An Unwelcome Triumph (Sermon)

“An Unwelcome Triumph”

Matthew 21: 1-11

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Palm Sunday 2020

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”NRSV)

         If we jump straight into Matthew 21, the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem feels abrupt. So let’s back up and remember the events immediately prior to the scene of Jesus riding a donkey into the City of David.

         In Matthew 20, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Along the journey he teaches the crowds, and his teachings often push the limits of tradition and tolerance. Case in point: the disturbing parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The story disturbs because it proclaims a depth of grace and generosity that offends both ancient and modern minds. The laborers who worked the least receive the same wages as those who worked all day.

        Who among us wouldn’t feel cheated if we’d been among those hired at daybreak? And who among us wouldn’t have said so? Jesus concludes the parable by reiterating his haunting phrase: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt. 20:16)

        After proclaiming his death and resurrection for the third time, Jesus receives a selfish request from the mother of James and John. She wants Jesus to promise that her sons will receive special treatment in the age to come. And Jesus responds with a variation of his first-will-be-last teaching: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (Mt. 20:26b-27)

        In the last story in chapter 20, Jesus and his followers pass through Jericho, the last town of any note before reaching Jerusalem. Jericho represents Israel’s brutal history, specifically, her conviction that the commandment, Do not kill, doesn’t apply when it comes to seizing and holding worldly power. When the Hebrews, led by Joshua, took Jericho, they killed everything, “both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21) It seems to me that when mired in juvenile stages of virtually any religious tradition, people honestly believe that sacrificial slaughter pleases and pacifies God.

        As Jesus and the crowds leave Jericho for Jerusalem, two blind men cry out for help. Twice they address Jesus with the Messianic titles Lord and Son of David. “Moved with compassion,” Jesus heals them, and they follow him.

        We might call the moment when Jesus leaves Jericho the Triumphal Exit. Coming immediately before the Triumphal Entry, it parallels Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem in that both scenes Jesus is hailed as the promised deliverer. It’s just that in Jericho, blindness gives way to sight for a few, and in Jerusalem, sight becomes blindness for everyone.

        There’s another interesting contrast. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem was known for being particularly dangerous. Whenever possible, one traveled it in groups. And for the time being, Jesus had a crowd to help keep him safe from robbers and ruffians. The road Jesus traveled after entering Jerusalem was also dangerous. After an auspicious beginning, though, Jesus ended up traveling alone.

        In ancient Rome, the exclamation “Hosanna” was used during nationalistic celebrations. It means help, or save. When the crowds celebrating Jesus cried Hosanna, their shouts were charged with religious zeal but in service to political purposes. They expected the long-awaited Lord and Son of David to muster a mighty army and do to Rome what the ancient Hebrews did to Jericho. They were ready to follow that Messiah. But while Joshua and Jesus shared a name, Jesus had an entirely different vision. And when he didn’t deliver on the crowds’ expectations, we learn that no one, not even God Incarnate, is beyond the tip of the spear held by those who are bound to worldly desires and violent means.

        Whatever triumph Jesus accomplishes in the world, it has nothing to do with storing up wealth (as the vineyard workers wanted), nor with privilege and status (as the mother of James and John wanted), nor with swords, armies, and nations dominating neighbors (as Israel wanted—and as pretty much all nations still want and feel entitled to).

        There’s no triumphalism to Jesus’ triumphal entry. His victory is the defeat of human hearts blinded by exile, people who are almost willingly captive to all that separates us from God, and to me that means separated from the holiness in our own individual being, the holiness in human community, and the holiness of the Creation as a whole.

        “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” sings the psalmist, “the world, and those who live in it.” (Ps. 24:1) In spite of all the brokenness in the world, everyone and everything that is created by God reflects God and holds something of God’s holiness in its very existence, including fickle disciples, spiteful Pharisees, desperate blind men, adolescent crowds, the mother of James and John in her maternal conceit, Pilate in his arrogant fear, Roman soldiers in their sadistic ignorance, you and me in all our comfortable, twenty-first century distance from the kind of suffering and turmoil that first-century followers of Jesus must have known.

        Jesus rides into Jerusalem, but in the most humble and humbling of ways. And he continues to clip-clop into our lives to reveal an unwelcome triumph, namely that God’s genius is not in any decisive defeat of all enemies and suffering, but in the transformation God creates by entering our chaos, breathing new life into our deepest failings and hurts and redeeming them, renewing us through them.

        We all want to see an end to the coronavirus. And while many people, whether because of Covid-19 or something else, will not live see that end, most of us on this planet will see it. And as we speak, the eternal Christ is riding into our midst on the humble and humbling back of our neighbors’ need. He challenges our traditions and tolerance. His unwelcome triumph gives us the opportunity to experience realities to which our previous days of relative comfort blinded us. I feel him using this opportunity to reveal our interdependence as citizens of earth, not only our need for neighbors and neighborliness but our holy capacityto give and receive blessedness. And while many people suffer from an arrested economy, there are already signs that the environment is already healing from the effects of human exploitation. Perhaps the earth craves the chance to prove its will and ability to regenerate and renew.

        Like those long-ago disciples, crowds, Pharisees, and Romans, today’s Church doesn’t really want to learn Jesus’ lessons on redemption. Nonetheless, for the love of all that is holy in all things, Jesus again walks the dangerous Jericho road that leads to Jerusalem, and the dangerous Via Dolorosa, the Road of Suffering, that leads to the cross—all of which leads to Easter. We experience his triumph in the defeat of our selfishness, fear, and pride. For in that defeat, he opens our eyes to the new hope of restored relationship with God and with all that God has created and loves.

        May you celebrate Jesus’ arrival in your life and in our midst.

        And may we all discover that in our gracious defeat we receive God’s lasting deliverance.

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