March 25, 2018

Blessed is the One Who Comes in the Name of the Lord!

Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 11:1-11
Service Type:

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

There is something inspiring about hearing a chant; even more so to participate in one. Perhaps you have seen a military-division exercise where the commander lyrically calls out and the rest respond in kind or with the rehearsed response. At a grandson’s baseball game the children had a number of chants that one child would start and the others would respond—most of these chants seemed home made over the course of the season. But there is something about participating in such a chant that draws people together. Researchers in Sweden monitored the heart rates of singers as they performed a variety of choral works and found that as the members sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same rate. In other words, their heartbeats began to synchronise.

1. “Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The picture that I believe is being painted here is a crowd in full-throated chant mode. The description invites us to imagine this crowd leading the procession beginning the chant shouting, “Hosanna”, and the crowd following responding in unison with same. Then, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And so the rhythm continues, back and forth, front to back, back to front chanting as all are brought into harmony around the one they sing about. The song they sing and improvise is part of Psalm 118—a Psalm that was sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem festivals. So they all know the tune of chant as it becomes a thunderous song.

This crowd is largely worshippers come from Galilee with Jesus among them. They travel the Jordon valley and make the turn at Jericho to start the assent to Jerusalem. Many of them would have witnessed Jesus healing the blind beggar named Bartimaeus who referred to Jesus as “Son of David” when he shouted after Jesus for help. (Mark 10:46-52)

Our story begins as this group now breaks the crest of the Mount of Olives and they can finally see that magnificent temple where God has set his name and the city of Jerusalem on the mount just across the Kidron valley in front of them. They are almost there. It takes about six days to walk from Galilee to Jerusalem so you can appreciate their excitement with Jerusalem now in sight—you know that sense of excitement when after a couple of days of driving your destination has finally come into view. This is precisely the point at which Jesus sends two of his disciples to get the donkey which he then begins to ride. Everyone in the crowd knows what this means—Jesus is openly declaring himself as Messiah. They all know the word spoken by the prophet Zechariah; “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

For months the disciples have been asked by Jesus to not tell anyone what they knew—Jesus is the Messiah. Ever since that day at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked them who they thought he was and he confirmed their conviction “You are the Messiah”, Jesus has asked them to keep that close to the vest, so to speak. But now, finally, on the approach to Jerusalem that horse has bolted from the barn (of donkey, we could say). Jesus turns them loose—what they have long known they can now declare—could it be that the disciples started this chant? ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! And they improvise on the Psalm: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The first three words of this line are identical to the one before but they add the part of the promised kingdom of their ancestor David.

So imagine this chanting crowd approaching Jerusalem with Jesus in the centre riding the donkey. Calling back and forth in full throated chant, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Clearly “the one” they think has come in the name of the Lord is the man Jesus of Nazareth riding in the midst of them. You can picture why the leaders of the people in Jerusalem are a little nervous as they see this chanting crowd around Jesus approaching the city.

The idiom “to throw down the gauntlet” means to challenge or confront someone. It comes from the French word “gantelet” and referred to the heavy armored gloves worn by medieval knights. Throwing down the gauntlet at the feet of an opponent was considered to issue a challenge. This event of entry into Jerusalem orchestrated by Jesus and the event of the next day to drive the merchants out of the temple was effectively to “throw down of the gauntlet” to the Jerusalem authorities and force them to respond. When Jesus comes—when God makes incursion into our lives—a response must be given. It can be opposition, indifference, or embrace—but a response is required.

The story of Jesus entry to Jerusalem puts a question to us as it did to everyone in Jesus’ day. Is Jesus “the one who comes in the name of the Lord?” There is this crowd of Galilean supporters who believe him to the one. The powers in Jerusalem—both the religious leadership and the Roman authority represented by Pilate—agree that this one needs to be gotten rid of. And I am sure there was lots of ambivalence. What do we say? What do you say? Is he the one who comes in the name of the Lord?

2. Do you ever wonder how the news media of our day would spin this story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem? I wonder if the media in Jerusalem who viewed the world from the perspective of the powerful would have accused Jesus of colluding with a foreign power. Clearly the power Jesus represents is foreign to them. But even those who are cheering at this entrance are not ready for what this king will do. This is Sunday and by Friday all his supporters including those closest to him have deserted him.

Do you ever wonder why people don’t recognize God when he comes to us? Imagine this, the Roman governor Pilate had God the Son in his court and treated him as if he had power over Jesus. The gospel asserts that this Jesus of Nazareth is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus is the one who speaks for God. The Apostle Paul makes explicit what is not understood by Jesus’ supporters this triumphal entry day. Jesus is God come in the flesh taking on human form subjecting himself to death—even death on a cross.

In the gospel we learn that we humans are, in our sinful nature, God-fleers. We are not God-detectors who by nature can recognize God when or if God shows up. The very fact that we wonder where God is, is evidence of having been cut off from, or of having turned our backs on God. Our sinful stance is denial of God often coupled with indifference.

Whenever you read a news story or listen to a news broadcast you are listening to a narrative that espouses assumptions about what it considers to be important. Judging by the propensity of items in the news, the impression I get is that this underlying narrative is convinced that it is the actions (or inaction) of governments that is important; what those who govern do or don’t do is what makes things happen. There is no space for what the world’s true governor might be up to.

The gospel asserts that the world—indeed, the cosmos, it is not too grand a thing to allege—was teetering on the brink of this most momentous event in Jerusalem. The very Son of God was about to be handed over, betrayed, abused, murdered. There was, in a sense, going to be a death in God within days. The universe was about to turn the corner from endless darkness back toward the Light that is God (into that Light that the darkness cannot overcome). What is at stake as Jesus comes to Jerusalem cannot ever be overstated or overestimated.

The gospel declares that when Jesus enters Jerusalem God is come among them. There is another narrative overriding and including all other narratives that God is writing in redeeming humanity. The gospel asserts that the events of this week in Jesus’ life are the very hinge of history. Everything turns on him. The cosmic import of Jesus’ arrival and what will unfold for him here in Jerusalem is the moment at which everything is before or after. The new age has begun. At the cross of Christ a victory has been won where death and evil are defeated and everything now is moving towards the certain consummation of this victory. Nothing is of greater significance or higher importance. It is why we are in church today. To reaffirm our commitment to trust God’s narrative for us and our lives.

Psalm 118, the Psalm out of which these pilgrims lift their chant, begins with the declaration of the love of God for the world. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!” Think about God’s steadfast love for humanity. God who has supported an undeserving and wayward humanity that wants God to get lost. This God we have distained, according to Jesus, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) Year by year the earth yields its fruits and human life is sustained through the growth God gives. Throughout history, age after age have experience this to be so. God’s love for humanity is steadfast. As the Psalmist asserts elsewhere, God’s “compassion is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9) And this love will be seen most clearly on display in this week when Jesus has come Jerusalem. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in the world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” (Panichas, The Simone Weil Reader, p.9) Weil has put her finger on the profound sense of loneliness so many experience. Jesus entering Jerusalem, riding humbly on a donkey is the miracle of God’s complete attention towards us sinners. Here is God’s complete identification with us sinners that we might know (experience) God’s love.

We call Jesus entry into Jerusalem his “triumphal entry,” and so it is. For our Lord is the conquering one; he asserts his rulership over the entire creation by dying for the sins of the whole world. But it is not like anything we expect of a conqueror. Jesus doesn’t assert his rulership over the creation the way Stalin asserted his over Russia, callously slaying thirty million people in the worst reign of terror the world has ever seen. Jesus asserts his rulership by subjecting himself to his subjects. The throne from which he rules is a cross, even as the crown that attests his kingly office is a crown of thorns. Our Lord is sovereign; and the strength of his sovereignty is exercised through his self-forgetful self-giving.

Such love is so profoundly different from anything we would expect or imagine. As Christians it is important to journey with Jesus this week to the cross. We stand always in need of a fresh infusion of the wonder of this event of his self-giving for us so that this love can shape our own; so that the contours of this love would prescribe the path we choose in walking in company with him. So we can live in its light in a dark world that assumes strength is a function of military might and peace the imposition of the ruling classes’ will on others.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’