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Sermon – “‘Say, “The Lord Has Need of It…” -March 24, 2013

Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013                  The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


‘”Say, “The Lord Has Need of It.”‘

Psalm 118:  1 -2, 19-29;  Luke  19:  28-40


The culmination of the March on Washington in 1963 was Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of his “I Have a Dream” speech.  He stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the “Great Emancipator” in marble behind him.  The place chosen for the speech signaled the unfinished business of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Memorial’s plea for a united country led by public principles instead of private profit, the role the monument played in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Neither the location nor the timing of the address were accidents.  The speech was the culmination of days of preparation and events, and marked the climax of the demonstration.  The location resonated with multiple themes of humane and responsible government.

Today we remember the words of the speech more than how it was located in time and space.  I point out the care and calculation with which time and place were chosen, however, because those things matter in the business of transforming the world.  This was true in this nation’s capital fifty years ago and it was true in the capital of Judea about one thousand nine hundred and eighty years ago.

Palm Sunday, the commemoration of Jesus’ entry of Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover, had some of the same dynamics.  The long history of Palm Sunday’s celebration in the ritual life of the church may have encouraged an instinct to regard it as a marvelous story, as similar to the Christmas story or the  Easter story.  We get used to conceiving the great events  of Jesus in terms of miracle, and imagining them with touches of pageantry.  Today I want to try to recover this Passover-festival arrival as history, noticing its deliberate staging as part of the planned impact of a reformer, but also noticing how Jesus, as a controversial and already a wanted man, managed to live through what we now call Holy Week despite being identified as a revolutionary in a hotbed of political unrest.

Jesus comes to the festival along with a great tide of pilgrims.  It is the largest, most religiously significant holiday of the Jewish year.  The holiday celebrates the Chosen People’s deliverance from the political and military domination of a foreign nation–Egypt–and their being promised a land of their own.  That couldn’t have been an easy holiday for the Roman overlords to contemplate, or manage.  Thousands of outsiders would arrive for religious reasons, and along with the surge of humanity additional individuals there to work the dynamics of big public events–people to set up stalls to sell extra food, people to offer out-of-towners help for a price, people to ease the expectations of the sacrificial cult at the Temple by dealing in the animals used in sacrifices.  When Jesus turns over the tables it wouldn’t just be routine vendors involved, but merchants just there for the occasion.

All the people would create security problems for Pontius Pilate’s government, and stretch resources.  That actually makes it a tactically shrewd time for Jesus to come to Jerusalem.  Quite apart from the meaning of the festival itself, which can’t be helped but connected to the meaning of Jesus’ arrival, it is safer for Jesus to be there with crowds than it would be for him to be there at a quieter time.  His opponents are quoted in the gospels as being stymied in their desire to get at him by his popularity with the throngs and the real threat of major popular rioting in response to attempts on his person.

See, this isn’t fairy tale stuff.  This is reality.  Entrenched representatives of power, tension between large parts of the public who feel degraded and disregarded and their rulers, resistance to reform, fear of the empowerment of the lowly, that’s a pattern which recurs in the world over and over.  There’s an element of it in life everywhere.  There are households in Union County for whom the present arrangements of society don’t work very well, who have a bristly relationship with law and order, who might welcome changes which other households would deplore.  Some part of the workaday world always is devoted to securing the advantages of those rewarded by the way things are.

The young people baptized this morning are not just made official disciples of God in the flesh, the human face of an invisible and unknowable God, a heavenly resource about things spiritual.  They are also disciples of the Jesus whose spirit was opposed to greed, to pride, to prejudice, who identified in the attitudes and interactions of ordinary people what was pleasing to God and what was an affront.  They own their Christianity not just for its consolations in the face of bereavement or its satisfactions in worship and reflection, but in its devotion to doing what is right in the here-and-now.  That’s what Christianity is, and that’s what makes it sometimes daring and daunting.

Jesus predicted his death at Jerusalem and was prepared for it, but he postponed it by having a hiding place as his base of operations, and being discreet about arrangements made in the city itself.  When he needs to have a mount for his entry, he sends disciples to take one which they’ll find tethered in a certain place, with instructions on how to respond when challenged.  When I was a child that was part of the mystery of the story.  Now I think it makes as much sense to read those arrangements as sign and countersign, similar to the disciples preparing a place for the Passover meal.  In both instances followers are told where to go, what to do, and what to say.  This much of the Holy Week story is more like any kind of covert endeavor than it is like Christmas or Easter.  It is a means to get things done with limited exposure, and as few people sticking their necks out as possible.

When Jesus makes his ride down the path toward the city, there are traditional greetings.  The Psalm we read this morning comes from the religious life of the Jews, pilgrims especially–it is a call-and-response between those acting as greeters and those celebrating arrival.  Jesus’ followers enter the spirit of the festival and its overtones have to be heard as a challenge to the foreign occupation.  I think that is the thing which disturbs Jesus’ opponents.  They are afraid of what might happen in a world not dominated by the powers that be.

That fear impels them to plan, and plot, and finally to find in Judas Iscariot an accomplice.  Once Jesus is surrendered, and disciples scattered, nobody expects riot or insurrection.  Those who worried that Jesus would imperil the peace and upend the arrangement with Rome thought they’d make sure that things wouldn’t change.  Nobody can foresee Easter, neither Jesus’ foes nor his friends.

Nobody could foresee anything like that, but the disciples did see it when it came, and the world was never the same again.  The world still has its compromises and hypocrisies and intimidation and injustices, but their power is put in perspective, and people keep choosing to back the unarmed stranger over his opponents, and choose to serve the vulnerable person of God.  Palm Sunday testifies to the story, and by entering it and repeating our own hosannas we challenge the same things Jesus went to Jerusalem to denounce, and declare the same things Jesus went to Jerusalem to proclaim.


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