It’s morning and you’re doing your morning chores: feeding the animals (and your children), pulling weeds, and preparing wood for the fire… when you hear chaotic shouting. Some are simply saying, “He’s coming! He’s coming!” Others are shouting that there is a huvangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) – which means good news or message, but almost certainly would mean a decree of “Here comes the king.”
It couldn’t be Caesar, could it? He’s never been here before. Wouldn’t it be too dangerous to bring the emperor all the way down here to Jerusalem? We hate Rome and we hate the Romans here. We live with Centurions. We can’t beat them in battle, but I’m sure that given the chance, we’d love cut the head off the snake. We’d love to conspire to kill Caesar. It can’t be Caesar, can it?
But then you hear it. It’s not Caesar, it’s one who you hear will take the reigns from him. The one who will truly cut the head off the snake. This good news, this is huvangelion, and it is not about Rome’s king. It’s about Israel’s new king. The one you’ve been hearing so much about, a Son of David, the greatest king ever. It’s Jesus of Nazareth and he is making his military presence known by marching. into. Jerusalem.
The air is electric and people are going around and cutting down branches from the palm trees so that this Jesus – even his horse’s hooves won’t even have to touch the ground. It’s a sign of honor. It’s a sign that you’re ready to stop being Roman… not even being Roman… you’re ready to stop being Rome’s dogs. In fact, you’re willing to fight and die to get out from under their thumb. And your palm branch serves and your enlistment papers. You are ready to join this Nazarene’s army. Kick out the vipers from this holy promised land!
You are getting excited now. You can’t wait to see this military powerhouse that is to arrive soon. You can’t wait to see the one will lead you all into battle. You can just picture him. You can see him in your mind’s eye. He will be dashing, riding a white horse, waving a sword, and shouting “down to the empire”… and all that they stand for by standing against God’s people.” It will be glorious.
Finally, you line up along the road with your palm branches and shout “hosanna” as he starts to come down the road into Jerusalem. You still can’t see. You can’t see that white horse yet. You can’t see his sword raised above his head. You can’t hear his shouts, but you know they’re coming. You’ve heard the good news, the message, that the new king is coming. So you know you’ll hear him soon. But, then, as you lay your palm branches on the ground, you catch a glimpse and you are horrified. It’s just a humble rabbi, riding a… donkey.
This is already not what you expected. You wanted a powerhouse and get this little man with big ideas and no sword. How will you ever expel Rome with him? Maybe that’s not what he’s about. And the saddest truth is: You already know that your palms just went from enlistment papers to a resignation letter; you won’t be following him. And we all know that these same ones who shout “hosanna” will soon shout “crucify” because they can’t see beyond who Jesus isn’t in order to see who he truly is.
There’s the old terrible story that’s been told in about every pulpit in the world. It’s about a man who’s trapped on the roof of his house because of a flood. And he prays to God to help him. Then a rowboat comes by and he tells them, “Thanks, but no thanks. God will save me.” Then the Coast Guard comes by and he tells them, “Thanks, but no thanks. God will save me.” Then a helicopter comes by and he tells them, “Thanks, but no thanks. God will save me.” Long story short: The punch line is that the man dies (funny, right?) and in heaven, God asks him why he didn’t take the help he sent?
It’s a poignant story, if not a bit played out, a story about of people turning up their noses at God’s help. But the story of Palm Sunday and Good Friday is not one of just turning your noses up. It’s a story of being trapped in a flood and when the lifeboat comes by, you throw a molotov cocktail on-board.
See, the thing is… they were ready for war and war they were going to have – no matter what. Whether it was a war against Rome or the crucifixion of the one who let them down by teaching radical peace in the face of hatred and violence. They couldn’t understand who this man, this humble rabbi, was or how he could preach peace in a world of violence. How dare he? They couldn’t understand him and it took time and the Church to spread the message of hope that followed the cross.
The actor Russell Brand once said, “Greatness looks like madness, until it finds its context.” Without the Church and the history that it has brought with it, Jesus still looks like a madman to us as well.
We still expect a powerhouse and we get a baby. We still expect to fight and we get the cross. But the one who will not fight, who goes and heals and helps and saves, and we shout hosanna because of him.
That’s because, in the context of the Church, when it’s done well, we find that violence and death turn it into peace and life. Instead of throwing Molotov cocktails, we throw peace at the world instead.
When Christ is king – donkey instead of horse, humble instead of dashing, peaceful instead of violent – when Jesus is king of our hearts and minds, king of the Church, and king of the world, Jesus is not madness, Jesus is genius, and he saves us from ourselves. Jesus turns our own madness into his genius that looks exactly like peace on earth.
May we always remember the one who comes in the name of peace and riding on a donkey. May we always shout Hosanna when we see him. Amen.