A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on April 1, 2012.
Novelist Saul Bellow observed that “the essence of good writing is drama and the essence of good drama is conflict.” Skim lightly across the surface of this story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, and one could easily be lulled into thinking this was a celebratory parade full of goodness and light. But read beneath the surface of the story where the truth lies to see how the drama is built upon the presence of dark conflict and one senses the story represents the beginnings of a revolution. For it’s the possibility of social and religious unrest that gives this story its power and the spectacle of the drama is spread over the coming week, a week that begins with shouts of “Hosanna” and ends with shouts of “Crucify him!”
It’s not difficult to imagine that there was conflict back then just as there is today. The people of Palestine faced high taxes and the uninvited presence of the Roman army garrisoned there as a part of Pax Romana and the unquestioned obeisance to Caesar. There was the simmering cauldron of unrest as the Jews wanted to throw off the strong arm of Rome so they could once again be free. Their fathers’ fathers had carried out a rebellion against Rome that had some success only to be brutally squashed by the overwhelming military power of Rome’s military dominance.
Just like “back then,” our stories are also marked with the tension created in our world between those with power and influence and those without, between the 99% and the 1%, where justice and injustice rub against one another by the powerful who work more for the corporate lobbyists than for the citizens and the common good is usually abandoned in a system where the rich only get richer while the greatest bulk of working people fall increasingly behind.
There were protestors this week on the steps of the highest court in our land as inside Supreme Court Justices heard arguments pro and con about the health care law passed by Congress in 2010. The justices are to be fully impartial in order to answer the questions of whether the government can mandate a system of health insurance that includes those left out by the health care providers. How will they rule?
There have been populist protestors in most major cities since last summer called the Occupier Movement. These demonstrators have risen up organically across our nation in protest of the failures of Wall Street in which power is disproportionately wielded to serve what are commonly called, the “one percent.”
In the last few weeks protestors have taken up the cause of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old African-American who was shot the last week of February by an armed neighborhood watch activist, despite the police’s order to stand down. The alleged shooter was held for a few days but mysteriously released with no charges made. A week later, the Sanford police admitted they didn’t know the shooter had a criminal record. Here we are five weeks after Trayvon’s death and no arrest has yet been made. Protestors have held vigils all across the nation and there is a cry for justice to be sought. There’s not a cry for vengeance or retribution but for justice. Sadly, there is a long history of these kinds of acts of violence where the wheels of justice only turn under pressure if they turn at all.
I believe we’re living in a time not unlike those when Jesus entered into the Holy City as a great throng of Jews jumped on board hoping to ignite a riot that could possibly lead a people’s revolt over not only Rome but to threaten the overlords of the Temple.
But this story doesn’t stand in isolation; it’s reminiscent of an older story in Jewish history. Jesus’ triumphal entry mirrors the story from II Samuel 6. In that story, an exuberant crowd gathered outside Jerusalem, headed for the great gates of the city which until only recently had been a Jebusite fortress. David, the warrior-king, had defeated the Jebusites and had renamed the fortress as the City of David. To celebrate the victory and the dedication of the city to their king, the crowd met outside the city walls and processed up that long hill to Jerusalem, priests and temple singers leading the way, the people following behind them and in between them, perched on a cart drawn by a team of oxen, was the Ark of the Covenant, that visible symbol of God’s presence and power that had come out of their desert wanderings out of Egyptian bondage.
For that occasion, the psalmist wrote what became the 24th Psalm. At the end of the procession, the priests, the singers and all the people burst into song:
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates: and be lifted up, ye everlasting doors
and the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this king of Glory?
The LORD strong and mighty; the LORD mighty in battle.
Who is the King of Glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the King of Glory!”
When Jesus and his disciples made their final move towards the ancient city of Jerusalem, the time was ripe for something to happen. Maybe it was the feeling that a revolution was in the air. Maybe it was the shared, intuitive sense that the Messiah would come among them bringing the salvation of God. Fermenting among the troubled people was a deeply felt sense that something was on the verge of happening.
Maybe it’s a time felt among our youngest generations who’ve grown tired of the promises that have plainly gone unfulfilled. A little revolution may be brewing among us even now hoping to see the world head in a new direction. Who will come along to make it happen? Who will step forward to give leadership to this new movement? The young of our time, the children of an earlier group of revolutionaries, are now envisioning what they can do if they can find a voice to describe the new world they would create if they could. Is there ever a time when a revolution is not being stirred up?
In Jesus’ day, the people had grown tired of the same old system. What was promised by the Temple leadership was nothing more than the sense that the system’s chief goal was protecting the status quo. No challenge went unpunished. No threat to the current leadership was allowed. The system wouldn’t permit it. The leadership of the Romans was one powerful and cruel leader after another in their minds. All they knew to do was tax the people and rule them with an unbending, iron fist. Caught in the middle of those tired dynamics of church and state, it’s not hard at all to sense the fatigue among the common people of Israel, the working class who were oppressed on both fronts.
They imagined a new leader could ignite the match that would burn the whole thing down! One spark, one new thought, one new challenge to the system and the whole thing could be engulfed in a blazing, torrential firestorm. Would Jesus be the one to spark such a movement? Could Jesus be the one? Jesus had a keen political sense of what the people wanted. He knew that a political parade was being organized in the streets. He understood what they wanted and if he wasn’t willing to be caught on their wave of unrest, he had to maintain control over what kind of leader he would be. So he outmaneuvered them by making a political statement of his own when he approached the city. He told 2 of his disciples to go ahead of him to the neighboring villages of Bethany and Bethphage and to bring him the donkey that was waiting for him. They were told, “If the owner asks you what you are doing, tell, him, ‘The Lord needs him.’”
You see, as the parade was gathering, they had their own ideas of what their new leader would need in order to make the kind of statement that they needed. The parade organizers knew that Jesus had the kind of star power to ignite the revolution. They understood him enough to recognize that he could stir things up, that he could incite the crowds to follow him; perhaps he even had the clout to make the whole thing come apart and they could then overthrow the Roman’s system of control. When Jesus mounted the colt, he must have understood what was happening around him. It was a parade of the wildest imagination! People were excited all around him! They cut down the palm branches and threw them down in front of him. They even threw their own coats down on the ground making the street before him look like an unimaginable path of plant and cloth.
This drama would have reached epic proportions if Jesus hadn’t introduced a picture of the comic absurd into the middle of it. It would be like Patten entering the city as the conquering general whose victory meant freedom to who had been under oppression before. Only he doesn’t enter on a victorious tank or the General’s car bedecked with the flags of his rank flapping in the breeze. Instead he enters on a tractor.
By stooping to ride the lowly donkey, Jesus was inviting his followers to see that the Kingdom of God was lowly in spirit, not exalted in merely political terms. This week we follow the steps of Jesus as we moved about the city, as he taught in the Temple, and as he gathered his disciples for a Passover meal, a meal meant for him. Can we stay awake in the night as he prays? Can we follow him to his execution? Can we follow him all the way to the Cross?
 George A. Mason, “No Handle on the Cross,” Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas TX 4/16/00
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).