[The video for this worship service and sermon can be found here.]
I was at the airport recently and noticed a couple of magazines fairly prominently displayed that had cover articles about Jesus, which I thought was a little bit surprising. But then again, this was close to Easter, and there are still millions of Christians in this country, so it makes sense from a marketing perspective at least. One was Life Magazine, and the other, National Geographic.
Both articles were the feature stories, and they were special additions — you can see them here — looking at the life of Jesus, his importance, historically, as one of the influential individuals who has ever lived, and specifically even the events leading to his death, according to the gospels. And both accounts were more or less faithful. The National Geographic piece in particular was very well written and researched.
In fact, in reading these two stories — I bought both magazines — I was deeply moved and drawn into these portraits of Jesus. Because they were compelling, and I found my faith strengthened by them.
Which is interesting, because neither of these magazine’s are written from a faith-based point of view. Neither of them assumed any believe in God or Jesus as the Son of God. And yet, when it comes to the details of the life of Jesus and the gospel records, there was little question at all about 1) the truth of many of these events, and the respect and reverence that is due him in the story, for how he conducted himself, and how he suffered and was willing to suffer. Why is that?
So I want to explore this for a minute and ask, what is that we notice about Jesus that is so attractive here? And yet, that is also so hard to actually believe?
And I want to suggest two primary observations: one, Jesus is boldly confrontational! He’s not afraid of conflict. He’s courageous. He’s full of conviction and clarity of calling. And yet, just as much… while confrontational, he’s also compassionate and tenderhearted! He’s humble. And as it is says in Philippians 2, he’s obedient and submissive to God’s will, even to the point of death on a cross.
Earlier on in the gospel stories, Jesus doesn’t want people to spread the word about him. Biblical scholars call this the messianic secret. So for example, when Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead in Luke 8, he told everyone there not to say anything about what they saw. Why? Because it wasn’t his time yet! He still had things to say and do before the Passover, and before the authorities succeeded in their plots against him.
In the chapters and days leading up to Passover and his turn toward Jerusalem, though, this changes. It’s like he starts saying, bring it on. He’s happy for people to talk about him and hear more about who he really is, because political tension needs to be built up. He is in control of this whole process. He’s confronting the political and religious leaders on his terms, not theirs — and in his timing, not theirs.
And when he enters Jerusalem, it’s already a highly charged and volatile environment due to the significance of Passovers remembrance of liberation from slavery in Egypt. There are probably tens of thousands more people than usual in maybe a 50,000 person town. It’s kind of like being in Austin during ACL or South by Southwest! Hundreds of thousands of people to our couple of million. So it’s big scene, it’s a bit stressful, chaotic, rowdy… and security is on high alert.
So the stage is set, and Jesus takes advantage of it. In fact, he really steals the show. Only he does so in a way that no one would have expected. He’s riding in a colt — other gospels say donkey or foal — either way, the meaning is the same. It’s not a war horse.
The custom for a truly imperial or royal procession would have been for someone like Herod or Pilate or Caesar or whoever to ride into the town on a stallion — some magnificent animal with an army escort and heavily outfitted brigade of soldiers to signify conquest and victory from the battlefield. This great expression of worldly power, saying, look at me! A celebration of successful violence and killing — forced subjection of another people.
Jesus’s procession receives a similar treatment by the crowds — palm branches, cloaks, indicated royalty and honor and so forth — but none of the actual prowess and weaponry of a military procession. That’s not the way the Kingdom of God breaks in.
It’s not coercive. It does not seek to harm anyone or force itself, but it does still pose a threat. It’s subversive. Because it exposes the current power structures for they are. Oppressive, fragile, impermanent. Fear-based. Manufactured.
Because remember, Jesus is still claiming to be King here. He’s not denying it. He lets the people say it! And when the Pharisees ask him to rebuke them, he refuses. And what does he say? “I tell you, if these were to be silent, the very stones would cry out.”
It’s kind of like Jujutsu! I have a friend who’s gotten really into Jiu-jitsu, and he has his whole family doing it now, so I’ve been curious about it, and I’m aware of its uniqueness in the world of hand-to-hand combat and martial arts. Here’s how Jiu-Jitsu is defined:
“Jū” can be translated as “gentle, soft, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding”, and “jutsu” can be translated as “art or technique”. “Jujutsu” thus has the meaning of “yielding-art”, as its core philosophy is to manipulate the opponent’s force against themself rather than confronting it with one’s own force. These techniques were developed around the principle of using an attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it.
And I especially appreciate the artful aspect and reflex of this strategy, because it really does describe what Jesus seems to be doing here. When he comes into town on the colt, it’s street theater. It’s performative.
He’s orchestrating a dramatic re-depiction of who the real King is in the story. It’s political satire — a parody and counter narrative to the prevailing storyline of the day. Who is Lord? Jesus or Ceasar? The people give their answer, which is the true one, whether they understand the implications of that truth or not.
And so the meaning of Palm Sunday begins to become clear to us. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by fear with threats of violence, demanding submission. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy.
You see because again, while yes, Jesus is boldly confrontational, contending for justice, claiming his rightful seat on the throne, we see as well that he’s humble and tenderhearted, submissive and obedient to the Father’s will.
He’s gentle. He’s lowly…. As Tim Keller said once in a sermon: “Jesus was the most humble man, but he was by no means modest.”
So his humility isn’t modest or timid. It’s strong and courageous.This kind of bold humility is very rare, isn’t it! These two things don’t tend to go together. Most of us are prone to one or the other. It’s fight or flight:
We’re afraid of conflict and avoid it. We run away from it. Or we’d rather downplay it and sweep it under the rug.
Or, maybe we’re not afraid of it, and we even like it, but we go into it with hostility and condemnation. This is cancel culture, call-out culture.
Jesus somehow manages to do neither. He faces conflict, and engages in it, but he does so with grace and truth, with boldness and tenderness together.
After the triumphal entry, in the next couple verses, it tells us that
41 And when [Jesus] drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes… Luke 19:41-42
And then he goes on to predict their pending judgment…
Jesus is agonizing, mourning, and deeply distraught. Because he loves Jerusalem and everyone in it! He’s brokenhearted that so many of his very people have rejected the Kingdom he has come to bring them. Sure, some of them just laid down some cloaks, or waved Palm branches, as it tells us in John’s gospel. But they still don’t get it. And as the story unfolds just a few short days later, some of these same people demand that Barrabbas the insurrectionist be released instead of Jesus.
And this is where we begin to see ourselves in the story most clearly. For we too have laid down our cloaks and waived our palm branches for Jesus — we attracted to his boldness and power, his willingness to stand up for something and confront the hypocrisy of the authorities!
But then the invitation comes. Will you pick up your cross and follow me? Will you deny yourself and trust that this really is the way? Many times, like the crowd, we too choose Barrabbas a few days later.
Because trusting in God’s kind of peace, and God’s kind of security is hard, isn’t it? Standing for the the things Jesus and his Kingdom is costly, scary, lonely. The peace and protection, the peace and security of the world is appealing!
This Holy Week friends, I want to pose a question. We’ve called this year’s Lent a graceful one, and really, it always should be. But as we approach Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this week, may you carefully consider: Which peace and security are you trusting in and standing up for? Is it God’s, or is the world’s?
If it’s the world’s:
- Maybe it’s money. Money’s a big one. It has a hold on many of us.
- Maybe it’s power and control. Or maybe it’s politics, which is closely related. Maybe some of us need to ask, have a made a god of my country or my political ideology? Do I see the log in my neighbors eye before the spec in my own when I disagree with them?
- Or maybe it’s the approval of others.
These tend to be the big three: money, power, people. Some would add pleasure as a fourth (food, sex, other sensual gratifications). What is lording over you? Where is your heart? Redirect it this morning. Confess and repent, and let us remember Paul’s words:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.