The Unfair Fight

(Sermon for Sunday, April 1, 2012 || Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11 (NOTE: At my church, we read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service, so this sermon moves from Palms to Passion.))

I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of the scene. A crowd lines the dusty road leading up to the gate of Jerusalem. They are there to see a parade, but the spectacle is just a fellow riding a baby donkey. People spread their cloaks on the ground as a sign of respect. But Jesus isn’t stepping on the cloaks: the donkey is.

The crowd shouts aloud, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Now when David entered Jerusalem, he did so at the front of a grand procession – “all the house of Israel,” II Samuel tells us. They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. There were shouts and the sound of the trumpet and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling. And “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” David had just defeated the Philistines and his dynasty was assured. His triumphant march into the city was a victory march.

But when Jesus rides to Jerusalem, he rides alone. No army. No conquering legions. The people in the crowd shout for the return of the kingdom of David, but all they see is a lone man atop a baby donkey. As I said, I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of this scene.

Sensing something to be incongruous – to be out-of-place – means that there are expectations that are not being met. If you go to a job interview at State Street in a t-shirt and jeans, there’s a better than average chance that the interviewer will take one look at you and send you home. The interviewer has the expectation that you will enter the room in your best suit, and the incongruity of your casual clothes will trigger discomfort and then disapproval in the interviewer. But say that you wear your t-shirt and jeans to the park to throw a Frisbee with the guys. No incongruity there. The expectations match the scenario.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of the baby donkey, he is actively challenging the expectations of the crowd that is shouting “Hosannas.” They praise him while he rides in humility. They celebrate his arrival in the capital city while he knows the outcome of his arrival will be bloody. They show him the respect due to royalty. And all the while Jesus is boldly defying the people who have no respect for him, the chief priests and their lackeys, who have until now hoped he would keep a lower profile.

And in the greatest incongruity of all, the crowd shouts for the return of David’s kingdom; that is, a kingdom marked by a sovereign Israel, an Israel with no Roman occupiers. But Jesus frustrates this expectation, as well. In this case, the crowd is thinking too small. They have only their own country on their minds. But Jesus isn’t concerned with the Romans. They’re small potatoes. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of that baby donkey, he sets in motion events that will drive out, not the Romans, but the power of death, the grip of evil, all the forces of darkness. No wonder no one was expecting that.

Jesus hovers above the crowd, sitting atop the donkey as the beast shambles ahead. He remains above the crowd not for the glory of the exalted position, but in order that the powers of death, evil, and darkness might get a clear view of their target. And in seeing this small, humble human being, those powers underestimate their foe.

The powers of darkness do not realize that this Jesus riding on the donkey is someone they’ve met before, albeit in a more glorious form. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us why the powers don’t recognize Jesus. Paul says, “Though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”

The powers of darkness have their expectations too. The incongruity of Christ’s humanity throws them. They have no idea who they’re dealing with because Jesus acts in ways they never expect. While the powers of darkness would always seek to exploit, Christ empties. While they would always seek self-aggrandizement, Christ humbles. While they would always seek to get their own way, Christ becomes obedient to the point of death.

How could the powers of darkness possibly think they could win if they completely underestimate their opponent? And all the while, Christ is here on earth, learning all about the darkness, participating in the brokenness of people’s lives, bringing wholeness, bringing hope, bringing light.

And yet, the darkness sees the little man on the back of the baby donkey and wishes for a more impressive opponent, if only so the fight would be more interesting. But what the darkness fails to realize is that this is the most unfair fight of all time.

The powers of darkness bring all of their standard weapons to the ring: fear, mistrust, the desire to dominate. They expect Jesus to bring the same. But Jesus brings no weapons at all. Instead, he brings the willingness to sacrifice. He brings the love that gives him the courage to lay down his life. He brings the peace that passes all understanding.

They are David and Goliath, and David left his sling at home. Normal expectations would ask how Jesus could possibly win this fight. But we know the incongruity of God’s love. We know that God loves us even though we don’t deserve such an amazing gift. We know that God loves this broken, messed-up world so much that God sent God’s only Son to save the world. We know that God rejoices in letting us in on the secret that our expectations are always too small. God let slip this secret when the women went to the tomb on Easter morning.

But we’ll get there with them next week. First, the powers of darkness marshal. First, Jesus rides humbly into the teeth of the storm. First, the battle.

Aaron’s story

Sermon for April 5, 2009 || Palm Sunday, Year B, RCL || Mark 11:1-11

Imagine with me the thoughts of a boy named Aaron whose family owns the donkey, which Jesus’ disciples borrow for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

They came up to our farm this morning — two of them — while I was doing my chores. I don’t like mucking out the stable, but Father says it builds character, whatever that means. Mother says when I turn twelve next year, I don’t have to do it anymore. Then mucking will be Benjamin’s job. He’s only eight. We live in Bethany, which is really close to Jerusalem, and Father does a lot of trading there and sometimes he takes me with him.

Anyways, these two strangers just walked right up to Stony – that’s what I call him because he’s gray and hard to move when he has a mind to stay put. They walked right up to him and started untying him. Well, I came out of the stable with my rake and started shaking it at them. And they backed off because they didn’t want to get splattered. I held the rake like a spear and said: “What are you doing with Stony?”

“The Lord needs Stony for a little while, son, but we’ll bring him back soon,” says the first one, and I say right back: “I’m not your son, and you can’t have Stony. He’s mine.”

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up and Father was standing there. “Actually, he’s mine,” he says. I gave the strangers my best smirk, but then Father says: “And you may borrow the colt for as long as you need.” I threw the rake on the ground: “But, but Father…”

“No buts, Aaron.” And I knew he meant it because he said it in his deep voice. I watched the two men lead Stony away. When they were gone, Father looked down at me: “And don’t ever let me catch you mouthing off to strangers again. You know the story of Abraham and the three men.”

“Yes, Father.” Then he walked back to our house and when he was out of sight I hopped the fence and started following the two strangers. I decided it would be a good idea to keep an eye on Stony, just in case.

They led Stony a little ways toward Jerusalem and met up with a group of people. Then they threw their shirts onto Stony’s back like a saddle and one of the other men got on him. I’ve tried to jump on Stony a lot, but he never let’s me stay on. He jumps and bucks and shakes until I fall off. It’s not fair, ’cause Stony let this total stranger ride him.

I followed the group while they walked to the city. I made it into a game, running from rock to rock and trying to keep out of sight. I ran ahead and beat them to Jerusalem. There was a big crowd lining the road leading up to one of the gates. The people spread more clothes and even some tree branches on the road. They were all shouting and cheering and waving, like at a parade. I didn’t know what was so special about this stranger…except that he could ride Stony without falling off.

I tried to push my way through the crowd to get to the front so I could see better, but there were too many people. I walked all the way down the crowd looking for an opening, and when I got close to the gate, I saw another group of people. They weren’t shouting or cheering or waving. They were in a tight little group talking to each other. They sounded really mad. I heard one of them say, “Who does he think he is, a king?” Then they all laughed, but it didn’t sound like they thought it was very funny.

Then I remembered something I heard from my Rabbi last week. He said something about a king riding a colt like Stony. I crawled under the legs of the crowd and pushed my way through the gate into the city. I ran all the way to my Rabbi’s house, and when he let me in, I asked to see the scroll we were using last week — the prophet Zechariah. He still had it open on the table, but first he made me wash my hands and feet because I was mucking out the stable earlier. Then he helped me find the right place, and I read the lines over and over until I had them by heart: “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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…”

If that’s right, then Stony is in good hands, I thought. I left my Rabbi’s, and when I got back to the gate, all the people were gone. The parade was over, and I was really hungry, so I walked home. When I got to the farm, Stony was tied back in his place. I tried to jump on him, but he shook me off. I guess only kings can ride Stony.

But what is that stranger king of? Why would a victorious king ride on a smelly donkey and not a chariot or a big warhorse? I guess it might be because the king is supposed to cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. He wouldn’t ride one if he got rid of them all. The chariots and warhorses the Roman soldiers ride scare me. I’m short, and they wouldn’t even see me if I was in front of them.

But if he is king, then doesn’t he need chariots and soldiers to fight all the people who don’t want him to be king – like the Romans and those other people at the parade? Doesn’t he need the battle bow? How can he become king without fighting? How can he command peace to the nations? The Romans always say they bring us peace, but Father says it’s not really peace. Father says we are like prisoners…only without a jail. If the stranger who rode on Stony isn’t going to fight the Romans, how will he bring us peace?

Maybe he’ll bring peace by not fighting.