“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Return to the Lord thy God.” That solemn and haunting chant, from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, is a traditional Lenten reminder and summons to turn toward the true Source of life, by reconnecting with our spiritual story. On a yearly basis, Lent brings us back to some uncomfortable places and urges us to examine and consider our lives – to strip them down – to let go of some of the excesses and extravagances for a time, so we can see once again who we really are, and re-align ourselves with the Creator and our true purpose in life.
The people had gathered in Jerusalem not to see Jesus but because of the great religious festival of Passover, which always drew thousands to the great city. It was a festival which stirred powerful memories and hopes for Israelites. And scripture tells us that it was at this moment, in this context, that Jesus chose to make his entrance.
People had been hearing about this new leader – this exciting new rabbi—and perhaps many of them looked for a messiah or a hero, someone who would claim back the city of God from the hated Roman occupiers – someone who would reveal once again God’s love for Israel.
Jewish tradition was full of prophetic promises that continued to give hope. Jeremiah had promised: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (Jer. 33)
But Jesus entered in a very self-effacing, almost self-mocking way, on a colt the foal of an ass, an animal considered by Jews to be unclean. Some artistic renditions have him riding side-saddle. There may have been some sense in which he was purposely mocking the kinds of solemn processions that usually accompany great people. Presidents and celebrities do not typically ride up to great events in beaten-up taxi cabs or on the bus. To ride in to the great holy festival on a ritually unclean animal may have been people’s first clue that he did not come to fulfill the typical expectations.
Centuries before, the prophet Zechariah prophesied: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, 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 warhorse 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.”
Hosanna!” they shouted, an emphatic word meaning “Rescue us!” “Save us!” or even “Save us now!” We live in a place and time of such abundance and safety that it may be difficult to know what it means to NEED to be saved – to know our own helplessness and vulnerability that we literally cry out to God in desperation.
In every age, the Gospel has special meaning for the downtrodden, the abused, the bullied, the second-class citizens, the ones pushed to the margins by the strong and the confident. This week, it is so important that such people know that God walks with them in their brokenness, speaking peace and not condemnation.
Why was there such excitement when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem? Because people, in every age, persist in hoping that, in the next new thing, our salvation may be at hand. Unfortunately, in our time, we are brainwashed into placing that hope in cars and cosmetics and diets and sports teams and lottery tickets. People were excited as well because every now and then we need change – we need something radically new to enter the picture – something that will challenge the old ways, and shake things up.
The response of the powers that be was typical – people in power, if their position is threatened, generally defend, justify, retreat behind walls, and trot out laws which protect the powerful and the status quo. The Roman and Jewish leaders apparently did just that. We typically look at the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees as the “bad guys,” when in reality they were simply defending what they saw as sacred from someone they deemed as a dangerous radical or revolutionary or even terrorist, in a time that they believed was too precarious and full of risk to invite any substantial change.
Politicians of all sorts, whether political or religious, in any organization, got where they are by a lot of effort and their primary interest is usually in staying where they are. It is a rare politician who is willing to risk his/her own position, who does not operate primarily out of self-interest.
The Gospels are all different, but in many respects they tell a pretty consistent story, one in which Jesus willingly and in full awareness chose the manner and timing of his death. The Gospels tell us that his disciples tried to warn him off, even to stand in his way, but Jesus would not hear of it. He was determined to go to Jerusalem and it seems he also chose the manner of his entry very deliberately – to send a message to both the Roman occupiers and the Jewish authorities that a new kind of kingdom was about to be revealed – one not based on force, one not aimed at serving only the elite, and one not maintained by violence and injustice.
The people were looking for something more conventional and practical and perhaps less “airy-fairy” – they wanted an immediate reprieve and rescue. Something new always brings with it that sense of the miraculous, and stirs deep hopes, whether it is a new political leader or a new air freshener, and sometimes either one will do.
Paul reminds us that Jesus “did not count equality with God as something to be grasped.” He was not going to be one of those leaders who spends 3/4 of the time trying to prove how great he is. Caesar, on the other hand, boldly claimed to be the Son of God and demanded that people act accordingly.
When Jesus was clearly not going to be the over-powering, conquering hero, people began to realize that to cast in their lots with him would have meant confronting the Roman soldiers, as well as the Jewish authorities, who were all prepared to do whatever was necessary to maintain some kind of stability in the city. It would have meant turning their backs on family and comfort and safety, and in the end they could not do it. In the end, they stood with the very people who were their enemies and occupiers and oppressors, and against the young man, a fellow Jew, who had been so foolish as to disrupt the precarious peace.
The authorities were rightly threatened, but they were mistaken about the nature of Jesus’ presence. At his trial he was accused of being something like a terrorist, someone who had come to take their political power from them. But Jesus didn’t want that kind of power – he didn’t want to be them. It seems he was operating with a completely different kind of transformation in mind, the kind that many of the prophets had been promising – a transformation of human nature itself – a transformation of the very heart of who we are, along the lines of what Jeremiah was saying in a recent Sunday reading:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31)
Jesus didn’t come to replace their leaders – he didn’t come to take over the existing system. His kingdom was far more subtle, radical and all-encompassing: it meant calling the people back to their identity as God’s people, and in a way it wouldn’t have mattered what kind of political power was in place, because for Jesus the kingdom is not about power, it is about embracing the love of God.
Jesus didn’t come to bring the kingdom (which I believe exists eternally), and he certainly did not come to create a kingdom of this world. I believe he came (and still comes) to activate what is already inherent within us all: the image of God;
the inner heart; the kingdom within. He challenges all of those (including us) who refuse to operate from that centre – from that place of truth and love – and instead allow the ego to dictate and define how life is ordered.
In all of this, it can seem like Jesus is a rather helpless figure caught between the two great powers – standing there completely at their mercy and control.
Too late, the realization came, in Mark’s Gospel expressed by the centurion at the foot of the Cross, that this was God’s son — that something beneficial and beautiful had been despised and rejected, and lost to the world.
But the great Christian insight and wisdom is that in this terrible and incomprehensible act of self-sacrifice confronting the cruelty and injustice of the world, there is purpose and blessing and hope and new life. Christians came to believe that this was not an ending but a beginning, that God in Christ was creating something entirely new, and yet completely consistent with what God had always done since the beginning.
Jerusalem never did return to the Lord in the way Christ envisioned and hoped. This moment which we now call Palm Sunday seems to have set in motion a progression of events that did result in the end of Jerusalem as it was known — the city and the Temple were destroyed in the year 70 AD., and we know that the Roman Empire (despite all its claims of divine status) ended a few centuries later.
Last week, we were reminded of Christ’s comment from The Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” We are asked to believe that Christ is always coming to us, but it is not easy to open the door to Christ, because of what Christ asks for from us, which is our hearts – our ultimate loyalty.
We have been reflecting on the Benedictine tradition of radical hospitality and at the heart of that was an openness to God in Christ, in almost whatever form that might take. Christians tend to see the importance of trusting that Christ does persist in coming to us. But let us be conscious this week that inviting Jesus in may have consequences we don’t want – let us be aware that allowing Jesus to be at the heart of our life and community may cause it to be very different than it is now.
This week is a powerful reminder of the importance of trusting in the way of Christ even when we cannot see that it is working – to persist in praying “thy kingdom come” even when we know it is not a kingdom that magically brings material or social or political success.
Lent and Holy Week are dedicated as a time to return to the Lord our God, as an opportunity to come closer to the heart of who God is, as we see God’s great love at work in the life of his beloved son Jesus. As we hear the powerful and emotional stories, it is an invitation to open our hearts to the brokenness of the world and at the centre of our own being.
We’ve come a long way since that original moment, but Holy Week gives us opportunities to allow those painful phrases like “they mocked him,” “they had him flogged” or “they crucified him” to sink in and, God willing, move us closer to the suffering and injustice in our own time and in our own lives.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” and this week, not just on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (when we have formal services), but every day, let us try to walk in the spirit of that amazing man who believed so much that love is the way that he was willing to give up his own life to make it so.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 50:4-9a The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
Psalm 31:9-16 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many– terror all around!– as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Mark 11: 1–10 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Mark 15:1—39 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.
So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”
In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”