Sermon for Palm Sunday C, March 24, 2013, on Zech 9; Luke 19:28-40
Zech 9:9-10; 14:3-4, 9, 21
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.
Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.
And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one.
And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
The Purpose Worth the Parade
Probably my first childhood trauma was when, at six years old, our family moved from Kansas to Ohio. We had been living in the country. My father had grown up in Kansas where he returned after college. He was a part time pastor and part time Youth Ministry Director, but we lived in a rented farm house complete with barn, corral and everything wonderful.
My father knew how to saddle-break horses, so we had several around a good part of the time that he was breaking for neighbors. I was six when he taught me how to ride a full grown quarter horse. Life was good. With all of this at hand, I knew what I wanted from life: I was to be a cowboy when I grew up.
Then we moved to Ohio – to an apartment(!) in a city. I had to get a new life plan. Very traumatic.
It’s often cute when kids tell us that they want to be when they grow up. According to a survey I read about in Forbes magazine online:
“Seven out of 33 5-year-olds say they want to be superheros when they grow up, making it the single most popular career choice for kindergarteners (For the record, Spider-Man was No. 1). Three kids want to be princesses, and one hopes to grow up to be SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Wanting what is best?
Does that mean when we grow up, we adults want what is best for us? Maybe not. Ask a child what they would do with $10,000 and you may hear that half should go to chocolate and half to video games. Ask an adult what she wants for dinner and it may not be the meal her cardiologist would approve.
We have evolved to love sugar, salt and fat, but we no longer live the physically demanding lives that could handle them – especially in the quantities we have access to. Our appetites now crave exactly the kinds of foods that will shorten our lives. To put it bluntly, even as mature, educated, intelligent adults, we want what is killing us. And it goes far deeper than diet.
What they wanted that day
I bring up all these issues of wants and desires because this is the subject of Palm Sunday. There was a stark contrast between what the people on the parade route wanted and what they really needed. What they wanted was killing them. And my fear is that we find ourselves in a very similar situation today. Often, exactly what we want the most is the thing that produces our worst nightmare outcomes.
So, we all know the Palm Sunday story. We read it from different gospels each year. This year we read from Luke, which alone, leaves out the palm branches from his telling of the story – but the other gospels have it, so it’s still called “Palm Sunday” this year anyway. Luke includes the detail about the crowd spreading the coats on the parade route, as the other gospels do – so we could call it “Coat Spreading Sunday” but that doesn’t have the same ring as “Palm Sunday.”
Anyway, the important point is that spreading coats on the path for someone means that you think he is ascending to the throne as king. Waving the branches is the way you show support for the new regime. The setting of the scene opens on the Mount of Olives – the hill just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. Jesus is on a donkey colt – every detail here has echoes of the prophecies of the coming king we just read from Zechariah.
None of this was by chance. The bit about Jesus knowing in advance where to direct the disciples to find the colt and what to say is Luke’s way of indicating to his readers that Jesus was constructing this scene in careful, intentional reference to Zechariah’s prophecy of a coming king. It worked.
Wanting something small
What did the people want? They wanted a king! And Jesus was prepared to offer them a kingdom – but this is where the paths diverge.
The people wanted a small, ethnic, national kingdom, and if that meant that there had to be a bloodshed and war, so be it! They made no secret about their wishes; they shouted:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Presumably, the “peace” they were looking for was the peace only after the victorious battle. That cry was their version of the “Song of Angry Men” we heard in Les Miserables. They were ready to go to the barricades and start shooting.
But here is the problem. Their vision for the future; their quest; the thing they wanted was far too small, and it was killing them. Literally, it did. By 70 AD Roman armies had destroyed their temple, along with many of their sons, and in another 70 years their whole nation was annihilated. What they wanted most, killed them.
Jesus’ Large Alternative vision
Jesus had an alternative vision that was far greater than one ethnic people or one political nation. His vision was of the kingdom of God that was going to include “sheep from other folds.”
Jesus asked them to embrace a vision of Shalom, or well-being, or today we would say “human flourishing” that included “all the families of the earth.” The Peace he was offering, was the same “peace on earth good will towards people” that Luke’s gospels told about, that the angels’ sang at Jesus’ birth. This vision is huge and inclusive and global.
But it is a demanding vision. Just like the diet that your cardiologist demands after the wake-up call is difficult, so too, embracing the Jesus-vision of the kingdom of God is difficult. But dying is not so easy either.
What is difficult about it? Let us be very practical. In the same way that we all crave exactly what is killing us in the form of sugar, fat and salt in our diets, so we have values, perspectives, goals and desires that send us waves of immediate gratification, but which are literally killing us.
When Freedom becomes a rival god
The first is freedom. Of course we, and every human ever born longs to be free. And we thank God for our freedom. We do not live under a king or a Czar. We are proud to have a constitutional democracy. We are free. And in the name of that freedom, we, as a nation are willing to sacrifice the lives of children in schools, young people in the movie theaters, innocent bystanders in shopping malls – all in the name of the second amendment freedoms.
We have blood on our hands like those parents who sacrificed their children to the god Moloch in the Old Testament. How many more priceless, innocent lives need to be snuffed out?
But right now, with the blood at Sandy Hook barely dry on the floor, even the attempt to limit military style assault weapons is failing in congress. We as a nation would rather have piles of dead bodies than common sense limitations to our freedoms.
Are there viable solutions? There are multiple steps we could take tomorrow if there was the will to do so. For example, besides the obviously rational need for background checks, when it comes to handguns, the technology already exists to manufacture “smart guns” that can only be fired by their authorized owners. Imagine how, over the course of a decade, if these were the only guns sold, how many fewer would be in the hands of criminals and deranged people.
According to the founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research “smart guns could reduce youth suicides, accidental shootings and deaths from stolen weapons… He said, “We have a technology that will prove to be a lifesaving technology. We need to get it into guns. There’s politics that have prevented that from happening, but we’ve got to get beyond those politics.”
Politics? That means voters like us. This is about what we believe we want. Listen: the statement “Nobody’s going to tell me what not to do!” is exactly what you expect from a person who says, “I want to be a cowboy when I grow up.” This is called moral level 1.
Believing the Myth of Redemptive Violence
But the issue here goes even deeper than guns. It goes all the way down to our belief in the myth that we will be saved by violence itself. At a gut level, many if not most of us believe that the winner will be the one who is able to be the most violent.
So, we justify un-manned drone attacks that kill innocent civilians, including children, in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, and who knows where else? And now, even a top military leader is saying it has gone too far.
Recently Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hardly a peace-nick, said he believed that our drone policy was producing what he called “blowback” on the ground. He said,
“If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”
(many thanks to Tony Jones’ Theobolgy for alerting us to this).
If the generals do not believe that you can “kill your way to a solution,” have they gotten out in front of the Christian civilians? We Christians say we follow the “prince of peace” – how can we believe that we can kill our way to a peaceful, safe, and just world?
Or maybe what we want is just simply way too small. Maybe we don’t want a peaceful, safe, just world. Maybe we just want a nation that no one can challenge.
But I believe that is like wanting to be a cowboy or a princess when you grow up – not that it’s cute, but that it’s so, so, small a vision.
Body counts or reconciliation?
Jesus has on offer an alternative: it is the vision of a world of people who know how to achieve reconciliation between Jews and Greeks, males and females, slave and free. According to the vision Jesus was willing to die for, turning the other cheek, forgiving enemies, seeking distributive justice instead of retributive justice is the path that leads to life.
It is not the brawn of the violent that is blessed, according to Jesus, but the brains of the peacemakers who are blessed because they know that you cannot “kill your way to a solution.” The myth of redemptive violence is just that: a myth.
There is an alternative to the small violent and ultimately pathetic and hopeless world of the Palm Sunday king-makers who put their coats down on the road in front of Jesus and his little donkey that day. It is to take up the cry as written, in full and complete sincerity, meaning both of its phrases from the start:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
It begins in the heart of everyone of us who practices reconciliation, forgiveness and peacemaking on an individual and family level. It comes from hearts that have practiced the regular Christian disciplines of prayer and worship drawing them closer to the source of peace, the Prince of Peace.
It comes from growing in Christian virtues of compassion and care for all of the people who are being harmed and all the unfairness in the world. But the personal quickly becomes the political, as we take up the broad, authentic agenda of the Zechariah king king on a colt, and proclaim his huge vision of worldwide blessing and peace.