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A Parade Unlike Any Other
March 24, 2013
03-24-2013 Sermon Nearly everyone loves a parade. This spring our nation’s capitol has experienced one parade after another. There was the Chinese New Year Parade, George Washington’s Birthday Parade, St. Patrick’s Day parade. Soon to come will be the National Cherry Blossom Parade, followed by the Memorial Day Parade, the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Parade, and so on.
Well, this morning, we had our own little parade, didn’t we? We had drums and instruments beating out a rhythm, the chancel choir singing, “Lift Up the Gates Eternal,” trumpets blasting a fanfare, palm branches waving, even a real donkey to add to the excitement. Of course, our little parade this morning was a reminder that on the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey as disciples lined the street, waving palm branches and shouting a refrain from the prophet Zechariah, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” Yes, today we join in a Palm Sunday parade—but ours is a parade unlike any other.
In their book, The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan inform us that there were actually two parades in Jerusalem during that infamous Passover week. From the west came Pontius Pilate, draped in all the trappings of imperial power: purple banners blowing in the breeze, horses, chariots, and soldiers dressed in gleaming armor. Pilate and his army moved in to Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week to make sure nothing got out of hand. After all, Passover celebrated the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. At Passover, nationalistic feelings, and longing for liberation, ran high. Of course, the Romans were well aware of such sentiments and thus reinforcements had been called in. Had you been in Jerusalem during that fateful Passover, you would have heard royal bugles announcing an imperial processional. You would have been impressed with the display of Roman power parading by, and you would have been warned: Don’t mess with Rome.
But as we know, the Roman processional wasn’t the only parade in town. From the east came another procession. This parade included no military escort, no chariots or war horses, no spears or swords glistening in the sunlight. It featured only Jesus wearing an ordinary robe riding a young donkey. While the procession lacked pizzazz, it did not lack symbolic meaning. The way Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem was a clear prophetic act that identified him with Zechariah’s prophecy, “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Accordingly, the disciples waved their festival branches shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was the parade the faithful had dreamed of and prayed for. They were aware of Jesus’ deeds of power and now they looked to Jesus as their nation’s triumphant Messiah: a new Moses, another David, a liberator anointed by God to cleanse the Temple of pagan influence, assume the throne, and vanquish the enemies of Israel. No wonder some of the Pharisees called for calm: “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” They were understandably fearful that this Passover parade would provoke Roman retaliation.
But let’s halt the parade for a moment and ask a question. We know that throughout his ministry Jesus had been so careful not to identify himself with this traditional messianic figure. So as his parade makes its way into Jerusalem, why does Jesus now allow, and seemingly encourage, such uninhibited acclaim of him as Messiah, when all along he had been extremely reticent? Most likely it was simply a matter of timing. Within hours his disciples will learn that their parade ends not in the triumph they expect but with an outcome they weren’t able to foresee—Jesus’ suffering, rejection and death. Thus Jesus allows his followers along the parade route to hail him as Messiah, and welcome him as King. Why? Because through his suffering and death he will radically redefine those terms.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in his book, Simply Jesus, offers an insight into Jesus’ self-understanding. Wright suggests that Jesus combined Israel’s hope for a royal Messiah with Isaiah’s figure of the Suffering Servant, whom Isaiah describes as ”despised and rejected…a man of suffering…struck down by God, and afflicted…” So far as we know, no one had thought to associate Isaiah’s Suffering Servant with Israel’s royal Messiah, because the concepts are totally contradictory. Yet Jesus embraced the contradiction. He embodied the paradox. He rode into Jerusalem as God’s Suffering Servant and Israel’s triumphant messiah. Jesus will be crowned King, but his crown will be made of thorns and his throne will be a cross. Truly, this Palm Sunday parade is a parade unlike any other.
And that’s because Jesus was a liberator, a Ruler, and a King unlike any other. His fight was not with Rome per se, but with the insidious forces of evil that give rise to oppressive regimes in every age. No, Jesus didn’t attack and overthrow the corrupt leaders and authorities in Jerusalem. Rather, he attacked the greed and lust for power and wealth that lie at the heart of all corruption. He didn’t punish his enemies, but offered them God’s forgiveness. In a word, Jesus put fully into practice precisely what he had taught earlier: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” These are the things that make for peace!
As Jesus’ processional neared the city of Jerusalem, Jesus wept over it, because the so-called “city of peace” didn’t recognize the things that make for peace. And to be honest, we still don’t. One is reminded of a stanza in the Christmas song,
And in despair I bowed my head.
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Friends, the parade we celebrate on Palm Sunday is like no other. In truth, the peace that Christ offered has never drawn much of a following among the powerful of the world. Yet all the bullets and bombs and drones in the world cannot silence the truth: Jesus said and did the things that make for peace. So on this Palm Sunday, let us look again as the man from Nazareth rides by on a donkey. Do we stand silent on the sidelines, or will we fall in behind our King and follow him to the cross and beyond?
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”