Nothing says Emmanuel like God on a donkey. Nothing says God-with-us like Jesus getting down and dirty and riding in on an ass. This is the scandal of the Gospel, only to be outdone later this week when that same God is hoisted up onto a cross.
Welcome to Holy Week, sisters and brothers in Christ. Are you sure you want to do this? Because this becomes a bumpy road.
But in this road is redemption, new life, forgiveness, transformation, love, hope, and most of all peace -- in a violent and chaotic and backstabbing world. Jesus on this donkey trots down the road of peace.
This entry into Jerusalem, this parade of and for Jesus which we remember -- and even enact some years here with our own processions -- was a very dangerous and political demonstration. (Anyone who doesn’t think Jesus was political better take a second look at these stories!) Jesus knew exactly what he was doing -- and when it comes to political protests and demonstrations, timing is everything.
You see, every year, a couple times a year, Pontius Pilate -- the mighty Roman governor of Judea -- would come up from his home in Caesarea (about 50 mi. NW), the coastal Roman capital of the area, and into the city of Jerusalem...to govern, to remind people who’s in charge here. Jews lived in occupied territory and they hated that -- as I’m sure we would too. Just the sight of the mighty Roman procession of Pilate and his entourage up on their mighty, war horses, would make their blood boil. It would remind them more than ever of the oppression under which they lived. But if any of them took a chance and tried to mock them -- well, try throwing something at the imperial military procession -- see what happens...
And this was the week that the Jews were to be celebrating Passover, and people were coming in from all over Judea to do so. And so just like when the Super Bowl or any other huge event is happening in your town, extra security is shipped in, to make sure nothing gets out of hand. This happened whenever the Jews had a big festival, but especially the festival of Passover, because here -- as you know -- the Passover a celebration, a remembrance of their liberation from Egypt, it was all about freedom from oppression. So certain groups of Jews -- Zealots especially -- were known to incite the crowds. It was a tense atmosphere during Passover. Anything could happen and the Roman powers -- under the command of Pontius Pilate -- were going to make sure that it didn’t -- or else...there would be blood. This was “Pax Romana” (Peace of Rome), the great decree of Caesar, live and in the flesh!
Pilate and his military forces always came in, we know, through a gate on the western side of the city, the royal gate, the gate that leads right to their Roman luxurious capital city on the Mediterranean coast. Easy access.
And Roman theology put military power and military leaders on such a pedestal as to elevate the experience of their triumphal entry to a religious event. When Roman military leaders and governors like Pilate would come into town, always mounted on great, white war horses, the people would spread blankets on the ground and shout “God save the Emperor” or in Hebrew “Hosanna to the Emperor”, trumpets would play, historians even tell us that they would spray expensive perfume into the streets, so that the smell of victory, power and might was literally in the air. And woe to any who would disrupt a demonstration and a parade -- a worship service -- like this!
(It’d like someone disrupting the National Anthem...)
At the beginning of the Passover week, Pilate and his entourage rode into town (from the west) with all this respect and awe and fanfare.
But there was another procession coming into town that day -- another leader was entering through an opposite gate -- this one on the eastern side of the city. Jesus was coming in from Bethphage, where the Mount of Olives is located, just east of Jerusalem walls. Jesus’ timed this just right. He knew Pilate was coming from the west, right about the same time. So Jesus rides in -- not on a war horse -- but on a donkey. And it all came off as a mockery of Rome. Jesus interrupted the National Anthem. And this Palm Sunday parade that we study and reflect upon this morning, and even enact, at the beginning of Holy Week, is a political demonstration that really mocks all the trust that the Romans have in their systems of war, of peace-by-force, of their mighty horses, and legions of troops, and of Rome’s distance from the people. They’re not really in touch. It’s not “Pax” at all -- that Rome offers, if it’s peace through force. And Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing.
And so, it says, that the people were stirred up. It says the whole city was in turmoil. And the Greek word there is eseisthe -- where we get our word seismic (which relates, of course, to the earth shaking and quaking)! Jerusalem, you might remember, hasn’t been stirred up in Matthew’s gospel since Christmas time. Remember that? After Jesus was born and the wisemen come to visit him, there’s that curious line in Matthew’s gospel that says that “Herod was shaken and all Jerusalem with him.” (And a preview of what coming next Sunday -- pay attention to what happens to the earth at the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning.)
Nothing says Emmanuel like God on a donkey.
Our God is not a contender for Pilate and Rome and their legions. Even though I’m setting it up (and actually this the late, great Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s work) like a boxing match: [Don King] “Coming in from the west..! East...Let’s get ready to rumble!” Christ’s is a road of peace.
And I wonder if there’s a part of us -- I know there’s a part of me -- that want to see Jesus be the great contender to the powers of this world, taking Pilate down with a divine TKO. Why do we have this appetite for violence and revenge? That would certainly be tapping into the spirit of the people of that time too. In fact, that’s exactly what the Jews wanted Jesus to do. “Knock him out the box, Jesus!”
But sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus contends against something much greater than a powerful and oppressive regime. [pause] Jesus contends against evil and sin, against “the devil and all his empty promises”, against hatred and violence, against war and oppression, against bigotry and ignorance, against selfishness and pride. (Jesus contends against all challenges that were before us through Lent -- bitterness, the struggle to forgive, staying awake and alert, participating always in the care and attention to the least, the lost, and the lowly. How’d that go for you? I’m guessing -- by virtue of the fact that you’re a human being -- that you didn’t perfect these disciplines, maybe you even failed pretty miserably. How Lent teaches us again and again that we stand in the need of God’s grace.) But Jesus comes to contend agains these forces. Jesus -- in his humble and yet powerful ride into town, mounted on a goofy donkey -- is contending against death itself.
Nothing says Emmanuel like God on a donkey.
The irony here is palpable -- that Christ would take on powers much greater than Pilate and the authorities -- seated on a donkey, adorned later with thorns and lashings, and Friday hanging from a cross. But Christ comes into Jerusalem and into our hearts precisely for that purpose -- to take on death itself...for our sake.