If I were to begin my sermon this morning by saying, “I have a dream!” Who would you think of? Martin Luther King, Jr. If I put my arms out and said, “I am not a crook.” Who would you think of? Richard Nixon. Or if I came to church this morning wearing a sparkling silver glove on my left hand, who would you think of? Michael Jackson.
When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people there would’ve known exactly who to think of. The prophet Zechariah from the Old Testament.
Let me read for you a text from Zechariah: Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
When Jesus comes on the donkey, they would have known what it symbolized.
And Jesus’ timing is significant. For Jesus, it was the beginning of the week of Passover – the most sacred week of the Jewish year. It was a time when Jews traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from the empire of Egypt. Remember the story of when Moses says to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” They would celebrate that story – their freedom from slavery – in Jerusalem that week.
But what we often don’t hear is that during this festival of freedom from slavery, the government would always show up. On one of the side of the city, the governor, Pontius Pilate, would have a process into town. It was the empire’s procession. Alongside Pilate would be soldiers and drums, weapons and armor. This was the Roman military marching into town. Their one goal was to intimidate. They were there to make sure nothing gets out of control, because when a community of people within your empire has a celebration about being freed from an earlier empire, you have to remind the people that you are still the one in charge. It is to make sure there isn’t any trouble.
And now, at the same time, Jesus comes riding into the city on a donkey. And the people alongside Jesus were the peasant class, the poor. Into was a counter procession, an alternate parade. Roman Empire on one side; Jesus on the other.
Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey is political demonstration. Jesus is a protester here. Jesus is a troublemaker, becoming a wrench in the political system of a violent empire. And when Jesus rides in on a donkey, everyone would have known what it symbolized – a king who will bring peace. Jesus has come to bring peace to a world overrun by power and violence.
And we can actually get this from the story simply by listening to what the crowd is saying – “Hosanna! Hosanna!” It is a word that means “save us.” Save us. Suddenly it is a very different parade if you imagine the people on the streets reaching out to Jesus saying “Save us, Lord. Save us.”
Two parades today. Over here it is all about the Empire of Rome. It is all about the power of the Emperor of Rome, Caesar. Do you know what they used to call Caesar? Son of God. Lord and Savior. Which is to say, this is how God wants to save the world, through power, violence, and glory.
But Jesus over here says no. Jesus, the one we call Son of God, says that God will not save the world through violence, but through non-violence. Not through power, but through weakness.
Last week, we spoke about the Lord’s Prayer as how we pledge allegiance. We pledge our allegiance every week to God and God alone. In this march, and throughout Jesus’ life, we get to see where God pledges God’s allegiance. And God’s allegiance is not with the rich and powerful, but God’s allegiance is always with those who are weak and suffering.
This is who God is. This is how God wants to be known. That God stands alongside those who suffer. God suffers as human beings suffer. Which is to say that wherever and whenever you suffer in your life, God will meet you there.
The Roman empire says God will meet you in success and power and victory; Jesus says I will meet you among the poor and the suffering. As preacher David Lose said, “Jesus suffers, that is, so that when we are suffering we know God understands and cares for us. Jesus is utterly alone by the end of the story so that when we feel alone we know God understands and is with us. Jesus cries out in despair so that when we become convinced the whole world has conspired against us and feel ready to give up, we know that God understands and holds onto us. Jesus dies because so that we know God understands death and the fear of death and reminds us that death does not have the last word.”
And now we are invited to watch and see what happens when one stands on the side of the poor and the suffering. In the following readings you will hear Jesus eating at a leper’s house and defending a servant woman. You will hear him break bread with his friends, even though he knows they will betray him. You will hear as he is put on trial and mocked and beaten.
This is God’s story. Which means it is our story. And it is just the beginning. It is just the beginning of God’s reign of peace. It is just the beginning of the reign of God who suffers with us. It is just the beginning. At the suggestion of one of my favorite preachers, William Sloan Coffin, I urge you not to throw away your palm branches, these symbols of peace, once your leave here. Instead, during this Holy Week, put them in a prominent place in your home and spend a few minutes every day looking at your palm branch. Then ask yourself, “ For what kind of a God do I wave this symbol of peace?” Not a God who causes suffering, like the Roman Empire. But a God who enters into suffering, and who bears our suffering. Like Jesus. Amen.