This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church of Ashland on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013. The texts I used were traditional Palm Sunday texts: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11. It was an interactive sermon with times for questions and dialogue throughout. So, where you see questions in bold, that’s when we had a few minutes of conversation with the entire congregation. I also had traditional and modern Palm Sunday artwork being displayed on the screen behind me, and some of those images I’ve interspersed throughout this blog post.
If you were here for Palm Sunday last year, you may remember that it was also April Fool’s Day, and that I started off the sermon by telling you about a YouTube video called the “No Pants Subway Ride,” a bit of street theater performed by a group called Improv Everywhere. And yes, I know what you’re thinking …if only we had had the screen last year…
Well, I won’t be talking about the No Pants Subway Ride again this year, but as we get into this story this morning, I do think it’s important to remember that Jesus’s procession into Jerusalem was a bit of a stunt. It was a bit of street theatre, an event that took some planning and certainly wasn’t the entrance that many were expecting, or even hoping for.
As we get to know Jesus more and more in the gospels, we begin to get the idea that Jesus isn’t all that concerned about what others had expected of him, or what others thought he should be doing. He had his own ideas, his own plans for interacting with humanity…and some folks just couldn’t get on board with Jesus’s way of doing things.
So, let’s look at this story. Jesus is traveling with his disciples, making his way toward Jerusalem, when he stops and gives very specific instructions to two of the disciples. They are to go into a village and retrieve a donkey for Jesus.
I think my immediate response would have been, “A donkey?” You want a little ‘ole donkey? You know, I think we can find you a much better horse for you Jesus…” But we are told that the disciples did just as Jesus asked, went into the village, found a donkey, explained to the owners, who apparently were right there as the disciples tried to steal their donkey, they explained to the owners why they needed it, “Its master needs it.”
And this is one of the things I both love and find frustrating about the Bible. You know it leaves a ton out. If you were the owners of that donkey, and someone walked up and started untying it, and you said, “Hey – what are you doing?” and the response you get is that “its master needs it,” wouldn’t your first thought be…. “Hey! I’M its master!”
There must have been some more dialogue that happened here…things got worked out…and then the disciples returned to Jesus with the donkey.
So, talk to me. Why a donkey? Why on earth does Jesus want a donkey?
So, this image of riding in on a donkey, was a very different image that Jesus was presenting, and you can be sure that it wasn’t on accident.
In Matthew’s Gospel, it reads the Zechariah prophecy more literally than the other Gospel writers and so in his version, the disciples actually get a donkey AND a colt. New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan writes about the choice of choosing this donkey and colt. He says:
“Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”
Jesus didn’t want there to be any confusion, whatsoever, about the message that he was going to be bringing when he arrived in Jerusalem. This was a way of showing that he was not like a typical triumphant Roman king. This was a message of peace.
Although, if you skip ahead a few verses after our story ends this morning, you’ll encounter a rather interesting story in which Jesus does not come off very peaceful: the cleansing of the temple. Our peaceful, meek and mild Jesus, riding in a donkey…he can still get ticked off.
So, while the presence of the donkey was surely to allude to the significance of peace, perhaps, it was about something bigger than that. Perhaps it was a way of telling those present that he was not who they thought he was.
Any Star Wars fans out there? You know that scene from Star Wars Episode 4, where Luke, R2D2, C3PO and Obi Wan are all arriving at Moss Eislee and they are stopped by Storm Troopers? The Storm Troopers are looking for R2D2 and C3PO, and when they ask, what does Obi Wan say to the stormtroopers?
“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And they are allowed to pass on by.
That scene was going through my mind when I was thinking about this entrance into Jerusalem.
All of those people in the crowds, anxiously awaiting their king…the one who would save them…and Jesus comes in on a donkey, perhaps his own version of the Jedi mind trick and essentially says to the crowd:
“I’m not the king you’re looking for…I’m not exactly who you think I am…”
Maybe some realized that when he came in on a donkey…and surely, others realized that the events began to transpire that would lead to his death…but I think all of the orchestration that went into this procession was Jesus’s way of letting them know that he wasn’t quite who they thought he was…
And so the story continues with Jesus’s entrance. As Jesus approaches, people are waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks down and spreading them over the road. This is a common image that we have in our minds when we think about Palm Sunday…the palm branches, the cloaks being thrown on the road…the cries of HOSANNA, which means SAVE US. And these are the things that we continue to celebrate today. We too get palm branches, we too sing out HOSANNA in the songs for worship today.
And I have to wonder…does it mean the same thing for us today, that it did for the people there in the crowds on that day when Jesus entered?
Certainly we can never know what was going through the hearts and minds of each person there in the crowds, but I can imagine that for many, when they cried out HOSANNA, they were asking to be saved from the Roman empire at the time. These were political cries, political hopes in a Messiah, a King who would come and defeat the Romans, who controlled Jerusalem.
The act of throwing one’s cloak down on the ground was a sign of homage and submission…of laying one’s self down, in hopes that the coming King would be able to bring deliverance.
While the people there were unhappy under Roman rule, they quickly were willing to submit to Jesus, who they hoped would be their new ruler, a ruler who would bring them freedom and liberation.
And so….as we have been waving our palm branches this morning…and as we have, and will continue, to sing Hosanna this morning and celebrate the beginning of this journey into Holy Week…
What DO we mean when we do these things? What does it mean to you to shout out Hosanna? What does it mean for you to welcome Jesus at the beginning of this Holy Week?
For me, it’s that act of laying down one’s cloak that I’m drawn to in this text.
I think that when we see Jesus entering in on the donkey, when we lay down our cloaks…I think what we’re really doing is laying down what we think about who Jesus is, and we’re laying down our ideas about Jesus. I believe that’s what some of those people in the crowd that day may have been doing…
And I think that’s something we’re still called to do today. It’s no secret that Christians disagree…we all have different ideas of who this person Jesus was and is…what it is that he cares about, and what type of life he is calling us toward. It is extremely easy for us to become sidetracked by our own ideas of God.
And it is scary how easy it is for us to allow our vision of God to become so narrow that we don’t allow ourselves to realize that God is so much bigger and more grander than we could ever imagine.
And so…as we heard this story this morning…some of us may find ourselves in the crowd today – yelling and cheering and waving our palm branches as Jesus the Christ enters into Jerusalem. We may be so excited that the moment of liberation has finally come!
But when the donkey approaches, our grasp tightens around our cloaks, and we don’t want to let go. We don’t want to lay our cloaks down before Jesus. We don’t want to let go of what WE think about Jesus, about what WE hope to be true about the Messiah.
And yet…we see Jesus pass by us…we see that subtle Jedi hand gesture, and we hear Jesus say to us, “I’m not the king you’re looking for…I’m not exactly who you think I am…” And somehow we find ourselves loosening the grip…releasing the cloak…letting go…
As is often the case with Jesus, when he enters Jerusalem that day, he came and turned everything upside down. You may have heard the term the “upside down kingdom” before. Because that’s what it is with Jesus. The first will be last. The last will be first. The meek will inherit the earth. You have to lose your life to find it. And the creator of the universe will inhabit the flesh of humanity and enter Jerusalem riding…a donkey.
One of the other passages for this week is a song that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians. It may be a familiar passage to many of you, and so I’ll read it from The Message version:
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process.
He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Lord of all, to the glorious honor of God the Parent.”
This passage is thought to be a popular hymn that was sung by the early Christian church, which Paul included in his letter. In this hymn, we have another example of this upside down kingdom that Jesus ushered in when he gave up the rights and privileges and all that came with being God, and took on the form of humanity.
The hymn from Philippians also reminds us of what is going to be happening over the course of this next week. An even greater reminder of the upside-down kingdom, when the creator of the universe not only comes and takes on the flesh of humanity…but eventually…humbles himself, ultimately, to the point of death. The worst kind of death at that.
Obviously, those who were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem could never have guessed this was going to happen. And yet…we are told that they were laying their cloaks down…and as we enter into this Holy Week…it would be good if we were able to do the same.
Now, we have some advantage over the folks in that crowd…we know how the events unfold. We know the sadness that will come, but we also know that death isn’t the end of the story. We know that there is something more…
But even though we know how the story ends…let’s never assume that we fully comprehend the person of Jesus…that we fully know who God is or what God up to in the world…each and every day that we get up, let us lay our cloaks down on the ground and be open to be surprised by God and this upside-down kingdom that Jesus ushered in over two thousand years ago.
I think all of these passages leave us with some questions this week, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, or any other questions or comments that you might have:
- So what DOES it look like for us to lay down our cloaks for Jesus?
- What ideas do we have about Jesus and who he is…that we might need to lay down?
- How does Jesus’s upside down kingdom, this alternative way of life, affect us today – or how should it?
- How does this story prepare you for Holy Week, and for all of the rest that happens before we come back together next week on Easter?