Go…or no go?
Palm Sunday – April 9, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
I think that our scripture reading for today needs to be set into a context to speak as fully as I hear it…let me take you on an imaginary journey back to the evening before Palm Sunday…and then I will share today’s passage with you as a part of the story…
It is nightfall…Jesus, as is his habit, has gone out alone to pray in the surrounding hills. Jesus often goes off in this way to pray deeply to his Father, preferring most of the time to be all alone. The disciples meanwhile have been left by themselves in the house in which they are all staying. They are visibly agitated as Jesus has just informed them that their long journey towards Jerusalem, the seat of the Temple Authority and of the local Roman government as well as the office and residence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judea will be completed the next morning.
Having traveled throughout Galilee and Judea over the past three years in the company of Jesus, and having watched as he worked amazing signs and wonders in their presence the disciples and supporters of Jesus have pretty much all come to believe that he is quite possibly the promised Messiah. The one who it was foretold by the prophets would deliver all of Israel from the hand of their oppressors and finally restore the kingdom of Israel to world power and greatness.
Our story begins in the small room where the disciples have gathered after the evening meal. With Jesus’ departure out into the night they sit quietly together, looking from one to another, unsure if they feel free enough to voice the deep concerns they have as to the plan Jesus has just informed them of. For you see, the understanding of the disciples that night is vastly different from ours today with the benefit we have of knowing how the whole Easter story ends.
To begin with, in Jesus’s time the understanding of what ‘eternal life’ meant was not so clear as our imagination and understanding is today within our Christian tradition. The Jewish understanding was that after death all went to a shadowy place known as Sheol. This afterworld was believed to be below ground and in the lower parts of the earth and was devoid of almost everything including light, sound, or emotion. It was believed that all individuals went to this place and that there was no escaping it. It also had a somewhat negative context; however it was nothing like the vivid characterizations of hell we get from Dante’s Inferno or the writings of John Milton in his novel, Paradise Lost. Nonetheless, it was quite far from our own impressions of heaven and of eternal life in the presence of our Lord Jesus.
As such for the disciples, physical death was quite final and in spite of the amazing works Jesus performed during their time with him I think it is safe to say that the disciple’s hopes and ambitions regarding Jesus and his coming ascendency unto reigning ‘Messiah King’ were very much based on him remaining alive and somehow physically ‘coming in’ to Jerusalem to establish his kingdom with power, glory, and a significant show of force. And as such, they were expecting Jesus at some point to start acting like he understood the extreme challenges that lay in front of him regarding Rome and its power. They had lived all their lives in the shadow and under the force of brutal Roman oppression and knew that only a force much greater or perhaps even ‘heaven-sent’ would ever be able to bring Rome to heel.
So it was with deep and grave concern to them this night that Jesus appeared to be ready to enter Jerusalem now, at this point in his ministry. For Jesus seemed to have a very limited number of supporters and in fact had alienated almost everyone who could potentially have worked with him in supporting an uprising and a movement against Rome. Over the past three years he had repeatedly verbally attacked and ridiculed the Jewish Temple hierarchy and priestly class. He also had spoken out many times in opposition to Rome and included much in the way of seditious political innuendo into his sermons and teachings to those who came out to hear him.
All in all, he was a most unlikely candidate to take on the full force of Rome, being slight of character, quick to criticize any and all who were participating in ongoing injustices perpetrated against the Jewish people, and a bearer of very questionable heritage and lineage. It would seem that all he had going for him at this point on the eve of his entry into Jerusalem were the works he had already done, a small band of loyalists, and those who for the moment at least, believed he was worth watching.
So as we hear from the disciples we must consciously remember that theirs was a very limited view and understanding. They did not know at that moment that Jesus would be arrested, tried in a kangaroo court, and brutally murdered on a cross…and they had no idea that they themselves would be pursued and hunted down as traitors both to Rome and to the faith in days to come. They did not know that their understanding of Jesus’ messiahship was fully different than what would actually transpire and did not even have a clue as to the possibility of a resurrection, even though Jesus had tried to teach them this in his waning days and moments with them. The triumph of Jesus was far different in their minds and hearts than it would finally prove to be. In short, they just did not know what lay in front of them…all they had to go on was their love of and trust in this man they had followed closely after for three years. But…would that be enough to allow them to get behind Jesus’ decision to enter Jerusalem in just a few short hours? Remember…Sheol, not heaven, no resurrection…no eternal life as we understand it…no Easter morning to hope in or to depend upon…
…rather just a deep trust in their understanding of the ultimate power of God, which I am sure in their minds included Jesus exacting revenge upon their long-time and latest oppressor and the final and glorious deliverance unto majesty and glory as the evermore-to-reign people of God.
And so we see this little band of loyal followers, gathered together the night before Jesus is planning to enter the Holy City, all of them concerned, but mostly excited at what they have come to believe is quite possibly the eve of their own victory.
I would imagine that the silence is broken first by Simon Peter, the unofficial leader of the group as well as the most outspoken. Peter begins by saying, “Look everyone, I know tomorrow’s plans to go into Jerusalem are troubling some of you. But I think Jesus knows exactly what he is doing, and I for one am sure he is the one we have come to believe he is. Do you not remember the discussion I had with him when I informed him that in fact he was the Messiah and he said that those words had not come from me but straight from God? I tell you, I spoke truth to life in that moment. No matter what it may look like right now, I am sure tomorrow will somehow prove to be everything we believe it can be.”
Thomas, known for his habit of looking deeply into situations and reserving judgement until he was sure he understood spoke up, “Peter, I am just not sure that now is the right time. I do not think we have the resources lined up to truly pull this off yet.” Off to one side, Judas Iscariot spoke up echoing Thomas’s concerns. “I agree with Thomas”, he began, “As you all know I have been responsible for taking care all of our needs and securing our supplies throughout the course of our time together. I have kept the common purse and seen to it that whatever we needed was procured and available on time. I consider myself the least ‘star-struck’ by Jesus of all of us. Some of you here are like blind sheep, following wherever he leads, but I tell you, for our mission to succeed we need to be sure that everything is in order down to the very last detail.”
“Now don’t get me wrong, I too believe that Jesus is truly the Messiah we were promised, however I also think that there is no way he will succeed unless we are all on the same page and unless all of our plans are well laid out and perhaps even rehearsed several times. I can assure you that the rewards of our support and loyalty will be very great indeed if we all work together. Surely Jesus will give each one of his loyal followers an important position of authority and power commensurate with that person’s contribution during the upcoming revolution and the overthrow of our oppressors.”
At that last comment, James and John the sons of Zebedee stood up excitedly. James spoke saying, “That is right Judas, do you remember what Jesus said when we asked him if the two of us could sit at his right and at his left hand? Now I know you were all upset with us when in fact it was our mother who made that request, but Jesus said that indeed we would drink the cup with him in the new kingdom! And now, though I am unsure of exactly what he meant, I remember that he did say that ‘God the Father would assign each one of us our rightful place in the kingdom to come’.”
Judas replied saying, “Yes James, we all were upset because it seemed as though your mother was trying to put you two ahead of the rest of us in terms of privilege and position, but in truth it really does not matter who gets what, I am sure that when Jesus sits on the throne as king he will reward us all. The real issue is not what will happen after our victory, but rather are we fully prepared at this time to engage the enemy? I for one feel as though we are not. I feel it would only be prudent for all of us to try and dissuade Jesus from going into Jerusalem tomorrow until we have had a chance to sit down and really make a plan. We need to know who is going to be responsible for what, who is going to be positioned where, how many loyalists we can count on, and what armaments they may have available. This will be a fight to remember, however the promise is that in the end, our Messiah will prevail and be installed as King over all of Israel.”
Philip’s brother Nathanael spoke up next saying, “You all know how much I love Jesus and how much I have believed he is the Son of God ever since he first saw me and accepted me , even after I had told my brother that ‘nothing good could ever come out of Nazareth’. For three years now we have been privileged to witness signs and wonders never before seen on earth. Truly we all believe that Jesus has the strong favor of God resting upon him and that he will be able to do whatever he puts his mind to. Some weeks back, when he first set his face towards Jerusalem I had concerns that the time might not be right, that as Judas says we may not have all of our resources gathered or our plans complete, but I’ve got to tell you I think Jesus knows what he is doing. I think that if he wants to go into Jerusalem tomorrow morning then we should go with him and watch the providence of God surround and envelop him in glory and power from on high!”
At that, Judas just shook his head, for it was obvious that he did not share Nathanael’s optimism. Peter however spoke up once more saying, “I think Nathanael has a point. I too trust that Jesus knows what he is doing and that he alone knows what the Father may have in store. What do we have to lose?”
“What are you all talking about ‘losing’”, asked Jesus as he walked back into the room where the disciples were gathered. Embarrassed at being discovered talking as they had been, Peter quickly deflected, “Oh nothing my Lord, we were just talking about what an exciting day tomorrow will prove to be to be sure. We are thrilled to have finally come to this place, the night before your victorious entrance into our Lord’s holy city. It is as if history is being written right before our eyes!”
Looking about the room, Jesus gazed upon each one of his disciples in turn, some turning away, feeling guilty in their doubt while others returned his gaze with confidence, sure that they were ready to assume the mantle of warrior and deliverer of Israel. Judas could not hide his concerns and knew in his heart that Jesus could read him like a book. So he shifted his gaze downward even as his mind raced from thought to thought trying to find some semblance of a plan before morning dawned anew.
Finished with this silent evaluation of his disciples Jesus stood up saying simply, “It is time to go; we have a long day ahead of us.” And with that, all of the disciples stood and filed out behind Jesus as the first rays of dawn broke over the eastern sky. Picking their way carefully in the pre-dawn light they made their way over and onto the road to Jerusalem, heading towards Bethphage which was several miles away and on the outskirts of the city.
Remember listener…it was all on the line…three years of journeying with Jesus, three years watching and hoping-into-a-place-of-now-believing that this road to Jerusalem finally embarked upon would end in tremendous victory. Remember that each one of them had personally tasted the cold steel of Rome’s fierce repression, which surely all of them either had themselves, or knew someone who had suffered mightily at the hand of a Roman soldier, or suffered some ruthless edict meant to starve them of hope…or even of life itself.
Remember, there was no ‘Plan B’…nothing to fall back on if it did not all go according to their expectations. They had no army of supporters, in fact between them I think they only had one short sword…theirs truly was a mission of trust and belief in the one they still followed, down the path that surely would lead towards the greatest confrontation they had ever witnessed…it truly was now or never. And remember as well that for them, death was pretty much final…if your body was slain in battle you were done and your movement, like so, so many others before that had claimed to be ‘following after a messiah’ would end up saving and delivering no one.
Remember as well that ‘resurrection’ was still a mystery to them all…even though Jesus had spoken of it…they could not make the required leap to a place where Jesus would actually have to die in order to be brought back from the dead…no, for them Jesus had to live and to triumph over all the forces of evil that awaited them at the end of the road ahead.
And so I ask you…would you have followed along willingly that night…or would you too have been quite fearful? Would you too be scrambling about like Judas, searching desperately for a plan that made at least the pretense of making sense? How would you feel as they all made their way out into the early morning…heading towards the city you just knew was filled with uncertainty and danger?
Let me read to you now today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel account as it flows nicely from the imaginative one I have spun for you so far…
When Jesus and the disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
And now, as our imaginative tale continues…it is again nightfall in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples have left the city after what proved to be a very eventful day. Today’s passage does not include the events right after Jesus’ arrival in the city proper, but in truth the scriptures tell us he went straight to the Temple where he raised an incredible furor by overturning and scattering all the tables of the money changers as they sat selling small birds and animals for pilgrims to offer in sacrifice. Very seldom had the disciples seen Jesus angry, but never to the extent as he was just then. His passion for the house of the Lord was palpable as he went into a rage and threw the whole of the Temple court into an uproar, pigeons and goats running every which way and merchants swearing loudly at this lunatic from out of town. Evidently the royal welcome he experienced on the roadway into the city was not enough to satisfy Jesus’ kingdom-work for the day. And so, after causing the spectacle at the Temple he left with his disciples and headed back to Bethany on the outskirts of the city to spend the night.
Resting and reflecting on the events of the day the disciples did not know what to make of what they had just witnessed. Once again Jesus had gone off on his own to pray, leaving his disciples together in the house of Mary and Martha. Even though it was late, none of them were sleepy, and in fact most of them were very stressed regarding the meaning of the day they had just witnessed.
Once again Peter spoke up first after Jesus had gone out. “I don’t know about you”, he said, “but during that parade today with all of the palm branches on the road and everyone shouting acclamations about Jesus and calling him the ‘Son of David’, I was sure we had done the right thing in coming here today. And even in the Temple, I had a strange feeling that Jesus knew what he was doing even though it was so confusing.”
“Oh, I don’t know”, said Judas, “I am not sure today was such a good day at all. Yes the entry into the city seemed like quite an amazing affirmation of who Jesus might be and it had to have sent a strong message to Rome that he rode into the city on a foal…as conquerors have always done… but I was not sure at all that he should have gone and wrecked the Temple. After all, those people are a part of our faith. And even though they have been a part of the problem for so long, we may need them when the struggle really gets going. I would not have alienated them as severely as Jesus did today; I think that was a tactical error to be sure.”
“Do you still think the timing might be off Judas”, asked Philip? “Do you think that we should have told Jesus that it would have been better to wait until we had a chance to go into the city ourselves and to survey the strength of the opposition? I would hate to think that we blew it by being too anxious.”
“I am afraid that is a thought I just can’t get out of my head”, replied Judas. “I mean why would Jesus ask us to walk with him for so long if he did not trust our judgement even a little? It would seem now that we are fighting a battle on at least two fronts with perilously few reserves to assist us in the effort. For surely the Roman authorities took notice of our parade and of the fact that Jesus was imitating Caesar by riding in the way he did, and I am also sure that the Temple Authorities are furious with Jesus for making such a mess of things. Perhaps we should all try and persuade Jesus to wait a few days before we go back anywhere near the Temple.”
“Well, you can try,” said Peter, “but every other time we have tried to get him to change his mind he has not listened to us and has gone on to do what he first intended. And it has somehow pretty much always worked out in the end, hasn’t it”? “Well maybe that is true”, answered Judas, “but this is now a much bigger deal…we only have this one shot to get it right, there is no going back once we truly commit to challenging the authorities. And looking closely at what we have to fight this fight, I for one am not sure I am ready to die today. I think we need time to build up more reserves, to recruit more rebels to our cause, and to devise a plan that will divide and conquer Rome and her soldiers. We are not ready…Jesus must be persuaded not to return to the city until we are fully prepared for the battle.”
At that moment Jesus appeared in the doorway. He had evidently been listening for some time, and though many had not spoken out, their silent agreement with Judas’ quite logical argument made them shift uncomfortably in Jesus’ presence. Looking from one disciple to another Jesus waited a moment before speaking. Then softly, and with a measured tone that was understood by all said simply, “We go back into Jerusalem in the morning. Get some rest for there is much work still to be done.” And with that he walked over to the lamp on the table, turned it down low and found a place over on the side of the room where he lay down to sleep. All of the rest tried to follow suit, but bothersome were the images left over from the day…as well as the fear that they might now be in something that was way over their heads. Morning was not far away however and they all finally drifted off to sleep in the company, and in the care of the Master.
…and I wonder…given all that the disciples knew at that moment, or maybe more so, given all that they did not know and had no real way of knowing…if it was you there in the darkened room, would you have encouraged Jesus to wait, to take a moment before continuing? Would you have sided along with Judas and the others in our story? Would you have encouraged Jesus to go…or not to go back into Jerusalem the next day?
I am not sure what I would have done. Without the knowledge of the days that were to come and most importantly without knowing of the resurrection…without all that I am just not sure. When it truly comes to putting one’s life on the line for their faith it can sometimes be a tough call…back then…as well as now. Now of course it may seem like an easier call with the benefit of hindsight and the history and narrative of our faith. But back then…or even now, given the state of chaos we see in the world at large, what do you think you would have done?
Jesus was arrayed against military might, power, and nationalist determination stronger than that ever seen before on earth. He was up against those who held life and death decisions literally in their hands and did not hesitate to silence any dissent brutally and permanently. Jesus was a member of an oppressed and deeply exploited people who for generations had suffered unspeakable cruelty and hardship at the hands of a virtual parade of oppressors. Only silence and ‘going along to get along’ had even a chance of keeping one out of the line of fire, only by keeping one’s head down and not making any waves would be possible to evade the powers that sought to keep you in line and to govern your every move…allowing you at least to hope that if you were not noticed, then no one would have reason to come into your house and haul you out of it, separating you from your family and taking you off to a place from which you might never return…this truly was Rome in Jesus’ time. And it was directly into this dangerous and potentially deadly political arena that Jesus chose to walk…this was his choice…and in the waning hours of that first night after the procession of the palms…all of this was known as well by those who chose to follow their Jesus back into the heart of Jerusalem…
…go or no go…what would I have asked Jesus to do? Knowing all that the disciples had seen and all that they understood, and looking at all of the force and power arrayed against them all, what might I have begged him to do? I just am not sure…
…how about you?