Sermon: A different sort of power

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Palm Sunday, 28th of March 2021

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Mark 11:1-11

I have mentioned before that the Book of Isaiah is so loved by Christians that it has been called a fifth gospel. When Jesus’ first followers sought to make sense of who Jesus was they naturally turned, as faithful Jews, to the Hebrew Scriptures. There they discerned hints of Jesus’ identity, life, and death, particularly in the Psalms and the prophecies. For instance, the writings of the prophet we call Second Isaiah contain four ‘Servant Songs’. At some points in these songs the suffering servant Isaiah writes about might be Isaiah himself or someone like Jeremiah, from whom we heard last week. At other times, the servant seems to be a personification of the people of Israel. But for the Church, Isaiah’s servant has long been seen as a forerunner of Jesus. We hear the first Servant Song, in which it is said of the servant that, ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,’ (Isaiah 42:3) when celebrating Jesus’ baptism in the Year of Matthew. We hear the second, in which the servant says that ‘The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me,’ and that the Lord said, ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth,’ (Isaiah 49:1-6) on the week after Epiphany in the same liturgical Year. In the fourth, last, and longest of the Servant Songs the Servant is described as ‘wounded for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities,’ (Isaiah 53:5) and ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter’. (Isaiah 53:7) Christians have long seen this servant as a type of Jesus, the Lamb of God who gave himself up to crucifixion, and that reading is offered to us every year on Good Friday.

Today, we hear from the third of the Servant Songs, and this song is read on Palm Sunday in each of the three years of the lectionary. Like the first Christians, we too find in this song a foretelling of Jesus’ death. We are told that the servant gave his back to those who struck him, that he did not hide his face from insult and spitting, and these details remind us of elements of Jesus’ suffering before his death, when the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus and spat on him. (Matthew 27:27-31) But today is Palm Sunday, not Good Friday. Why are we hearing this Servant Song today?

You will remember that when Second Isaiah was writing the Servant Songs the people of Israel had lived for years in Babylon, in exile, frightened and intimidated by the Babylonian gods and Babylonian imperial power. The prophet was bringing them a message of hope: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. (Isaiah 40:1) The exile might have seemed like the defeat of the Lord by the gods of Babylon, and so the humiliation of the people who worship the Lord, but the prophet says that this has never been true. It was the Lord who allowed the exile to happen, and it is the same Lord who now tells the people that this penalty has been paid.

In the prophecies of Second Isaiah the Lord says: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:18-19) The Servant Songs show that ‘new thing’. No longer will the Lord punish the people for their wrongdoing; no longer will God use military violence in righteous judgement. Instead, the power of God will now be seen in a servant who listens and speaks encouragement, who is willing to experience insult and violence without retaliating. This is why we hear the third Servant Song today. On Palm Sunday we see Jesus make this same decision, to turn from violence and military power and instead travel the difficult road of love and peace.

As I have said before, the Gospel according to Mark is the probably the earliest; definitely the shortest; and arguably the strangest and scariest of the four gospels; and the story it tells of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is also strange and scary. Mark’s version is not the overwhelming celebration that the church has created by combining the Palm Sunday stories of all four gospels. Mark does not have Jesus acclaimed as king; the crowds quote psalm 118: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’, but they then go on to say: ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.’ There is the suggestion that Jesus will be the one to restore this kingdom, certainly, but not the clear acclamation of Jesus as king about which the other gospels tell us. In Mark’s story, the procession only accompanies Jesus to the entrance of the city; Mark describes Jesus entering Jerusalem quietly: ‘Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.’ Matthew and Luke have Jesus immediately cleansing the Temple in the middle of a noisy crowd, but Mark tells us that the cleansing of the Temple waited for another day. Mark gives us a quieter, more subdued, entrance than Matthew or Luke, but it is one that is just as much a protest against the status quo.

In his entrance Jesus is drawing on a prophecy from the Book of Zechariah of the King’s triumph over the nations: 

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. (Zechariah 9:9)

In each of the gospels we are told of the organisation behind Jesus’ entrance: Jesus sending two disciples to the village ahead of him to find a mount, to untie it and bring it to him, and to answer any questions by saying ‘The Lord needs it.’ The disciples do as Jesus tells them, and Jesus is ready to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. But he fulfils the prophecy in his own way. Zechariah had prophesied that the King of Jerusalem would enter the city ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’. And this is what Jesus does. But Zechariah also said that the King would enter ‘triumphant and victorious’, having ‘cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem’ and Jesus has certainly not done that. Instead of a military procession, Jesus enters surrounded by the motley band of his disciples. If Jesus is entering as Messiah, it is not as the militarily victorious Messiah.

One of my favourite authors and theologians, Dorothy L. Sayers, wrote a cycle of radio plays on the life of Jesus that were heard on the BBC during World War Two. In the play that described Palm Sunday, Sayers has a Zealot leader called Baruch, who is planning a rebellion against the Roman Occupation of Jerusalem, write a letter to Jesus which says:

When a king comes in peace, he rides upon an ass; but when he goes to war, upon a horse. In the stable of Zimri, at the going-up into the City, is a war-horse saddled and ready. Set yourself upon him, and you shall ride into Jerusalem with a thousand spears behind you. But if you refuse, then take the ass’s colt that is tied at the vineyard door, and Baruch will bide his time to a bolder Messiah come.[1]

Jesus, of course, chooses the ass. The scene comes from Sayers’ imagination, but it rings true to me.

All through the ride to Jerusalem Jesus is silent. He does not respond to the cries of the crowds, to their cloak and branches-throwing. He is silent in the Temple, looking but not yet acting to drive out those buying and selling. The crowd might think that they are taking part in a triumph; Jesus knows that what is really happening is a funeral procession. Today the church celebrates both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday; we are reminded that Jesus’ triumphant entrance cannot be separated from his coming death.

No matter which gospel we listen to, we see in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem a piece of political street theatre. Jesus’ entrance is not only a challenge to Jewish expectations of a military messiah, it is also a parody of a Roman imperial procession with its war chariots and blaring trumpets, its great generals and accompanying slaves. In this triumph the central figure rides silently on an unbroken colt; the message of his entry is the same message given by the Servant Songs. Something new is coming; not the continued rule of Rome or the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, but new life. Here we see the true King, the only leader we are called to follow, showing an alternate vision to the Pax Romana, a different way of exercising power, with humility and gentleness. The crowds cheer: the powers-that-be, both Roman and Temple, worry. Ultimately, the powers-that-be will conspire to kill him.

Jesus’ entrance challenges the powers-that-be, and so Palm Sunday is a particularly suitable day for Christians to join Jesus in challenging the status quo in the cause of peace, justice, and the kingdom of God. Today, members of the Uniting Church will gather with people from all denominations and all parts of civil society to march in support of refugees and against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. We do this every year because Palm Sunday is the day above all days for Christians to take our faith to the streets, in imitation of Jesus who took to the streets on this day to act out a parable that mocked and subverted the political powers.

At Easter we celebrate the ultimate victory of justice and peace over hatred and violence. But we only get to Easter by walking with Jesus step by step on his journey to the Cross, recognising all the violence that human beings can inflict on each other. Today, Palm Sunday, we commit ourselves to working towards God’s just and peaceable reign and to living as citizens of God’s new kingdom. The rally this afternoon is one of the ways we can do that, but there are many others. In whatever we do, let us follow in the footsteps of Christ, king and servant. Amen.

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to be King, (1943), ‘The Eighth Play: Royal Progress’.

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