This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015, at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was Matthew 21:1-11. You can listen to it, and read it, below.[audio:http://pomomusings.com/wp-content/mp3/Lay-Down-Cloaks-2.mp3]
Holy Week and Advent. These are the two times in the rhythm of the church calendar when we come to church and hear stories that we hear every year. During the rest of the year, we get to familiarize ourselves with other stories from the Bible – maybe some from the Hebrew Scriptures, certainly we get to hear stories of Jesus from the Gospels…maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to listen to the rants of the prophets…and maybe…just maybe…every now and then…a little Song of Songs might sneak into our scripture readings.
But Holy Week and Advent…you pretty much know what to expect. We get Jesus born in Advent and Christmas, and we walk with Jesus through his death and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter.
So…here we are on Palm Sunday…having just processed in, waving our palm branches…completing rituals that we do every year on Palm Sunday…and now we have this story.
We all know how this story goes. Jesus enters the city. People wave palm branches. Everyone shouts “HOSANNA in the HIGHEST.” Done. Alright…maybe we’ll get out of here a little bit earlier today.
So…it is often the case with stories like this that we need to try to approach them as if we are reading them for the first time. Let’s try and do that this morning – I want you to forget everything that you think you know about this passage…and let’s jump into the text together and see where it takes us.
Alright, so Jesus is traveling with his disciples, making his way toward Jerusalem, when he stops and gives very specific instructions to two of the disciples. They are to go into a village and retrieve a donkey, and a colt, for Jesus.
I think my immediate response would have been, “A donkey and a colt?” You want a little ‘ole donkey and a colt? You know, I think we can find you a much better horse for you Jesus…”
But we are told that the disciples did just as Jesus asked – at this point in the story, I guess we can assume that the disciples learned that arguing with Jesus or questioning him never really works. So they went into the village, found the donkey and the colt, explained to the owners that “The LORD needs it” and apparently everything worked just like Jesus said it would.
And this is an example of one of the things I both love and find frustrating about the Bible. You know it leaves a ton out. If you were the owners of the donkey and the colt, and someone walked up and started untying them, and you said, “Hey – what are you doing?” and the response you get is “The LORD, its master, needs it,” wouldn’t your first thought be…. “Hey! I’M its master!”
There must have been some more dialogue that happened here…but clearly things eventually got worked out, the disciples returned to Jesus with the donkey and the colt, and they began their entrance into Jerusalem.
Now, a good Palm Sunday sermon will be sure to talk about the significance of the donkey and the colt…and why it’s important that they were used, as opposed to a different kind of animal for Jesus to ride. And you’ve probably heard that the donkey was a symbol of humility, of peace, of showing that this Jesus was going to be a different kind of Messiah than maybe some of the people were expecting. And that’s certainly true.
But if you were listening carefully to the passage…and you noticed that the disciples were instructed to get a donkey AND a colt…and then you heard that the text actually says that:
They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
Jesus sat on both of them. The donkey and the colt. A pastor friend and blogger Carl Gregg writes that “Matthew’s version sounds like Jesus rode in on both beasts at the same time, straddling two animals like a circus act.”
I was going to try and figure out how to draw that for the kids, but…yah. It just looked too weird.
But did he really ride on both of them? I don’t think so…I don’t really see how that would be possible. Matthew’s version of the story is a little different than the other Gospel versions…and some say that perhaps Matthew reads the Zechariah prophecy a bit more literally than the other writers. The prophecy says:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.
However, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan believes that there’s a lot more to it than simply Matthew wanting to be more accurate or “literal.” He writes that:
“Matthew wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides ‘them’ in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.”
Jesus didn’t want there to be any confusion, whatsoever, about the message that he was going to be bringing when he arrived in Jerusalem. This was a way of showing that he was not like a typical triumphant Roman king. This was a message of peace. And that he would bring a nonviolent revolution of peace.
Biblical scholar and theologian Marcus Borg, who just died this past January, shares even more details about Jesus’ entrance into the city – it’s a bit of a long quote, but I think it’s helpful to understand more about the context into which Jesus enters. He writes:
“On Sunday, Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east in a procession riding on a donkey cheered by his followers. At the same time, a Roman imperial procession of troops and cavalry entered the city from the west, headed by Pilate. Their purpose was to reinforce the Roman garrison stationed near the temple for the season of Passover, when tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city.
The contrast between Jesus’ entry and the imperial entry sounds the central conflict that unfolds during the rest of the week. Jesus’ mode of entry was symbolic, signifying that the kingdom of which he spoke was a kingdom of peace. According to the prophet Zechariah, the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was to banish the weapons of war from the land and speak peace to the nations. The kingdom of Rome on the other hand was based on violence and the threat of violence.
It is clear that Jesus pre-arranged this way of entering the city. In modern language, it was a planned political demonstration. Of course, it was also religious: Jesus did so because of his passion for God and the kingdom of God.
On Monday, Jesus performed another provocative public demonstration. In the courtyard of the temple, he overturned tables where money was being changed into appropriate coinage for paying the temple tax.
His words as he did so indicted the temple as “a den of robbers.” The phrase does not refer to the moneychangers in particular, as if they were “robbers” who charged an unfair rate of exchange. The reference is to what the temple had become: the center of religious collaboration with imperial power, including imperial taxation.”
So…if we understand both of these events – Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple – to be provocative public demonstrations speaking out against the imperial powers of their day…our savior Jesus comes off looking like a well-organized and creative nonviolent activist.
Now, that might be a different image of Jesus than some of us are used to…but I wonder what might happen if we imagined Jesus like that? It’s a far cry from the image I used to have, of a peaceful, passive Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey…ready to accept his death on the cross.
This activist Jesus, speaks truth to the powers of his day, bolding proclaims an alternative vision for his world, stages public demonstrations that would impress any activist in today’s world, and invites us to follow him.
As we consider this activist Jesus, I wonder what it might look like to follow him today? What would it look like to speak truth to the powers of our day, to proclaim an alternative vision for our world? Where would living a vision like that take us?
To the streets of Ferguson? New York City? Staten Island? Cleveland? Palestine? Selma? Or to the steps of the Indiana Statehouse? I don’t know exactly – but I think it’s something worth considering where Jesus might lead us.
Now, back to the story – as Jesus approaches, people are waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks down and spreading them over the road. This is a common image that we have in our minds when we think about Palm Sunday…the palm branches, the cloaks being thrown…the cries of HOSANNA, which means SAVE US. And these are the things that we continue to celebrate today. We too get palm branches, we too sing out HOSANNA in the songs for worship today.
And I have to wonder…does it mean the same thing for us today, that it did for the people there in the crowds when Jesus entered?
Certainly we can never know what was going through the hearts and minds of each person there in the crowds, but I can imagine that for many, when they cried out HOSANNA, they were asking to be saved from the Roman empire at the time. These were political cries, political hopes in a Messiah, a King who would come and defeat the Romans, who controlled Jerusalem.
As people cried out Hosanna – SAVE US – they were not asking to be saved from their sins…they were asking that Jesus save them from a system of domination…a system that took advantage of the poor, that had co-opted their religion and allowed the temple to be used to perpetuate injustice.
Again – that might be a different image or understanding of cries of Hosanna than some of us are used to – and those thoughts might not have been going through your mind as you waved your palm branches or processed in this morning – but I think it’s helpful to understand more of this story that we are celebrating this morning.
Now the disciples were the first to throw their cloaks on the road before Jesus and the donkey and the colt walked into the city. Others saw the act, and started laying down theirs as well…so the road began to be filled up with palm branches and cloaks.
The act of throwing one’s cloak down on the ground was a sign of homage and submission…of laying one’s self down, in hopes that the coming King would be able to bring deliverance.
While the people there were unhappy under Roman rule, they quickly were willing to submit to Jesus, who they hoped would be their new ruler, a ruler who would bring them freedom and liberation.
And so…as we have been waving our palm branches this morning…and as we have, and will continue, to sing Hosanna this morning and celebrate the beginning of this journey into Holy Week…
We have to ask ourselves some questions:
- What do WE mean when we do these things?
- What does it mean to YOU to shout out Hosanna?
- What does it mean for YOU to welcome Jesus at the beginning of this Holy Week?
For me, it’s that act of laying down one’s cloak that I’m particularly drawn to in this text.
I think that when we see Jesus entering in on the donkey and the colt, when we lay down our cloaks…I think what we’re really doing is laying down what we think we know about who Jesus is; we’re laying down our ideas about Jesus. I believe that’s what some of those people in the crowd that day may have been doing…
And I think that’s something we’re still called to do today. It’s no secret that Christians disagree…heck, it’s no secret that Winnetka Presbyterians disagree.
We all have different ideas of who this person Jesus was and is…what it is that he cares about, and what type of life he is calling us toward. Whether we believe that Jesus came to forgive our sins and calls us to a life of piety and holy living, or whether we believe that Jesus came as a radical revolutionary who challenges us, even today, to be calling out injustices and working through political systems to right wrongs…It is extremely easy for us to become sidetracked by our own ideas.
And it is scary how easy it is for us to allow our vision of God to become so narrow that we don’t allow ourselves to realize that God is so much bigger and grander than anything we could ever possibly even begin to imagine.
And so…as we hear this story this morning…some of us may find ourselves in the crowd today – yelling and cheering and waving our palm branches as Jesus the Christ enters into Jerusalem. We may be so excited that the moment of liberation has finally come!
But when the donkey and colt approach, when we begin to get a glimpse of Jesus, our grasp tightens around our cloaks, and we don’t want to let go. We don’t want to lay our cloaks down before Jesus. We don’t want to let go of what WE think about Jesus, about what WE hope to be true about Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.
And yet…as we see Jesus pass by us…as we see the ever-so-subtle grin on his face as he rides upon that donkey, nursing her colt…somehow…we find ourselves loosening the grip…releasing the cloak…and letting go…
For it is when we let go of all that we think we know about Jesus…about who he is and what he is calling us to do…it is only then, that we will be able to be freed up to receive him into our lives. If we are grasping onto our thoughts and ideas about God…we will never be open or in the position to receive what God has to give us. But if we can loosen our grip…if we can let them go…or even just hold them lightly…we will be more open to the movements of the Spirit in our life.
As is often the case with Jesus, when he entered Jerusalem that day, he came and turned everything upside down. He began to user in the “upside down kingdom.” Because that’s what it is with Jesus. The first will be last. The last will be first. The meek will inherit the earth. You have to lose your life to find it. And the creator of the universe will inhabit the flesh of humanity and enter Jerusalem…riding an ass.
A passage that often comes to my mind during this week is a song that the apostle Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians. It may be a familiar passage to many of you, and so I’ll read it from The Message version:
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process.
He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus the Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Lord of all, to the glorious honor of God the Parent.”
This passage is thought to be a popular hymn that was sung by the early Christian church, which Paul included in his letter. In this hymn, we have another example of this upside down kingdom that Jesus ushered in when he gave up the rights and privileges and all that came with being God, and took on the form of humanity.
The hymn from Philippians also reminds us of what is going to be happening over the course of this next week. An even greater reminder of the upside-down kingdom, when the creator of the universe not only comes and takes on the flesh of humanity…but eventually…humbles himself, ultimately, to the point of death. The worst kind of death at that.
Obviously, those who were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem could never have guessed this was going to happen. And yet…we are told that they were laying their cloaks down…and as we enter into this Holy Week…it would be good if we were able to do the same.
Now, we have some advantage over the folks in that crowd…we know how the events unfold. We know the sadness that will come, but we also know that death isn’t the end of the story. We know that there is something more…
But even though we know how the story ends…let’s never assume that we fully comprehend the person of Jesus…that we fully know who God is or what God is up to in the world…each and every day that we get up, let us lay our cloaks down on the ground and be open to be surprised by God and this upside-down kingdom that Jesus ushered in over two thousand years ago.