March 25, 2018: Palm Sunday
I was driving down the interstate the other day and saw something odd. In the distance, on one of the billboards, there were two figures – one on the other’s shoulders. ‘Are you crazy?!, That’s dangerous!’ I thought. Then, I saw what it was they were doing – painting a message, a proclamation:
EAT MOR CHIKIN!!
Oh, they were cows. The message was clear, and it tells people driving by a Chic-fil-a is close.
Getting the attention of a lot of people is a big task. Usually, it takes a really big, unavoidable statement, like a billboard with funny messages and three-dimensional cows, or the one that still works every time: a crowd too large to ignore. We have seen quite a few of these in recent time in marches, vigils, and protests. Public gatherings are the language of the people in our time.
Public statements are as old as civilization itself. If a person wants something to be shared, they go to the town squares and markets in the city where people gather. If you have a message, you proclaim it loudly where all can witness it. This is part of our own story as Methodists. John Wesley and his friends would preach in city squares and large openings to thousands of passersby. It’s a very simple formula: if you want to get the city’s attention, you have to break their routine.
In today’s gospel, Jerusalem was a city where many people came to spread their messages. Some came to sell their goods in the market; some came to worship God in the upcoming festival of the Passover; but the biggest proclamations were by those who were in charge. There was the local king Herod Antipas who lived in luxury. We know of Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his assumed garrison of soldiers. And, as was read in Mark, we see Jesus of Nazareth, who some believed was the Son of God coming into town in a great procession.
That’s a proclamation none could ignore. It infuriated those who upheld the status quo, who needed everyone in their unbroken routines so they kept quiet. In Jerusalem was the Temple of God Most High. How could this man be claimed to be God’s son? It’s blasphemy! Then there was the Roman authority that could not be threatened by anyone in the border region of Judea/Palestine where rebellion was ripe. This tension will lay heavily in the coming week. Who is this person proclaimed to be coming in the name of God?
We see the details around this proclamation in Mark’s gospel. Jesus sends his disciples ahead to find a colt on which he will ride into the city. Some translations say donkey, but colt is more in line with history. The colt contrasts with the expectation that he would ride a horse or camel, something associated with royalty or might. This is a humbler animal, befitting of the Christ child born in a manger. Those with keen eyes and sharp knowledge will recognize the important detail that it be an unridden animal hearkening to passages in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and 1 Samuel where the unridden animal has great importance in temple practice. This colt shows the pure nature of Christ’s coming: he will be no conqueror, in the traditional sense of military conquest and violence.
As he enters the city, people come waving palms and laying their clothes down in the streets for the procession, shouting “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” We know the language of this proclamation by memory and yet don’t know its meaning. ‘Hosanna’ from the Hebrew hôšî‘â-nā’ translates ‘save, I pray.’ From the palms and the laying down of clothing rather than flowers and blankets, we know these people are poor. The poor people of Jerusalem are calling on Jesus to save them. I don’t think they mean spiritually. They don’t mean for Jesus to pray for their troubles. They want to be saved from their oppression and their hopelessness.
If you read earlier, Jesus and his disciples are coming from Jericho, so they should enter the city from the north, yet today’s reading says they took a path from Bethpage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. The eastern gate. This is another time to know one’s Bible deeper than the words on the page. The Mount of Olives is significant in the prophesy of the city’s defeat in 2 Samuel and in Zechariah 14, when the city is finally defeated in the end times. Jesus is coming a way associated with triumph, but triumph against the city itself in judgment. Not to save it; to destroy it. So – to recap -we have a humble savior, a people begging to be saved, and a path leading to destruction and judgment.
For those who grew up with the original Looney Toons cartoons, this is one of the moments when Wiley Coyote holds up a sign with the words “uh-oh.” Unlike Wiley Coyote, the people do not see this thing turning out differently than they would imagine. They think the proclamation is God is coming to save them from the powers of the world. Jesus is the anointed ruler who will use his angels to defeat evil. They would join in the triumph. Their message, their gathering united in one voice, disturbing the peace, was that the Savior had come and everyone better get ready.
Their proclamation was that God will conquer evil. Their proclamation was not in Christ, but in themselves. By the end of this week, they will turn on their savior. Their palm branches will be left in the dust and dirt of the city. Some may even be the ones on Friday shouting “Crucify!”
If we are to learn anything from today’s passage, it is that our proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord will take an immense amount of faith in what his lordship actually means. We can tell stories of what Jesus has done and still not believe in him truly. We can claim him in our identity and still walk away from him in word and deed. From its root in Old French to proclaim is to make something public. What is our public message? That judgment is coming and everyone better watch out? Or that Jesus comes into our lives, disrupting our routines, and is willing to do everything to love us?
This reminds me of a story I was told years ago. A little boy asked his family for a fishing pole for Christmas. When he received the pole, he carefully strung it with the best line, he got a few really nice lures, and he marched proudly down to the fishing pond. As the days went by, he talked about fishing and considered himself a fisherman. So, his friends asked him if they could come. He took them and his family down to the pond, prepared his lure, pulled it back and let it fly. Do you know what happened next? Caught his best friend right in the heel. You see, he talked about being a fisherman and all his friends thought he was one. But most of the time, he just went down to the pond and skipped rocks, occasionally attempting to cast. In his mind, he had a fishing pole, so he was a fisherman. He knew how to be around a pond, so he he was a fisherman. But when it came time to fish, he realized he thought he knew how, but his poor practice ended up hurting his friend.
To proclaim Christ is to proclaim him not only in our words and what others see but also in our practice. We have to seek God’s knowledge in church, then we have to model it outside of church. We should read the Scriptures, and we should study them for what we don’t know. We not just memorize the Bible’s words but learn its meaning and depth, too.
This is the challenge of Holy Week. This is the challenge of Palm Sunday. We read these passages as words on a page. We proclaim gospel from our coffee mugs and inspirational posters, but we are charged to live them out. We can attend church on a Sunday, but we must participate in its work, offering ourselves up to be used. You cannot proclaim Christ passively, waiting to be notified. Proclamation is an active word; your faith is to love and be present.
When the world asks where God is, especially when times are toughest, we must be willing to proclaim the true Gospel in our dedication to the message: God’s kingdom has come, is currently happening, and will continue to happen until the day that sorrow shall cease and all will worship God together.
Yesterday, I attended the march in Nashville and witnessed first-hand what happens when people take their proclamation seriously. It was not a teenagers’ cry for attention; it was people gathered around a common cause and voice. They spoke kindly to each other. Children and youth complemented each other on their signs. The only vulgar words and actions I saw were from those standing around showing their displeasure. Most around us met them in kindness. Some may claim it was a disruption, but it was the best Christian example of disruption, and I doubt everyone was Christian. This is a lesson for us to learn – if we want to proclaim Christ, we must live it all the time.
You see, our proclamation of Hosanna, loud Hosanna is saying to God, “Come and save us.” I am more and more convinced God’s response to the church’s prayers is that we embody Christ and work together for the common good. We are called to welcome everyone with unconditional love, because all are welcome at God’s table – some just need to be shown what it’s like to join.
Proclaim to everyone that God is with us! Like those waving their palms, with the fullness of hearts on fire, we sing aloud:
Hosanna, God, save us we pray. Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord.