The Crowd, the City, the Church
The Crowd, The City, The Church
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-17
And so Lent, our season of “getting ready for the Mystery of Easter,” as we say in our Godly Play classes, draws to a close and Holy Week stands before us. It’s a special week for the church. I enjoyed hearing Pastor Lauden of City of Glory reminisce that back in Kenya they would hold worship services every evening during Holy Week. Our week might not be that full, but we are nonetheless each invited to walk the last days of Jesus’ life with him. We are invited to cheer with the crowds, waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, and then we are invited to turn away from Jesus on Good Friday. There’s some good news today too, but we’ll leave the real celebration for next week.
As those of you who read my sermon teaser will know, this morning I was intending to preach a sermon on the perils of triumphalism. I confess I was envious that Ken got to spend all of last week watching The Empire Strikes Back, and I thought I would mine some similar Star Wars gold to help us understand Palm Sunday. However, while the perils of triumphalism definitely exist in that galaxy far far away and right here in our Scriptures, I felt God’s gentle push towards a different message this morning.
So, instead of the Perils of Triumphalism, today our message is “The Crowd, The City, and The Church.”
It all started with a reassessment of the nature of the crowd, and particularly Matthew’s distinction between the welcome on the road, and the confusion of the city. While certainly none of the people who welcomed Jesus with all this pomp stood up for him before the chief priests or Pilate, they aren’t necessarily the crowd shouting crucify, either.
In fact, it seems likely that this crowd is made up of the very people who have been following Jesus through the countryside. Yes, we can be certain that if Jesus’ own disciples, the twelve who were closest to him, didn’t understand what he meant by his repeated predictions of his death, neither did the crowd. In some part, they probably were expecting a messiah in the mold of King David--a political and military leader who would lead them in a divinely assisted expulsion of the Romans. The crowd that gathered before Pilate did choose Barabbas, who Mark’s Gospel notes was a notorious insurrectionist. But, if this is the crowd who has been traveling with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, then maybe they did have some understanding of the peaceable kingdom Jesus was ushering in.
Jesus, it seems, even goes out of his way to arrange this scene to call attention to the prophecy of Zechariah, starting with their point of departure: the Mount of Olives. Zechariah 14:4 declares that the inauguration of God’s new creation will begin on that very spot:
“On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east.”
This continues with an appeal to chapter 9, verses 9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Given the difficulty of riding astride two animals, we can assume that Jesus in fact making a clear and symbolic appeal to this specific passage, which goes on to declare what sort of King is coming:
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
If this crowd has been listening to Jesus during their journey, and if they know their scriptures, they know that Jesus, the Son of David, has come not to seek power, but to command peace.
Now, Matthew makes clear that the full procession takes place outside the city, and when Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, the locals don’t understand. In the NRSV, we read that the “whole city was in turmoil.” The word “turmoil” here doesn’t capture the greek “seis” as in “seismic” very well. We ought to read that the whole city was shaken, as in to its very foundations.
And so here we are, the context for Jesus’ arrival in...
The residents are abuzz with the question: “Who is this?” Maybe they’ve caught the tail end of the procession, or maybe they just caught word of it. It clearly wasn’t big enough to attract the attention of the Romans.
Regardless, the faithful Jews of Jerusalem haven’t yet had the benefit of getting to know Jesus like the crowd had. They’re curious about him, curious about his agenda, about his good news. They’re hoping someone will restore Israel to greatness, that someone will prove their hope in God not in vain. They’re hoping in the promise of a savior... but, they haven’t seen one yet. All the covenant promises of God have resulted in decades of Roman occupation. The tension is rising. Maybe their hope is waning, and so they ask, “Who is this?”
Our city is asking this question too. I’m reminded of City Church’s “Jesus Is___ campaign from a few years ago. With one in three Washingtonians self-described as “religiously unaffiliated” or the “nones” as the Pew Forum calls them, odds are that if you, as a Christian, are sitting with one person on either side on the bus or a park bench, one of them doesn’t know who Jesus is. Maybe they’re wondering who he is, or maybe they just don’t care.
Jerusalem needed a compelling witness, and so does Seattle. Recall that no less a luminary than Gandhi declared, “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.” Gandhi found Jesus to be entirely compelling, but when he tried to enter a church one day, he was turned away, as that church was for high-caste Indians and whites only.
And so, Jesus’ followers do answer the city’s question: they say, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth.”
Maybe they could have said more, or maybe they suspected that Jesus would reveal himself soon enough. And Jesus does. He answers their question by walking straight into the temple and casting out the moneychangers. Jesus, the gentle king, turns over the tables and chairs of those who have profaned the temple.
I don’t know what the city thought of that, but we know that the chief priests and scribes became upset when Jesus begins receiving and healing the blind and the lame. The celebration of the children seems to have just sent the elites over the top.
Jesus answers the question of the city with action, as he will through the rest of his days in Jerusalem. Jesus is the Gentle King, but even his gentleness upsets the system. He will speak of love and truth, and he will completely enflesh the good news of God’s peace all the way to the cross, the grave, and beyond.
And so, here we are, today...
Hosanna translated literally means “save now.” The Hosanna cries of the crowd sound to me not unlike the cries of high school students across our country who gathered yesterday for the March to Save Our Lives. Our world is crying out for salvation, from guns and war, from sexual predators, and a host of other threats.
This is where Jesus’ re-enactment of Zechariah 9 becomes instructive for us today. The King of Zechariah’s hope will come to usher in an age of peace, to cut off the chariots and break the bows. This King will bring a dominion of peace.
This is not the peace of the Romans, the Pax Romana, enforced at the end of the spear and under the heel of their legions. This is not the peace of mutually assured destruction. Jesus has sternly refused to raise an army, to consolidate power for himself, or to raise even a hand in violent resistance.
Jesus’ dominion is our hearts, and our souls--to be sure--but Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth! Our present world, full of sin and brokenness and fallen people as it is, is just as much a concern of Jesus as is heaven. Jesus has inaugurated his peaceable kingdom, and world, and yes, our city needs to hear the good news.
Our giving--of self, time, and treasure--is one way we participate in Jesus’ giving of himself--his life--for the life of the world. Just like Jesus, we are called to lose our lives that the world might share in the life Jesus gives us.
As we look ahead to Holy Week before us, let us bear in mind that Jesus’ triumph is not accomplished with power, but gentleness; not by force of oppression, but by submission; not with bellicose bluster, but with quiet action; not as a conquering king, but as a servant; not with pride and self-puffery, but with humility.
Jesus’ triumph looks like an empty tomb, filling the women who discovered it with mingled feelings of fear and joy.
Jesus’ triumph looks like a stranger beating it out of town like a refugee with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Jesus’ triumph looks like the persistence of a church that continues to search the Scriptures, continues to gather, to pray, to sing praises, to witness in the world, and to yearn together for the inbreaking kingdom of heaven.