March 29, 2015

Look, Your King is Coming

Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, John 12:12-16
Service Type:

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’

On June 2, 1953 at Westminster Abbey in London, England the coronation ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II took place; it was the first ever to be televised. Along a procession route to the Abbey lined with sailors, soldiers, and airmen and women from across the Commonwealth, guests and officials passed in a procession before approximately three million spectators, some having camped overnight in their spot to ensure a view of the monarch and others having access to specially built stands and scaffolding along the route. For those not present to witness the event, more than 200 microphones were stationed along the path and in Westminster Abbey, with 750 commentators broadcasting descriptions in 39 languages; more than twenty million viewers around the world watched the coverage.

The dress that Elizabeth wore was made of white silk and embroidered with the floral emblems of the countries of the Commonwealth, including the maple leaf of Canada. I was an infant when this ceremony took place and so have no memory of the event. (I know, you’re looking at me thinking he’s way too young to have been born then—yes vain thoughts occasionally cross my mind too.) I have always had this warm spot in my heart for Queen Elizabeth and in later years most impressed by her character and leadership. There is a sense of pride I have as a Canadian in calling her my Queen.

1. It is not often that you get to witness the coronation of a monarch but that is precisely what the great crowd of people lined along the route into Jerusalem were hoping that they were witnessing; hoping that this was the procession that would lead to coronation. Their hearts were bursting with the hope that the long-awaited Messiah had come. They lined the route and shouted the coronation Psalm (118) “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”

Make no mistake. Jesus rides this route on a donkey to announce that he is Israel’s king. Previously in his ministry he keeps this disclosure close to the vest. He avoids the ground swell of popularity that would force the event too soon. John tells us that after the feeding of the five thousand “Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, (so) he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)

But he is not hiding anymore. Some four hundred years earlier the prophet Zechariah had prophesied of the promised King: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) Jesus wants people to know that their king has come. It wasn’t happenstance that he rode a donkey into the city. Jesus makes the deliberate choice to do so. By this action Jesus makes the words of this text come true—“Look, your king is coming.”

The crowd knows that this is what Jesus is claiming—you can tell by what they do. During the Jewish feast of tabernacles the Hallel (Ps 113-118) was sung each morning by the temple choir; when the cry “Hosanna” was reached in Psalm 118:25 every man and boy shook what was known as the lulab—a bunch of willow and myrtle tied together with palm—and the cry was repeated three times. This text came to be understood as applying to the promised Messiah. So when the people of Jerusalem crowd the way of Jesus entry waving palm branches and shouting this Hosanna they are responding affirmatively to Jesus’ coming as the king. It is like when we do a responsive Psalm. Jesus makes the assertion, by riding the donkey, “Look, your king is coming” and the people respond, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”

So is this simply a bit of street theatre orchestrated by Jesus for the people of Jerusalem or is this actually the King riding into the city that day? You may not have had the opportunity to witness live the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (By the way there is a video available on YouTube of the Coronation ceremony), but from time to time people have had the opportunity to see Queen Elizabeth in person and we like to tell people of these encounters. Is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry like that—we come to Palm Sunday and read the story of the “king-sighting?” “OK, it must have been cool to see him ride by.” It that all there is to this story? Or is Jesus the King who has and is making a rightful claim on people’s lives including yours and my life?

Canada is a constitutional monarchy. Since 1534, when the King of France claimed possession of what is now Canada, the history of our country has been marked by the reigns of an uninterrupted succession of monarchs, both French and British, the latest being Queen Elizabeth II. People in Canada hold varying attitudes towards claims the crowns hold on our lives—ranging from deep respect to disdain to whatever. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem declares that the King of Kings has arrived and as such has a rightful claim on our lives. The question that the story of triumphal entry asks each of is, is he my king? Will I acknowledge his claim of me? Is this story just a footnote of history or has my King come for me?

I read one commentator who described Jesus’ triumphal entry as street theatre; that Jesus was engaging in a humorous piece of political satire; that he was lampooning the “powers that be” and their pretentions to glory and dominion, and enacting an alternate way by riding humbly on a donkey rejecting domination. That Jesus here takes the role of a jester, enacting in a humorous disorienting way a totally new understanding of “rule” and invites people to see and live in the world in a new way.” (Charles L. Campbell)

I concur with this author in that Jesus surely behaves differently than many monarchs of this world. At the same time I don’t think Jesus is merely acting in order to make a point. Yes, people see in Jesus a King we did not expect but there is more going on here that inviting people to behave differently. Is Jesus the real deal? Is he the King who has come? Does he, in fact, reveal to us the face of God? Do we really see in this king God’s generous, open, self-giving approach to his people? The gospel writers declare that Jesus is the real deal and that he is worthy of yours and my unreserved and full commitment. Look, your king is coming.

There is another king arriving in Jerusalem around this same time; he too has come for the feast of the Passover. His name is Pilate and he rules Palestine for Rome. He comes to protect Rome’s interests against would be Messiah(s) who always seem to be especially fomented at the Jewish festivals. He comes to protect his job because he knows that Rome is highly intolerant of dissent. Until Julius Caesar Rome was a republic where there were checks and balances that ensured nobody could hold absolute power; after him the Caesar held absolute power.

Yes, kings and kingdoms would collide in Jerusalem and the kind of king riding the donkey from the east is not the kind of king who arrives with full military accompaniment on a steed from the west. The question is which one is the real king. Are the kings of our world demanding undivided loyalty any different today? If you look at Toronto and judge by the size of buildings you would clearly see that the monetary interests of our world have moved in to rule. It is our financial institutions that dominate. Money talks. It will brook no dissent and nor yields a share of domination to any other power or interest. Think about the energy we expend to acquire and then maintain what we acquire. “You cannot serve God and money” said this donkey riding king. Which one is the real king? Palm Sunday calls to every one of us, “Look, your king is coming!”

2. A lot of people begin their journey of allegiance to this donkey-riding king out of self-interest or self-preservation. We can’t help it in one way of thinking because we cannot free ourselves from that which really binds us. The Apostle John gives us a window into the motivation of many people gathered on the route that day. If you compare John’s story with those of the other gospel writers you could say that John writes from the perspective of those in Jerusalem to the news that Jesus was coming to the festival while the other gospels write from the perspective of pilgrims coming from Galilee and Jesus joins them at the festival.

John is the Apostle who tells us of death of Lazarus and of how Jesus came and raised him to life. John recounts that “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary from Jerusalem to console them about their brother. He further tells us that people were streaming to Bethany to see Lazarus because he had been raised from the dead. So amazing was seeing Lazarus that the chief priests planned to kill Lazarus because “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:10) Listen again to what John says about the crowd. “So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.”

The crowd took this miracle as a sign that Jesus was the Messiah they were hoping for; all their conceptions of what Jesus would do for them in delivering them from the tyranny of Rome and delivering prosperous futures were now pinned on Jesus. Perhaps like the person in an impossible jamb who says—if you get me out of this I’ll serve you for the rest of my life. Most of those cheering his entrance on Sunday were deserting him by Friday (including the disciples).

Even so, as the testimony of these disciples will show, those who deserted him on Friday because he did not fulfill their initial expectations were never excluded later from owning the crucified and risen Lord as their own. Luke tells us that after Pentecost so many people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus it was said by their detractors that the disciples “had filled Jerusalem with their teaching.” (Acts 5:28) I am sure that many of the Friday deserters who knew Lazarus also came to believe and were part of that first church.

John gives us this insight to his own experience. “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.” We may find that events in our life discourage us; we thought that if we believed in Jesus certain things would not happen. And then they do and the evil one whispers in our ear that this king is a fraud. There are things that, like these disicples, at first we won’t understand; but if we hang in with Jesus the way will be made clear.

Look, you king is coming. One final note. It is our king who comes to us; he summons us graciously as he comes to us. Faith is ever our response to his initiative. As we journey through holy week we will see what this king will do for our sakes. The King, the real King, comes for you and for me. May we ever own him as our own.