Encounter: Jubilant Crowds

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
April 9, 2017
Palm Sunday

Matthew 21: 1-11 (CEB)
When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” 6The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

8Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked.11The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Early this week, news broke of a deadly attack in Syria. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of others were injured by what the World Health Organization said was exposure to a nerve agent. Many blamed he Syrian government. The Syrian government blamed the rebels. Whatever the exact chain of events leading to this tragedy, the point is the same. Innocent men, women, and children were attacked, injured, and killed, in a reckless pursuit of power and control. We’d like to think it was an isolated incident, but the hard truth is that there are thousands, maybe millions of people who are living under the oppressive thumb of inhumane regimes right now. If we were to step back through history, we would find many millions more who suffered the same as empires and principalities sought after power and then fought to maintain it. It was the reality of people living in and around Jerusalem in Jesus day, as they were under the rule of the Roman Empire.

I think it’s really hard for us to understand exactly what life is like under these sorts of circumstances. That’s why I lifted up the story of the attack in Syria earlier this week. We might feel like our government oversteps its bounds from time; we might not like every policy change or whatever, but at the end of the day, we still have our freedom. At the end of the day, we aren’t the collateral damage of someone’s unchecked pursuit of total power and control. It’s hard for us to relate to life under the rule of an oppressive regime; a power that not only strips you of all rights, but devalues your life so much that it doesn’t matter if it is lost or not. But try to imagine that for minute. Try to imagine that you were in Syria this week, or that you have lived there for some number of years. Try to imagine life in South Sudan, or North Korea, or Cold War Russia, or Nazi Germany. Life in such circumstances would not be unlike living in and around Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, under Roman rule.

Now, here’s why that matters. When your life is ruled day in and day out by an oppressive force, you’re going to be longing for something different, something better. And when someone comes along talking about freedom, when someone comes along who can relieve your burdens, when someone comes along talking about justice, and peace, and joy, it’s going to give you hope. And you’re going to follow that person, which is exactly what happened. These folks that are waving palm branches and throwing their clothes on the road before Jesus are the same crowd that has been following him from as far back as Galilee, and growing with every new town or village. These are the former beggars, the prostitutes, those who “were blind but now can see,” the sinners that Jesus ate with, healed, loved on, included, and treated with dignity. There were also a lot of women and children in this crowd. At a time when women and children were viewed as nothing more than property, Jesus was perhaps the first one to treat them as equals.

That was the truth for each of these people who hailed Jesus as King on that first Palm Sunday millennia ago. After years of being oppressed and de-valued; after years of being treated like a nobody, or burdened by unimaginable hardships of any variety, Jesus came along with the message that their lives mattered, that they had worth as children of God. Just think how happy these crowds would have been as Jesus processed into Jerusalem. Jesus was finally getting the respect he deserved. The only one who had ever really loved and valued these throngs of people was coming to the Jerusalem as the Messiah of God. This was the moment! This was payback for anyone and everyone who had ever been made to feel small or less than. Finally, the “powers that be,” the oppressors, the bullies would be put in their place. Just imagine for a minute what it would be like if Jesus were to walk through Syria today. It really is no wonder that these folks were celebrating immensely as Christ rode through the gates and into the greatest city in all of Israel and Judea.

There was a problem, though. Jerusalem wasn’t a friendly city. And Jesus knew that long before he instructed his disciples to gather a donkey and colt for him to ride into town. He knew what awaited him inside those city gates. He knew the kind of trouble his entrance would stir up. In the region of Judea, Jerusalem was the center of power. Herod was a Jew, but he was nothing more than a pawn of the Roman Empire. There would be no tolerance for a ragamuffin street preacher stirring up trouble by teaching people about freedom from slavery and oppression, especially when those people were hailing this man as “the prophet” and the “Son of David.” And of course, we know that there was no tolerance. By the end of the week, the celebratory mood of the crowds had turned to somber mourning as Jesus hung on a cross to die.

You know, it’s really fascinating to think about those crowds of people singing “Hosanna” and waving palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem. They worshipped Jesus as prophet, King, Messiah, precisely because he was different from all the other powers who ruled in their lives. While others oppressed, Jesus freed; while others kept them marginalized, Jesus made them equals. Yet when Jesus paraded into Jerusalem, their expectation was that he would become like the other rulers; that he would overturn Roman rule and take his place as the next earthly King; that he would rule over Jerusalem and control Judea. Even though Jesus had turned around the lives of these throngs of people, they still did not understand that his Kingship would happen in a different way. And so when Jesus died at the end of the week, they didn’t know what to do. Their faces had been seen in the city now; their voices had been heard praising Jesus of Nazareth. They went in to hiding for fear of being discovered and tried as traitors, subject to the same fate as the man they followed.

It wasn’t until days later that the fog would begin to lift and some clarity would start to emerge. And even still it took some time. This was a complete upheaval of all worldly expectations; this was a total turn-around of the order they had always known, and it took some time to process it all, to understand everything that had happened. The truth is, the disciples of Christ are still learning this lesson. We are still grasping the reality of what it means to claim Jesus as Lord of our lives; to worship and praise him as prophet and King. In order for it to be true that Jesus can offer us freedom; in order for it to be true that Jesus can call us children of God and claim us as brothers and sisters; in order for it to be true that Jesus can bring justice and peace to the oppressed, then it cannot be true that Christ topples worldly governments in violent coups; it cannot be true that Jesus rules with a heavy hand; it cannot be true that Jesus will be like every other earthly king.

The Jesus the crowds worshipped as he entered Jerusalem was not a conquering King, at least not in the way they thought. He was merely a humble servant. He was the one who gained power through sacrifice. He exalted others by making himself lowly. It was who he had been all along, and it was who he would be all the way to the cross and beyond. This is what drew people to him; this is what brought people from the margins to the mainstream, this is what makes Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. And if crowds of people out there in the streets are going to celebrate Jesus as we have celebrated him today, then it will happen because we show them who Christ really is.

I don’t know what I can do in Syria, except pray for those folks who are suffering and the people who are so carelessly fighting for power. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do something here, now, in my life, in my sphere of influence. All over this city there are people who are pushed out to the margins every day, and they are left there. They are oppressed by systems that build power on their backs while offering nothing in return. They are told over and over again that they are worthless and their lives are a waste. Most of them have heard it and experienced it enough by now that they believe it. In some ways, we benefit from those systems. And sometimes, we even fight to maintain the order that is of the greatest advantage to us personally. The least we can do is stop fighting only for ourselves. But it would be even better to take it a step further and to start fighting for the other guy; to stand by the side of the lowly and proclaim the clear message that they are equals. After all, that’s exactly what Jesus did.

Where do you suppose Jesus would decide to live if he were to come to Chattanooga? Who would he hang around? What would Jesus ride as he entered our town? Would it be some sort of open-roofed limousine flanked by armed security guards or would he come in a beat up 1973 Chevy Vega, or on a bicycle, or maybe even another donkey? And where would Jesus sleep? Would it be in a mansion on the ridge? Or would we find him under a bridge, in a tent city, or in a run-down hotel filled with drug addicts, folks who are down on their luck and prostitutes? Would we recognize him as the Messiah or would we think he was some kind of self-deluded lunatic? And if he had tons and tons of other “crazy looking,” “raggedy” people following him into our town would we welcome him with open arms or try and figure out a way to get rid of him?

Let’s face it. We are all mixed up. Our priorities are upside down. In so many ways, in so many aspects of our lives we are living the exact opposite of Jesus. And how’s that working out for us? Are we happy this way? We are dying. But Jesus came so that we can live.

On the first Palm Sunday Jesus’ fans were yelling “Hosanna!” By Friday the powers of the oppressive regime were screaming, “Crucify him!” Jesus’ followers fled. The rulers had Jesus nailed to a cross. But that is not how it ends. The real good news is that humility truly does win in the end. Love is the only way. Evil will be defeated. “The most powerful force in the world isn’t a nation with an army or a corporation that’s too big to fail, but the God who has promised to never abandon us regardless of the cost.” I can think of no greater reason to celebrate!

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