisely the scene that the disciples wanted to avoid. It is why Thomas said, “Let us go with him to Jerusalem to die.”


And, this was obviously a planned protest. It was not only Jesus who chose the symbolism present today. The crowds, obviously, appeared with branches cut ahead of time to demonstrate victory and allegiance to the ‘king’ riding on a humble foal of a donkey.


In this latest election cycle and the months following we have witnessed gatherings of people who are anxious to proclaim their affection for one leader or another. But this procession mocks every procession of domination and military power. This procession casts shade on the ways of the world because this king, every reader knows, is the king of love. Not hate. Not violence.


In the flurry of celebration we might forget that the journey is not really over. We might have our polite excuses to avoid the darkness of the next few days, but as Joseph Sittler said, “if you completely wipe out the darkness, nothing can come forth and grow.”


It is in times of crisis, such as this, when thoughtful observers are full of doubt, confusion, and helplessness, that we need some way to thoughtfully reflect on what is happening. Some space needs to be created. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He creates space this week so we can participate in this celebration today.


Like every situation that seems to be going from good to bad, there needs to be reflection as much as action. Impatience has its roots in anxiety. Experience has taught these followers that healing has its own timetable. Being hasty is low-road functioning.[2]


So now we wait. This is not idleness, it is purposeful, which is also called anticipation.


The British author Graham Greene once waited two and a half years for a 15-minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who resided in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be “a living saint” and bore on his body the “stigmata” or the wounds of Christ. On the day Greene was due to meet with the mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. Instead, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew directly back to London. When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited for two and a half years, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.” Perhaps the same could be said for you and me. We want to focus on the parade and the festivities of life because we are not ready for the Passion and the way in which that man–Jesus–can change our lives. His Passion will change us forever, if we let it.[3]


[1] Zechariah 9:9

[2] Steinke, Peter Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Alban: VA, 2006, p. 71

[3] The Rev. Marek Zabriskie, “Everyone Loves a Parade” Day One,