A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Luke 19:28-40
The prophets always had an uneasy relationship with the city of Jerusalem. It was David’s city, the crown jewel of the people of God, the home of the temple and the place where faithful pilgrims traveled to participate in their holy festivals. But the prophets knew it for what it was, too often a place of political corruption, where faith in God was too easily traded for expediency and the well-being of the people of God was sacrificed for the luxuries of the chosen few who managed to collude with whatever occupying government happened to be in power at any given time.
In the first century, of course, that would be the Romans. But talk to your average Jew in that day, and chances are he would tell you the Holy City of Jerusalem was the most wonderful and magical place in all the earth. The psalmist would agree…
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you” (Psalm 122:1-2, 6).
The prophets might not be so quick to agree… “Listen, you head of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice? – you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones… Hear this, you rulers… who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!” (Micah 3:1-2, 9-10).
And since Jesus of Nazareth was of the prophetic line and not the priestly line, it stands to reason he would agree with Micah from whom we just quoted. Which is why, no doubt, Jesus chose to make his prophetic, if not dramatic, entry into the Holy City. Jesus, to say the least, had something to prove. Prophets always have something to say and something to prove.
Isaiah used even stronger language than did Micah. “How the faithful city has become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!… Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:21-23). Isaiah makes Jerusalem sound more like Sodom and Gomorrah.
I wonder if these words from the prophet were ringing in Jesus’ ear as he makes his entry into the city. Or perhaps the words he himself had spoken: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones whose who are sent to it?” (Matthew 23:37).
There was another parade in Jerusalem that day. Were you aware of that? We all know who Pontius Pilate was, but we might not all understand that he did not have his headquarters in Jerusalem. In fact, he avoided Jerusalem as much as possible. Pilate governed a large territory, from Idumea to Judea, from Samaria to Galilee, and spent as little time in Jerusalem as possible. But when the festivals occurred – especially Passover, the biggest one of all – he came to the capital city for one purpose and one purpose only… to keep the peace. These Jews could be a rebellious bunch, especially the Galileans, and he wanted to be there to make sure that everything was kept in check.
So if you’re coming to Jerusalem and you want to make your presence known, how do you do it? Easy… with a parade. Pilate would have come from the west, riding his white horse at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers, with the graven image (from the Jews’ perspective) of the Roman golden eagle standard waving high overhead. Imagine the sound of the marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the incessant beating of drums. Those who lined the narrow streets to observe such pomp and circumstance would know immediately that this was a show of raw power, the power of the empire. The Jews would have bristled at all this, knowing that the Roman emperor was considered by his people to be god, but there was little or nothing they could do about it. Every act of defiance or sedition was met with immediate fury. Rome would win. Rome always won.
The irony of all this, of course, is that Passover was the one festival that celebrated the liberation of the Jews from the past tyranny of their Egyptian bondage. And now, right in the midst of their celebration and remembrance, this parade by Pontius Pilate would remind them starkly that they are in bondage all over again.1
Jesus and his group of disciples entered the city from the opposite direction. Instead of a horse, Jesus has chosen to ride a humble donkey, a colt that has never before been ridden. But it was a parade nonetheless.
It is interesting how that occurred. As they neared Jerusalem, about two miles away (we know that since Luke mentions the villages of Bethphage and Bethany), Jesus tells a couple of his disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Sure enough, the owners of the colt asked that very question, probably in a fairly menacing way. If someone started walking off with one of your possessions, wouldn’t you get a bit exercised? But all they had to say was, “The Lord needs it,” and they were allowed to take it. Rather strange, don’t you think?
Oh, but wait… Bethphage and Bethany… does that ring a bell? It should. Bethany is the hometown of Jesus’ close friends Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Jesus is known in Bethany, has spent some time there. You would have had to live under a rock in Bethany not to know who the Nazarene is. After all, he is the one who raised Lazarus from the dead. And when Jesus tells his disciples to respond to any questions about the colt by simply saying, “The Lord needs it,” Luke could very well be implying that the colt belongs to those who know Jesus and believe in him. “The Lord needs it,” is all the disciples need to say to those who are sympathetic to who Jesus is and what he is doing.
They don’t have Facebook or Twitter, CNN or Fox News. They don’t even have a daily newspaper. But you don’t have to have these things to be up on current events, to know that Jerusalem will be for Jesus the city of confrontation. Pilate is coming to Jerusalem from the west, and Jesus plans to enter it from the east. Both are coming by means of parade, and eventually they will collide, if not on Sunday certainly by Friday. Pilate enters the city in an obvious sign of power, Jesus does so in the kind of humility that is marked by a young colt. The contrast is obvious and immediate, and everyone knows who will win. Rome always wins.
Knowing that, have you ever wondered why the two disciples did not question Jesus as to why he was sending them on this mission to procure him a colt? I mean, we would think that Jesus walked everywhere he went. Why take a ride now? But then again, why go to Jerusalem at all? Everybody knows what Jerusalem means. Everyone knows that Jerusalem gobbles up those who oppose the status quo. Jesus said it himself, remember: it is the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”
But they don’t… the disciples, I mean… They don’t question Jesus or call him to account. They simply do what he tells them to do. Maybe they’ve finally reached a point in the journey where they know it doesn’t do any good to argue with their Master. When he has his mind made up… Or maybe even better, they’ve come to that level of faith where they trust him to do the necessary and right and good and eternal thing.
And that, I think, may just be where we come in. This is Palm Sunday, the final day of our Lenten journey, the time when we too make our entry into the Holy City to walk with Jesus to the cross. At what point – is there ever a point? – do we finally give ourselves to Jesus in the complete trust that he knows what he is doing and our only recourse is to follow him and let him do his thing?
If you find it difficult to do that, may I offer you this… There is a deep, deep chasm, sometimes, between trust and certainty. I know, I know, if it comes down to making a choice between the two, we’ll pretty much opt for certainty every time. We believe in what we see, not in what we don’t see. But I would submit to you something that is still a point of real growth personally for me. That means I struggle with it, and assume that if I do maybe you do as well. Trust is eternal, certainty is not.
After all, in the first-century world of Passover, the one certainty that stood above all others is that Rome was in charge and Rome always wins. When it came to the lowly rabbi from Galilee, to follow him meant you had to place your full trust in him against what seemed to be insurmountable odds. Now, some twenty centuries later, how do the two stand up against each other? Rome has disintegrated and its power is subdued. Jesus still stands as One who reigns supreme for all eternity. Rome does not win, certainty does not prevail. Jesus asks one thing from us and one thing only: that we trust him. If we will, the journey may not be without its dangers, but it does lead to eternal life.
What choice will we make?
Lord, show us how to put our trust in you as we journey together to the cross. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1this line of thought is inspired by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), pp. 2-3.