Salvation Song Unwelcome - thrive UMC Official Blog

Salvation Song Unwelcome

Up to this point in our series called The Saving Wild, we’ve been following Jesus through the Gospel of Luke, looking at his experiences in the wilderness.  And so far, we’ve seen people sharing signs that their hearts and lives were changed with John the Baptist by the Jordan River; and we’ve seen Jesus change as he was empowered to start his ministry after a 40 day trial with the devil; and last week we saw what reconciliation could have looked like between Jew and Greek, if they could see with new eyes.  But our reading for today takes place on the fringe of Judea’s largest city –it’s the place where what’s settled and wild intersect. 

            We’re jumping all the way to Luke 19 today, reading verses 29-44.  This is what it says:

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”[b]

            Typically Christians celebrate Palm Sunday as a welcome break from Lent’s unrelentingly somber mood.  For us, it’s almost an excuse to wear bright colors, and sing some up-beat songs, where we all feel very biblical waving Palm Branches around in church, singing ‘hallelujahs’ to Jesus.

            But the author of Luke calls us to take a second look at this event.  Some of the other authors of the gospel make it sound as if everyone in Jerusalem were out in the streets cheering to welcome Jesus to their great, holy city; but Luke’s story is much more quiet, and filled with ominous foreboding.  For starters, Luke has no mention anywhere of palm branches at all –and it is the only gospel that omits them.  But it goes even further than that: if you pay really close attention to the reading, you’ll notice that the only ones who throw their coats down and praise God aloud are Jesus’s own disciples. The throng that sings is the same one Jesus brought to town.  Everyone –all the Jerusalem natives- seem to be strikingly and suspiciously silent.  In fact, there’s only a single mention in this whole story that there was any kind of a crowd beyond the disciples at all –and that’s only in the remark that some Pharisees ‘from the crowd’ tell Jesus to shush and scold his merry parade.  But it says nothing at all of their joining in.

            For some reason, this story we’re reading reminds me of that scene in the original Disney version of Aladdin, where the genie granted his first wish to become a prince, and he marches into Agrabah to seek Prince Jasmin’s hand in marriage, with that huge, ridiculous entourage.  And there are even guys with bells, before the song starts, shouting out: ‘Make waaay for Prince Aliiiiie!’  Then Robin Williams busts out with:

“Hey! Clear the way in the old bazaar
Hey you!
Let us through!
It’s a bright new star!
Oh, come!
Be the first on your block to meet his eye!

Make way!
Here he comes!
Ring bells! Bang the drums!
Are you gonna love this guy!

Right?  It’s just like that!  Except for Jesus, when his parade strolls in through the gate in Jerusalem, no one catches the thrill.  Jesus has the right ride, he’s got all the hype-men and hype women; he’s got a great song that has words people know: “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”  But when his entourage comes in leading the song, Luke gives us the impression that no one joins in.

            Instead, the only response we see from the crowd is that some Pharisees pipe up and say, “Teacher, scold your disciples!  Tell them to stop!” Don’t forget here: the Pharisees are the people’s religious leaders –they’re not the fancy, elite priestly group.  They’re the ones who keep the synagogues going, which are the Jewish version of what our churches were built upon. 

            And Jesus responds: “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout,” meaning if his disciples would stop singing, there would be no one else but the rocks to carry the tune.

            Now, a couple of background details that set the atmosphere of this really weird event:

            First of all, there are already people who want Jesus dead by this point in the story –and all of those people who want him gone are in Jerusalem.  Jesus is aware of this.  So Jesus does about the least conspicuous thing to avoid drawing all the wrong kind of attention:  he marches in with a singing parade.  Nowhere else is such a big spectacle made of Jesus coming to town.  He even borrows a brand-new donkey for the occasion.

            That leads me to the second detail: the passage we read today is choked full of symbolism and subtle references to older stories found in Jewish history and the Hebrew Bible.  The detail that Jesus came riding on a fresh colt is a call-back to the story in Zechariah chapter 9, where Jehu rode triumphantly into town in similar fashion, after killing the sellout king Joram with an arrow. After riding in like that, Jehu was inaugurated as the new king of Israel.  Also, the first part of the song the disciples sing is taken from Psalm 118, which is traditionally associated with King David. Reading that chapter would shed additional light on what’s happening here.  Then, when Jesus talks about the stones that would cry out if the disciples went silent, that’s an evocation of the 12 stones that were taken out of the Jordan River when Joshua crossed over into the Promised Land –the 12 stones represent the 12 historical tribes of Israel. And I could keep going.

            But the third thing to notice about this passage is that, among all of the references, there is always a surprise in the way Jesus brings it to life.  King Jehu slew his predecessor, whom history remembers as being evil, to become king.  The Jewish people in Jesus’s day also had a king –actually they had several: the Herods.  And like the evil line of kings that Jehu brought to an end, the Herods were in bed with a foreign empire and their gods.  But here’s the surprise: Jesus doesn’t come to kill anyone to take his throne.  And that’s why Luke keeps all palm branches out of the telling of this story: because palm branches meant conquest.  They were a call for war and for violence.  That’s also why Jesus is riding on a donkey and not a horse, because horses were war animals.  For some reason, the ancients thought it wouldn’t be very intimidating to ride into battle on a donkey.  So when that guy Jehu from the Old Testament took over after defeating his enemy, he got off his warhorse, and jumped on a donkey.  Jesus never had a warhorse! In fact, he never even had a donkey –he has to borrow one!  He never had an army. He very clearly and explicitly never had any intentions of killing people to have his way –and everyone could see it! Some of the other gospels tell this same story a little differently, but in Luke, the crowd doesn’t mistake Jesus’s agenda.  They don’t look at him and expect a Zealot messiah –they just see him as a noisy rabbi. 

            More about that in a bit, but there’s one more thing we need to point out.  Jesus’s disciples sing the 118th Psalm to Jerusalem, but they explicitly sing something the psalm only insinuates.  What the disciples sing is “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord;” but the psalm only reads ‘blessed is the one … who comes in the name of the Lord.’  Now, the psalm is probably talking about a king –specifically king David, but the disciples feel the need to come right out and say it: Jesus is the new king!  He’s not a warrior king like we’ve had in the past, but he is a healer-king like the world has never seen before.  That’s why they’re throwing this loud obnoxious parade as they enter a city where some want to see Jesus dead!  Because the arrival of Jesus marks a whole new era –a whole new way of being human together.  Here, at last, is a way to deal with poor leadership that doesn’t require you to get blood and guilt on your hands.  Instead of calling for their heads, Jesus calls you to love them: ‘love your enemy! Pray for those who persecute you!’ That’s the message Jesus taught. Here at last is a way to bring healing to relationships across tribal lines –instead of hating your Greek neighbor for what their grandparents did, recognize your pain in them!  Instead of boiling with hate over all of the injustices the Romans have inflicted on you, be liberated by serving the poor and needy in your midst.  If you hate the evil the Romans do –controlling people with bribes and terror- find a new economy!  If you all share together and serve one another, you will have everything you need!
            On that day, Jesus came riding into Jerusalem, the head of a parade of peace –into a city who’s history was throat-deep with blood.  And he knew that people there wanted him dead –he had already been threatened with violence and murder to stop his ministry of healing. He was already told to sharing a teaching that threatened the status quo.  He knew how his cousin John the Baptist was beheaded.  He probably even knew what the people wanted –what they were expecting of a king and a messiah.  But instead he came marching in, announced as a king of a people without territory –at the head of an army that had no shields or spears.  Instead, of all that, they came healed, bearing only a song:

            “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless all of you from the LORD’s house.  The LORD is God!  He has shined a light on us!  So lead the festival offering with ropes all the way to the horns of the altar.  You are my God –I will give thanks to you!  You are my God—I will lift you up high!  Give thanks to the LORD because he is good, because his faithfulness lasts forever.”

            That’s the rest of Psalm 118. That’s what Jesus came to Jerusalem for: they wanted to invite everyone in Jerusalem to start living into the preexistent truth of God’s goodness.   Many of among that throng of Jesus’s disciples were people who Jesus had recently healed.  That’s why they came along.  That’s why they sang: because Jesus had personally played a role in the restoration of their lives –and he was on his way straight to the altar in the temple.  He is going to show them that God is already there  for them.  God is already with them.  They don’t need to wait for anything any longer.  They don’t need to wait for the right time, or the right leader, or the right things to fall into place.  They don’t need to wait for God to part the clouds and redeem history and restore the land, or for the law and the promise to be fulfilled: because it’s happening right before their eyes! God was coming to town to show them what salvation looks like.  He is inviting them to sing the salvation song of history and eternity: “peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” The people are there. The energy is there. The king is there. The song is there.

But the people won’t sing; and the Pharisees demand silence.  
            This is what we remember on Palm Sunday, as we wave branches and sing our happy Jesus songs: we remember that Jesus came to town to save his people, and his people watched him pass through their midst, silent and totally unmoved.  They did not sing, and they did not join him for one simple reason: they couldn’t see what God was doing in him.  As Jesus tells us, they didn’t know the things that lead to peace; and they didn’t recognize the time of God’s gracious visit, and it made Jesus weep. 

And we should ask ourselves, in these divided times, is our seeing any better?