Rev Cathy Cox, Pastor, Church of the Ozarks, Bolivar, Missouri
We are entering the most solemn week of the Christian year, but the collects do not sound at all sorrowful, do they? That is because we begin this week – and indeed, we walk through this week – remembering what God has done for us: “given us life and immortality” – and how God has done it: by God’s “mighty acts”, God’s “acts of love.”
We acknowledge that in Jesus, God did for us all that we cannot do for ourselves, and we rejoice in His victory, even as we recall the cost: the suffering and death of the Lord. We may well grieve for our sins, and for the present, miserable state of God’s yet-redeemed humanity – mostly blundering along unaware of what has been done for the world, and for each of them. It is appropriate to acknowledge the tremendous debt we owe to the Lord Jesus. It is even wise to admit that we have done little to make this stupendous victory known to those around us – who remain completely unaware of it – or unmoved by its story. But it is also right for us to, “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts…”
You have heard me say it over and over.
What God has done in Christ Jesus, is to reveal in an indisputable way, the power and love of God; the endless desire to deliver His creation out of bondage to sin and death and lead us into full freedom, and life everlasting –
This is the deepest and widest possible Exodus – greater even than the mighty acts, whereby God delivered Israel from slavery to Pharaoh and made them a new people in a new land – his own people. But if that is true, it is also true that we can only remember with joy, those mighty acts that are in our own history and experience – the acts of our own people.
(We do not usually celebrate another country’s day of independence, after all, unless we are living there when it occurs, but rather we celebrate our own American Independence Day.)
We will only be able to “enter with joy” upon the contemplation of these mighty acts if they resonate with our own experience, if we are one of those whose story this is. We will be able to remember it, only if, we are really one of those who have been set free.
If you are a baptized believer, you, too, have been drawn through the waters of death and brought safely into new life. If you eat the bread and drink the wine at this table, you, too, are tasting the bread of heaven – which is the power, life, death, resurrection and undying love of the Lord Jesus himself – given for you.
It is also likely that you forget what that means, or misunderstand, from time to time, what being part of the body of believers really asks of you.
We all do.
That is why we are invited to remember – weekly, of course, but also yearly, when there is a whole week to re-tell in dramatic and acted-out ways, what God has done for us.
We begin this week with the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem: Jesus, riding on a lowly donkey, with the happy crowds of his most ordinary followers, people like you and me, recognizing the royal symbolism – delighting in it – spontaneously throwing down their brightly colored cloaks and ripping palm branches to wave…calling him “King!” They saw him riding in on a young donkey – not a war horse – and they saw in that act, Jesus doing what every king in their past had done – entered the Holy City. They remembered David, their beloved and heroic king – and they saw Jesus. They did what was right to do – they made the traditional “red carpet” and took up palms of victory to wave, shouting, “Hosanna!”
It is no wonder that they did, really. The ordinary people “heard him gladly,” the New Testament says. They followed him, listened to him, watched him, and gossiped about him behind their doors in the evening. They saw how the political leaders and the religious leaders feared him and resented his popularity and power. Certainly there were those who foresaw that it might end badly for Jesus. But they also loved him, enjoyed his clever responses – as he spoke truth to power, delighted in his friendship. Nothing seemed to make him afraid. Nothing kept him from doing whatever he thought he ought to do – whether it was healing on the Sabbath, or rebuking his own friends in order to lift up and bless the little, noisy children who trailed along with their mothers. Now here he was – entering the Holy City as only kings did, but yet differently. Surely their hopes were high this time. Perhaps, this was the day Jesus would enter into his rightful place and drive out the hated Romans. Maybe, too, he would finally establish their own hearts in righteousness, peace, joy and confidence in God; the Messiah was never understood in Judaism simply as a military leader, after all.
No wonder they sang, “Hosanna!” No wonder the children ran along beside the donkey and the old people stood tall, remembering that other mighty act whereby God had once before delivered his people from slavery.
Perhaps they didn’t remember quite everything, then. There were things that, perhaps, they set aside in their hearts. Maybe they chose, just then, to forget how God had done it then. How difficult and terrifying was that passage out of Egypt. Through the dark waters and across the burning desert. How the blood of lambs had saved them from death and how Moses himself had died before they ever entered their promised land. Maybe they didn’t anticipate how that pattern was going to play out again as they shouted out “hosanna!”
But they were right to rejoice – and we are also. There is no reason to suppose that the same people who danced on this day were among those who screamed, “crucify him!” a few days later.
There were plenty of cautious people who feared this exuberant, messianic mood, who feared the Roman retribution they expected would follow. They were the careful ones, in no crowd at all – keeping safely behind closed doors.
Then there were the rebellious ones, the zealots who were impatient with Jesus’ apparent lack of interest in supporting armed revolt. That is the crowd that went to Pilate to ask for Barabbas’ release, the crowd that turned ugly when it seemed Pilate was in no mood to give them their murdering buddy but wanted them to settle for Jesus. The last thing they wanted was Jesus: Jesus who talked about loving enemies and doing good to those who hate you. He was just a pious preacher who wasn’t likely to do them any good. No, they wanted freedom. They wanted Barabbas. No wonder they were furious when, what Pilate tried to do, was switch prisoners on them. They knew their rights. That’s why they were there: to demand the prisoner of their choice. Jesus’ friends wouldn’t ever have entered Pilate’s court to ask for anything.
Pilate so badly handled his administration of the Jews – by excessive cruelty and irrational fury, that he was soon removed – and sent away in disgrace.
You do not need to identify with that mob of zealots, or their strange allies – the religious leaders who preferred peace with the Romans to truth before God – unless you too, feel that Jesus’ way of peace, forgiveness, love, integrity and hope is irrelevant to the problems of the real world. Then perhaps you might stand, with those others in Pilate’s court, long enough to remember Jesus’ observation that violence begets violence – and to remember how, within a very few years, the Romans had in fact, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem for such attempts at resistance. That the ones who went along trying to keep the peace at any price -also died alongside the rebels. The Romans finally destroyed the Temple, anyway, and with it, Israel’s last hope for political independence.
You do not need to identify with the larger number who listened to Jesus’ barbs towards the religious leaders, but who also kept a safe and careful distance, never saying aloud that they agreed with him – for fear. You do not need to identify with those who were in no crowd that week, unless you, too, hold yourself back from full allegiance to the Lord Jesus because you sense that it might get you in trouble with somebody. But if so, remember also how tragic it is to see someone come to the end of a long and safe life and realize that he – or she – hasn’t actually done, said or risked any of the brave and daring things he had hoped to do. Remember that no decision is still a kind of decision, although a sad one.
You may take your place today – and all week – with Jesus’ friends. You may, if you dare, identify with the ones who did not fail him, except by fatigue and fear – who stumbled along and tried to be loyal even in the midst of terrible confusion and ordinary human weakness. You do not need to be a super-hero. There weren’t any then, and there are none now. We are all just folks, no better and no different – but also no worse – than Peter, James and John, Mary, Salome and Martha – who misunderstood everything, but who loved Jesus, nonetheless. And remember how glad they were later – glad to have dared to follow Jesus even when they failed to do it very well, and gladder still to have been gloriously embraced by his resurrected Life. They were glad all the way into their own deaths – dancing for the joy of knowing Jesus – and for the privilege of telling, even falteringly, such astonishing good news: the news of salvation better than any of the Exodus stories, a greater deliverance than they had ever begun to hope, or to dream.
Live this Holy Week fully. Be vulnerable to its power. But live it from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection. Do not forget it. Sing your hosannas even through the darkest days of this week. Hold onto your palms, at least in your hearts – even on Good Friday: “Let these branches be for us signs of His victory, and grant that we who bear them in His name may ever Hail Him as our King, and follow Him in the way that leads to eternal life…”
Hold them courageously, and remember His victory, even as you discover how truly that way leads us to eternal life: but first, it leads us to the cross.