***This is a sermon I preached on Palm Sunday on March 25, 2018 at Seed Church. You can listen here.
This message is called Jesus versus the empires.
Happy Palm Sunday to everyone. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the cross and the empty tomb- the two most significant events in the history of the world- is what we are looking at today.
A large crowd welcomes Jesus going to Jerusalem by laying down palm branches as the homeless King rides on a donkey. A lot of electricity was in the air as Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead and because of that (and other reasons), the Pharisees and their co-conspirators were plotting to kill Jesus.
We will look at this account verse by verse and then talk about the differing empires that Jesus is challenging.
Verse 12: The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
Jesus and this large crowd that had been following him around had come from Bethany. Bethany is about 1.5 miles to the east of Jerusalem on the south eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Matthew’s gospel tells us (Matthew 21:1-3) that Jesus sent two of his disciples and told them: ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.’ Jesus asked them to do this on the Mount of Olives when they were at Bethphage. Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in Jesus asking His disciples to get a donkey for Him. These accounts go further stating that as they were untying the donkey, the owner asked them what they needed it for. Their response was, ‘The Lord has need of it.’
There was a tremendous buzz around Jesus and a growing popularity. John 11:45 tells us that many Jews (and presumably Gentiles) were believing in Jesus. Maybe this was one of Jesus’ ministry high moments. A lot of response to His message and people joining His spiritual kingdom.
The large crowd was hanging out with Jesus at a dinner with Lazarus in Bethany. Everyone wanted to see and talk with Lazarus. The account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead was spreading like wild fire. The anticipation would have reached a crescendo when they heard that Jesus was coming for the Passover celebration. Jesus was greeted by Passover-type multitude and they came pouring out of Jerusalem’s eastern gate to greet Jesus.
Excitement and word of mouth were informing people that Jesus’ was coming to Jerusalem.
Verse 13: So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’
The crowd had cut fronds from the palm trees to add to their celebration of Jesus coming to Jerusalem for Passover. Palm trees, in that time, lined the road from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. In Psalm 92:12, the palm tree is a symbol of the righteousness and spiritual flourishing of God’s children. Holding the palm branch with myrtle and willow branch and shaking it is referenced back in Leviticus 23:40 as how Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles expressed joy. So the people lining the road outside of Jerusalem and waving these branches were celebrating that salvation had come and triumph. Here is where many people, including many of the disciples, misunderstood. Their idea of triumph was overthrowing Rome. A popular Jewish conception of the Messiah in this Day was a figure sent by God to end the Roman rule and Israel’s oppression under the Romans.
If Jesus had just raised a guy from the dead, a part of the massive excitement was that they believed that this guy had the powers. He was the super hero. He was going to fulfill their conception of taking power back, over throwing Rome and establishing a new earthly kingdom. If Jesus could raise people from the dead, what were the limits as to where this thing could go?
When they began their chant of Hosanna, the two crowds had become united. The crowd from Bethany and the crowd from Jerusalem. A merging. A mass of people rejoicing in what they believed was a coming triumph of the Messiah King who would re-establish the Davidic dynasty.
The phrase, “Hosanna!’ They shouted means ‘save now’ or ‘save, pray’. A person who declares this is asking God, convinced that the proper time for full deliverance had come. Hosanna! Save now!
They also shouted, ‘Blessed is He who is coming in the name of the Lord!’ This phrase is from Psalm 118:26. It is a very common Psalm that is quoted in the New Testament and is a Messianic Psalm.
They also hailed Jesus as the King of Israel, their great joyous hope of being the mighty miracle worker who would re establish the throne of David.
Verse 14-15: And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.’
Jesus riding on a donkey is a fulfillment of prophecy from Zechariah 9:9. The daughter of Zion is understood to be Jerusalem and and its inhabitants.
The donkey is a symbol of peace. The Prince of Peace riding on a donkey. The horse is commonly associated with war. The Prince of Peace comes to bring salvation so the daughter of Zion will not be afraid.
A note about the donkey. The donkey is not a symbol of weakness and as a matter of fact, it was used by kings before Jesus. Notice how the crowds are not saying, ‘Oh, blessed is Jesus the lowly.’ They are saying, ‘the king of Israel!’
In this ancient world, the donkey was viewed with a symbol of kingship as early as the third millennium BC. There are references to kings and donkeys in Sumerian texts. Archaeologists have also dug up donkeys hitched to royal chariots in the tombs of Ur.
In the Bible (Judges 12:14) Jair the Gileadite is described as having 30 sons who rode of 30 donkeys corresponding to 30 cities ruled by each. Absalom rode a mule in 2 Samuel 18:9. When Solomon was anointed as the king, he rode a mule in 1 Kings 1:38.
Horses would most certainly symbolize a ready for battle type posture but just because Jesus was riding a donkey, does not mean this takes away at all from His identity and image as the King of Israel. He did not refuse this crowds worship or accolades.
Verse 16: His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to Him.
And now we come to the disciples who did not understand any of this. If Jesus has this extraordinary power, even raising people from the grave, why was he riding on a donkey (presumably unarmed) symbolizing peace? If the Romans were going to be defeated, they didn’t need palm branches. They would need weapons and horses. If they wanted to defeat the empire, it would be a brutal battle. In this moment, John’s gospel describes them as lost (not spiritually). Those closest to Jesus would not realize this fulfillment of prophecy and the staggering meaning behind this episode in Jesus’ life until He was glorified.
Verse 17-18: The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard He had done this sign.’
John swings his narrative back to the crowds and mentions again that the people in the crowd who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead continued to bear witness. In other words, they could not stop talking about this event and word was spreading like wildfire. Members of the crowd, pilgrims that had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, went to meet him as well because they heard He had done this deed. There was a convergence of the crowds.
I read a book last year (audio book) called “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’ written by Bart Ehrman. As a committed agnostic who is not a believer in Jesus, he argues thoroughly and persuasively for the historical existence of a homeless man in first century Palestine. One of the more interesting things he says in the book is that Jesus had the reputation of being a miracle worker. Now, obviously, Ehrman does not believe in miracles but he argues people who encountered Jesus back then totally believed that Jesus could do them. Scholars have to have an explanation as to why Jesus became so famous.
This convergence of the crowd were many people who didn’t see the miracle but who believed that Jesus had done it based on the word of mouth and Jesus’ reputation back then.
Verse 19: So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.’
The killjoys of our triumphal entry party were already at work planning to have Christ killed. Their power was threatened. The way the crowds were responding to Christ and believing in Jesus had the Pharisees worried that they would lose standing with Rome. The Lazarus miracle had them furious and that rage was based in fear of what would happen if Jesus’ work continued. Their statement here may suggest that radical Pharisees were trying to convince more moderate Pharisees that Jesus was bad news.
What is Jesus doing here? He rides into Jerusalem with, by all accounts, a large crowd on a donkey. This was not a coincidence. In other gospel accounts, Jesus asked his disciples to go and secure a donkey for Him to ride. Jesus was mindful of the symbolism of Peace (Him being the Prince of Peace) while horses connotated war.
The triumphal entry of Jesus that we celebrate every year prior to the incredible events of Good Friday and Easter was a challenge to empire. Jesus was pitting himself against empire. Jesus versus the empires of the world.
This is further shown by the Pharisees response. The religious leaders were freaking out. Crowds and people were gravitating toward Jesus. Their power was being directly threatened.
Throughout Jesus’ life, He was a threat to the powers of the world. When Jesus was born, a despotic and psychotic King Herod killed baby boys under the age of 2 because Herod had heard a king had been born in Bethlehem and he would have His soldiers slaughter babies to hold onto his Roman throne.
During the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught to turn the other cheek when His followers are struck. There are a few different readings and interpretations of Jesus teaching. One of them doesn’t seem widely understood but makes sense within the culture. Let’s say you were going about your business one day and a Roman soldier came up and struck you for no reason and knocked you down.
If this happened to you, you would think about two options. 1) You cower in fear at the soldier above you and don’t dare get up. 2) You get up and attack the soldier which would very likely get you killed.
Jesus was suggesting another way. Stand up but don’t react violently. An act of defiance against the empire.
In John chapter 4, Jesus met the woman at the well. Obviously he was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. It was a cultural taboo for them to be speaking. This is an account that a lot of us have heard presented in the past but I don’t think speakers/ teachers quite have this right. Usually this passage is presented as a slut-shaming toward this Samaritan woman. Jesus says she has had 5 husbands and she is currently not married to the guy that she lives with. This woman is often portrayed as a loose woman running around town with all these guys. However, notice a couple of things: one about the passage and another about the culture and the status of women.
Jesus in this passage never condemns this woman for any behavior that she exhibited The final thing is: keep in mind that women in this society had no rights. They were not trusted as reliable court witnesses. Women in this culture had little to no recourse to divorce their husbands. Our church has been going through Corinthians. During that series, we had seen that Corinth men could go to a temple, have their time and a woman didn’t have much recourse to divorce a man who was doing this. On the flip side, if a woman were to behave this way, she could be stoned to death or the man could absolutely divorce her. And a man could divorce a woman for any reason pretty much. Food cold at dinner. Grounds for divorce. Talking back. Grounds for divorce. When a woman was divorced, she often was thrown out of the house and didn’t have anywhere to go. She would be in poverty. This was a very Patriarchal society.
So, five guys had thrown this woman out (divorced her) and now she was living with a guy maybe as a means to have shelter. So is Jesus condemning her? Here is what he says, ‘Go, call your husband and come here.’ The woman says, “I have no husband.’ Jesus says, ‘ I know you have had 5 husbands and are now living with a guy who is not your husband.” He never condemns her but he acknowledges her story and the abuse she has felt in this culture. Jesus in this account is challenging cultural empire. The bare bones definition of a culture is ‘a way of life’. A culture has ideas, philosophies, and assumptions that they make about life, gender, race and about people.
At the beginning of John 4, the Pharisees are hot on Jesus’ tail so he ducks out and intentionally goes to Samaria to meet this woman. He is flagrantly challenging cultural authority and rebelling against. He is criticizing cultural empire.
There were empires in Jesus day obviously. Rome was an occupying force and the Jewish people and oppressed community. Samaritans often had things worse then the Jews. The Pharisees and Sadduccees had a religious empire that they carefully navigated to maintain their power. Cultural empire divvied out who had power, influence and authority and who had none of those things.
Our time has empires too. We live in a massive empire. Bigger then the world has ever known. And we should be thankful for that. It is not a bad thing all the time. Our country spends more on our military then any other country, I think by 20 times more then the next competitor. We have bases all over the world. The reach and influence we have is astounding.
Not only is there military might, we have a massive global influence. Trade. Movies and music being exported to other countries. Western philosophies and ideas going global. The internet makes the reach beyond what any person would have thought a hundred years ago. There is good there for sure but also ideas getting exported such as our materialistic obsessions and our hedonism.
There is a macro empire, our political country and its standing in the world, a cultural empire that makes assumptions about where people stand based on whether they are rich or poor or black or white or male or female. Then there are personal empires. The things that we value truly in the center of our being. Our idols. The things we hide and lie about. The addictions and demons we have a hard time escaping.
Well, today is the day of the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem.
Thesis: The homeless guy from Nazareth is coming for our empires while riding on a donkey and our only response should be unconditional surrender.
He is coming to challenge the empires. He is coming to overthrow the tables. He is coming to dismantle and take apart the wicked structures, beliefs and vices that we have held on to and participated in. Everything will be rearranged. Things will be made right. Nothing will be the same.
I remember this lyric from a song by Beck from the song ‘Sea Change.’ He sings, ‘in the sea change, nothing is safe.’ I love this as a undertow of the ocean can be strong and suck you out to see. The tides of the ocean can direct you any which way. So much is out of your control and the weather can change quickly. Everything can be washed away in an instant.
Now, this is a struggle to come to terms with. We love our idols. We love the empires that we have structured in our souls. What is there in the core of your soul? Greed. Selfishness. Racism. An immoral relationship. A porn addiction. A sense of massive discontentment until you get that next big thing.
Some of these things we know are damaging to ourselves and others but just like back in Jesus’ day where a city constructs walls around its perimeter to guard the metropolis, we construct our own walls via justification to protect these things that we know are bad and other things that we want to continue to do because they are fun and we think we can get a lasting satisfaction from them. Some of these vices are tricky to navigate because they could involve good things. Greed, for instance, can be tricky to deal with in the area that we live. Taxes are up. Housing costs are up. So many of us scramble and try to work hard (and sometimes long hours) so we can get a more comfortable life for our families. And that is a good thing. However, where is the line where a solid and good value like working hard becomes an ultimate thing and begins to intrude on the sacred areas of our life: our relationship with God, our families and our communities.
Other things we have complicated responses too. One of the things in my life is dealing with anger toward a situation that happened a few years ago because a boss at a previous place of employment literally called my current employer and told lies about me.
Now, you see how I can justify the anger. What happened to me was wrong and yet when I think about it, even to this day, I just get furious about it. And you know what Jesus is saying to me and this empire that I have built around my soul and my justification to continually just be angry about it? ‘Let it go. What happened was wrong and it is right to be angry for a time. But to continue to harbor and focus on this anger is going to be destructive to you and distract you from the things that you should be focusing on right now. Let it go.’
What empires in your heart need to be challenged and thrown down?
There is a big buzz word right now, deconstruction. People are talking about deconstructing their faith or other ideas. People believe things and perhaps come to a point where they start to question the assumptions. In the case of our empires, we have believed things that our culture has preached to us all our lives. Billions and billions dollars of advertising that we have seen or consumed over our lives have led us to accept a reality and believe things. Much of what we have believed in our American cultural universe and empire are lies and a warping of deeper truths. Jesus’ kingdom is upside down to the values of worldly empires.
Jesus wants to come in and deconstruct these poison assumptions that we have made. The materialism, the greed, the selfishness, the violence of our culture, the lack of seeing sex as a sacred gift, the obsession with hedonism and endless pleasure are all things that Jesus wants to deconstruct.
One of the issues with deconstruction, particularly with deconstructing faith, is that once you deconstruct something sacred like faith, what are you left with? A lot of people deconstruct things and then have nothing to turn too. Everything is swept away.
When Jesus deconstructs your empires, He will never leave you with nothing. You may have to let go of things that are painful to get rid of. Change is extremely hard. However, when Jesus casts down and dismantles our worldly empires, He will start to build something new in its wake. Jesus, among many things, was an apocalyptic preacher. A lot of people think that apocalypse is an ending, which it is, but it is also a new beginning. What is old passes away and here comes what is new.
Some of you are following Jesus and love Jesus but there are still areas that you need to give over to Him. Maybe some of you have never surrendered to Jesus as Lord and Savior. You have never welcomed His proverbial triumphal entry into the core of your soul.
It is time to surrender our empires to the guy from Nazareth riding on a donkey. The King that has told us about a kingdom that is from another place but is breaking into this world through the work Jesus is doing in the lives of those that follow Him.
A surrender to this King is an avenue to find lasting hope, meaning and joy in this chaotic world that we live in.