The Sacred Procession

Luke 19: 35-40

“Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a load voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Palm Sunday is almost at the end of Lent with Easter Sunday just next week. Palm Sunday challenges us to make a choice between being an observer of an amazing Roman parade, or the sacred procession of Jesus and his disciples. The Roman parade leaves us entertained but empty. The parade of Christ focuses life toward humility, simplicity, service, and love.

Where did Palm Sunday come from? At the time Jesus entered Jerusalem to observe Passover, the citizens and pilgrims would celebrate a time when the Jewish people overthrew their Greek occupiers. In 167 BC the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig to Zeus on the altar. The priest and his sons fought back with a guerilla warfare that grew in support and eventually, after twenty years of fighting, Israel received freedom for about the next one hundred years. When the Roman empire grew and occupied Israel, the people continued each year at Passover to celebrate this time of freedom. The Romans increased the army during Passover, but the people still celebrated.

The book of I Maccabees includes this remembrance: “On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” Every Passover people waved palms symbolizing that famous victory.

In a book entitled The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan described two processions that might have entered Jerusalem at about the same time. The first procession was Pontius Pilot, the Roman Governor, returning from his home in Ceasarea. Pilot’s Roman parade would have been a demonstration of force featuring chariots, soldiers marching in step to beating

drums, weapons flashing in the sun, flags waving, and trumpets and horns declaring with strength that the Roman empire was very much in charge and present. Crowds of people were attracted to this spectacle. They chanted what all good Roman citizens were expected to repeat when they were in the presence of the emperor’s men. “Hail Caesar! Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hail to the mighty savior of the world. Hail, Caesar, son of God!” The west side of Jerusalem shook with the power of the Roman empire as this procession came in.

The contrast between this procession and the one on the east side of the city couldn’t have been more stark. Jesus was welcomed riding in on a donkey with his small band of disciples The only similarity was the crowd’s chant, “Hosanna to the son of the most high! Hosanna in highest heaven! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

If we were in Jerusalem at the end of our pilgrimage, which parade would appeal most to us? One parade is very entertaining and offers a lot to hear and see, but it marches on by and we are left nothing more than entertained observers. The other parade is slow and personal. It may stop and place us face to face with Jesus. These are two totally different parades! We may not feel as if we want a parade to stop and focus upon us. Jesus might tell us about our lives the way he did to the woman at the well in Samaria. It would feel a lot more comfortable being anonymous.

It is uncomfortable being vulnerable. There was a bank executive who walked by an office and saw a young banker crying. She told her to get back to work because nothing could be that bad. The young banker looked up at the executive and replied, “I’m about to get married.” The executive interrupted and began to tell all about her past year in which she planned the wedding for her daughter and how stressful it was. “But you can do it!” she encouraged. “I don’t think so,” the young banker replied. “My mother just died. She was going to help me make plans. I can’t do it without her…What am I going to do?” The executive’s heart melted. “I know what you’ll do. I’ll help you.” She sat down next to the young woman and took her hand. “I’ll be your mother.” That moment led to a perfect wedding and a beautiful friendship.

Only God knows what humbling ourselves could accomplish, or what humbling ourselves might save. Do you like the analogy that life is like a great ship on a journey of life toward a final goal of peace with God? I like that image. Sometimes the ship can weather the storm. We know who we are and how we are put together. But we need to pay attention to the ship’s seaworthiness.

There is a lesson found in a great Swedish king’s massive ship built in 1628. The king decided to add another layer of cannons, and no one dared tell him that it would endanger the ship. Even if they did, the king probably wouldn’t have listened.

The Swedish Ship Vasa’s Revival by Dottie E. Mayol recounts: The Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus “…himself dictated the Vasa’s measurements and no one dared argue against him. Sweden had a great copper mountain, so copper was the raw material used for making bronze cannons….The cannons were heavily reinforced at the breech and 64 weighed approximately 100 tons. Vasa’s ballast equalled 120 tons of stone. She carried additional weight of cannon balls, gunpowder, ancillary firearms, food in casks, officers and a crew of 133 sailors…Vasa began her maiden voyage August 10, 1628, and sailed …for less than a nautical mile before capsizing.”

Our lives are complex and strong, but they can also be very fragile, especially when something is added as heavy as a row of cannons. Someone should have told the king, “It’s too much!” Or the king could have asked, “Is this all right?” If we don’t stop and realize that the burden we are carrying is too heavy, we might sink before we even get out of the harbor.

There is part of that parade that strikes me as especially participatory. The Scriptures tell us that people watching Jesus’ approach began to take off their coats and lay them in the street. What a powerful action! If the coats represented burdens placed in the path of the Jesus, it is a really humbling image. You couldn’t have done that in the other parade. You would have been trampled!

When we let our guard down and admit that we need help, like the young banker, life opens up, but when we deny any trace of weakness, like the Swedish king, we are in dangerous waters. Once I was discussing life with a successful friend. “I don’t need God,” he finally said. I have heard people who say religion is a crutch for the weak make a remark like this. The best reply is “Maybe God needs you.” When he heard those words, a new world opened for him. He had never looked at life that way.

Yes, when we humble ourselves it is not just about helping ourselves. It becomes empowering, and suddenly we are able, as never before, to help God. God working in our lives releases us to help God’s mission in the world, a new way of life becomes activated. There are people who are cynical about organized religion, and about the church, but today brings everyone almost to a fork in the road. There are two parades in town. One asks that you give yourself, humble yourself, you need God and God needs you.

The other parade is a spectacle that will overwhelm you with entertainment and pleasure, but when it passes by, life remains empty and unchanged. The other parade changes life. It offers an invitation to heal ourselves and then help God heal the world. Let us choose the right parade because we need God, and God needs us. Amen.