Holy Week has begun. Yesterday, churches around the world celebrated Palm Sunday. At many churches, children walked around sanctuaries waving palm branches. Devout believers (and people not so devout) sang songs proclaiming “Hosanna in the highest.”
I still have a few friends who are pastors and very connected to the church and the movements of the liturgical calendar. Throughout the week I saw several of them on social media asking questions and posting their reflections as they geared up to preach yet again on Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. The collective consciousness of these faithful friends is something like this: The story is ripe with startling juxtapositions to be observed. Jesus had just descended from the Mount of Olives. At the foot of the Mount of olives is the Garden of Gethsemane. Those familiar with the story know that by the end of this week, Jesus will be betrayed by one of his own disciples in that very place. It really is startling, people shouting, “Hosanna.. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They are laying cloaks on the ground (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or waving Palm branches (John). Meanwhile, Jesus looks about as unstately as one can get. He is riding on a colt. It is a brilliant literary device, if nothing else.
And yesterday people – some of them whom I love deeply – preached sermons, expounding upon these startling contrasts. Some probably highlighted that Jesus wept over Jerusalem on his way into town (at least according to Luke). It is explained people just didn’t get it, this kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming. They wanted an “earthly king” but Jesus’ kingdom “was not of this world.”
Nuanced readers, pastors and commentators may even express some sympathy for the crowd. Some even find some sympathy for the villain of the story, Judas who has a bigger part, later in the week. Jesus was subverting (or changing?) the expectations of faithful Jews. Folks had been waiting for the day that Isaiah and other prophets had proclaimed: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” Jews had no disembodied notion of Heaven. They were waiting for the vindication of their god, their people, their beliefs. They were waiting for the day that they would be the epicenter of religion and spirituality for the whole world. But it is said that Jesus thwarted those expectations. He turned the other cheek when insulted by Pharisees and Roman soldiers and died to usher in some new sort of kingdom.
People got it all wrong! That is what some of my friends preached yesterday. Now let’s set aside for a minute minor discrepancies, history mythologized or mythology historicized. For a moment, let’s suspend any speculation or doubt. Let’s say it happened just like the best synthesis we can make of the various accounts say it did.
My pastor friends say that the hopes of faithful Jews were stretched near the breaking point for those first Jewish Christians who would proclaim that Jesus was the hope of Israel fulfilled. They had to have a “reorientation” to what god reigning upon the earth and being adored by the nations might mean. Where does that leave folks waiting for Jesus’ triumphal return?
From the earliest Christians, to the present day, faithful believers have waited for Jesus to come back with a sword in his mouth and judge the earth. From the most sectarian groups who believe very few will be accepted into Christ’s kingdom, to the universalist who hopes “all of the earth will be restored in Christ.” Everyone is waiting for the day of an earthly kingdom: some form of vindication or perhaps unification, where god reigns on earth.
Does this make the difference between yesterday’s sermons and the present hope of the many faithful the most startling juxtaposition? Whether shaming the crowds, disciples and Pharisees or finding some sympathies for them, the consensus is, “they didn’t get it… Jesus preached a different kind of kingdom!” But how different is it really if people are still waiting for “the great and terrible day of the Lord”?
Let me make it much more personal. I stood up and proclaimed for years, the return and reign of a triumphant Jesus, an earthly king. As an evangelical, it was more about warning people of the fires of hell. As a progressive pastor in the Reformed tradition, it was more about hope of god’s power and might, reigning on earth, restoring the cosmos. The means to an end – submission onto death and resurrection – may have been different than ancient Jews anticipated. But was the end result any different? What if Jesus was actually right when he said ‘the kingdom of god is among you, the kingdom is in you.’ What if we really are supposed to be the ‘his hands and his feet’? Does that make me, with my proclamations of a coming king, a present day Judas?
What if the faithful and the non-believer alike started to live like no god was ever coming back to save us? What if we lived like it was up to us to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? What if, rather than waging war or passively watching war and destruction on all sides, and waiting for god to clean it up, we resisted, protested, waged peace like we were earth’s only hope? I wonder if we all lived that way, and suddenly the sky did part, and the trumpet did sound, if Jesus might be a little more pleased with what he found?