John 11:55-56; 12:12-19; Philippians 2:5-11
One summer I was driving to Martin, SD with our youth group, headed out for a mission trip. We were obligated, of course, to stop at Wall Drug, and we even drove an extra hour to make sure that they got to at least see the badlands before we headed south to Martin. But one of the things I remember most about that long drive, was driving through this one little town. I wish I could remember the name of it, but to be honest I just wasn't paying that much attention. We had been driving through one small town after another for awhile now. Except in this small town, there was a traffic jam. That's what first got my attention. We began looking around for signs of what could be wrong that 6-10 cars were stopped at the Main Street. I couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, though, no broken stoplight or an accident or even road construction of some kind. So we waited, curiously, wondering what this was all about. And after a few minutes, we got our reward. For while we were stopped on the main highway, going through town, traffic was actually stopped for what was happening on Main Street-- going perpendicular to where we were headed. An 18 year old man and an 18 year old woman were standing in a convertible, moving along Main Street through the intersection of the highway, dressed to the nines, crowned for the occasion. Another car behind them advertised the real estate agent from two towns over, and then behind that was the marching band. I hadn't heard them up to that point, perhaps just because I wasn't listening for them, but there they were, playing their hearts out in the midst of a July heat, and after them came several other cars advertising this or that. And then I began to notice that indeed I could see some people sitting on lawn chairs if I craned my neck enough to see past the cars in front of me. This was a grand occasion and we almost missed it! They passed by and I expected traffic to start up again, but everyone kept waiting, and then, five minutes later, we saw them again-- having gone around the block, they were now crossing the highway again on their way to wherever the end of the parade was going to be. By now the kids in my car had stopped whatever they were doing-- unplugging their ears from headphones-- and were watching to see if they could spot the King and Queen again. And within minutes, it was done, and traffic went on.
I imagine anyone watching the crowd and Jesus march along that day would’ve seen it much like I saw that small town parade— fun to watch, a curiosity maybe, but somewhat easy to forget. After all this was the season of Passover; hundreds of people would’ve been streaming to Jerusalem to celebrate at the temple. The only people who would’ve even noticed Jesus entering, were those who knew Jesus— who knew that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were looking for Jesus—had threatened, him, really, if he were to show up in Jerusalem. And so two things are happening here— people see that Jesus is not living in fear of their warning— he is entering into the city anyway; and because of that, people begin to assume that this is his time— that the rebellion is about to begin. That Jesus is about to make a political and violent move of taking power from those in local authority and from Rome. This would’ve seem like the only conclusion, really, and so the crowds gather around Jesus— not huge crowds, or the response from Rome would’ve been immediate; but a large enough gathering that included people who had been following Jesus and those on the margins— people whose expectations were that their lives were about to change forever— that God was sending Jesus as the anointed one, the one that will save them from Rome, from oppression, from hundreds of years of being pawns in someone else’s political game. Their question, “Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” is a question of hope as much as it is one of fear.
And John tells the story in a little bit different way than the other Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is Jesus who tells the disciples to go and get a donkey for him to ride. But here in John, as the crowds close in around him in expectation and awe and surprise at his audacity to show up in Jerusalem, it is almost as if Jesus gets on the donkey to escape their expectations. The people are yelling “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the KING of Israel!” And in response, Jesus mounts a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. He picks an animal not of war, but of peace; not an animal of speed and strength and might, but an animal that speaks to a time of harmony and farming. Jesus knows their expectations. Jesus knows they are expecting war. And Jesus has been trying to tell them and now show them that it is God’s plan for there to be another way— a way of peace— that is so very different than their desire for a Messiah to overthrow their oppressors through violence.
And this is the very crux of the Gospel. This is the matter at hand— that we so often choose to change things and make them the way we want them to be through force and violence and destruction while God continues to choose to change the world through vulnerability, courage, truth, community, and peace. There is almost no starker contrast in the Gospels than this scene where the crowds are shouting “Save us!” and Jesus has every intention of doing that, but in a way they won’t recognize when it happens.
In Philippians Paul quotes what we believe to be was a familiar hymn at the time— “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
One of the ways people have come to talk about what happened on the cross is that Jesus had to die in order for God not to be angry with us for our sin— that God sent Jesus to die in order to appease this wrathful God.
I question that understanding of the cross, and this is why: that understanding of the cross puts God in direct relationship with how we understand power in this world. That puts God in the category of needing some way of getting even; of needing some way out of a situation without having to lose face; it puts God in the position of having to stay in power with might and control. If indeed that is how God operates, than we have much to be afraid of. If that’s truly the God we are worshiping, than Jesus died to save us from God, not from our own sin.
If we are to believe Jesus, the One who said he is the way, the truth, and the life— than there’s something else going on here. Jesus is here to proclaim that God uses very different tactics than the ones we are so fond of. That God practices vulnerability, courage, truth, community, and peace in order to create the beloved community— not a God who trades people like political prisoners. Not a God out for vengeance. Not a God who does everything in order to control and intimidate us.
Jesus came to show us that there is indeed a different way to live. That we can live unafraid even in the times we live in now, by trusting that God is with us every step of the way, and that God’s love endures. Our problem, usually, is that we give up trusting in that kind of love, we get impatient with it, and yet it is the only thing that will get us through. It is the only thing that we truly can put our trust in that will not fail us.
God loves us so much, that God won’t let us live with the lies we tell ourselves— that if we can just pull it together, everything will be okay; if we can just overthrow this kingdom or that one, that peace will reign; that if we can just control the outcome long enough with violence or force or coercion, than we will find our way. No. Jesus walked in the way of peace, and showed us that a true King doesn’t sacrifice his own people; a true leader doesn’t depend on lies; a whole human being doesn’t depend on the evil of this world to escape what is wrong, but instead chooses vulnerability; lives out courage; tells the truth; creates community; uses the power he or she has to point towards God; and to live into the way of peace. And by next Sunday we will see that the love that comes out of that kind of living is more powerful than anything we have ever seen before.
God’s very nature, as it says in Philippians, is to empty God’s self. And the beauty of that, is that God knows God will never truly be empty because God knows there is something beyond scarcity and death— that when we empty ourselves— out of gratefulness, by serving one another, because we trust in God’s way, we will find ourselves full once more. God’s love is everlasting.