Peace at the Door (Isa. 50:4-9a; Php. 2:5-11; Lk. 19:28-40)
Happy Palm Sunday! Today is the joyous entry into Holy Week which will end with the victory of the Risen Jesus one week from today. In between, however, are some pretty sad and difficult times of suffering as seen in the commemorations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. So, this Sunday has also been designated as Passion Sunday, so that we, in our rush to the end of the story do not forget that to be true to the Gospel and even our own experience of life, we don’t forget that, in Jesus’ life and ours, there’s plenty of pain, plenty of losing, plenty of dying, and plenty of doubt about rising. The fact that the Gospel writers begin and end this crucial week for Jesus with victory does not overwhelm completely the middle part. For without dying there is nothing to which to rise. Without the end of the old, there’s no beginning for the new. Frankly, if we just look at the statistics, all four Gospel writers take more space talking about the bad things that happened to Jesus in this coming week than about any other things in his life.
Today, we centre in Luke’s version of what we call Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. It’s very important to think about the setting for this story. It’s in Jerusalem, the centre of the political and religious world for Jews like Jesus. From the end of chapter 9 on, Luke has told us no fewer than eight times that Jesus is headed there, and that what is going to happen will include tragedy, but end in triumph. Luke, more than any other New Testament writer, presents discipleship as learning on the road, on the job training for life, in life. In this story, Jesus finally gets to Jerusalem.
The story took place in Jerusalem at the Passover, which was the most popular of Israel’s three pilgrim festivals, and many, many folk from all over would have been in Jerusalem for it. Kind of like a huge version of Oktoberfest. Because of this, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate would always bring at least one extra cohort of soldiers to Jerusalem to keep the peace (again, think of what happens at Oktoberfest). Passover celebrated the freedom of Israel from Egypt when the firstborn of all Egypt were slain, except for those with lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels of their houses (you’ve heard that story, so had they). Any time subservient people begin celebrating freedom from empires, it’s a dangerous thing for tyrants. So it wasn’t safe for Jesus or his disciples to be in Jerusalem at the Passover.
It’s also important to know how Luke and the other Gospel writers told this story. In the ancient world, there were often stock ways of telling certain kinds of stories. We know of no fewer than eleven other stories from cultures round about in the centuries surrounding Jesus that told stories of Triumphal Entries into a city and temple. That the Gospel writers select this way of telling the story would have made it sound familiar and believable (“it’s just like when Judas Maccabeus came into the city…”). One assumption that all these stories made was that the main actor in the story (in our case Jesus) was one who had already won a victory and was being acclaimed for it. What this means is that the Gospel writers saw Jesus as already victorious. Of course, all the Gospel writers wrote after the Resurrection and, so, they were convinced that the story ended with Jesus victory on Easter morning.
Luke (and the other evangelists) also tell the story in a way that grounds every single major act of the story in Israel’s scriptures (we call them the Old Testament). Luke made it plain that, just the fact that Jesus showed up in Jerusalem for the Passover probably put him on a collision course with Rome (only Rome could pass a death sentence). Luke is also clear that Jesus’ came to the gates of the city as a king, because he was riding on a donkey or horse (Luke doesn’t say which), and that he was coming for peace. You’ve heard me say before that, whatever someone claimed in Jesus’ day, unless it was underwritten by the community it counted for nothing. Look at what Luke has the crowd say: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven.” Jesus was the king who came to the door for peace, not like Pilate who represented the empire who came for domination, exploitation, and war. And Rome couldn’t ignore the challenge.
As Jesus entered the centre of the world that day, it was as the king of peace, so he enters the centre of our worlds today the same way. He comes as one who with the authority to tilt the universe towards wholeness and health. Of course Rome killed Jesus because it couldn’t tolerate such a message. Tyrants never can. It was revolutionary and undermined their authority.
What are we to make of the fact that Jesus came and comes this way? One of my students recently commented that he thought the Bible taught him more about humans – good and bad – than about God. I’ve thought about those words, and said words very like them myself over the years. Surely, one sense in which they are true is that the Bible can teach us how to live by imitating what God does, or what Jesus does in the world.
That’s where we can get some help from our other two lessons. In the fashion of our two part canon of Old and New Testaments that both speak to us as Christians today, neither being superior to the other, one of our lessons looks back to Isaiah 50 and one forward (in a way at least) to Philippians 2. (I say, in a way, because Philippians was written quite a bit before Luke).
The Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 50 adds to this picture of the King of Peace at our door. It is one of four passages found in chapters 40-55 that are called Servant Songs. These four together give us a picture of what a servant of God looks like (whether that servant is Israel, Jesus, or the church).
The context of this passage is the same as last week’s Old Testament lesson. Those who received it the first time were people who weren’t sure that God hadn’t been defeated by Babylon, or had any relevance for them. They certainly had been beaten up in the Babylonian exile. One thing we learn from reading and studying the New Testament is that Jesus (and his followers) used these four passages as lenses through which to see the whole mission of Jesus and his disciples to the world.
In Isaiah 50 we learn that God’s servant (and, as I say, this can be an individual or a group), though downtrodden and suffering, has been taught and supported and made faithful by none other than God, through the tough times.
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 (50:7).
Jesus took this as a promise to steady his course past his ride into Jerusalem to bring peace, into the darkness and death that followed. Jesus’ disciples can also take it as that kind of promise. “The Lord God helps me” are five colossally important words for those who would engage in Christian mission in our world. God gives us grace and strength to set our faces toward the paths we must keep on walking. Of course the pain hurts, but God comes into the midst of our pain and all that we’ve got going on, and teaches us to deal with it through divine grace. It’s the same kind of thing that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in one of those brilliant autobiographical bits in 2 Corinthians, about his own weakness and theirs (and ours):
We have God’s treasure in clay pots (that’s us), so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but are not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…(2 Cor. 4:7-9)
Why does the Lectionary put this lesson from Isaiah 50 beside the Gospel about the Triumphal Entry of the King of Shalom? The king of peace comes to bring wholeness to people in whatever place they find themselves, to understand that just when we imagine that there is no triumph in this life, we can understand that triumph means being afflicted, but not crushed through God’s own help. But there’s more.
The Epistle Lesson takes us even farther along. This beautiful passage is commonly thought to be an early Christian hymn – perhaps written by Paul, or simply cited by him here. Hymns help us to put together our common life with God. One of the things that we know about people is that they get far more of their theology from hymns than they ever do through listening to preaching or reading books. So citing a hymn to make a point isn’t a bad technique. It’s also why it’s important to sing at least some hymns with good content.
The context of this hymn, as we have it, is the everyday life and struggle of a small Christian congregation in northern Greece (called Macedonia, then and now) who were trying to work out what it meant to live life in Christ in a tough environment. Paul began the section leading up to the hymn in 2:5ff back in 1:27 with these words: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” It’s about learning to live a life fitted to Jesus.
The Apostle then went on to discuss their struggles in a tough world. He said that the value that will best hold them together in the face of what life hands out will be living mutually up-building lives and holding on to one another as valuable treasures. The way “the Lord God helps us,” in real terms, is by giving us to one another, even in clay pots. It’s important to be regularly in touch with some friends to find out how to support them, as I know of several of you in this congregation regularly do.
This hymn in Philippians 2:5ff was meant to offer an example, not only of the way God intended us to be, but the way in which God in Christ really is and, if we learn about ourselves from it and imitate God in Christ, we can learn to be, too. This hymn sings that God’s power in Christ is shown not by overpowering the world, but by emptying God’s self into the world. Jesus shows what the divine nature is, not in spite of emptying himself, and becoming obedient to death, but by and because of it.
This song is full of metaphor: “Jesus shared God’s nature,” “Jesus knew what it was to be equal with God,” and “came among us as a human being in order to show us the essential nature of God.” Truth of such a kind may often only be captured in metaphor. The most basic feature of God’s nature is the choice to be humble not assertive; God’s nature is not to lord it over, but to serve. Jesus shows how “God” God is by serving, stooping, pouring himself out into others’ lives. At the beginning Paul wrote: “Just imagine you’re like that, too.” “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” God intends the people of God to imitate that kind of humility, and empowers them to do it. The strength for living a life of wholeness is intended to be experienced in the heart of the community of the king of peace and wholeness who comes to our doors on this Palm Sunday.
How many times we have misunderstood what triumph is, and what the power of God is for? When God empowers us, it’s not to dictate how people must be, but to share the very life of God with them by emptying ourselves of “self” and giving ourselves in love, grace, mercy, and wholeness to them.
The God who empowers us to be faithful in tough times is the God who endured the tough times of self-emptying in Christ. The “triumph to which the Triumphal Entry points doesn’t mean winning. Triumph contains within it a cross resolved into service and loving one another just because that’s being like God.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.