Lent 6: Return to Jesus

by susan on April 14, 2014

Ioan_Bigorski_Jesus_enters_JerusalemYesterday, we celebrated Palm Sunday and explored the gospel of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Here is the message that was shared.  An audio version can be found here.

Matthew 21:1-11
Return to Jesus

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying 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. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘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.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The 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!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Matthew 21:1-11, NRSV

When Jesus arrived into Jerusalem, it was the beginning of the end of his earthly ministry and STILL no one agreed on what to call him. Was he “Prophet”? “Lord”? “King”? Who was this man?  Was he really how God would choose to save the world?

We have been struggling with his identity ever since. This struggle has led us to form doctrines, denominations, and dogma that each hold to a different understanding of Jesus Through the years, theologians, historians and even artists have offered their unique perspectives.

Take a look at these expressions of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. [we viewed distinct artists’ renditions and commented on their differences]

Each artist imagined Jesus differently. Each of us imagines Jesus differently. It can be confusing and even disturbing to encounter so many pictures of Jesus.

I think out of all the images I discovered this week, this image is probably the most accurate portrayal of what happened along the roadside and amongst the crowd gathered to watch Jesus enter Jerusalem – that is, if they even noticed him at all.

We have already heard the text read to us. What the gospel of Matthew does not tell us is that the city of Jerusalem was now under Roman occupation. The Roman Empire grew by gradually taking over more and more territories in the eastern Mediterranean. They had now taken over Judea, which once again left the Israelites wanting and looking for one who would come to save them.
It is a time of turmoil and unrest.

One thing is for sure.  Expectation and assumption filled the air as Jesus and his followers make their way into the city.

Within the crowd, there are those who have encountered Jesus along his journey. Some were healed, some were drawn by his teachings and others by the idea of a new kingdom that would come. They have run ahead of him to prepare the way. They spread their cloaks and leafy branches on the road for Jesus to ride over like a red carpet, reminiscent of how they prepared the way for other kings to enter. They are crying “hosanna” (“Lord, save us”) but, it is unlikely these words are said from hearts that are so incredibly captivated by Jesus’ message of love and grace. They still assumed the Messiah would come and raise up an army, and with the help of God, Rome would be sent running, along with their pagan gods. Despite all they had heard and seen, they still expected a rebel, a warrior, a king.

Jesus and his followers are not the only one moving into the city on that day. There are also thousands of Jewish pilgrims making the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They are coming together to give thanks to God for sparing their lives from death and leading their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. This is the same journey that Jesus took many times as a boy. As a Jew, he would have been expected to share in their celebrations. Their hopes are also high that the Messiah will appear to them as he did their ancestors, but it would only happen in a way that was consistent with the laws they formed the basis of their faith.

One other group would have been descending on the city. During Passover, the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000. An army of Roman soldiers would have patrolled the streets to maintain order. After all if Passover was celebration of deliverance from Pharaoh, who’s to say these Jewish pilgrims might not rebel against Rome?! Resistance would not be tolerated. These soldiers represented the power, wealth and might of empire. It was an empire of corruption and oppression. They expected a rebellion, but not from Jesus.

There is a mixture of celebration & cheering, conflict & chaos. On this day, Jerusalem is a melting pot of different kingdoms and cultures.  Some were ready for an uprising; others for a military or political attack.

Jesus, on the other hand, was preparing to take up his cross and die.

According to Matthew, Jesus appears less and less concerned with responding to crowds and more and more focused on the fulfillment of the kingdom he preached and taught. He mounts a lowly animal (actually two animals according to Matthew’s version) and rides straight into the chaos, into the conflict and into the assumptions that filled the air.

Jesus is not there to fulfill others’ expectations. He is there to do what God has been doing all along. Jesus is God in the flesh. He is God’s radical and redeeming love. That same love made new clothes for Adam and Eve so they could move out of shame. That same love called Abraham and Sarah to be a light to the nations. That same love gave water to thirsty Israelites and visions of rebirth through Ezekiel to a nation defeated by their enemies.

God would not be held back by our ideas of who he was or how he should take care of them. He moved silently through the streets, preparing to disappoint and surprise them all.

In our quest for the truth about who Jesus was and is, perhaps this Palm Sunday, there is something other than palms and cloaks to be laid down.

Perhaps we need to lay down our assumptions and make room for God to enter our lives, our city and our world in unlikely, life-giving and even scandalous ways.

—-

Mike and I met for lunch at Metro Diner on a Friday a few weeks ago. It had been an almost unbearable week and Mike was still processing the sudden death of his brother. I assumed when we got together it would be a time for listening and being a supportive friend. As his pastor, I assumed God would use me to be a comforting presence.

Mike was there waiting when I arrived and with a grin, said, “Can I show you something?” I had to think about exactly how to respond …”sure”, I finally replied. Mike then began to try lifting up his sleeve and then his entire shirt when that did not work. He had gotten a tattoo on his left shoulder, almost identical to the on his brother had, only this one had the dates of his brothers birth and death.

There is Mike holding his shirt up when our waitress walks up. Talk about your awkward moment. She smiled as he tried to quickly reassemble his clothing. She then proceeded to reassuredly ask if he had just gotten a tattoo.

“Yes”, he said (without giving any other details), and then she held out her wrist. On it, were the initials of her brother who had died in an accident less than 6 months ago.

I was stunned. They began exchanging stories and she encouraged Mike by saying it gets easier over time. The tattooed waitress who just happened to be assigned to our table shattered more than just my ideas of how lunch would go. She reminded me that God enters our lives in ways we can never predict. Sometimes, he shows up in planned service or praise songs, but more often God moves through unlikely people, places and encounters.  God even moves through pain, humility, relationship and even death to show us the unfathomable love that God has had for us all along.

Misguided assumptions played a big role in the final week of Jesus’ life.
Most followers would dessert Jesus because he could not possibly be the one after all.
Instead of a military victory, there was a cross.
Instead of an uprising, there were tears and sweat.
Instead of a celebration, there was bitter disappointment.

Everyone arrived to Jerusalem with expectations, and before the week is over, all of them will be shattered.

While we scratch our heads and wonder, how will God enter our lives, our city and our world today? Perhaps, we should lay down our assumptions and look at Jesus.

This is how God has and will come to us.

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