ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH PALM SUNDAY, MARCH 20, 2016
THERE’S NO STOPPING IT
Psalm 118: 1 – 2 & 19 – 29; Luke 19: 28- 40
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
This week Canadians experienced a minor tragedy. In Hopewell, NB where people walk on the ocean floor and view the flowerpot rock formations, there was an historic shift. The rock known as “The Elephant” had a piece fall off it. The soft sandstone gave way to the thrust of the tide and the weight of the ice. 150 tons of rock smashed to the ground. In spite of the formation being there for the last 13,000 years, it was inevitable that one day it would weaken and fall. There was no stopping it.
When it comes to the will of God, there’s no stopping that either. God’s plan is like an ocean liner set on a trajectory to a fixed port. The people on the ship respond to the events as they unfold with their own free will but regardless of who does what, the boat will land where it’s destined to go. As Holy week begins the boat comes closer to the port. Jesus entered Jerusalem to offer himself as The Prince of Peace. He was ready to fulfill his destiny as the Messiah.
In their book, The Last Week, Borg and Crossan offer a creative description of the events of Palm Sunday. No Biblical or historical record confirms their depiction but the picture they paint illustrates the contrast between the humble Jesus and mighty Rome. There imagine two simultaneous processions into Jerusalem. The King of Peace enters through one gate while the representative of the Roman Empire, the Governor Pontius Pilate, enters through another. Pilate is a brute force. He’s arrived to “keep the peace” during the turbulent time of Passover when the massive crowds tend to get a little unruly. Passover is a commemoration of God’s deliverance, by the prophet Moses, of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Recalling 400 years of captivity while living under another oppressive regime tended to get the people rather hostile and aggressive. Pilate enters the city in ceremonial garb. Behind him are troops in military regalia armed with swords and spears. He’s surrounded by flags and banners. Trumpets are blaring as he enters. To drive home this intimidating display of power, Pilate rides a magnificent warhorse. Pilate intends to impose, a strict, crushing kind of peace for Rome. Across the city Jesus makes his entrance riding a little, mangy donkey. He’s surrounded by a ragtag group of followers reciting scripture. Jesus offers a different kind of peace: “the peace that surpasses understanding”. What unfolds in the following days is the price he pays to bring it.
When Pilate enters a few bold souls shout curses at him, the rest tremble, step aside or hide. Jesus enters to the shouts and praises of an adoring crowd. They spread their coats on the road before him. The reach out to touch him. Spontaneous joy erupts from the hearts of people who have witnessed the mighty power of Christ to perform miracles. They’ve seen his boldness in confronting religious leaders. He is their hope; their Liberator; their King. He’s the new Moses who will usher in a reign as great as King David’s. They’re ready to fight with him against their Roman oppressors for their freedom. They’re willing to receive and follow Jesus as a conquering hero who walks in glory and might.
Ironically, the only people to see where this could lead are a group of bitter Pharisees, who are out to execute this blaspheming prophet. Apart from being offended by this elevation of Jesus to Messiah, the Pharisees know this isn’t a week to threaten Rome. The least thing will bring down the wrath of Pilate. Religious fanatics in ecstasy over a liberating King offers a perfect excuse to shut down the city and cancel Passover. The result would be rioting, bloodshed and death. The fearful Pharisees want to keep the peace. They call out to Jesus “Rabbi, order your disciples to stop!” (Luke 19: 39) But Jesus, lifts his hands, shrugs his shoulders and replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (vs. 40) There’s no stopping it. There is no stopping the praises due to Christ. All creation sings the song of celebration. If the people on the street of Jerusalem stop their praises, or the people in our society today refuse to acknowledge him, others will rise up somewhere who will worship him. If local congregations go under and close, new ones will emerge elsewhere. If all human hearts reject him, the stones will shout. Jesus will be glorified. But even in that moment of celebration as he laughs and greets the crowd, Jesus is aware of something else that can’t be stopped: as he travels into Jerusalem on a donkey, the will of God is travelling towards its destination.
In an episode of M*A*S*H Trapper is diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Initially he’s upset but Hawkeye reminds him that, according to Army regulations, an ulcer guarantees he’ll be sent home! The Unit arranges a farewell party. But minutes before it starts, Trapper is informed by Radar that the Army has changed its regulations and his ulcer would be treated in Korea. Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed. He smiles and laughs but all evening he has a look in his eyes that betrays the truth: it’s a great party but it’s not going to end the way he’d hoped or the way everyone was anticipating.
I imagine that if anyone had looked they’d have seen the same sadness in Jesus eyes as the Palm Sunday street party spread. But the ecstatic crowd doesn’t notice. As the week unfolds and they begin to understand Jesus’ true mission, not as a political conqueror but as the bearer of spiritual reconciliation, things change. The crowd experiences disappointment. They get anxious. Their spiritual angst increases when Jesus is tried before Herod; Jerusalem has always stoned their prophets. Before Pilate their cultural fears erupt; this is what they do to you when Rome calls you an enemy. In their anxiety, the people join with the powerful to protect themselves. They call for his crucifixion. They get in the way. It’s inevitable. There’s no stopping it.
As we see Jesus crucified – a silent, tortured, broken, powerless, victim – it’s inevitable we will also get in the way. There’s no stopping it. It’s what people do. Like the crowd on Palm Sunday we also want Christ on our own terms. After all, didn’t he come to meet my needs and fulfill my wants? When God sees the future like we do and life is hopeful, we sing his praises. What about when God’s plan is different from ours? Sometimes life hurts; senseless things happen; party doesn’t end as we anticipated. As our anxiety grows, do our praises turn to curses? In the political arena today the newest trend is collaboration – everyone has a voice. How do we respond when God calls us to submit to his will instead of listening to our input? When we think God is getting it wrong, do we intervene to fix things? What is the quality of our trust? When it comes to God we can be like the sailor who kept getting lost so his friends bought him a compass. Next time he went out he got lost again. The friends said, “Why didn’t you use the compass?” The sailor replied, “”I didn’t dare to! I wanted to go north, but as hard as I tried to make the needle aim in that direction, it just kept on pointing southeast.”
Since we will inevitably get in Jesus’ way is there a better approach we can take? His closest disciples got in the way by serving him. In unquestioning obedience they went in search of the donkey. The crowd got in his way with joyful shouts of praise. Jesus entered Jerusalem to give us his life, his body, his blood, his love and his peace. The only worthy response is to give him the gift of ourselves. The early Church Fathers saw a symbol of this in the gesture of the people who greeted Jesus, spreading out their coats before him on his entry into Jerusalem. Before Christ we have the opportunity to spread out our lives, our love, our time, our prayer, our very selves in gratitude and adoration. If we must get in the way, and one way or another we will, let us aim to get in the way by surrendering our whole being to him. We are called to follow a King who chooses the Cross as his throne. Jesus offers us, not a facile temporary happiness, but the peace of divine blessing in communion with him. Ask yourself: what are your true expectations of God? What are your deepest desires, with which we have come here today to celebrate Palm Sunday? Who is Christ to you? Can you accept him as the Prince of Peace? Can you follow him to the cross? Because that is where he is headed. It is his destiny. There’s no stopping it.