“Look, your king is coming to you!”
Rev. Chris Mereschuk
April 9, 2017
We know the story: On a Sunday, Jesus enters the great city of Jerusalem, home to both the most holy temple of the Jewish faith and the local seat of the Roman empire. Jerusalem was, in the words of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, “the city of God and the faithless city, the city of hope and the city of oppression, the city of joy and the city of pain.” And on that day around the year 30, the city was bustling with festivities from east to west. Full of pilgrims, faithful Jews who came to Jerusalem for the Passover holy day.
Thus began the final days of Jesus’s ministry on earth.
All that Jesus’s had done over the past three years – – all of the teaching, the healing, the miracles – – was leading him to this moment in time. Jesus had long set his face toward Jerusalem and – – though he had informed his Disciples through parables, prophecy, and explicit pronouncements – – only Jesus knew what he was facing.
Scripture indicates that word about Jesus’s arrival had spread. Perhaps some of the people who Jesus had met or even healed were in the city that day. Perhaps some of the Jewish pilgrims who were waiting for the messianic prophecy to be fulfilled numbered in that crowd. And through the eastern gates, in rides Jesus, leading the pageantry of peasantry. Excitedly, some in the crowd broke palm fronds off the trees, others removed their cloaks and spread them on the ground to cushion the donkey’s steps. Ordinary objects transformed for an extraordinary royal welcome. Lowly peasants becoming holy as they made way for the Messiah.
Some of you might already know what else was happening in Jerusalem that day. On the other side of town, another grand procession was entering the through the western gates. The local Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate led a bold display of military power celebration of empire designed to publicly reinforce the total dominance of Rome over the conquered Israelites. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan set the scene for us in their book, The Last Week:
“Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial
power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
The fact that this imperial military procession happened during the week of preparation for the Passover was no mere coincidence. Remember the Passover story: Through the power of God, Moses led the enslaved, exploited, and oppressed Israelites out of Egypt – – liberated from the domination system of the Pharaoh – – a mortal who was worshipped as a god incarnate.
The Passover holy day represented rebellion, righteousness, freedom – – standing up to the unimaginable military power of a monarch, bearing no earthly weapons yet victorious through the saving power of God.
It was the perfect time for the Roman empire to clearly and publicly remind the Jewish population that the empire was in control – – possessing every manner of weaponry, overwhelmingly powerful, not to be challenged, for they could quickly and easily crush any attempts at rebellion that might be stirred up during Passover or at any time.
What dramatically different crowds those must have been. Rallied around Pilate: the elite, the upper castes, the religious authorities who served God with their mouths but served Caesar with their hearts. All those who had a vested interest in maintaining Roman power, bringing a false peace by the sword and wealth on the backs of the common person. And then Jesus on a donkey. The contrast would be laughable if it wasn’t so prophetic.
Pilate was surrounded by the elite and the sycophants, but who was there to welcome Jesus? Pilgrims and peasants. The beaten up and the beaten down. The ones whose right cheeks had been struck, and so they turned also the left. The ones who had been sued for their outer garments and gave their undergarments as well. The ones forced to carry a soldier’s armor for one mile, but insisted on carrying it another. Maybe the lepers who had been cleansed; the demon-possessed who were set free; the blind man given sight; the tax collectors invited to dine with Jesus; the woman saved from certain death by a hypocritical mob; the woman who gave Jesus some water from the well; the Syro-Phoenician woman who convinced Jesus that her little child was also worthy of God’s healing grace; the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet, scandalizing onlookers; and the women who arrived at his tomb, expecting to anoint him for burial.
These are the people who welcomed Jesus.
“Look, your king is coming to you!”
Look to the west and see earthly king who had the power to starve you, impoverish you, arrest you, and execute you.
“Look, your king is coming to you!”
Look to the east and see the heavenly king, the Messiah, who has the power to heal you, make you whole, and liberate you.
Among progressive and liberal Christians, there is a hot debate about the use of words like Lord, king, and kingdom to describe God and Jesus and the world Jesus proclaimed. I can certainly understand the aversion to this language given the reality of unjust earthly kingdoms through centuries of exploitation and oppression up to today. Even the most benevolent monarch is still a monarch: said to be superior by birth, reinforcing domination systems and inequality, living off of the citizens through heavy tax burdens
Yet this is not the kind of king we proclaim when we say Christ is king. This is not the kind of kingdom we seek to establish when we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Where I am in this moment on my faith journey, the image of God as king or Jesus as Lord brings me both comfort and hope. I feel emboldened and liberated by it. Christ is a king unlike any other the world has known. God’s kingdom is unlike any other kingdom established – – risen, falling, or fallen – – on earth. The heavenly king and the Kingdom of Heaven are over-and-above and over-and-against earthy kings and kingdoms.
And not just kings and kingdoms exclusively. God is sovereign and Jesus is Lord over autocrats and oligarchs, even democratically elected officeholders – – whether despised or beloved, brought to power by a true majority or questionably ascended on a technicality – – these power holders are powerless compared to our God and our Lord.
That is not to trivialize the real capacity for justice and injustice wielded by earthly rulers. We know from history, current events, and firsthand experience the tremendous power over life, liberty, health, and wholeness held by earthly leaders.
Like the Caesars of the ancient Roman Empire, we know that earthly leaders often fashion themselves as gods or God’s chosen – – demanding a level of loyalty and obedience that seeks to separate us from God explicitly or through demoralizing oppression.
But we also know the truth of Paul’s encouraging words to the church in Rome at the heart of the empire: “…that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” [I could recite that verse daily and never tire of it.]
Yet as long as we are living our mortal lives on earth, we are living under some form of mortal government. And we will find ourselves wrestling with some measure of unavoidable divided loyalty. We want to be good citizens, and we also want to be good disciples. Scripture gives us some insight as to how we might live in that tension.
According to the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees put Jesus to the test during the last week of his life, trying to entrap him in blasphemy against God and treason against the empire. Many of you know the story. When asked if it is right that faithful Jews should pay taxes, Jesus points to the graven image of Caesar on a coin. Jesus reckons that since Caesar’s face is on it, it must belong to him, so give it back to him. But that is the extent of what is owed to Caesar. Not everything is Caesar’s for the taking.
We have to give to God what is God’s. God is owed much more than Caesar. Jesus proclaims it in what we know as the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Again, Borg and Crossan write, “To love God above all else means giving to God what belongs to God: our heart, soul, mind, and strength. These belong to God, and…not to Caesar.” God’s face is engraved upon your face, God’s heart emblazoned on your own heart. You belong to God, so give yourself to God. In this way, we are citizens in the Kingdom of God.
How does the kingdom of God compare to earthly kingdoms? How does Christ as King or Jesus as Lord come to earthly leaders?
The economy of God’s kingdom does not demand that a permanent underclass be exploited for the sole benefit of the most upper class.
The economy of God’s kingdom demands that the most vulnerable in society – – the literal and figurative refugee, widow, and orphan – – are cared for, protected, and welcomed.
The peaceable kingdom of God is not the false peace of Pax Romana or Pax Americana established and maintained by the sword.
It is the Pax Christi of those same swords beaten into plowshares, cultivating food for all.
Jesus as Lord does not shout vile invectives at enemies and perceived enemies; he does not alienate allies. He does not curse us with fear and hatred, stirring up panic and division.
Jesus as Lord gently yet boldly calls us to grace and forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity; calls us out of the tomb, away from death, and toward life.
Two thousand years ago Pontius Pilate, representing the brutality of the Roman Empire, led a procession into Jerusalem from the west, surrounded by all the symbols of power, columns of armored soldiers to guard him. Jesus rode in from the east, mounted on a lowly donkey, surrounded by all the symbols of humility, cloaks and palms spread before him. Pilate and Jesus still process today.
Friends, today on Palm Sunday, and as we now move day-by-day through Holy Week, I have a question: Which grand procession will you join?
Will you stand to the west and give your devotion and praise to the false god of empire?
Will you stand to the east and give your all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind, and all of your strength to the Prince of Peace?
Will you stand in the middle: looking east, looking west, pulled to one side and then the other. I would reckon that’s where most of us stand.
But for today, look again to the east, fix your gaze to the east: “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.”
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,”
And blessed are those who welcome him.