"Who is This?"
Scripture - Matthew 21:1-11
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, April 13, 2014
"When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, €˜Who is this?'" It is the question that countless people - both believers and skeptics - have contemplated for 20 centuries. Who is this? What does he mean for my life? What does he mean for our world?
In the first century, thousands of pilgrims from near and far would stream into the Holy City each year to celebrate Passover. This major religious festival marked the defining event when God liberated them from an oppressive power more than a millennium earlier. With such a massive influx of people into the city, whose religious focus centered on freedom from a foreign power, the occupying Romans beefed up their presence.
Pilate was the Roman governor whose territory included Jerusalem. Most of the year, Pilate enjoyed his home in Caesarea Maritima, a picturesque spot on the pristine Mediterranean. But, each Passover, it fell to him to make a show of force in Jerusalem. Riding into the Holy City on a magnificent stallion and flanked by Roman troops, his entrance was an intentionally intimidating display of power.
Not surprisingly, the Jewish people despised the Romans who had kept them submissive for more than a century through strict laws, heavy taxes and occasional brutality. The people longed for the Messiah to come and set things right. Many imagined that the Messiah would also ride in on a mighty war horse surrounded by his own army. They would topple the Romans and the Messiah would be crowned the King of the Jews.
However, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, as we know, he led a very different procession. His show of force was not the power of the sword, but the power of a dream: a dream of peace and prosperity; a kingdom whose foundation was compassion and justice.
Jesus planned his Palm Sunday parade to be a parody of Pilate's procession. Up to now, Jesus had walked everywhere he went. He could have walked into Jerusalem with his followers, but he wanted to drive home a point. His intention was to lampoon Pilate's show of force. So, instead of a sleek stallion, Jesus rode a lowly donkey. Instead of military troops, an army of fishermen and women, at least one tax collector and probably children. Instead of flashing swords and sturdy spears, leafy branches and colorful cloaks! If they had had balloons back then, I feel certain his followers would have carried balloon bouquets. And instead of trumpets, kazoos!
After parading into Jerusalem, Jesus paid a visit to the temple and his righteous indignation was ignited. He drove out those who were buying and selling. Filled with righteous anger, he overturned the tables of the money changers. With his vast knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, he quoted the prophet Isaiah: "My house shall be called a house of prayer. Then, Jeremiah: "but you are making it a den of robbers."
Centuries earlier, Jeremiah had delivered a divine threat against the temple because the strong were oppressing the weak. Jeremiah said, "For if you truly amend your ways...if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place." (Jeremiah 7:5-7) "But," Jeremiah went on, are you making the temple a "den of robbers?" (Jeremiah 7:11)
Why did Jesus go to Jerusalem and cause such a scene? Did God lure him into a trap to be murdered because God required a sacrifice? Or, was Jesus driven by internal impulses that yearned for martyrdom? Or, did he underestimate the resolve and the ruthlessness of his enemies?
For years I grappled with why Jesus marched headstrong into the teeth of the tiger. Eventually, I concluded it was none of these reasons. When Jesus wreaked havoc in the temple, it was a symbolic action of God's judgment against the religious leaders who were acting in collusion with the Romans to oppress the masses. Jesus possessed such an immense heart of compassion, that he could no longer stomach the oppressive rule of the Romans and the collaboration of the temple rulers. The same sympathy for suffering that prompted him to heal those with physical infirmities compelled him to cry out against injustice and to demonstrate the power of non-violent protest.
Who is this? He is the one who reveals the character of God. And what he discloses is that God is not a distant Creator who floats above the fray, a detached deity unscathed by darkness, but rather a loving parent who feels the pain of the world.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was bottled up in Hitler's prison, he came to a new understanding of God. He wrote, "God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross...That is the only way in which God can be with us and help us. Matthew 8:17 makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering...only a suffering God can help."1
Who is this? He is the one who rides into the state of Washington where a mudslide swallowed dozens of people. He rides into refugee camps where Syrians pour in with nothing but their children. He rides into a hospital room where a young mother must say good-bye to her eight year-old child. He rides into drug-infested neighborhoods where violence is persistent. He rides into places of darkness and lives of despair because only one who is with us in our suffering can help.
Who is this? One who displays extraordinary courage. Jesus entertained no illusions about the danger of entering Jerusalem. He knew that putting one foot inside the walls of the city put his life at risk because this was the home turf of his adversaries. Yet Jesus displayed exceptional fearlessness. He was so passionate about the plight of those in pain that he risked his own life for their well-being.
On January 2, 2007, Wesley Autrey, a 50 year-old black construction worker, was waiting for a train in a Manhattan subway station along with many others. Moments before a train would whiz past the platform, a white, 20 year-old film student, suffered a seizure and fell onto the tracks. While those standing nearby gasped at the calamity that was about to occur, Autrey leapt onto the tracks and covered the stranger's body with his own as the train passed over them. Incredibly, both men survived. It is hard to fathom such a depth of concern for a fellow human being.
His story reflects the selfless courage Jesus displayed. Jesus knew that he would face fierce opposition. Yet, he was prepared to put himself in harm's way for the well-being of others. The Central American priest, Oscar Romero, did the same when he spoke out against the oppression in El Salvador. He did not wish to become a martyr. He did not yearn to get himself killed. But, like Jesus, he was so full of the love and justice of God that he could not remain silent.
Who is this? One who changes lives. Verse ten of our passage reads: "When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil." The word turmoil is too timid. The Greek word usually referred to violent changes in weather or an earthquake. The Message version of the Bible says "the whole city was shaken." When Jesus comes to town, the city shakes. A dramatic shift occurs at the heart of things and nothing is ever the same again.2
"The British author Graham Greene once waited two-and-a-half years for a 15-minute appointment with the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who lived in an Italian monastery. Padre Pio was reputed to be a living saint who bore on his body the wounds of Christ. On the day Greene was due to meet with the mystic, Greene first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. Instead, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew directly back to London. When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited two and a half years to secure, Greene replied, €˜I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.'"3
That was why the religious authorities feared Jesus. They were not ready to relinquish their privileged positions and they were not ready to stand up to the Romans. They had become so comfortable with their own kingdom that they could no longer envision the coming kingdom of God.
We know that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the pressure mounted. Jesus would confront the injustice of the ruling authorities and remind the crowds that the religious leaders had turned God's house of prayer into a hideout for robbers. The authorities countered with attempts to disgrace Jesus in front of his followers, hammering him with trick questions: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?" "A woman was married to seven different men, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?" However, Jesus side-stepped the traps they set for him. His cleverness only intensified their efforts to silence him and so they arrested him late at night in the garden, condemned him in a speedy trial, convinced Pilate that he was a political threat - which he was - and by Friday nails were pounded through his flesh.
End of story? No. God would give Jesus - and those who follow him - new life.
Who is this? What does he mean for your life?
Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton
As we approach the week that is to come, we remember triumphant entries, last suppers, betrayals, denials and death. While we journey through this week in the shadow of the cross, help us to evaluate our thoughts, actions and our lives in light of your great love. Help us to see the ways that we have betrayed or denied your love. Give us the willingness to go in new directions so that our lives might be a living testimony to your grace and the salvation we have in you.
With the cross of Jesus in view this week, we pray for people who are persecuted and those who live in the midst of violence. We lift up to you this day, especially the people of Syria. We pray for those who have fled their country and live as refugees in other lands, and we pray for those who remain there who are living in danger and in fear. Bring peace, O God, to Syria. Give hope to her people. And, Holy God, use even us to help overpower the sounds of war and terrorism in that country with your love and peace.
During this most holy of weeks in all the year, give us ears to hear the cries of the needy, eyes to see the tears of those who mourn, hands to hold those who need comforting, arms to carry those who need assistance, and a heart to risk the gifts you have given us so that your love might be known far and wide. We ask this in the name of the Crucified and Resurrected One, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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