I was somewhat surprised yesterday when a number of people approached me to say that I had just preached the best Palm Sunday sermon they had ever heard (to listen to the full audio version, click here). Their reasoning was that they’d never heard the story put into context so well. Truly, Jesus’ triumphant procession into Jerusalem makes a whole lot more sense, and makes a much bigger impact, when one considers the back-story. So, here it is in an even smaller nutshell than my 20 minute sermon!
At the time of Jesus, the Roman empire, which included what we now think of as Israel, was a miserable place to live if you were not among the upper class. The people suffered from heavy taxation, land appropriation, and indentured servanthood. In fact, between 1/2 to 2/3 of their income padded the pockets of the elite thanks to a system of unjust laws designed to make the rich, richer and the poor, destitute. The leaders of the Jewish religion had their own fingers in the pot as well and used religion to help control the people. One must do as the law requires, after all, they reasoned, the King and the Emperor were Divinely appointed.
Into this arena, where people struggled daily to survive, came Jesus. He was an anomaly. He was well-educated in the theology, laws and scripture of the Jewish people; plus he knew a trade. Still, he didn’t set himself above anyone. He didn’t dress in fine clothes or talk down to the people; he spoke with compassion, love and authority. But, Jesus not only spoke, but lived in contradiction to the political and religious systems of oppression. He didn’t allow himself to be hindered by the many cleanliness laws of the Jews, but ate meals with everyone, even those the rabbis would consider unclean and unworthy. By talking to them, eating with them, touching them and caring for them, Jesus showed, in a concrete way, that poor folk were just as good as rich folk, women were just as good as men, the sick were just as worthy as the healthy, and children were just as important as adults.
Jesus’ movement wasn’t about elevating himself above everyone else. He wasn’t running for political office, vying for high priest status or wanting to be worshipped. No, Jesus’ movement was about elevating all people, empowering them to live, to know God, and to experience equality and love. He wanted them to understand that living this way was living in the Kingdom of God – here and now!
Not only did he challenge the powers of the day, but he gave the people something invaluable… a sense of worth. He told them God loved them. That was subversive! He was a man living on the edge, consciously, deliberately. As more and more people flocked to him, storm clouds gathered. The leaders of Rome and the leaders of the Jews came together to rid themselves of this common nuisance. Rumors made their way back to Jesus. The powerful were plotting against him. He was not long for this world. And, Jerusalem was the most dangerous place to be.
But once one begins to live on the edge, it is hard to go back, to pretend you don’t see or don’t care. No, Jesus would not back off, he would not stop speaking his truth, he would not let the people down, he would not stop loving. He would do it his own way. He had only a very few cards left to play, and he played them strategically.
Now, the Kingdom of Heaven is within, but it is present in humanity when lived outwardly. So, I believe Jesus gave the people a symbolic coming of this kingdom on a day when everyone could see the clear polarity between the kingdom of heaven and the powers of the world.
It was Passover time. Passover is a Jewish festival that celebrates Israel’s liberation from the oppression of Pharoah and an earlier empire (I think that works symbolically, don’t you?) Thousands of people would be coming to Jerusalem for the celebration. But Pilate, the Roman governor, with full military accompaniment, would also be there as a political presence to ensure there would be no uprising.
Jesus knew the scriptures well. Recalling the passage in Zechariah 9:9 that a king will come into Jerusalem humble and riding on a foal of a donkey, Jesus sent his disciples for a donkey and had them prepare the people. One last card played… Jesus-style.
While Jesus rode into Jerusalem from the east to cries of “Hosanna! Save us!” waving of palm branches, and coats being thrown on the ground hailing the king, Pilate and his garrison rode in from the west with horses, weapons, helmets, flags, shields and power.
It was a grand day for the peasantry (and a few others) who felt a rising of hope… perhaps things would really change for them now and life would get better. But they didn’t really understand. This parade was almost like throwing down the gauntlet. The powers of the day couldn’t NOT respond to this audacious show of rebellion. The wheels were set in motion… it was going to be a long, difficult week. But today the kingdom of God has center stage.