Follow the Leader
A sermon on Luke 19:28-40.
For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by social income on Unsplash.
The enthusiastic followers of Jesus, the ones who spread the cloaks on the road, and waved their palms, and shouted Hosanna (as other gospel writers tell us), they thought that they were welcoming the leader they had been waiting for.
They were excited by this new prophet and miracle worker, who could cast our demons, and heal lepers, and satisfy thousands of hungry stomachs with just a few loaves of bread.
This man of power and authority was the perfect candidate to fill the role of the Messianic leader for whom they had been praying:
A hero to cast out the Roman occupiers, and heal their countries wounds, and satisfy their longings to restore the dignity and power of their people.
Granted, it was a little bit strange that Jesus was riding on a donkey… not the most regal of animals.
But still, he was riding in procession through the Eastern gate of the city on the same day as the Roman Governor was riding through the Western gate to remind all the Passover celebrants that they were not actually free.
Jesus’ counter-procession was as good as a proclamation that he had come to challenge Pilate’s reign, and to offer himself as the new leader for a truly-liberated Jewish people.
But just to make sure, the crowd shouted Hosanna – a cry that is more a petition than an exaltation: a plea to “save us now!”
They begged him to save them even as they blessed him as a king, and celebrated a triumphal entry… the arrival of God’s appointed leader who would fulfill their dreams for their nation.
But here’s the thing they seemed to have forgotten about leaders: we have to follow them, the leaders; not the other way around.
When we ask someone to save us, we don’t get to dictate the details of the rescue plan.
Leaders are different than guides (tour guides, or fishing guides, or museum guides). Guides are people whom we hire to take us where we want to go.
But leaders set the agenda for the people who follow them – they give the direction.
That is one thing, at least, that the religious elites in the scene understood. They understood that Jesus had authority.
They knew that, if they wanted the display to stop, if they wanted to prevent the confrontation with Rome’s power that threatened to destabilize the peace of Jerusalem, then they needed to get Jesus to put a stop to it, not the crowd.
But they didn’t understand how a leader might be serving a purpose higher than himself… that his authority was not his to use for his own interests.
So, their pleas, as well, had no power to manipulate and redirect the path that Jesus was taking.
The narrative makes it clear that Jesus knows exactly what he is doing, and though he considers those around him as he follows this course, he will not be swayed from it.
He anticipates the colt that will be provided for his use.
He gives his disciples instructions for what to say to those who question them.
And when he himself is challenged he proclaims the inevitability of this triumphal entry: if the people were silent, the stones would shout out.
Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. And while path he is treading is anything but funny, this scene has some humor, of you think about it.
Everyone who is appealing to Jesus as a leader is actually trying to lead him in the direction they want him to take:
The crowd is pleading with him to save then, calling for a confrontation with Rome.
The religious elites are exhorting him to tell the people to stop, presumably to prevent that same confrontation.
And Jesus is unswayed by either party. Because he actually IS the leader that they all need precisely because he won’t be led by them.
He knows that both groups are operating from the assumption that their hope lies in “power over,” in the ability to seize or to maintain control.
But Jesus’ way is radically other. His is a way that releases control, a way that submits.
Just as the reading from Philippians describes: Christ empties himself, not clinging to equality with God, but choosing to humble himself, to join us in weakness, to submit even to the point of death.
And anyone who wants him as their leader, who aspires to “be of the same mind as Christ,” needs to be willing to follow this path.
There is a clear irony in calling “Hosanna: Save us!” to a leader who will lead us into risk, but even more in the reality that the way of self-emptying, humility, and even death IS the way he saves us.
That’s not usually what we mean when we ask to be saved from something.
Usually what we mean is something closer to asking our savior to wave a magic wand and change the conditions that are hurting or threatening us.
We want to be saved out of pain and distress, to make the world not dangerous and overwhelming and heart-breaking anymore.
But the problem with that kind of “saving” is that it is a fairy tale… untethered to any reality that we can actually imagine.
A world with no illness, or poverty, or partisanship, or power-mad world leaders with access to nuclear weapons… that sounds great, but it doesn’t offer us any hope for the world that we actually live in.
Or, worse yet, if we really do want God to accomplish that kind of total re-making of the world, then we are, in essence, rejecting this creation, with all of the messiness it entails, and rejecting Jesus’ action of emptying himself in order to join us in the mess.
The way that Jesus saves us is not by plucking us out of the world as it actually is, but by teaching us how to be in this world, by practicing hope, and faith, and love even as we recognize reality.
In Debie Thomas’ reflection on Palm Sunday, she offers this insight into the central meaning of this day’s celebration. She writes:
“More than any other, this festive, ominous, and complicated day of palm fronds and hosanna banners warns us that paradoxes we might not like or want are woven right into the fabric of Christianity. God on a donkey. Dying to live. A suffering king…. These paradoxes are what give Jesus’s story its shape, weight, and texture, calling us at every moment to hold together truths that seem bizarre, counterintuitive, and irreconcilable. On good days, I understand that these paradoxes are precisely what afford my religion its credibility. If I live in a world that's full of pain, mystery, and contradiction, then I need a religion robust enough to bear the weight of that messy world…. But the question is: will I choose the humble and the real? Or will I insist on the delusions of empire? Will I accompany Jesus on his ridiculous donkey, honoring the precarious path he has chosen? Or will my impatient and broken hosanna undermine my journey?”
That’s the challenge of today’s celebration for us, the challenge to let go of the plea of Hosana in order to actually follow “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
It’s not an easy challenge, especially not when it is so easy for us to direct Jesus toward all of the things in this broken, messed-up reality that we really would like him to save us from.
When we don’t have the option of “exploiting” equality with God, and when we can see so clearly all of the damage being done by empires of various kinds,
and when we really want a savior who can play and win the power game because people are suffering.
And we really just don’t want this to be reality.
But the good news is that we have a leader who has willingly decided to join us in this reality.
He does not get derailed by delusions of empire or by the messiness of the world.
His face is set toward Jerusalem knowing full well what it going to happen there.
And he will never back away from the path that leads through the grave to new life for us all.
Thanks be to God.