“Approaching Jerusalem” Colchester Federated Church, March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1-11)
It’s hard to believe, but Easter’s in a week. Almost as exciting as Easter itself will be the premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar LIVE on NBC later that evening! Perhaps it’s not a total shock, but Jesus Christ Superstar happens to be my favorite musical of all time. Around this time of year the parsonage and my car sound like a one woman Broadway show. Not everyone can sing the parts of Jesus and Judas almost simultaneously, just saying.
Now one of the most compelling scenes in the musical takes place on Palm Sunday with the crowds singing “Hosanna!” as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. Whether in the musical or in scripture, it seems that Jesus was someone people naturally gravitated toward. Today we get to see one of the most important entrances he makes in his ministry. He enters the lion’s den (Jerusalem itself) right around Passover. Jesus enters the holy city to shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” These were shouts of praise and affirmation. Shouts of respect and admiration from the crowds gathered from all over the countryside for this festival.
Though he enters Jerusalem in a humble way, in a rather muted way. Jesus enters on a donkey. Why? This story has many themes and one is Jesus taking a stand and confronting expectations. The people are shouting “Hosanna” which can roughly translate as “Save us!” or “Save now!” The crowds want saved from Rome and saved from the religious authorities who oppressed them. They wanted Jesus—this man who gained a following and had the popular vote, this hopeful leader who emerged from the Galilean countryside—to be a military leader. A savior who would come rescue them from those in power now. That’s why they refer to King David during the parade (arguably the most important King in the history of Israel.)
But Jesus wasn’t that type of leader. He wasn’t going to be that kind of Messiah. Some people wanted the conquering hero, and Jesus was the Suffering Servant. If we’ve ever defied expectations others have placed on us. If we’ve ever decided to not be who everyone else wants us to be and gone our own way, we may be able to understand what this must have been like for Jesus during that fateful Palm Sunday. This parade was when the people’s expectations of what kind of Savior Jesus should be were thrown at him along with palms and their desperate cries of “Save us!”
In Jesus Christ Superstar (right after the song “Hosanna” with all those crowds dancing and carrying on in Jerusalem), Simon (one of Jesus’ disciples) gathers a few friends and sings to Jesus. Here’s what Simon proclaims: “Christ, what more do you need to convince you that you’ve made it and you’re easily as strong as the filth from Rome who rape our country and who’ve terrorized our people for so long? There must be over fifty thousand screaming love and more for you. Every one of fifty thousand would do whatever you ask him to. Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power! We will win ourselves a home! You’ll get the power and the glory, forever and ever and ever! You’ll get the power and the glory, forever and ever and ever!” 
Simon the Zealot is calling Jesus to take advantage of this situation. You have the crowds on your side. They are literally screaming “save now!” They are talking about the coming kingdom of our ancestor King David. Let’s act on this momentum. Now is the time that we can strike out against the Romans and get our country back. Now is the time that we need you to be the military leader, Jesus.
Here’s how Jesus responds in the musical (and I’ll keep sparing you by saying these lyrics and not singing them): “Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all, understand at all.” Jesus completely turns the argument around, telling Simon basically you don’t get it. You don’t know what power is. You don’t know what glory is. I’m not trying to go to war to kick the Romans out of our nation. I’m trying to build the Realm of God on earth here and now.
Instead of riding into the city from on top of the Mount of Olives and going down the mountain and then back up to the Temple itself on a war horse as military leaders of the day would have done (or riding inside a fancy chariot with a sword in hand waving it triumphantly) Jesus approaches Jerusalem on a humble beast-of-burden. He is symbolizing a peaceful leader in this parade. Kind-of a let-down if you’re expecting a big show and used to seeing people a whole lot flashier than Jesus. Right when Jesus has the crowds behind him in a significant way in the center of power in Jerusalem itself, he doesn’t capitalize on this moment the way that some of his disciples may have wanted him to.
Instead, Jesus is trying to build the upside-down Kingdom of God here on earth. A Kingdom that doesn’t conform to the world’s norms. A Kingdom where the first will be last and the last will be first. A Kingdom where a widow with one coin can give more than the rich in the Temple. A Kingdom where a father runs out to embrace his wayward son who finally comes home, and a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go find the one who wandered.
We must put Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem into context to see just how much it might have let down the Zealots like Simon. After all, the Romans had a long history of Triumphal processions. Usually, generals were the ones who had Triumphs after significant victories won in a foreign land. After the successful military campaign, the general would bring the troops home. They’d stay just outside the city of Rome and request a Triumphal procession from the Senate during the Roman Republic. If the Senate voted to award the Triumph, there was protocol followed as to who should process and the route taken throughout the city.
The Senate came first in the grand processional, go figure. And trumpeters would follow announcing the festivities. Carts would be wheeled through the streets of Rome laden with the spoils of war, followed by white bulls and oxen that would get sacrificed later on. If it was a more elaborate Triumph, there would be more musicians and then exotic plants from the conquered land to show off, followed by the arms and insignia of the conquered enemy, and leaders and captives (some of whom would become slaves) taken from their homeland. This would be followed by some of the civil servants of the general marching in single file. And then the general himself driving a 2 or 4 horse chariot. Finally, the processional ended with the general’s sons and officers that lead the infantry, though they were unarmed because the parade took place within Rome—the sacred city.
That’s more than you probably ever wanted to know about a Roman Triumph. But here’s the thing, compare a Roman Triumph to Jesus entering Jerusalem on that donkey. Do we see the stark contrast? The Romans would have looked at this little show and wondered what to make of this Jesus of Nazareth. They might have laughed and scoffed, thinking back to the Triumphs they had witnessed in glorious Rome and seeing this pathetic Jewish peasant riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
And the Jewish crowds gathered would have wanted someone from among them to ride in on a glorious chariot for once and call the people to unite and rebel. To throw off the yoke of their burdens, the bars across their shoulders, and the rods of their oppressors. To be in line with King David and bring power back to the nation.
And Jesus doesn’t do it. He’ll teach and march into the Temple the next day. Throw over some tables and drive out the money changers to stand up for the oppressed. Jesus will die for love of them all, within a week.
“Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all, understand at all.” Amen.