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When Jesus is Not What We Expect

A sermon on Matthew 21:1-11

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ed Stone on Unsplash.]

I love the pageantry of Palm Sunday. The interruption of our normal pattern of worship when we gather in the Narthex and re-enact the triumphal entry, at least to some degree, with our own bodies.

I love that it shakes us out of our habitual routines and reminds us that worship is a participatory experience.

I love that it draws us together into shared action that emphasize community over individual spirituality.

But I also worry a bit, that when we superimpose our palm-waving and gentle shuffle on our way to soft, comfortable chairs over the top of today’s gospel story, this layering can mute the reality of the story a bit… and make us forget how defiant it was.

I worry that the uncomplicated joy of our song and celebration can simplify the scene in ways that seriously warp the entire Holy Week story.

Because in order to understand how this story connects with the rest of the week, we need to remember that Jesus’ procession was, in a way, the counter-protest to a very different procession coming into Jerusalem from the West as Jesus entered from the East.

You see, the Feast of Passover was a fraught time in the Holy City. It was a time when many travelers journeyed to the city for the celebration, so there were unusual crowds.

And those crowds had the potential to get a bit worked up, because they were celebrating the Exodus story – a story of God delivering their people from a foreign Empire.

And that story had relevance in Jerusalem at that moment because Jerusalem was an occupied city, ruled by the Roman Empire.

So, the Governor of the city, Pontius Pilate, brought in extra military forces for crowd control… and he made a point about the way he did so: parading them into the city in a show of force and glory.

All of which made Jesus’s procession, in precise fulfillment of prophecy (as Matthew makes sure to flag for us), a not-so-subtle challenge to Imperial authority.

Two processions, entering the same city from opposite directions… representing two opposing ideas about who ultimately holds authority.

Coming on the heels of our Lenten journey of Worship Through the Senses, I cannot help but pause to imagine the different sensory impressions these two processions must have made.

The sound is the first thing I imagine as it would have reached out beyond the immediately gathered crowds.

The Imperial procession[1] would have been loud but regimented. Precise drumbeats keeping the rhythm for marching feet and clopping horses. There would be crowds gathered as well, to see the spectacle, and the sound of military banners snapping in the wind, but the overall effect would pound out the message of the order and discipline of the Roman army.

In contrast, the Eastern procession carried a sound of voices. The cries of “Hosanna – save us” are the sound the gospel writer reports, but I imagine also the sounds of any excited crowd. People calling out to others to come and look, and the general sounds of jostling energy.

I expect there would have also been strong smells.

First century armies are not exactly known for pleasant aromas: the sweat of men and horses, mixed with leather armor and the metallic tang of weapons. An observer would have scented the Imperial parade at a distance too.

The human smells of unwashed bodies would have wafted along with Jesus as well, but mixed with the fresher smells of newly cut palm fronds, waved as a sign of rejoicing to echo God’s instructions to Moses after the Exodus.

The senses of feel and taste are likely more similar between the two processions:

The generic crush of bodies and the press of packed-down earth underfoot.

The gritty taste of dust kicked up to clog the air.

But in the people’s processions we also get the feel of rough fabric in their hands as people remove their cloaks to throw them on the ground in front of Jesus.

And, perhaps it is just a poetic notion, but I can’t help but think there was a taste of hope in the air as well. Hope that this poor-man’s procession actually COULD challenge the Imperial show of force a few miles away. Hope that this was the first move in a world-changing shift of power in which God was taking charge.

Challenging such hope, of course, would be the information conveyed to any onlooker’s eyes.

The Roman march was designed to awe and intimidate. Noted scholars Borg & Crossan describe it as “a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.”[2]

And on the other side of the Holy City? An itinerant prophet on a donkey, surrounded by the poor and downtrodden.

It may have been a fulfillment of prophecy, but on its own merits it is not a sight to inspire confidence.

Two opposing visions moving toward one another:

Force and discipline, versus the exuberant energy of the crowd.

Domination contrasted with hope.

I like to think that, had I been there, I would have joined the people’s procession… but I also realize that would have taken significant courage.

It was an act of defiance against the leader who was actively reminding the people of his power, based in violence.

To shout “Hosanna” – save us – was a cry for release from Roman control.

To wave palm branches was a re-enactment of the rituals of Sukkot, a festival that celebrates God’s release of the people from Egyptian oppression.

To take off their cloaks (for many of them, most likely, their only cloak) and spread them on the road was “a signal that they recognized Jesus as royalty.”[3]

The people were taking a tremendous risk in their celebratory procession.

They were risking a retaliatory action by Pilate, who could commission his extra troops to violently suppress the people’s voices.

They were expressing a stunning level of trust in Jesus and his access to the power of God to overthrown the Empire that controlled most of the known world.

The Palm procession was jubilant… but there was a sharp edge to the celebration: a tense anticipation.

The rejoicing was based on the assumption that Jesus was entering the City as a Militaristic Messiah on the cusp of an act of mighty deliverance.

The people were taking a risk in the expectation that Jesus would follow through on the prophecies of salvation from their oppressor.

No wonder the people get angry when the deliverance fails to materialize!

Jesus’s first action in Jerusalem is a promising act of disruption: he cleanses the Temple of the money changers and vendors in a show of religious zeal.

But then… he goes back to teaching.

He delivers new, confounding parables;

He parries words with the Temple leaders and legal experts;

And he retreats back to the Mount of Olives to gather with his small group of disciples and instruct them.

He doesn’t rally the faithful to the cause of rebellion. He doesn’t call down legions of angels to cleanse the Holy City of the foreign invaders. He does not give any sign that he is actually planning to fulfill the prophecies of glorious deliverance for God’s people (at least not in the way those people are expecting).

And then, he is arrested.

We will hear that story on Friday night… and I hope we can hear it with the same ears of those who cried Hosanna on Palm Sunday.

I hope we can sense the bitter taste of disappointment on our tongues.

I hope we can sympathize with the frustration of those who took a risk, and made themselves vulnerable, and let themselves hope after so many years of suffering… only to have their would-be Savior defy all of their expectations.

Because that build-up is the role of Palm Sunday in this Holy Week story…

It is the rising tension, and the realization that we cannot be passive in the way that we hear this story.

It demands a risk from us, a willingness to get vulnerable, to name OUR expectations for how exactly it is that we want Jesus to come and save us.

And it does not resolve that tension. It asks us to carry it into this coming week, to leave us expectant and anxious about whether the Savior we are seeking when we cry Hosanna is the Savior we will get.

So, I’m not going to resolve that tension in my sermon today.

I know that we all know how the story ends, but I don’t want us to jump ahead to that ending yet.

I want us to hold the taste of expectant hope on our tongues and get honest with ourselves about what we most want God to do… not 2,000 years ago in Palestine, but here… today… in our lives.

I want us to hear the ringing of the cry Hosanna – save us – in our ears and recognize the ways in which that cry echoes in our hearts.

And then I want us to wait in that vulnerable honesty.

The story is not over yet. Thanks be to God.

[1] Description informed by the scholarship of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem. [2] Ibid, p. 12. [3] SALT Commentary for Palm/Passion Sunday 2023:


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