On Passion for Change
April 2, 2023
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
Today’s sermon is titled On Passion for Change.
Do you have a friend or relative that tells the same stories over and over again? The story begins and we have heard it so many times that we no longer expect there to be any variation at all in the narrative, so our brains just barely listen and we tend to just try and think of something else until the ending finally comes around and we can finally change the subject, right? The same thing can happen with the familiar events in the church year like Christmas and Easter and Palm Sunday and with familiar scripture, too, like the scripture we have today about Jesus entering Jerusalem. But there was a line, just one relatively short line, that really stood out in the reading for me today. Verse ten says, “the whole city [of Jerusalem] was in turmoil.”
Of all the times I have heard this story, I have failed to pick up on that detail. I knew that it was crowded, and that hundreds of thousands of people had converged on the holy city to celebrate what was, to them, the Feast of Freedom. This Feast of Freedom, known as the Passover, is a massive celebration of the occasion, some 1300 years prior, when a plague spread through the land of Egypt and “passed over” the families of the enslaved Hebrews. This plague convinced the Egyptian king to finally release them and Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery, out of bondage, and out from under oppression.
For the observance of the Passover in Jerusalem, people had gathered from far and wide so the city was crowded, yes, but the scriptures say “the city was in turmoil”; there was unrest, passions were running high, and the people were desperate for change. We can surmise that the city was in turmoil for a few reasons. It was crowded, yes, and there were also rumors circulating that not long ago, a man had been raised from the dead, just a few miles outside the city. I can almost hear the people saying to one another, “Who raised him from the dead? Was it a prophet? Could it be the Messiah we have been waiting for for a thousand years? What perfect timing it would be, right here at Passover, for the Messiah to come and free us from the Romans, like Moses freed our ancestors!”
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who lived some 300 years before Jesus, would have said that what the people were experiencing is pure passion. Passion is a very interesting word. It comes from the Latin root, pati, which means to suffer. The people are suffering under foreign occupation and there is no passion like the passion of oppressed people who have very little to lose and everything to gain. These people are carried away by the stories they were hearing about Lazarus being raised from the dead and then the news began to circulate that the same prophet that raised Lazarus was approaching the city’s east gate, the golden gate, the gate that faced the sacred Temple Mount, the site of the original temple.
The Hebrew people gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover would have been very familiar with the writings of their prophets, prophets like Zechariah who had written “Your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” So when word spread that the famous prophet was entering the city on a donkey, the people probably rushed to the eastern gate and began to break palm branches from the trees. They laid down their cloaks in the streets to make way for this holy man. The people were totally consumed by the passion of the moment and full of expectations and hope about what may come to pass; there is no passion like the passion of the oppressed.
Meanwhile, the Roman forces had doubled in numbers for the Passover celebration. This was, to them, the most dangerous day of the year. The Roman forces were 1400 miles away from Rome and they were outnumbered 10 to one. Their main concern was keeping the peace. There was no other time so ripe for the oppressed people to rise up and overwhelm them. Passions were running high among the Romans as well; they had everything to lose. Should things get out of control, they would lose their very lives.
This is like a perfect storm, isn’t it? The city is in turmoil. The people are hungry for freedom. The people are tired of paying excessive taxes that are mostly sent back to Rome. The people want their own king and there he is, just as the prophet Zechariah predicted, riding on a donkey.
The people shout, “Hosanna! Deliver us! Save us!” The Roman soldiers hold more tightly to their weapons. The Roman Governor watches warily as Jesus passes by the temple. Something must be done, the governor decides. “We told you so,” said the Temple Priests. And in a few days, something will be done. The prophet will be arrested and questioned. The prophet will not speak, will not defend himself. He will be found guilty of blasphemy, guilty of claiming to be God. He will be murdered, like so many other prophets before and since. Jesus will go willingly to his death and he will tell his disciples, “it was for this hour that I have come.”
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day our teacher entered Jerusalem, and the people broke branches from the palm trees and laid them before him on the ground, in adoration, in devotion, in honor of this one in whom they put so much hope. They were hoping for a king, but they will be disappointed. Jesus will not drive out the Romans; he will drive out a different kind of oppressor. He will drive out fear in the hearts of thousands of his followers who would be persecuted in the centuries to come. He will drive out judgment and hatred in the hearts of billions that over the millenia have truly followed his teachings, teachings that call for love of God and for love of one another above all else; teachings that instruct us not to judge others, lest we ourselves be judged. He will drive out our fear of the future in all of our hearts today and tomorrow and forever and ever each time we can shift from worry to trust that even in the darkest of times, there is love. Even in facing illness and loss and death, there is the light of compassion and caring that comes to us. It comes.
This is such an intense time to be observing Lent and the events of Holy Week that stretch out before us. The themes of Lent are introspection and change. We find ourselves living in an epidemic of gun violence and still reeling from the effects of a global pandemic. There has been so much illness and violence and death and darkness. Spiritually, in this season, we are invited into the darkness because only from within the darkness can we clearly and confidently know from where we find the light.
In closing, it seems appropriate to end with a few moments of silence for the lives of all the prophets down through the ages who spoke, and who still speak, truth to power…a few moments of silence so that the voices calling for a safer world, free of gun violence, can be heard…a few moments of silence so that the voices of oppressed people may be heard calling for freedom, justice, and equal treatment under the law…a few moments of silence in honor of the limitless love embodied by Jesus Christ who challenges us to love as God loves us, without judgment, without reserve. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Please join me in a few moments of silence……Amen.
God of Grace, we pray for Your healing light to shine on us this morning. May our bodies and our minds and the depths of our souls be illuminated by Your brilliance. With You working in and through us, we are limitless; help us to love with a divine love that leaves no room for fear. Help us to access knowledge beyond our knowing, so that as we follow Christ we carry His wisdom within us. May we be the peace that overgrows violence. May we be the caring that overgrows apathy. May we be the welcome that overgrows isolation. God, we pray your healing light upon our world and upon every brother and sister in the family of humanity. In sensing our worth as recipients of Your love, may we become more able to love one another. This I ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with the following words from Ephesians 3: 17-19:
(May) Christ dwell in your hearts so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.