Rejoice the Lord Is King
Palm Sunday 2017
At the time of Jesus, Jerusalem had a population of 100,000. At Passover time, more than 3 million Jewish pilgrims swarmed into the holy city. They packed the narrow passageways. It was good for business, but the natives looked at each other at Passover time with a kind of ambivalent resignation. The tourists in town for the holidays turned their usually quiet and orderly days into bedlam, but they brought the shekels in their leather pouches that would spell prosperity for months to come.
Bearded men in high hats moved through the throng, hands folded over the ample fronts, phylacteries strapped to their wrists, the blue fringe from their robes trailing in the dust, their faces bearing a faint smile of superiority.
Little children ran hither and yon, playing their game of hide and seek. Their faces dark and dirty and delighted at the excitement and noise and revelry. Off in the distance they began to hear a rhythmic, staccato chant, carried on the morning breeze from the southern gate. The crowd became quiet as they strained their ears to hear the chant that grew ever louder, “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna.”
A young man comes running with the word that a procession was coming their way. Entry processions were a familiar ceremony in the first century. Many anointed kings and conquering generals had entered Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem over the years, but no one had ever seen a king like this one. A triumphal entry on a donkey. What does this mean?.
Clearly a different king than one the crowds had been used to. This king rode a humble beast of burden as a prophetic sign. Jesus is an extraordinary king, a different king. He is the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples. Those who were following him this day were a ragtag bunch–pathetically unfit for the grand hopes that danced in their imaginations. Those are the people who are cheering Jesus this day, this man from the north country riding on a little grey donkey, but taking the same route as King Solomon took long ago when at his coronation he rode from the Gihon spring up through the city gates to the Temple.
And now they are in this royal parade, marching with him into the holy city. God’s city. Hosanna. That means, God saves. That means now we are going to get some action. At least someone is going to bring us a New Deal, a New Frontier, Make Israel Great Again…..in short a revolt against everything disgusting and disillusioning about this life of ours.
At last someone is going to give the Romans their comeuppance, with their stifling bureaucracy and cruel laws. At last some is going to deal with the high taxes. At last someone is going to rid us of poverty and disease. At last someone is going to end the jealous rivalries among our own people which are tearing us apart and making us suspicious of each other. At last, at last.
But sadly, it wasn’t so. One who marched into the city with him on Palm Sunday said one week later on the road to Emmaus. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
But he didn’t do it. He rode in like a hero, like a ruler of old. Yet five days later he gets himself strung up by the Romans, a pathetic, helpless figure who could only hang there and murmur something about forgiving the people who did this to him because they weren’t aware of what they were doing. Who would ever think that getting killed on the cross would change anything?
They shouted on Palm Sunday: “Behold your king is coming to you.” What kind of king was he? The usual interpretation we hear on Palm Sunday is that the crowd was sadly mistaken, that they were earthly and materialistic in their expectations of the kingdom.
If the crowd was wrong, what kind of king was he? What then is his domain? The individual heart? The world to come? The realm of the Spirit? What do we make of the Triumphal entry? King only for a day?. Or was this somehow a preview of coming attractions?
Let these questions churn in your mind while I share with you an experience that was a shaping influence of my ministry. In 1964 I was a college student and preached every Sunday at a rural Methodist Church in North Carolina. I was warmly received and each Sunday after church a different family would take me in for a sumptuous dinner. Yes, it was dinner, not lunch, and it was always a big spread. I basked in the glow of people’s affections.
In 1964 North Carolina was still steeped in the laws and customs of segregation. The monumental civil rights bill was passed into law the year before, but change was coming slowly to the rural south.
One fine spring Sunday morning I preached a sermon on civil rights. If you were to read that sermon today, you would think it was remarkably tame. I talked about all people being God’s children, that every person, no matter whether he was red, yellow, black or white was precious in God’s sight. Remember that song? And then I concluded the sermon with a powerful quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. about how broken hearted he was when his little daughter asked him “Daddy, why can’t I go to Fun Land like the other children?” Fun Land, an amusement park in Atlanta, was off limits to black people until the civil rights law in 1963. It seemed particularly poignant to me that a little child couldn’t walk into an amusement park with her father, and ride the hobby horses just like I did as a child.
When I finished preaching that sermon, the balmy 80 degrees and sunny that I had known in that church dropped to something like 32 degrees below zero. There was a quick meeting of the church board and I was told that I would not be allowed to return and preach there. The door was slammed shut without even a good bye.
This was an important lesson for me. I learned that the Christian faith is threatening. It was my first experience with that saying you’ve all heard about the Gospel, that the Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
In our New Testament reading this morning we find that chief priests were discussing putting Lazarus to death as well as Jesus. Lazarus, because he was raised from the dead by Jesus and thus a living witness to the power of Jesus and Jesus because he posed such a theat to the established order.
Jesus was not crucified because he mouthed some innocuous statements about loving one another and turning the other cheek. He appeared to the authorities as deadly dangerous. So much so that they preferred to take their chances with a proved insurrectionist. Barabbas was judged the safer of the two.
Jesus denounced them and challenged them openly, as in his cleansing of the temple, as in his maddening reticence and self-control before Pontius Pilate. He renounced their claims about him. There was nothing he wanted from them. Not even to save his life would he invoke their help. He destroyed their credibility. They appeared to be benevolent toward human kind, but when pressed, their violence was revealed. He laid bare their enmity toward God.
Well, what does this all mean for us? Back to my original question. What sort of King is Jesus?
I believe that we in the church have emasculated and dis-empowered Jesus. Grossly, and to our harm, we have restricted his rule and underestimated his achievement.
That Palm Sunday crowd can be forgiven for not catching on to his real significance. After all, they lived on the other side of the critical events. Christ’s achievement had not yet been consummated in his crucifixion or vindicated in his resurrection. But what is our excuse? That’s my question.
“What have we done?” you ask. Well for one thing we have privatized him We have transmuted the message of the Scriptures into a radical personalism as though Jesus were King of Hearts and nothing more. We have reduced him to a “key” for successful living. Or we have watered him down to the level of a mere principle, the mastery of which will assure a happy life for me and mine. The privatization of Jesus.
We have psychologized him. We have held him at most to be a teacher and we have plundered his teachings to explain why human beings behave the way they do. Why, we even clap our hands like gleeful children when some psychiatrist confirms the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings.
And we have devotionalized him. We have made him the object of some pretty sticky piety and sentimental intimacy.
Listen. Jesus Christ is our personal Lord. No question about it. But he is also Lord of history, and he stands in judgment of the sorry sweep of human history. Jesus Christ is our personal Savior. But he is also Savior of the world, and that means that he stands in highest authority above every government and every political institution.
May President Trump, may the Republicans and the Democrats in Washington DC know there is a higher authority than their own notions and convictions.
“Tell the daughter of Zion, behold your king is coming to you” Take him to your heart, my friends, but do not let it stop with that. Hear him as a prophet. Pray through him as a priest. And bear your witness to everyone that he is the King.
Charles Wesley had it right more than 200 years ago in those words we will shortly sing:
Rejoice, the Lord is king!
Your Lord and King adore
Rejoice, give thanks and sing,
and triumph every-more:
Lift up your heart,
Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice