Because of some changes to our preaching schedule at St. Mark’s abd my being away on course in Feb-Mar, it seems like ages since I’ve preached last or posted a sermon here. This one is preached today at St. Mark’s Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, using the Year C lections for Passion Sunday. MP+
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. (Ps 31:11)
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk 19:38). We heard that line from Luke’s gospel read outside this morning during out Liturgy of the Palms. Today our palm fronds, our readings, and our hymns, are all designed to take us back to that moment of seeming triumph and glory when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Today our worship prompts us to ask a very simple question – what kind of king is Jesus? We need to ask this question, because our history suggests that we have a hard time understanding what real kingship and power are really all about.
Here’s a case in point from recent history. Generation Kill, an HBO series based on a book by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright, describes the entry of US Marines into Baghdad in 2003. The streets were full of Iraqis chanting “Bush, Bush, Bush”, and the Marines were asked if they had brought statues of their President so the people could put them where the statues of their former leader, Saddam Hussein, had stood. It was as if, after being ruled by strong men for so long, the people couldn’t imagine any other kind of power, even though the Americans were talking about bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq. Within a week, however, the crowds had changed their opinions. The Americans were not prepared for the violence and looting that followed the fall of Baghdad, and there were too few of them. The US soldiers began to look weak, and they changed from liberators into targets. Crowds which once shouted “Bush, Bush, Bush!” now began to chant “Death to the USA”.
Two millennia separate the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem and that of the US military into Baghdad, but both stories, and countless ones in between, but not much else had changed. Then as now, the people wanted a king, but they like the kind of king they got. Palm Sunday reminds us of how Jesus went from Hero to Zero because the crowds didn’t understand how God’s power really worked. That guy on the colt with the reputation for miracles may have reminded the people of Jerusalem of their scriptures’ prophecies of kings and messiahs (eg, Zechariah 9:9),2 but pretty soon he started to look weak and silly. Jesus had nothing to offer to get rid of the Romans. During his week in Jerusalem he hinted that he had power from heaven (Lk 20:1-19) but he didn’t spell it out directly. You all know what happened next. The man who entered Jerusalem in a manner reminiscent of Old Testament kings shambles out of Jerusalem under a cross, now reminiscent of another Old Testament figure, the object of scorn and horror mentioned by the Psalmist (Ps 31:11). So what kind of king is Jesus?
Let’s start with a very important point. In the whole story, Jesus never denies that he is a king. When the Pharisees tell him to order his disciples to stop saying that he’s a king, Jesus says it’s impossible: “I tell you, even if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk 19:40). Earlier in his ministry, Jesus did not want people to call him king or Messiah, which is why he ordered witnesses to stay quiet about his miracles (Lk 8:56). Now that he’s reached Jerusalem, however, Jesus isn’t denying that he’s a king. So what’s changed?
The Methodist preacher and blogger Peter Woods makes an excellent point about this crucial moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus reveals his kingship. In the three years previous, during his travels through Galilee and Samaria, Woods notes, Jesus has been living and teaching a kind of power that is very different from the power of Pilate, Herod, and the other earthly kings waiting for him in Jerusalem. In his deeds, his words, and his parables, Jesus has shown the kind of power that heals and restores the hopeless and the outcast back to their families and communities. Think of the prodigal son, for example, brought back to his father’s house. Jesus has forgiven sinners and adulterers, he has visited under the roof of tax collectors, he has healed lepers and raised the dead. His kingdom has no borders or walls, it is open to all who want a place in it. In all of his ministry Jesus has upheld the standard of his Father’s righteousness, as in his cleansing of the Temple during his final week in Jerusalem, but his power has not depended on anger and wrath. For the first time in its history, the world has seen in Jesus what a kingdom based on the love of God looks like, and the world rejects it.
The Psalmist writes, “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me” (Ps 31:11). Scorn, shame, horror, dread. That’s all you would have seen following Jesus to the cross, if you had no idea what kind of king he really was. But this is a different kind of king, a king who calls us friends, a king who knows us and loves us despite our faults, a king who challenges us to love and to forgive others as he loves and forgives us. Let us go into this Holy Week resolved to follow our king from the glory of the Palms to the horror of the Cross. Let us try to understand the power of this king, so different from the powers that we know. This power comes from the wounded heart of the king who stretches out his arms on the cross to embrace the whole world. This power is poured out at great cost, and is freely given. This power will transform us, if we are brave enough to let it transform us. Its Holy Week. Our King is riding into Jerusalem. We know his true power. Lets follow our King.