Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
In a small college town a tavern frequented by students ran the following ad in the campus paper during the days before Parent’s Weekend: “Bring your parents for lunch Saturday. We’ll pretend we don’t know you!” The ad was soon challenged by the college chaplain, who posted a revised version on the campus bulletin board. It read: “Bring your parents to chapel Sunday. We’ll pretend we know you!”
Our laughter in part, I think, reflects our realization that our expectations for people can blind us to who they really are. If we expect our child to be the one bringing us to chapel, that is what we often will see. So it is with Jesus as well.
Today we read the story we tell every Palm Sunday, the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In a sense, this is the same story as the advent stories of Jesus’ coming. Or at least there are strong parallels. During advent we prepare for Jesus’ coming as a baby. And we are reminded that his coming will not be what we expect. He won’t be the king of the powerful and rich, he will be king of the poor and outcast, not born in power and might, but born as a poor baby. He won’t make things comfortable but will disrupt and disturb the status quo. Today, he comes again: this time into Jerusalem at the end of his life. And again, the people of the time are filled with expectations which will not be met. In the Matthew, Mark and John versions of today’s scriptures, they shout “Hosanna!” which means? It means, “Lord save us!” or “Lord Help us!” And they had every expectation that this salvation would come in the form of stopping the oppression of the Romans in a military way.
We are again called to look for Jesus in the unexpected, to look for God’s presence in new ways. To look beyond the triumphal march into Jerusalem and instead focus on Jesus’ message for us and his call for us to follow in his ways of love, peace, sacrifice and hope.
Jesus was the lord of the outcasts, the lord of the poor, the lord of the marginalized and displaced. And this day, the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was his day. It was also THEIR day. He entered Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches, on a donkey’s colt (according to the other gospels), with the multitude of his followers placing their cloaks on the ground before him. He was surrounded by those who had been healed of their afflictions, those he had empowered, those he had freed, those he had loved, and they were so excited by his coming! Their king, their lord was entering Jerusalem! They believed he would save them, that he would take back the city and he would free Israel from the oppression of the Romans. He would lift high the lowly and everything would be okay again. Can you imagine the excitement? Jesus would make all their pain go away, he would make it good, he would bring blessings, freedom and shalom, peace, wholeness to Israel. This was a day to rejoice indeed.
The Pharisees, the righteous, those who still had some power and some wealth and some freedom, even in the midst of Roman occupation were also present. But how differently they must have seen things! Here was this carpenter’s son, this Jewish man on a DONKEY - a sign of humility and poverty, not a grand royal horse, but a donkey. And here he was surrounded by the outcasts, the poor, those who had no power or resources, the “riff raff”. How could they really think this man would make a difference in their lives? How could they really think he could help them? They laid their cloaks on the ground before him - a gesture usually reserved for royalty. But what cloaks! These were not rich frocks covering the dirt to provide a clean and royal ride for a king. Instead they were rags, used clothes, hand-me-downs, worn to threads - a symbolic gesture for a clown king. What a joke!! How could this man be a king? How could he do anything with this rag tag group of people to make their lives acceptable?
In addition, the Pharisees were undoubtedly more than a little nervous about the scene Jesus and the disciples were making. The Romans did control Jerusalem. What if they felt threatened by this man? Who would they punish? Probably all of Israel - starting at the top. No, the Pharisees figured, it was important that this man and this demonstration be stopped before there were violent repercussions and more hardships inflicted on them from the Romans.
And then there is Jesus’ perspective. This was Jesus’ day - the only day during his life time that the work he had done and the message he brought were honored and supported and uplifted in this grand way. For within a week the crowds would become disappointed by his lack of military action. Within a week they would have turned on him. Within a week he would be dead. And Jesus saw this. He knew that he was not the kind of king they wanted. He was never going to be the military man, come to overthrow the Roman rule. He was never going to be like our mortal, human kings. Instead, he was a king of love. He was a king of peace. And the difference he came to make was not military or violent. It was to change people from inside, to heal, to empower, to teach them to see everyone as brother and sister and to rejoice in that love. And if he could succeed in teaching people to love each other, that would make a difference far greater than any military or violent action possibly could. For Jesus, this was the day to celebrate. It was also a day to grieve for the people still didn’t get it. They still didn’t see him or his message. They were still expecting something different.
What version of Jesus do we see? What expectations for Jesus do we have? As we read today’s story about his entry into Jerusalem do we see, like Jesus’ disciples, a king who will rule the people and lead them in triumph? One who will return in glory to take over and make everything fair and right? I think most of us would hope for that. Most people, indeed most Christians, still expect a returning Jesus to overthrow our current governments and rule with might and strength. But that has never been the God Jesus has shown us. Do we, then, like the Pharisees, see a weak fool who really will not be able to effect positive change but may instead make things worse by creating fear in those who do have power? Or… can we instead see the man of the marginalized who will confront us for our riches and power and ask us to change our ways and serve the poor and marginalized? Can we see and expect a man who will upset the status quo, upset our comfortable lives by overturning the money changers in the temple – demanding a counter cultural behavior instead, ask from us actions of love instead of simple work towards making money, or friends or power? Who do we see? What do we expect?
“Lord Save us!” the people cried. They cried it in trust that he would save them. They cried it with hope and expectation. They cried it with joy and celebration. And the fact is, if they had listened he would have saved them, but again, not in the way they expected or wanted. When we can change our lives around from being fearful, angry, and hating into being people whose lives are truly governed by LOVE (which includes gratitude, faith, hope, trust, peace), then our lives ARE saved, they become different, they are changed into lives of meaning, of purpose, of “eternal life” in the sense of becoming so much bigger than ourselves. But this is not the way people then, or now, want to be saved. We want to be saved from our pain, from our grief. We want to be saved from financial struggles and worries. We want to be rescued from anything that hurts us or is oppressive, demeaning, unfair. We forget that we are called to be the change we want to see, to be God’s hands and feet in the world. We forget and instead want to be rescued – from ourselves perhaps most of all.
Palm Sunday is a day of celebration. We celebrate the kingship of Jesus. But it is also a day of reflection. We are called to reflect on the ways that kingship is different from our expectations. We reflect on our call to look for God’s coming in different and unexpected ways. We look to see God’s glory as it speaks to us today. Open your heart to God’s coming. Open your soul to the new possibilities present this day, here and now. And maybe, instead of “Lord, save us!” we need to be shouting, “Show us how to save you through saving and loving one another.” Amen.