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The Jesus We're Looking For

Who is the Jesus we’re looking for? And who’s the Jesus we get? You know, we come to Palm Sunday, especially after reading the Passion, and we find seem to find two different Jesuses. We open with the Liturgy of the Palms, and we find a Jesus that, depending on the tradition we grew up in, or came to Christianity through, seems to be the Jesus we’re looking for. When I Was a kid, the way the scene of Jesus coming into Jerusalem was shown in picture books and TV shows as a bright, joyous affair: Jesus sort of rocking back and forth on a slow-moving donkey, smiling and laughing waving to the crowds, who waved their palm leaves back at him, shouting Hosanna in praise. We were told in Sunday School that this was a spontaneous gathering of huge crowds, that they showed up from all over, on their own, because Jesus was in town. We were told that Jesus mysteriously and miraculously knew where the donkey was that the disciples would bring to him.

 

If we don’t pay too much attention to lyrics of “Ride, Ride on in Majesty,” the song we processed into, and only hear the majestic chords of that great Anglican hymn, we might gloss over that second line of the second and last verses: in lowly pomp ride on to die. We might get the impression just from the title and music that the Jesus we’re looking for is a big, flashy Jesus ready to take down the government of Rome and become a new king.

 

This is why us reading the Passion on Palm Sunday is such an important moment in our Holy Week–it completes the circle; it reminds us that the Jesus we’re looking for is not necessarily the Jesus we’re going to get. This completing the circle isn’t really the practical reason we read the Passion on Palm Sunday. There have been periods where the Passion was only read on Good Friday (and it still is), but as fewer and fewer people attended Palm Sunday, the decision was made to also read the Passion on Palm Sunday so that everyone could hear the whole story of Holy Week. It’s a decision that seems to have been made for the sake of human convenience but has deep spiritual implications.

 

The Passion reminds that the Jesus we’re looking for is not necessarily the Jesus we’re going to get. And it turns out the Jesus we get, the Jesus who rides through the gates of Jerusalem, didn’t just show up to a spontaneously adoring crowd ready to praise him as a new King. According to Ched Myers in his groundbreaking study of the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man, this was a planned demonstration, even a bit of street theater. We know from the first verse that Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, so he entered through the East gate, the gate opposite of the gate that Pontius Pilate would hold his own procession that very day. It was a poke in the eye to Pilate, pointed and direct demonstration that Jesus was not Pilate, he was in fact Pilate’s opposite.

 

Mark tells us that “many” people gathered at the gate, but the text reminds us that the exact number of people is not mentioned, only their enthusiasm. Some scholars have speculated that it was actually a modest crowd, maybe even a few dozen, and in those days, in that context, the “Hosanna” they shouted was best translated as “help us.” Then, there was the matter of what animal Jesus rode in on, which Mark says was not a donkey, but a colt that had never been ridden. Jesus knows exactly where the disciples can find it, not because he had a supernatural insight into where the colt was, but because Jesus had planned this demonstration all along.

 

Jesus had planned a demonstration, and what Jesus was demonstrating was not the Jesus people thought they wanted to find, a military revolutionary but the Jesus they were going to get. It turns out that Jesus was a revolutionary, but not the revolutionary they imagined. The revolution Jesus was bringing wasn’t a revolution to overthrow the government, but the most radical revolution the world has ever seen: a revolution of radical non-violence, a revolution in which Jesus doesn’t not choose any sides, with any government, or political party, but chooses only the way of love.

 

I almost don’t need to say that we live in a moment in history where our religious and political divisions have never been more polarized. I’ve been listening to a podcast called Landslide about the mid-1970s, which reminds us that it wasn’t that long ago that there was a full spectrum of political persuasions that lived side-by-side: there were liberal Republicans, and conservative Democrats and everything in between. As we all know, we’ve come pretty far from that—we have never been this polarized, this pushed to either side of the political spectrum. And there are Christians on both sides of that spectrum who would like nothing more than to see Jesus come through the gates, riding on in majesty to endorse their candidate po their version of Christianity.

 

I also almost don’t need to say that we live in a moment of history where we find our sense of belonging not so much in identifying a common good, but in identifying a common enemy. Together, we identify not who we are for, but who we are against. Sound familiar? Popular author and Episcopalian Brené Brown writes: “Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true intimacy. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge anger and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that can leave us with regrets of an integrity hangover. Did I really participate in that? Is that moving us forward? Am I engaging in, quite literally, the exact same behavior that I find loathsome in others?”

 

Grace, Jesus did not ride in lowly pomp through the gates of Jerusalem to endorse a political candidate, or to have engage in the exact same behavior we find loathsome in others. Jesus’s revolution was not an overturning of the government of the time, but an overturning of the lie that violence, or the demonizing of the other, is the solution. Jesus’s demonstration when he rode through the gates on Palm Sunday was a peaceful one, a demonstration of love.

 

And it doesn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous, or that the way of Jesus, or the way of love was any less powerful, or any less difficult. We’ve said that Jesus had meticulously planned his entrance through Jerusalem’s gates. Mark tells us that it wasn’t a donkey, but an unridden colt that Jesus chose. An unridden colt, an unbroken cold, my friends, is a dangerous animal. Mark Baughman writes, “riding an unbroken colt would be a dangerous task and the exact opposite of what a military conqueror would ride, which would be a trained and seasoned war horse. Jesus enters Jerusalem in an untamed, unknown way of doing things.”

 

Grace, Jesus on Palm Sunday rides on in lowly pomp to give us a demonstration of untamed, unknown love that you and I are called to model for the world. Every time we come together—whether that’s on Sunday morning, or Wednesday night, or book groups, or day retreats, in person or over Zoom—we are partaking in a planned demonstration of Jesus’s love. In doing so, we show that the Jesus that people get is the one they’re looking for. We don’t have to be a large crowd . . . like those who might welcomed Jesus that day, maybe we’re a few dozen. Maybe there are those among us whose Hosanna’s are cries of “help me!” And maybe the way Jesus helps us is by pointing the way not to our common enemies, but to our greatest commonality, which is love. Grace, this Palm Sunday, let us remember that the Jesus we get may not the Jesus we were looking for. The Jesus we do get may be bigger, and more revolutionary, and more loving than we could ever imagine. Let us pray.

 

Living God, Hosanna. Help us. Help us see your son Jesus for who he is, and for what he asks us to do. In this time, especially this year, help us find common good, and not just common enemies. Help us plan demonstrations of your love, which does pose a danger to the way the world would have us live. Show us untamed and unknown ways of being Jesus in the world. And prepare us for the great resurrection of Easter. In the name of your revolutionary son Jesus, Amen.

 

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