A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 1, 2012.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
118:1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
118:2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
118:19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
118:20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
118:21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
118:23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
118:25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
118:26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.
118:27 The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
118:28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
118:29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples
11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.
11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”
11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,
11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”
11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.
11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.
11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
It is always important to understand the context of an event, act, or statement. This is certainly true concerning the Palm Sunday event that we read about from Mark’s Gospel. The event occurred in the days leading to the spring Passover festival commemorating how God set the Hebrew people free from slavery in Egypt. From the time the Hebrew people marched from Egypt behind Moses and Aaron, the Passover Feast has been a core part of Jewish ethnic identity.
But by the time of Jesus, Passover was much more than an ethnic festival. For by that time, the Hebrew people had developed a national identity. Moses led them from Egypt as slaves. Joshua led them into Canaan as a wandering clan. But from the time of Samuel and Saul, the people thought of themselves as a nation among the international community. Under Saul, the people whose ancestors had been slaves declared themselves a kingdom—a national state. Under David, the kingdom nation proved itself a military power able to defend itself from other nations. Solomon tried to extend Israel’s influence and secure peace with neighboring nations through the process of diplomacy and politically-motivated marriages.
But after Solomon, the kingdom came apart. Israel first split into two nations: Israel in the north with its capital in Samaria and Judah in the south with Jerusalem as its capital. Over time, both kingdoms were threatened and eventually conquered by other nations on a quest to expand their empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and (by the time of Jesus) Rome. But across the centuries and despite the bitter pain of having lost their standing among the national powers of the time, the Hebrew people never lost their sense of national identity. They are called “the Jews” in the Gospels. But their hearts yearned to be restored as a kingdom—Israel—again. Their prophets had predicted that God would send someone divinely appointed to lead the people back to national glory. A Messiah would come. The Messiah would vanquish enemies. The Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel.
So the spring Passover festival was more than a big ethnic celebration. During Passover, feelings of national identity that were always simmering seemed to run even stronger. The Roman conquerors were especially on guard during Passover against the possibility of a revolt or insurrection by someone who believed himself to be the promised Messiah. And the religious leaders among the people were constantly promising that the Messiah would come at anytime.
Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover festival many times. But this would be his last Passover. In the past Jesus had put off anyone who suggested that he was the Messiah. As his prominence as preacher and healer grew, Jesus repeatedly told people not to publicize his ministry.
But raising Lazarus from the grave wasn’t something people forgot. Lazarus lived at Bethany, only a day’s walk from Jerusalem. Jesus regularly roomed with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha on his visits to Jerusalem. I imagine there was a first century version of the paparazzi hanging around Bethany to see Lazarus—the man who had come back from the grave—and Jesus, the prophet who restored him to life. Jesus seemed like someone who could have been the long-promised Messiah. But he wasn’t popular with the ecclesiastical authorities in Jerusalem. By this time, Jesus was popular with common folk, viewed as a threat to the influence of religious rulers, but doesn’t appear to have been considered a threat by the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem.
This was the historical, cultural, social, and political setting as Jesus prepared to enter Jerusalem for Passover. Mark’s account informs us that Jesus planned his entry. He made arrangements with someone to borrow a donkey colt to ride rather than walk into town. He allowed his followers to place him on the donkey and go before him throwing their clothes on the roadway (only John’s Gospel speaks of them throwing palm branches). Jesus entered Jerusalem hailed like a coming ruler, not inconspicuously. After all the times that he had seemed to shun attention to himself, Jesus now seems to have gone to some length to attract it. Why?
Jesus was making a point. The issue then and now is whether we get it.
Jesus was lampooning the popular notion of imperial power and authority. By entering Jerusalem riding a donkey colt and surrounded by a crowd of poor peasants Jesus did a satirical challenge to the whole notion of empire. Emperors traditionally entered cities with great fanfare. To this day heads of state arrive at events proceeded by armed and mounted agents and important-looking functionaries.
Not so for Jesus! His entourage was a motley crew indeed. They were at the bottom of the social, religious, and political pyramid. These were his people. The donkey was a direct contrast to the kind of royal chariot pulled by stallions. Jesus faced off the pompous arrogance and pretense of imperial and ecclesiastical rule by showing up in Jerusalem acting like the prince of the poor and down-trodden.
His enemies got the point. The religious authorities resented the idea that divine authority would be at home with poor people who lived “with their backs against the wall,” to use the words of Howard Thurman. They were offended that common people would praise an unlettered preacher who healed their illnesses without charge. This itinerant preacher dared to show up for the Passover festival acting like royalty among poor folks. His enemies got the point Jesus was making.
Jesus was demonstrating. Jesus was “signifying.” Jesus was looking and acting like royalty to show how silly the prevailing notions of royal authority were. Jesus was leading a Poor People’s March on Jerusalem! This was a calculated, deliberate, and intentionally subversive act.
The religious enemies of Jesus got the point that seems to have been lost by many people. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a poor community about five miles south of Jerusalem. His first visitors weren’t royal courtiers, but poor shepherds. His first dwelling wasn’t a palace but a stable. His first royal notice wasn’t a welcome, but a death warrant from King Herod.
Jesus didn’t resemble the prevailing notions of imperial power and authority. Instead, he turned the notions of privilege upside down. He said the first would be last and the last would be first. He blessed peacemakers rather than warriors. He blessed and welcomed poor people. By riding into Jerusalem the way he did Jesus demonstrated that divine power is on the side of people we call oppressed and down-trodden.
But do today’s followers of Jesus get the point? Do we get it? One wonders whenever one thinks about how religious leaders and their congregants now try to attract “prominent people” into congregations. One wonders when religious leaders throw their influence behind imperial military adventures aimed at expanding business for the wealthy instead of peacemaking. One wonders as religious leaders support politicians who make careers out of ignoring justice for the poor. One wonders if we get the point as religious leaders across the nation ignore the politically sanctioned killing of Troy Davis in Georgia, the yet unprosecuted killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the yet unprosecuted killing last year of Eugene Ellison by Little Rock police last year. One wonders if we are following the Jesus Mark wrote about.
Or have we manufactured another Jesus? Have we rejected the Jesus who led a Poor People’s March on Jerusalem the week of Passover in favor of Corporate Jesus, Rambo Jesus, and Prosperity Jesus? Has Jesus undergone a makeover, or did people re-invent Jesus to justify crass materialism, military opportunism and imperialism, racism, and oppression of vulnerable people? Has Jesus turned God’s back on immigrants, sick people, and minority groups, or did Jesus get re-made, re-invented, re-directed, and re-imagined as Messiah of the comfortable?
Palm Sunday is still subversive, but too many Palm Sunday Christians want an Establishment Jesus. Too many of us want a Jesus who makes no waves, ruffles no feathers, and leaves injustice unchallenged. Too many people want Jesus to not meddle with the way we like doing things. Too many people want the kind of Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a chariot pulled by stallions and surrounded by marching soldiers and police protection. And sadly, many of the people who want that kind of Jesus want that kind of world.
Jesus publicly entered Jerusalem, the royal capitol of Palestine, as God’s Messiah of humility and compassion. In Jesus, God showed up on a donkey. In Jesus, God showed up with poor people. In Jesus, God showed up to challenge the image of power and authority with something infinitely better. In Jesus, God showed up as the Prince of Peace, not the Lord of War. In Jesus, God showed up as friend to the poor and weak and disfavored, not the divine tool God of the privileged and powerful. In Jesus, God showed up to call you and me to be children of divine love, truth, love, justice, and hope, not people consumed and motivated by hellish notions of national glory, material greed, and self-centered domination of others.
In Jesus, God has shown up riding a donkey colt. Do we get the power point? Or have we manufactured another Jesus? Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.