Today is the first Sunday of the rest of April, predicted to bring more disease and death than this country has ever seen at once. Where does all this hit you—the pit of your stomach, your solar plexus, your brain, your whole body, like me? We cannot imagine at all what the health care workers and service people must feel, and those stricken who must be admitted to hospitals without family or friends to visit, the many who were instantaneously unemployed. We fear for them and ourselves. We can only, we must, turn our faces to Christ, who said, “Do not be afraid.”
Let us pray. . .May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
“He kept to himself the sorrow in his heart, Wearing, for them, a mask of hopefulness.” --Vergil, The Aeneid, Bk. I.
These words of the Roman poet Vergil, who died in the year 19 B.C.E., describe Aeneas, the founder of Rome, before his hopeless counter-attack on enemy troops. But they aptly describe what Jesus must have felt upon his entry into enemy territory himself, although he was not leading an army. However, Jesus was entering a hostile environment, where the authorities always expected trouble on Passover, and we know from what Jesus said to the disciples that he expected the worst.
People at the time traveled from all over Israel, pilgrims carrying palm fronds to signal their destination. And so do we on Palm Sundays, but this year the festive nature of day is tempered by extra tension, a tension between what we would like to see happen and what actually happens, between what we wish for and what may happen.
I. The same tension animates this story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a masterpiece of storytelling, among the most compelling in all scripture, a story that almost tells itself because of everything that leads up to this moment. The story is retold in all four gospels, of which you heard the shortest version, from John, written in 90 A.D. and contains all you need to know.
The usual rowdy Passover crowds found out that Jesus was on the way, his reputation having preceded him. We don’t know how many gathered in adulation and laid down their blankets before him, nor do we know how many were there to mock Jesus and deride the peasant magician. Neither do we know Jesus’ personal state of mind, except that there had to be a mix of hopelessness and hopefulness, as he joined the festivities.
All four gospel writers saw a message in the way Jesus approached, on the foal of donkey, which from their post-Resurrection view 30-40 and more years later was a signal that Jesus brought something different than political power into the religious and political capital of Israel. Jesus’ entry that way was purposeful, choosing to enter as the prophet Zechariah (9:9) predicted a non-military king would, on the foal of an ass.
This is a monarch, a king? Yes, but of a different kind and with a different reception. Here was David and Goliath again, except this time it was the Son of David versus goliath-size potentates of Israel.
The vortex awaited him, the air was electric, it was a live moment when anything could happen—and the story makes this clear.
II. Why is it such a compelling story? . . .because it captures a decision Jesus made, it captures an action he took that was not scripted, not warranted, counter-intuitive, so to speak. It came out of Jesus’ prayer life, out of a life opposed to vanities, out of a life of devotion to Torah and Yahweh, out of a life of redemptive journeys away from home and back, out of a life committed to the single and only mission of forgiveness, this man, who was called rabbi by his followers, stepped into the vortex.
He didn’t have to, but he did. It was not a death-wish (as Nietzsche scoffed); it was a redemptive action. When at an impasse, Jesus made a move; when boxed in, he stepped out. Action is implicit in the spiritual life—truth inconveniently motivates us beyond our usual boundaries. Right action is a consequence of the spiritual life.
That’s what stands out here—the whole Passion story starts with the entrance, the entrance into the vortex. When you look at the artistic renderings of this story through history, in a single frame all of them depict the necessity of this action, the redemptive escape from futility and irrelevance and impotence. Look at the mosaics of Ravenna, look at the icons of eastern Orthodoxy, look at the Medieval triptychs, look at the Renaissance miniatures—most very stark, emotionally charged—all, all, in one frame, capture the call of the spiritual life to action. The movement was always forward. There is one such image in the bulletin by an unidentified artist. The other image, on the website, by Benjamin Robert Haydon, an early 19th century British artist, depicts the scene with even more tension where even the onlookers convey a sense of foreboding. You should ignore, however, the depictions by sentimental American Christianity which show a serene Christ entering Jerusalem with a beneficent blandness—be it Warner Sallman or Hollywood (shame on them)—they gut the force of the gospel and its dangerousness to life-as-usual.
III. How would you portray this scene, if you had the skills? Consider only that Jesus projected an aspect of hopefulness under hopeless conditions—he knew, but he did not fear. He taught his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” It was his constant refrain. His hope obviously lay far beyond what the crowds were invested in—the spectacle, the controversy, the scent of violence. His hope, and that of his followers, lay in a new relation to God, in a new way of reading God’s Word.
Jesus actively and single-mindedly taught forgiveness as the door into life in God’s world (kingdom).With that mission, there was nothing of which to be afraid.
IV. So, given this, what are we to do, caught as we are, Christians in a pandemic moment of history? Beyond our fright, our alarm, our anger, are we spiritually prepared to take a step into the vortex ourselves?
Have we been prepared for this moment by our Sunday Schools, our confirmation classes, our Sundays of sermons and choirs, our ritual life, our prayer life, our study of scripture, our devotion to Christ—I hope so. And if so, then we will see the right action to take as individuals, as a congregation, as citizens of Boston!
It won’t be obvious, what ministries will be called for here, not right away—the moment will come when it is clear to us. We do not know yet, but we have our own entrance into Jerusalem before us to consider. Do not be afraid, you are prepared.