Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mt 21:1-11 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
He rode into town with two borrowed donkeys. Neither a hero of battle nor Roman nobility, and yet, the people gathered and greeted him as though he were one... as though he was really able to save them. That’s what Hosanna means: “Save me.” They took their cloaks and branches hastily cut from trees and they made him a clear path into the city. Hosannas rang across the city, hosannas usually reserved for the rich and powerful. In that moment, the crowds believed Jesus could help them. They believed that he could save them. So, they shouted and sang and made a fuss. And, into the city he rode, on two borrowed donkeys.
Some version of this story is in each of the four Gospels. The stories vary as you would expect from four storytellers. One donkey or two, an unknown crowd or disciples, there is always a ruckus. Jesus is always greeted with joy. Matthew's version of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem says that the city shook with the intensity of crowd. In her translation of the text, Dr. Wil Gafney prefers to use the definition “shake” rather than “turmoil.” Jesus’ entry into the city is intended to have the power of an earthquake. Or, perhaps we are to read this as a convulsion of need by the people witness this strange parade. Either way, the people and city are shaken. And, the ground will shake again, later that same week. This tumult might be a warning, too.
Jesus wasn't the only one who marched into the city during this festival. In his commentary on this text, Stanley Sanders talks about Jesus’ entry in the city is intended to be a contrast to that of the Roman elite. Pilate would have ridden into town and he wouldn’t have had to borrow a donkey, though, it should be noted, that he didn’t pay for the chariot he likely rode in on. That was the people’s money, taken by Rome. He and the soldiers he commanded would have made their own way into the city, displaying all their power and might in order to intimidate the people into good behavior during their religious celebration.
We must remember that Passover was a holiday where the people celebrated their delivery from oppression in Egypt. Pilate needed to make sure they didn't get so overcome with all the talk of liberation that they became foolish enough to try to rebel against Rome. Sanders says that people would be required to show up to welcome Pilate and pledge obedience to the conqueror. To appear to be anything less than celebratory at his return to the city would be to court destruction at the hands of his garrison. I don't know if many people would have should Hosanna at Pilate. Maybe they would have, but, I bet most of them didn’t think he had come in the name of the Lord.
If we are paying attention to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, we can see how deeply his mission is connected to the hopes of his people. He is so connected to their prophecies of salvation that he reenacts one, albeit strangely, from the book of Zechariah. That’s what the whole business about the two donkeys is about. They are trying to follow a prophecy from Zechariah. It also shows us how deeply other people responded to his mission of wholeness and liberation. In the middle of a huge religious celebration, with dangerous soldiers all around, enough people gathered around him to move the earth with their adulation and excitement. I think we are also to see that their excitement, and Jesus' dedication to his mission probably also made some powerful people nervous. When the people already have liberation on their minds, and are shouting "save me" at a man they call a prophet, you can bet some powerful people would pay attention. That attention was rarely good attention. You don't claim the space of a king, even a humble one on a donkey, without courting conflict.
We should make sure to take note that, even in the midst of an empire ready to harm you at the least provocation, the crowd saw an opportunity for hope and liberation, and they rushed forward to be a part of it. They were willing to grasp at any bit of freedom they could manage, even if was simply the freedom to celebrate this prophet more sincerely and graciously than any emissary that Rome could send their way. So, they shouted so loudly that the city had to pay attention and they shifted the earth beneath their feet.
The world is so complex. It has always been, but I am most attentive to the complexities of right now. It is possible to create an entire litany of terrible things happening: It is now a felony for parents to give their children life-saving gender-affirming care in the state of Alabama, the war in Ukraine is looking more and more genocidal, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point Reservation doesn’t have consistent access to clean water. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has changed so many people’s lives forever. I imagine that the somberness of this coming week’s Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services will feel familiar because it is easy to feel somber these days. And, part of the gift of Holy Week is the space to feel that grief. Grief is not separate from our faith. It is a part of it. Palm Sunday reminds us that joy and shouting are, too.
Rev. Jayne Davis, in her work on spiritual practices, talks about the value of setting aside time for acknowledging the holy in your life. She calls this making room for Sabbath. She’s not telling Christians to take up Jewish religious practices. She suggesting that we take time to rest in God’s presence, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I invite you, in this hectic world with many demands on your time and your care, to treat Holy Week as this set-aside space, where you can draw nearer to Christ, as these crowds did, and feel whatever is on your heart in that moment. Christ is with you in the silence, the shouting and the earth-shaking. May you find your Hosanna and welcome Christ, once again, into this place.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2404
Wil Gafney, "Palm Sunday- Liturgy of the Palms," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Jayne Davis: https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/7-spiritual-practices-for-the-new-year/
Art credit: Swanson, John August. Entry into the City, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56544. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1990 by John August.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.