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The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9.9-10)
Those words come from the prophet Zechariah, written roughly 20 years after the Judean exiles started returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonian army. It is from this prophecy that the author of Luke’s gospel tells us about Jesus and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. The vision you heard in the prophecy — a king, humble and riding on a donkey, breaking the tools of war (chariots, war horses, bows), commanding peace to the nations, and with a reign of peace that extends to the end of the earth — this is an important reference to how the early Christian community thought of Jesus. This nonviolent, peaceful realm is an important vision of who Jesus was and what he came to do. It is entirely congruent with his proclamation of a new liberating reign. It just didn’t happen the way most people in Judea thought it was going to happen.
We know the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem before Passover and being welcomed with cloaks thrown down on his way and with palm fronds waving (at least according to Mark and Matthew). Basically, Jesus is getting a royal welcome, but mounted on a donkey and not on a war horse, like those ridden by Roman troops streaming into Jerusalem to quell any potential unrest during the Passover pilgrimage into the city at the same time.
Do you see and hear the irony of it all? This is meant to be a king, but he isn’t clothed in royal regalia. He isn’t powerful in the sense that Caesar, Pilate, and Herod are powerful. He is propertyless. He is a pacifist. He upsets the conventions of the religious authorities of his day. And he certainly isn’t what the people of Judea expected from a messiah. They wanted a military leader who would come in and kick Rome back to Italy and out of the Judean homeland. And instead, they got a prophet who healed people, lived in poverty, and talked about God’s reign of shalom, rather than a workaday Mediterranean empire bent on taking other peoples’ land.
We have the advantage of knowing how the story unfolds. We Christians have been telling this story for nearly 2,000 years. But the people in occupied Jerusalem and the first followers of this Mediterranean peasant, Jesus, had no idea how things were going to work out or what lay in store in the next week. We know that Jesus would be welcomed like a king on Palm Sunday, overturn the tables in the Temple, eat a Passover meal with his disciples, experience betrayal, arrest, a sham trial, flogging, and meet the ignominious end of torture on the cross.
This is an insane week that rolls from triumph to tragedy and then back to the triumph of Easter. It’s not just a roller coaster, it’s an out-of-control ride on the Crazy Train. (In 25 years of preaching that is my first reference to an Ozzy Osbourne song…and it’s probably my last reference as well.)
Personally, I don’t really like being in the midst of emotional drama. Both of my sons were in theater growing up, and I told them to keep the drama on the stage and not at home. But this last week of Jesus’ life is insanely dramatic. And if you just come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter you only get to experience the high points, and it must seem as if everything is rosy for Jesus. We skip right from the triumphal entry to the empty tomb…it’s all the good news with none of the shadow of death and desertion. It’s what happens between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday that makes is all real, but none of us likes to face tragedy, do we? Perhaps we’d rather not have to deal with the messy feelings of Judas’s kiss or Jesus being relentlessly beaten or nailed us in the most humiliating public torture Rome could invent.
What is lurking in the shadows of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday? Is it our own fear of death? Is it feeling the depths of despair for Jesus, whom we love and follow?
All of us know the story, we know what happens. But what if we choose to avert our eyes and look the other way? What if we just can’t take the tragedy this year, after two of the most bizarre and draining years in our lives? It’s understandable.
One of the ways we learn how to deal with tragedy in our own lives is by experiencing it partially during Holy Week. Life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. At some point, people may have thought we were wonderful and then turned their backs on us when the going gets tough. We may have had the experience of sitting around a dinner table with dear friends and family and then later having one of them betray us. We may have had to make choices that involve self-sacrifice, when we willingly put the good of others before our own self-interest. And we, all of us, are going to reach the end of our lives. As one of our members said to me, years ago, “None of us makes it out alive.” Death is a reality that all of us will experience. This is all very tough stuff to deal with, isn’t it?
Because of his own experiences of tragedy, Jesus shares some incredible lessons us during Holy Week for how we live our own lives. But you don’t get the lessons if you gloss over the shadows of Holy Week, skipping from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Having gone through it completely, Jesus provides the model for how we deal with the great disappointments and tragedies of our lives.
Mother Theresa had a poem pasted on the wall of her orphanage in Calcutta, and I wonder how Jesus would have heard it after Palm Sunday and how we might hear it today: “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
You and I are living through difficult times. Pandemic, economic uncertainty, war in Ukraine, systemic racism, dismantling white privilege, the prospect of climate-change devastation. It can be too much to take in, especially if we have the TV news on in the background all the time. (I can’t even listen to NPR in the background anymore.) There are some things we can do beyond quieting the 24-hour news cycle. We can do even more unplugging. Read the news on your own time at your own pace, so that if it gets too overwhelming you can slow down or come back to it later. We have choices about how much TV and online time we spend. We can limit OUR screen time as well as our children’s!
The other thing we can do is to rest in the knowledge that God isn’t going to let us fall into oblivion. Yes, there is tragedy in this world. Yes, there is war, devastation, hatred, and injustice. God is in the thick of it with us. Yes, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are real. And God stands with us on the side of compassion. God will be with us even as we die and even in life beyond death, whatever that looks like.
Nobody said life was going to be easy. It’s not. But God does promise to be there with us every step of the way. Under the palm branches and even up to the cross.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.