This week we have joined the world in watching a show of force and military might. You might call it muscle flexing. Kind of a “See what we can do!” exchange. First you have the Syrian leader using chemical weapons on his own people (again!), and then you have the US leader sending a bomb shower on the military base which was identified as the source of the chemical weapons. Now everyone is on pins and needles. What is next? Who will make the next move? And what other nations will be jumping in on one side or the other? Will 59 bombs bring an end to another country’s civil war? Or will it take more? If so, how many? It is complicated. And it is ultimately a contest of who can be the strongest, the mightiest, the best equipped militarily to crush the ones defined as enemy.
The events this week remind me of the military show of force which entered Jerusalem from the west on the same day Jesus and his friends entered the city from the east. It was a parade of soldiers, war horses and their riders, heralding the arrival of Pontius Pilate. Pilate did not live in Jerusalem, but at his seashore residence in Caesarea Maritima, on the Mediterranean. In 30 bce, Herod the Great had built his palace on a berm jutting out over the water, including decorative pools. I am imagining a resort like setting. He added a port and built a city, naming it Caesarea, after Emperor Caesar Augustus. The seat of military and civilian government for Judea was moved there in 6 CE. As we have seen in recent months, government leaders still enjoy governing from the water’s edge. Pontius Pilate stayed in Caesarea most of the time, only coming into Jerusalem when he needed to. The season of Passover was one of those times. Passover was the annual observance of the Hebrew slave rebellion against Egypt, the oppressor of the day. The Romans got nervous every year, wondering what trouble would come from this celebration, for indeed, they were the oppressors of the day now, and they knew it. The Jews could easily get ideas in their heads about fomenting a new rebellion as they remembered the exodus from Egypt. All it would take would be a few folks to get unruly and then…. So extra forces were needed in town during Passover to “keep the peace.” Maybe kind of like the men in riot gear who patrolled Baltimore a couple of years ago, instilling fear, controlling the crowds, intimidating us all– all in the name of “keeping the peace.”
Pilate and his forces are coming into the city, flexing their military muscle. What a day for Jesus to choose to enter Jerusalem, descending into the valley from the Mt. of Olives, which was the place long expected to be the location of the coming of the Messiah. What a day for Jesus to enter Jerusalem, riding a colt, according to Luke. A king riding a colt was described by the prophet Zechariah, many years before—the prophet offered a message from God to the people of Israel: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion, Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.” Righteous and victorious do not seem to mesh with humble and riding on a colt. Righteous and victorious go with the war horses and flanks of soldiers. How else will God beat the bad guys? Jesus does not come in on a war horse decorated for battle. He rides a colt reserved for him through a mysterious plan which included a “borrowing” of the colt from its owners through the use of a code language. There are no trumpets or drums, no uniforms or banners, no formal saddle even! Just a cloak to sit on the colt’s back, just clothing laid on the road like a red carpet. Luke does not even mention the palms —you have to look in the accounts by the other gospel writers for the branches which were cut and laid in the road, another symbol of honor and praise. But we can’t have Palm Sunday without the palms, can we?
What a day for Jesus to choose to enter Jerusalem. What a day, indeed. It was the perfect day. It was the best day to illustrate God’s plan for anyone who was paying attention. It was the best day to show the contrast between kings of the world and the king of heaven. Luke’s point here is difference between the world’s vision of a king and God’s vision of a king. Totally different goals, totally different methods, totally different ways to show strength and power. Jesus is the kind of king who comes into town on a humble animal, welcomed by everyday folk. Jesus is the kind of king whose modus operandi is peace and not war.
I appreciate the words of a hymn written by Benedictine sister Dolores Dufner: The first verse goes like this:
O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
What royal face have you revealed whose praise the church would sing?
Aspiring not to glory’s height, to power, wealth and fame,
You walked a diff’rent lowly way, another’s will your aim.
God’s king walks to the tune of a different drummer. God’s king is focused God’s will for the world, not his own glory, power, wealth or fame. Like many hymnwriters, Dufner answers her opening question—O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?– in the following verses… here are some of the pieces of the answer:
To break the law of death you came, the law of love to bring:
a diff’rent rule of righteousness, a diff’rent kind of king.
….O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling;
for still, through us, you come to serve, a diff’rent kind of king.
To claim Christ as our king means following his law of love, his rule of righteousness and justice, his willingness to serve. He is a different kind of king. Not what the crowd expected. Some of the other gospel writers include “Hosanna” in the shouts of those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. Hosanna means “Save us!” He was the hoped-for redeemer, the one to make a change in their lives, the one to bring freedom from Roman oppression. Luke records only this: “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” The words are reminiscent of the words of the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Glory to God in heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” And the words can not be silenced. Jesus says even the stones will reverberate the message if the people do not.
What a day for Jesus to choose to come into town. What a way to make an entrance. What a message he communicates about the kingdom of God vs. kingdoms of the world. In an idea borrowed from an English theologian and writer, Alastair Roberts, this is a day of eucatastrophe, a word coined by JR Tolkien that means “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears, ….offering a sudden glimpse of Truth, an illustration of how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.” The greatest eucatastrophe for Tolkien is the resurrection itself, but on this day when Jesus enters the city as a different kind of king, we can see what God is pointing toward: a kingdom based on love, not hate, on service, not servitude, on peace, not war.
I like Roberts’ words here: “This is a kingdom that comes, not with the din and clamour of armies, their fearful fanfares, and their terrible instruments of war, but as the astonishing and wonderful unravelling of a divinely wrought eucatastrophe. The rule of God is brought near, not with the snorting and stamping of royal stallions, or with the thunderous rumbling of tanks, but in a lowly Messiah borne on the back of a humble colt, the joyful promises and songs of the prophets before him, the fullness of God’s blessing in his train.”
Before he gets into town, Jesus stops, grieving at the inability of Jerusalem to understand what it takes for peace. The people, the leaders, the religious establishment do not yet see that peace is the way. How does Jesus continue to weep, watching our actions today?
As you enter this week we call Holy, may you truly see it as a week set apart from any other week during the year May you find ways this week to renew your readiness to follow Christ, the different kind of king. Amen.