A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Palm Sunday ~ Matthew 21:1-11
I want to jump right to the heart of this story and really wrestle with its central question. Jesus and his disciples are arriving at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This is an annual pilgrimage that thousands upon thousands of Jews would have made utterly swelling the population of the city and creating a potential tinderbox of rebellion and trouble – especially since Passover has definite political undertones of releasing occupied people from their bondage.
That meant that the Roman army who were occupying the territory in a most brutal manner would have been on high alert and displaying their full power. Picture the police presence at a G20 demonstration and then amplify it many times. These aren’t well-meaning people looking to serve and protect – these are mean and nasty soldiers looking to violently quash any form of unrest.
And in strolls Jesus.
Except he doesn’t stroll in, does he.
No, according to Matthew’s version he comes in like a royal procession. Matthew clearly wants his primarily Jewish audience to make the direct connection of Jesus with the procession of the Messiah on a donkey in the book of Zechariah. This is no accident: it’s a very carefully constructed piece of political theatre. There is absolutely no way that a person of Jesus’ intellect and experience would not know that this royal procession he was at the centre of would be a blatant and pointed provocation of the powers that be. Jesus is not naïve. According to Matthew, Jesus was thumbing his nose at both Rome and the Jewish authorities by entering in this way.
Let’s talk about the three crowds for a minute. Each crowd represents where we might stand as we relate to Jesus. Some of the crowds are part of the political theatre, others are watching it, but all of them have a relationship with Jesus.
There is the crowd that is out in front of Jesus, laying down their cloaks, and cutting down branches and placing them before him. Think about the crowds at the front of any demonstration – they are the trail blazers. They clear the way for the movement to happen. They are the ones who come up against the opposition first and strongest. In this story they are probably the people most committed to Jesus and his Way – willing to risk all for him. Are you in that crowd?
Then there’s the crowd behind him. They are still part of the parade as opposed to being on the sidelines, but they are following. They’re committed but not as demonstrative about it. I don’t want to undersell how risky even being part of the parade in any way was, but the crowd behind’s experience would be different than the crowd in front’s experience. They are still shouting Hosanna and whatnot, but they aren’t at the forefront. Are you in that crowd?
Then there’s the crowd watching. Matthew 21:10, When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
The third crowd is the whole city and it was in turmoil because of Jesus! Can you imagine what that was like?
The word translated as turmoil literally means to shake, to agitate. The whole city was shaking, agitated, stirred up. What would it take to stir up or agitate our city and draw a crowd?
We have the benefit of television, and news, and the internet, and social media. If something happens nowadays word about it can spread virally in a matter of minutes and everyone can hear about it.
But there was no Twitter or Facebook or CNN back then.
How powerful an entrance into Jerusalem must that have been to have the ability to stir up the whole city and agitate them simply by word of mouth?! And it wasn’t just the Jewish people who heard about it. You can be sure that the Roman occupiers were just as agitated by this, that the Jewish religious authorities saw it as a direct threat, and that everyone seemed to be asking the same question that we’re asking right now:
Who is this?
Chances are, because you’re sitting here in a worship service, you are probably not part of the on-looking crowd but already part of the parade of Jesus – walking in his Way – sharing the journey with him. Some of us might be at the front of the parade – others might be at the back – but all of us are likely already part of the movement. Guess what?
That means that we are the agitators! We are the ones shaking up the status quo. We are the ones stirring up questions.
It didn’t used to be that way…A few decades ago when Christianity was more central in the culture of North America there wasn’t all that much agitating going on. If everyone is Christian, and therefore in the parade, there is no on-looking crowd to agitate. We called that time “Christendom” because Christianity was the dominant form of social and spiritual organization in the country.
The problem isn’t that Christendom is dead (and it is truly dead) – the problem is that it was never really true. There has never been a time when everyone was Christian in our country – it was just that the powers that be seemed to be so the veneer of Christianity was assumed to be true and deep.
It was neither.
It was more cultural than spiritual, and as the culture shifted the two were divided.
There was a time when the Moderator of our church could pick up the phone and call the Prime Minister of the country and have a conversation. What do you think would happen today if she made that call?
So we’ve gone from “everyone’s a Christian and therefore we don’t have to answer the ‘who is he’ question because everyone already knows” to a time when a small percentage of the population are practicing Christians, a large percentage have a vague recollection of church and probably hold to shallow stereotypes of who Jesus is, and a growing percentage are authentically on the sidelines looking at us and wondering “who is this”?
My worry is that we’re so used to everyone being part of the parade that we have settled way back into the rear of it and have been comfortably cruising along and we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be out in front, trailblazing, risking the consequences of agitating the on-looking crowd and stirring them up. Generally, we prefer to practice a quiet faith and not get in anyone’s face about it – at all.
And yet, a few minutes ago we were walking around waving palms pretending like we were part of a very provocative and very political demonstration. I’m good with that! I’m happy that we’re moving from the back of the parade to the front. I’m excited by the prospect of provoking questions from people because of our chosen path. The crowd at the front is the crowd that we are now part of, like it or not, and the people looking at us are asking a very serious and sincere question that we need to be ready to meaningfully answer:
Who is this?
Who is this guy whose name everyone seems to know but no one seems to agree on?
Who is this guy that you would dedicate your life to learning his teachings?
Who is this guy that you would claim allegiance to him?
Who is this?
How shall we answer?
There was an historical, flesh and blood Jesus who had dusty feet and rode on a donkey and agitated a city. So yes, at some level there is an objective Jesus that is factually accurate. But that Jesus is virtually impossible to know. We don’t know what he looked like, or even something so simple as how tall he was, so how can we possibly know about the one and only definitive meaning of who Jesus was and is? We can’t. So instinctively we turn to our subjective understanding of Jesus, and ask:
Who is Jesus for you?
You are the one and only person who can answer that. If Jesus was purely an objective reality that everyone could agree on we wouldn’t currently have around 30,000 different Christian denominations – 29,999 of which have Jesus wrong!
So who is Jesus for you?
Shepherd? Guide? Teacher? Friend? Comforter? Mystic? Conduit? Example? Son of God? Saviour? Messiah? Revolutionary? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above?
“Who is Jesus for you?” is our usual question, but it’s something of a reflection of our self-centred society. Our personal approach to Jesus is very important, but surely we can speak of things we ought to have in common about Jesus.
Can we glean anything from today’s reading about this? Yes we can!
Who is this?
In the reading, the crowds, presumably both the ones in front of Jesus and the ones behind him, were saying this:
Matthew 21:11 This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
I think we tend to miss how provocative an answer that was.
The role of a prophet is to be the voice of God sent to correct the misguided ways of people who have strayed from a healthy spiritual path and are out of tune with the beautiful harmony that God offers. Prophets are meant to disturb our peace and shock us out of our complacency – which is usually not well received, and why usually they get run out of town, or worse.
A prophet is someone who offers a God-inspired, alternative view of how things should be in the world, and if their alternative vision is compelling enough people will listen and follow.
Who is this?
Jesus is someone who offers a compelling alternative vision of abundant life and God-centredness to a world obsessed with self-interest and self-importance.
Who is this?
Jesus is someone who looks at a world that embraces a life philosophy that says “me-first, others are dangerous, and it’s me against the world” and says to it “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, love others as you love yourself, and love one another as you journey together”.
Who is this?
This is the embodiment of love, love, love.
And if you and I are part of the crowd with him, then we are the ones loudly proclaiming that we’re truly with him, and that we embrace his compelling alternative vision for the world and we are committing our lives to love, love, love – just like him.
And here’s the really sobering and humbling thing for us as we look at this parade and try to figure out exactly where we are in it: if we really are part of this Jesus movement, and we really are in tune with his teaching, and his teaching insists that he is one with God and that we are one with him and therefore we too are one with God, then the inescapable conclusion is that we’re not just part of the crowd but as far as the people we encounter beyond this place are concerned we are the one on the donkey!
No, I don’t mean that we’re supposed to be Jesus.
But we’re also not just supposed to be admirers of him, or fans of his work. We’re supposed to be one with him – embodying his mission, and sharing his compelling alternative vision of abundant life.
And for us in here that probably sounds awesome!
I’m called to be just like Jesus! I’m one with God too! Fantastic!
But embracing Jesus’ alternative path of love, love, love doesn’t mean you lay in the sun smelling the flowers and singing kum-by-yah – or go to church once a week and call it done.
When you’re in church you’re probably part of the crowd – but when you’re out there, if you’re living out Jesus’ compelling vision of loving God, others, and one another, you will be the centrepoint of your own bit of political theatre and you will be seen as the prophet – the one on the donkey, agitating the crowd.
And that’s great until you realize that being prophetic has consequences – and in Matthew the very next thing that happens is Jesus goes to the centre of their civic and religious life, sees that it is utterly corrupted and completely missing the point of his and God’s compelling alternative vision, and he loses his cool and trashes the outer area of the Temple by kicking over tables and chasing out the greedy and selfish people. Unsurprisingly, the people not living by this compelling alternative vision will be upset.
Who is this?
He’s the one whose alternative vision was so compelling that the powers that be – both Roman and Jewish – were so threatened by that they felt compelled to try to crush it.
Who is this?
He’s Martin Luther King Jr. He’s Mahatma Ghandi.
He’s Bernie Sanders. He’s Nelson Mandela.
He’s Oscar Romero. He’s Dorothy Day.
He’s Malala Yousafzai. He’s Nellie McClung. He’s Lydia Gruchy.
If Jesus is just a nice idea, and a good ethical guy, and a nice person to sing about on Sundays, then we’re just part of the on-looking crowd, and we can get a little agitated and then shrug it off and come and go as we please.
But if we’re really transformed by his compelling alternative vision of a God-centred life – if all this faith stuff is more than just an add-on in our lives – if we’re truly striving to live out his Way – if we’re on the donkey, if we’re kicking over tables, if we’re really all in, it will have consequences – and some of them will be wonderful, and some of them will be terrible – like Holy Week starts – but not how it ends!
The agitated city asked the perfect question, and how we answer is a profound reflection on just what it is we think we’re doing here.
So take this home and ponder it, pray about it, wrestle with it, and see if you come up with this answer:
Who is this?