Sermon: Expectations left strewn by the roadside
Palm Sunday: Sunday 5 April 2020
Rev. Daniel Mossfield
(Crookwell Uniting Church)
‘In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;’ (Matthew 2.1-3, NRSV).
Christmas seems a lifetime ago. In fact, it was only a little over 3 months. 3 months of turmoil.
In that time, we have experienced catastrophic bushfires, flooding, hailstorms, rain after years without it, and then, just as things seemed to be getting back to normal, COVID-19.
Christmas seems a long time ago.
And yes, for those playing along at home, the quote I just read from the 2nd chapter Matthew’s Gospel is technically the lectionary reading for Epiphany, not Christmas – but in Crookwell it was our Gospel passage on Christmas Day.
And it is worth coming back to as we hear another well-known story: Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Because, as I read through today’s Gospel passage, it occurred to me, this is what Herod was afraid of.
This moment. This messianic procession. This triumphal arrival into the Holy City of God’s promised King. The long-expected Son of David come to inaugurate God’s reign to a crowd crying ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Save us!’
This is the reason that Herod sent soldiers to slaughter all the male infants in Bethlehem. This is the reason that Mary and Joseph fled with the infant Jesus as refugees into Egypt. And, this is the reason they had to settle in a small town in Galilee, rather than returning to Bethlehem. At least, this might be why, if we take Matthew’s account as factual & historical.
But even if it is more symbolic and ahistorical, the fact remains, that the arrival of God’s promised King – God’s Messiah – God’s reign – seems to disrupt, and unsettle, and frighten those with power in the current age. When you have been the beneficiary of violence and injustice, peace is hardly good news.
Now, of course, by the time Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, Herod the Great is long dead. Judea is ruled directly by Rome through its governor Pontius Pilate. But the powers and rulers of Jerusalem remain in turmoil. The powers and rulers of Jerusalem remain afraid.
Who doesn’t seem to be afraid is the large crowd that lines Jesus way into the city. It isn’t clear from Matthew’s account whether the crowd comes out from the city to greet him, or whether he has brought them with him from the provinces.
But, it seems, they too have long expected this day.
They too have heard of this promised Messiah of God – this inauguration of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.
And they respond with joy. A celebration. A party.
They come with the kind of enthusiasm you might expect from a group of people who have spent the last six months in social isolation, suddenly told the good news that their wait and suffering is over.
They arrive as people who seem to have had a lifetime to imagine what it would look like to have their lives back and their freedom restored: as people who have had just enough time to build up a huge set of expectations about the future in their heads.
When you are marginalized and downtrodden; when you have been deprived justice time and again; when you have had your land occupied by invading armies; and, when your own religious leaders betray the poor and broken among you to further their own position; then sometimes the hope of a day of restoration such as this is all that you have had.
But now the margins have come to the centre; and the marginalized have come to challenge the power of the powerful, as God’s new King comes not from within the Holy City, but from among the people outside it.
And they come to greet the arrival of their expected Messiah with the best traditions of their culture: spreading their cloaks on the road to greet the new Monarch, and waving branches as a celebration of God’s providence.
There’s just one problem.
Jesus isn’t the Messiah they have been looking for.
Each of us, in our heads, has a set of expectations about who God is and how God acts. These expectations have been shaped by how we were raised, the stories we were told as children, and behaviours that are normal in our culture.
For example, growing up in a Western society, I was raised with the image of an all-powerful, and all-loving God, who would try to fix the world through diplomacy, reason and kindness, but could revert to smiting sinners if plan A didn’t work out.
I wonder what expectations of God you carry with you?
For many of the Jews living in Jesus’ time, the Messiah was expected to be a great warrior-king, like David, who would defeat Israel’s enemies once and for all, freeing the land from occupation and injustice.
So, when Jesus comes riding into the city to shouts of ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord’, it make sense that many would hope and expect Jesus is going to violently overthrow their oppressors.
And, Jesus gets off to a very good start. For, in Matthew’s Gospel, on the very same day as the palm parade, Jesus cleanses the temple, drives out the moneychangers, and gets into a fight with the city’s religious leaders.
And both the Jewish and Roman authorities, whether they believed in the Messianic promise or not, began to fear a violent uprising, with Jesus inciting the crowds.
After all, it’s what they would do in the same circumstances […]
Instead, they got Jesus sitting, per Matthew’s account, comically lopsided astride both a donkey and colt at the same time, looking ridiculous. Arriving not on a warhorse, but on animals of life and peace.
And perhaps this is the good news: that God is not bound by our limited imagination, and Jesus leaves all our expectations strewn like cloaks and branches by the roadside.
For what follows, what is to come, is both much worse and much better than any of them could have hoped.
Betrayal by a member of his inner circle. Abandoned by his friends. Torture, trial and public humiliation. The most violent and shameful of deaths. Grief, suffering and fear. The messianic hope extinguished.
‘I guess he wasn’t the one we were waiting for’…
Then, out of hopelessness and despair: life. New life. Resurrected life.
Not a return to how things were before, but the birth of something altogether new.
The birth of God’s kingdom from a dark and suffocating tomb.
The crucifixion and the resurrection are both theological crises of the highest order.
They defy all logic and they do not at all fit with how we think a reasonable, respectable deity should act.
Let’s be honest, the idea of a God who suffers and dies is offensive; and the concept of a resurrected Jesus foolish and unbelievable.
But that’s the God we have.
The God who doesn’t promise a life without suffering, fear and pain, but comes to suffer with us.
The God who doesn’t promise immortality or permanency, but death and resurrection.
The God who rides on past our expectations, into the Holy Week, to reveal what hope really is.
Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!