(Matthew 21: 1-11)
Palm Sunday circa the year 33 had quite a few similarities to the Palm Sunday of 2017.
There were two processions that day in the year 33 – one procession that welcomed a ruler, a governor, riding high on a war horse, clad in protective leather with metal swords clanging beside him. Followed by soldiers with helmets, swords, and gold. Processing into the city to maintain order during the upcoming Passover celebrations, not to celebrate with the people but rather to keep the people under control.
This is the procession of the prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Pilate of course in this instance represents all the terror of the Roman Empire that the people were living in. Most Roman governors were known for their strict order and allegiance to the Roman Empire but Pilate was particularly brutal when it comes to Roman lackeys. What he couldn’t negotiate he is said to have accomplished through brute force. He was known for his indulgence in pride, unlimited harshness, violence, greed, and executions without trial. If the Roman Empire was bad, Pontius Pilate was the very worst of it.
This first procession is of course the procession of all that Pilate represents – greed, selfishness, pride, arrogance, violence, coercive and destructive power, and the like.
And then there is a second procession, on the other side of Jerusalem, the one we just read about in the gospel of Matthew. The procession of Jesus; Michael Lindvall describes this procession in his book “What did Jesus do?” saying,
“[Jesus] did not ride a great stallion. Feet dragging in the dust, he straddled a more humble beast – a colt or a donkey. Behind him marched no army, just a handful of rustic disciples: illiterate Galilean fisherman, an errant tax collector, and several women. He bore no weapon but his piercing word. He rode toward no throne, only toward a cross. And his crown would be fashioned not of gold, but of plaited thorns.”
Two processions in one day. – the procession of a great Roman leader and the procession of a great savior. One procession that displays power and celebrates empire and a second procession that displays humility and celebrates the kingdom of God.
Two thousand years later, of course, we know which one we celebrate. We celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover. We shout hosanna with palm branches, joyfully recognizing that the latter of those processionals is the greater. That the humble, in fact, laughable parade of Jesus, is the one with which we want to align. Well at least today we do.
Of course, the Palm Sunday of today is not too far from the Palm Sunday of 33. There are still two processions: the procession we all just participated in, the one where we shout “hosanna,” wave palm branches, look for the salvation of Jesus, welcome the humility of the one we call Messiah.
And there is the second procession, perhaps less formal in its structure but nonetheless present. A procession that is continual in its presence – the constant procession of pride, power, strength, meant to control and maintain order. The second procession the one we encounter each day.
This second procession may present itself in different ways but it marches onward in our lives and in our community and in our culture nonetheless. Perhaps we see it in celebrations of strength and power or in temptations for selfishness over compassion for others. It is indeed often the strong and powerful that are celebrated and rewarded in our culture after all, isn’t it? Or perhaps it marches onward in our lives as the temptation to choose self and protection triumphs the opportunity to humble oneself and make way for humility and compassion.
The question that comes to mind then is: which procession will you join? The procession that follows the servant savior riding on a donkey? Or the procession that follows the leather clad military men as they ride high horses?
Unlike the processions of two millennia ago, the stark contrast of the two – the procession of pride and violence and empire and the procession of humility, peace, and salvation. The procession of Pilate represents the worst of the worst, the unfathomable violence and corruption and then the procession of Jesus represents the divine, the sacred, humility and love. The stark differences of the two processions is often not as evident in our lives today. The choice between the two processionals is masked in many ways.
What’s going to happen after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where the people shout “hosanna” and lay down their clothes for his procession, and cut down branches. What’s going to happen next is that either the people forget that they did that or they change their mind, or maybe they start to doubt why they did that, or maybe they become disappointed in Jesus. But what happens this week is that those people betray Jesus, they will deny him, they will ignore him, they will shout crucify him, they will forget him.
They will choose to trust in the other processional, the one that celebrates power the one they can wrap their head around. The one with quick results, the one with order and control, the one that makes sense to our limited understanding. That’s the one the people will choose – the same people who shout hosanna will shout “crucify him.”
What will we choose?
Its no different for us, these aren’t ancient characteristics of biblical times unlike our own human faults and flaws. We too deny Jesus; we too are disappointed that the savior we got was a servant savior, a savior who calls us to uncomfortable places, who pursues peace and humility over our selfish desires, who promotes the kingdom of God, not the kingdom we know.
This is not who the people wanted. This perhaps isn’t even who we want still to this day, knowing the story we know. How can this man save the world if he cannot even save himself, if he cannot even fetch for himself a horse, or an army, how can this be the one who is to save us?
Each one of us will of course over time choose some of one and some of the other, some of the procession of pride and power, the procession of safety and the procession of empire. Each one of us in ways will deny Christ, will betray the call Christ places on our lives, will turn our faces to the least and the lost. That is our humanity of course, and we hope and we pray for the strength to be forever turned to the procession of Jesus, to join the voices of those shouting “Hosanna” that our trust will be and will remain in Jesus, that we will forever cry out in trust to Jesus, “save us.”
Frederick Buechner writes in a sermon he delivered to the boys of Exeter School about the difference between the two powers- the power of humanity and the power of God, the procession of Pilate and the procession of Jesus, he says “… the power of God stands in violent contrast with the power of man (sic). It is not external like human power, but internal. By applying external pressure, I can make a person do what I want him to do. This is human power. But as for making him be what I want him to be, without at the same time destroying his freedom, only love can make this happen. And love makes it happen not coercively, but by creating a situation in which, of our own free will, we want to be what love wants us to be. And because God’s love is uncoercive and treasures freedom… we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, the greatest of all powers, God’s power, is itself powerless.”
The question is which procession will we choose, which one will we choose to align ourselves with, which procession will we choose to stand and watch with amazement, which procession will we choose to celebrate? The procession of strength or the procession of humility? That is the question we have at hand for ourselves today.
But the good news, my friends, is not which procession we will choose to join. But the good news is that given the choice – given the ability to choose the procession of pomp and the procession of strength, the procession of power, the procession of quick praise and easy certain obedience; Jesus chose instead the other procession. Jesus chose instead to ride in on a donkey, feet dragging in the dust, a ragtag cast of characters behind him – people who will betray him, people who don’t belong in processions, people who have been rejected, people who doubt, clomping along in the most humble of ways into the city of Jerusalem. Jesus had the choice, and he chose the procession of humility. And that my friends, that is the good news of the Palm Sunday story.
In the name of our humble and mighty God, Amen.