Palm Sunday (April 9): “The Humility of God”

This sermon–shortened to allow for a Passion litany–seemed to meander around a bit; the real point seems to come out in the last two paragraphs. 

Phil 2:5-11 ; Matthew 21:1-11

We’ve spent 40 days following Jesus, seeing ourselves as the disciples in the gospel story (but wondering whether we aren’t more like the Pharisees sometimes). And as we’ve done so, we’ve tried to live out our discipleship in concrete ways in our own daily lives. Well, as they approached the grand and holy city of Jerusalem, the disciples apparently felt pretty good about themselves. They are ready to take this town; Jesus told them, after all, that they would be the twelve judges over Israel. They felt like they had been transformed by following this mysterious one, Jesus. But very quickly they come up against the reality of Jerusalem. This was to be God’s holy city; at its center, a mighty temple, one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world (renovated and expanded by a corrupt King Herod). But Jerusalem was a seething mixture of genuine piety and self-serving corruption. The temple was under Jewish administration, but only thanks to an uneasy collaboration with the occupying Roman Empire. Everyone saw either corruption in this arrangement, or cowardice. The Essenes abjured the temple; they preferred staying out in the desert. The zealots, on the other hand, plotted armed revolt against Roman rule, longing for the ancient days, some 500 years past, when Israel was an independent nation under its own king. How quickly people forget that the Jewish kings themselves were typically corrupt and irreligious, and oppressed both Jews and gentiles with an imperial zeal.

Into this disaster waiting to happen rides Jesus, with his disciples whipping up the crowd. They played on the images of Zechariah’s prophesy from some five centuries earlier, describing a day of victory when God himself would at last become King of Israel and of the world. Matthew picks up on the humility of Zechariah’s image. This long-awaited divine king is gentle, peaceful, and humble in his reign.

When Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, he is very keen to connect it with Zechariah’s prophesy; but Matthew could be a little clumsy in citing Scripture. In Zechariah 9 we read, “Your king comes to you…humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Scholars of Hebrew recognize that Zechariah, using a device typical of Hebrew poetry, is describing the same animal twice with different words, just for poetic effect. Matthew, unlike Mark, assumes there must be two animals, and so has Jesus seemingly straddling a donkey and a colt. That’s odd, and clumsy. It’s a reminder that the gospels give us an interpreted reconstruction of events, not an infallible eyewitness report. We don’t know what Jesus was actually thinking and intending coming into Jerusalem. He arrives in the midst of great crowds of pilgrims who were coming to Jerusalem from near and far to celebrate Passover in the city. Allowing his disciples and the crowds to herald Jesus as the coming King was a very provocative move. And then he follows it with overturning the tables of the moneychangers at the temple (echoing the final verse of Zechariah). The powerful people of Jerusalem took notice; Matthew tells us, “The whole city was in turmoil.” The last thing they wanted was an uprising that would provoke a Roman crackdown. That would bring woe to the Jewish people—and indeed that’s what happened thirty-some years after Jesus—and also disrupt the authority that the Jewish leaders enjoyed. So Jesus is really asking for trouble, but he is perhaps only pointing out that the emperor, or Empire, is not wearing any clothes. In other words, the Jewish authorities know that their respected and powerful position was tenuous.

Everything I’ve just told you is what historians will tell us about the so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They provide us with one genuine dimension of the story—the events taking place on the human plane. But for the gospels, these events are playing out on a divine plane as well. The actions of Jesus are not just about the colonial politics of Israel in the 30s of the Common Era. The story of Jesus is also about humanity in relation to God—remember? Christmas was about humanity and God being united in the person of Jesus, even from birth. Then we witnessed as Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and called his disciples to follow him. Or rather, we witness this today, for these events are eternally valid, eternally present. Jesus proclaims this day the coming kingdom and calls us. And we have been following and are following still. This day we are waving our palm branches and proclaiming him as our king. We are challenging and provoking all other claimants to the ultimate authority that, as far as we are concerned, only belongs to God. (You will notice that I took the flags out of the sanctuary, temporarily, so they would not crowd or distract from the cross, but also this is an appropriate Sunday and Holy Week to recall that we have only one king and one ultimate authority. We will hear later how those who crucified Jesus did so out of loyalty to the emperor.)

Not to get ahead of ourselves one week shy of Easter, but we can be present to all these events, and be his disciples following and proclaiming Jesus king, because Jesus has been raised from the dead. We believe and experience that he is not just history. And because he is risen, and we experience Jesus as alive within us and know ourselves to be his living body, we recognize that his actions are really God’s actions. And the other actors in the story are not just long-dead people, but us—they are our humanity. Not that we can completely ignore the particular human beings acting in this story, including Jesus’ own particular, historical humanity. There are real human villains in this story, and at least one hero. Nor can we ignore our own particular humanity today; there is a limit to how much we can learn about ourselves by reading the Bible. And so in Lent, we have been turned inward to our own practices, our own lives, our own repentance and discipleship. / But Lent is ending today; for me it will end in about 10 minutes when we transition from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday. At that point, we will mark that transition by turning outward to focus on the cross. You see, we’ve spent the 40 days of Lent in repentance, which was meet and right. We did this because we experienced ourselves as called to be Jesus’ disciples—those he set apart to be the new Israel, with Jesus as their king and Lord. We have been trying to be holy, as Jesus is holy, as God is holy—set apart from the sinful mass of humanity, and called to bring love and justice to the rest of humanity. And I hope these forty days have not been without fruit for you. I would love to hear that your life has changed completely and now you are living no longer in the flesh, as Paul said—meaning living for yourself above all—but living in the Spirit—living for God and therefore for others. I would love to hear you say that, so long as you are being true and honest. But I suspect I am not going to hear that.

In our Lenten Disciplines series, we didn’t aim too high; by contrast, Jesus, remember, talked about a kingdom of God that will turn the world upside down, where the meek inherit the earth and those persecuted and reviled are blessed. We didn’t attempt to bring about such a kingdom. We confined ourselves to turning our lives around if only in small, everyday ways. And how many of you did even this? Some of us tried some practices of repentance, which I know, thanks to some very nice posts on my blog my several of you. But I confess that even I didn’t do my own daily practices. Not all, not even most. Why are we so powerless? Why do we live day in and day out as if God does not exist? As if the daily grind is our true Lord and Master? As if we and the world are hopeless and will never know true goodness, love, and peace? Why do let ourselves be enslaved? That’s not a question just for us. Our whole world just keeps going around and around, replaying the same old mistakes. Same old war and violence and careless disregard.

The cross, which we are about to contemplate, is at the heart of the mystery of all things. It is the center of our faith, a center which precisely challenges our confidence that we’ve got it all figured out. The mystery of the cross has at least two sides; and perhaps it is no coincidence that the cross has two beams. On one hand, there is the mystery of our disobedience, our rebellion. Why indeed do we (do I) remain enslaved and powerless? The question is valid for non-religious people too. Everyone knows what goodness is, more or less. Why do we fail to be good?   But this question is sharpest for us people of faith, we who continue to rebel against God even while professing faith. Somewhere deep in the cobwebs of our psyche we don’t want to love and obey God. Something within us holds us back. We go all the way to Jerusalem with Jesus—even a great crowd follows him and proclaims him king. But when victory seems so near, suddenly we start withdrawing, dispersing, denying, and betraying. And poof—Jesus is all alone. We have our sophisticated intellectual doubts about religious belief; nothing wrong with that. But how much of our doubting really stems from a secret desire in our hearts to be free from God? / Jesus came to the city that should have welcomed him and instead handed him over to be crucified. How else can you explain that, other than as an expression of a deep rebellion against God that we ourselves can hardly acknowledge and understand, no matter how much we repent?

But the other side of the mystery of the cross is God’s unfathomable humility. This brings us back to Jesus’ humble entry as king, which is also God’s own humble entry. But even better, we hear this divine humility in the Philippians reading. Paul in this passage is probably quoting an earlier hymn, showing that even very soon after Jesus’ death and resurrection the church already understood that he was not just a good man who met an unjust fate. Rather, this was someone who shared in the form of God, but did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, even unto death on a cross. Jesus lived out God’s own humility, and died it too. God could have ridden in with 10,000 angels at his side, but God rode in on a donkey. God has chosen the path of mercy and humility, taking the suffering of our rebellion upon God’s own self. Only in this way could God have mercy on all. / This we believe, officially; but we can no more easily comprehend the meaning of divine humility than we understand our own stubborn rebellion against the good. If we think about it, we can realize that our lives are completely determined by these twin mysteries of the cross. We reject the good, and yet the good does not reject us. And we remain powerless to comprehend how this is so. But that’s not what we are to do this week anyway. The cross is not a puzzle to be figured out; it is there to safeguard this most obscure mystery of our human life with God—to remind us, like an open, flowing wound, of what we can neither comprehend, nor fix with all of our repentance. The cross is not there to be fixed by mind or by deed, but to provoke your wonder, and adoration.

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