He Took It All In
He Took It All In
March 25, 2018
On Palm Sunday, we are invited to join the parade. We are invited to consider what is to come. Most importantly, we are offered encouragement, that when it is our turn to face what is hard to face and to go where it is hard to go, we can trust that God understands and that God is with us. Let’s take a walk…
The first thing that I want you to see is that Palm Sunday was a planned event. Most of our text this morning is about the preparations for the parade. Those plans unfold in Bethpage. The name literally means, “House of Figs.” Everything that is going to unfold is so symbolic. That starts when the House of Figs bears fruit. Jesus sends two disciples to Bethpage. They are told that on the edge of town (where the poor folks live) they will find a colt that has never been ridden that is tied up. They are to untie it and take it—which is widely known as “theft,” unless prior arrangements have been made—but they have. The secret password is, “The Lord needs it.” Upon hearing those words, the disciples get away with the colt scot free.
Now, a couple of things about the colt. First of all, that colt would have been the hope for a secure future for any poor family. Giving up the colt would have been a huge sacrifice! In God’s unfolding plans in this life, real sacrifices are almost always required. It was entirely possible that they never saw the colt again. They made a decision that no financial advisor would have supported.
Second, the fact that Jesus would be riding a colt that had never been ridden had all sorts of connections to the Hebrew Scriptures and the prophecies regarding the Messiah. For as odd of a choice of transportation as a young donkey would be, these connections would not have been lost on the crowd: “Oh my God, he might be the Messiah…”
Third, the fact that Jesus actually rides on this colt is a hugely overlooked miracle of the New Testament. Donkeys are stubborn, cantankerous beasts. They do not submit to anyone. Take that general disposition and add in the colt feeling the weight of a rider for the fist time and you have a formula for disaster. Or…again, you have a very concrete surprise that would have captured the attention of the “hands-on, roll-up-your sleeves, blue collar (if they had collars) crowd. You didn’t have to be a master of the Torah to know that a never ridden colt who provided a smooth ride was something to behold!
Finally, the colt would have been a huge contrast to the warhorses that the Romans rode. They would have been meticulously trained beasts of wonder. They would have been the biggest, most imposing beasts that anyone had ever seen. They would have been a hugely intimidating part of the Roman parade that happened every year around Passover in Jerusalem to show everyone what would happen to anyone who challenged the powers that be.
Which, it turns out, is exactly what everyone wanted Jesus to do and, in fact, thought he was doing. The Romans had a parade every year. Jesus decides to have a parade, too. The Romans ride warhorses that are covered in armor. Jesus rides a colt that is covered in people’s coats. (As I’ve pointed out in the past, those coats were a powerful sign of a person’s place in the social hierarchy—the more elaborate the coat, the higher up the ladder the person was. So, the people see Jesus and literally shed their social status!) The Roman soldiers wave spears. The crowd waves palm branches (sort of like everyone of us who ever “stabbed” our friend as a kid on Palm Sunday. We get the meaning instinctively, much to our parents’ and teachers’ dismay!). And, any citizen who saw the Roman parade would have yelled out something nice about the Romans just to appease the powers that be. The people at Jesus’ parade shout out their own strange message…
Their message in one word is “Hosanna!” which doesn’t mean, “You’re the man!” Instead, it means, “Save us!” or just, “Save.” These people are happy to see Jesus and his followers coming. They cheer him on. However, despite his teaching and preaching, despite everything they have seen and heard, they still don’t understand. They think he is going to save them from the Romans. They think that he is going to be the next King David in the restored kingdom. They think he’s the Messiah—the warrior/king who is going to lead a military rebellion. They are about to be sorely disappointed. This is the crowd which will turn on him and call for him to be crucified within the week. This is the crowd that should be etched into the consciousness of everyone who is ever carried along by a crowd’s enthusiasm: “You know what crowds do, right? You know how fickle people are, right? Do I need to tell you the story?”
Here is the thing that we all forget because it is so hard to take in and take to heart. Jesus was non-violent. He spoke the truth to power in all sorts of moments and every time he did, those powers took a “pound of flesh.” Eventually, they would pound nails into that flesh in order to kill that truth. Jesus never reacted with violence or vengeance. He simply kept speaking and embodying the truth. At an entirely human level, he had to know that ridiculing the Romans was not going to settle well. At an entirely human level, he had to know that the crowd that so wanted him to be “Conan the Barbarian” was going to be so angry when he turned out to be the one who actually did, “Turn the other cheek,” who actually did, “Love his enemies,” who actually was arrested and tried and suffered and died, as he had predicted three times.
At an entirely human level, we are really missing the point of Palm Sunday unless we open our hearts to just how tough that must have been. The truth needs to be embodied and spoken. The powers that be need to be confronted. What is corrupt and awful needs to be pointed out. And, at some level, you know that not only are the powers that be not going to be happy (and, mind you, they are powerful!) but your supporters are going to attack you, your disciples are going to abandon you, one of those disciples is going to betray you, and it is likely you are going to die. All you have to do is be who the Romans want you to be or be who the religious authorities want you to be or be who the crowds want you to be and at least you won’t end up so alone.
What this leads to is an expectation for all of us that there are plenty of times when doing the right thing, being faithful and being the person whom God created us to be leads us into failure—at least what looks like failure to the world. Think of it this way—in baseball, if you get a hit three out of ten times, you are a hall of famer. What do you think Jesus’ average was? He had a handful of followers, a small crowd, composed mostly of people whom the world considered losers. He had healed them or fed them or led them or just respected and loved them. In the world’s eyes, that was like feeding a stray cat—then you’ve got a cat for life. Almost no one who actually heard Jesus actually followed Jesus. Top that off with Mark’s central message—that almost no one really understood who he was, especially on Palm Sunday. Add in what we know is coming because we’ve heard the story and what Jesus knew was coming because, at a human level, he could “do the math.” What we have here in the eyes of any church hierarchy would be a failed ministry. What we have here, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, is “a failure to communicate.” What we have here is our Messiah, living a truth that is so hard to take in: that the truth is that God so loves this world and that the best way to demonstrate that truth is to non-violently and indiscriminately love the world, one person at a time.
Here’s the kicker: we should expect the same. If we are going to live the truth of loving our enemies and loving our neighbor as ourselves and forgiving over and over again and of speaking the truth to power, we should expect to suffer—not because we can predict the future but because we know human beings. No one who has something wants to lose what they have. Everyone with a little power wants more. We have a tendency to forget the ideals with which we started. Those ideals erode over time. Therefore, if we live Christ’s truth in the world, we should not expect to succeed on the world’s terms. If we choose to be a source of God’s love, we don’t get to rely on vengeance and hate as a backup plan. We may never be crucified for the truth we live (thank God!) but we should expect to pay a price and that price can be heavy.
So…the parade ends but we know it is only the beginning, the beginning of Christ’s passion. He’s not doing what he’s doing because it is going to succeed. The Romans are not going to jump on their warhorses and head home. The religious authorities are not going to reform the faith. The crowds are not going to get who he is by week’s end. Almost no one is going to stand with him. Nope…the only reason to do what he is doing is because he has no choice. It is a matter of integrity. This is who he is. This is what he believes. This is his calling. And, in the end, if it is necessary, these are things worth dying for. They are the very things that he has been living from day one—on the banks of the Jordan River with John.
As dusk begins to settle in, he is in Jerusalem. He and the disciples enter the temple. Our translation says, he “looked around at everything.” My favorite translation says, “He took it all in.” He saw the merchants selling all the goods to the poor who had no money but wanted to do the faithful thing. He saw the way that power had corrupted things. But, what I’m sure that he felt was love for all those people. That is the core of who he was. And I think it was precisely because of how much he loved them—the poor, the merchants, the people with power—that he must have thought to himself, “This is exactly why I need to show them another way.” Then, Jesus and the disciples withdrew to Bethany for the night…