Who on Earth?
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, August 27th, 2017
I’m writing this sermon in deepest rural Vermont, appropriately enough in Chittenden County, where Kelly and I have been on vacation this week. We’re staying in a cottage on a farm, and I am overlooking an enclosure with miniature donkeys.
If you are not familiar with miniature donkeys, you need to become right now. They are quite possibly the cutest creatures on earth. They are basically bonsai donkeys, with all the characteristics and traits of regular-sized donkeys, that is to say that they are friendly, gentle, inquisitive, highly intelligent and loyal. Often, they are neglected and don’t get the human interaction, care and affection they long for and, sadly, in many parts of the world they lead extremely hard lives and are treated pretty badly.
Kelly and I made a point of going to hang out with the donkeys on the farm each day. At first they were shy, but it is amazing what carrots did to foster the relationship. They liked to be pet and, being at close quarters I noticed something I’d forgotten about donkeys: which is that they all have a marking of contrasting color fur on their backs in the form of a cross.
Now, the legend about this is: that it is a permanent marking, a blessing really, recalling the fact that it was a donkey that Jesus rode on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. You will recall the key details of that occasion, hopefully: Jesus is in what he knows to be the last week of his life, and he knows that the showdown will be in Jerusalem - the heart of the Jewish religion - during the biggest holy day of the year: Passover. He knows that his fame has spread far and wide and that people consider him to be the chosen one that they have been waiting for: the one who will bring salvation to them, so they are eager to see him. Jesus knows that when he enters Jerusalem, this is going to create a LOT of interest from folks. And this is how he decides to do it: he asks his disciples to go to a village just outside Jerusalem called Bethphage where they will find a donkey tied up. They can bring it to him.
So Jesus rides into Jerusalem on this donkey, and the people, as he anticipates, go wild. They lay down palms on the roadway in the manner of greeting a powerful ruler who is making a triumphal entry into a capital, and they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. The people, in short, can’t get enough of Jesus. He is the man. He is their Messiah.
So how is it that, only days later, the same crowds are shouting for Jesus to be executed in the most shockingly brutal of ways?
When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, it looked very much to the crowds as if Jesus were mocking the hated Roman occupiers. They were looking for someone who would rid them of the Romans or, at the very least, be a focal point for their hatred of the Romans. You see, the Romans were fond of their military leaders entering Rome in triumphal processions, boasting of their conquests, the military leaders decked out in their finery, riding on mighty stallions, the people crowding around them, spreading tributes on the road before them.
What, then, would a mocking parody of this look like? How about a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an unkempt, itinerant preacher riding on the back of a farm animal, crowds strewing palms round him. It would be the equivalent of a film star arriving at the Academy Awards on a muddy old tractor, wearing a pair of old sweatpants. It was open mockery of the Romans, surely.
So the crowds when Jesus entered Jerusalem were both entering into this mockery of their overlords but also serious in their intent, as well. They were there to see someone whose fame for his preaching, teaching and healing had spread. Now this legendary preacher is entering Jerusalem, and they see him as the Messiah they have long been waiting for. The Messiah who will throw off the Roman oppression and restore the mighty fortunes of Israel again.
And what happens along these lines once Jesus has entered Jerusalem? To the outward observer, not a lot. This man, in whom they had placed so much of their hope on Palm Sunday, well, he proceeds to rent a house with his followers and, ostensibly, do the same as everyone else, and observe the run-up to the Passover. There was no civil uprising, no revolution, not anything that looked revolutionary, at least.
By this point, there are four main groups of people keeping a close eye on Jesus. One is the general public, as I have just mentioned. The next group are the Romans, who are closely monitoring the situation lest the crowd does start to coalesce around this potential troublemaker. The next group are the Jewish religious authorities, who, let us remember, have already had quite a few run-ins with Jesus over the last couple of years and are deeply concerned by what they would label his ‘blasphemous’ activities. The fourth group with eyes on Jesus are his closest followers: his disciples. All of these groups are expecting Jesus to do something, yet all of them, in their own ways, fail to predict what that will be, because all of them have, to some degree or other, misunderstood Jesus and the purpose of his mission.
In today’s reading from St. Matthew’s Gospel, which we have just heard, Jesus is having a private conversation with his disciples, and this action is taking place before the entry into Jerusalem, but at a point where Jesus is starting to face the inevitability of his last week and his death. He asks them what people are saying about him. Now, this is a question which all of us have asked of our friends from time to time – it’s a question designed to help us in our own insecurities. But I think Jesus is asking the question not to boost his own confidence or confirm his worst fears, but to gauge the level of understanding that people have about him.
What the disciples report back is a pretty mixed bag. Some think he is John the Baptist, some think he is somehow the reincarnation of one of the famous Old Testament prophets, like Elijah or Jeremiah.
And then Jesus puts the disciples on the spot, “Well, who do you think I am?” In general, they seem to be lost for words, as if they are not sure, either, and don’t want to blurt out the wrong answer. As ever, it is eager, impetuous Peter who does answer. He declares Jesus to be “The Messiah, the Son of the living God.” What Peter understands that to be, of course, we don’t really know, but Jesus is so encouraged by his answer that he affirms Peter’s central role in the setting up of the Church, which is what of course did happen: in the end, Peter becomes the first Bishop of Rome – the first Pope and also dies by crucifixion.
Today’s reading ends with what seems a very strange comment. Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. This seems so counter-intuitive to us, doesn’t it? Surely the whole point of Jesus coming to earth was to assert his Messiahship. Surely everything he had been doing and teaching and preaching was intended to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, and every one of his actions intended to reinforce that he was the Chosen One of God. One would expect Jesus to be proclaiming his Messiahship from the housetops, and have the disciples rent a light aircraft to drag a banner behind it saying, “Jesus is the Messiah’. In short, we would not expect Jesus to be sternly telling his disciples to keep his true identity under wraps. So what on earth is going on?
Jesus knew that what the people wanted, and fully expected from Jesus was the revolutionary figure they understood the Messiah to be. For those that recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the chances are that they did not understand the nature of his mission. Jesus did not want to feed a popular movement that had completely the wrong idea of what he had come to achieve.
The irony, of course, was that Jesus was indeed bringing revolution, he was preparing for all-out war, for conquest; but the revolution was quite unlike any other the world had ever seen, and the war was being fought not against earthly, temporal powers and principalities, but against unseen and massively powerful spiritual enemies. Little did the crowds of Jerusalem know it, but death only had another six days left. Little did they know that the biggest and most total conquest the world has ever seen – and will ever see – would start in their city at the end of that week.
What made this revolution so utterly unlike anything else was that its weapons were humility, kindness, wholeness, healing, gentleness and peace.
The most total conquest in the history of the world was undertaken without the use of any violence. Love is the most potent force in this world. Nothing can withstand its power.
We, who have the benefit of hindsight and two thousand years of accumulated Christian theology, understand better what Jesus came to earth to achieve, but how well would we do if we were to be put on the spot right now, if someone who didn’t know anything about Christ’s mission were to ask you, “who is Jesus?”. It’s a question that might not seem all that difficult to answer until you have to answer it. But it is important – indeed, very important – that we, who are, after all, followers of this guy, do know how to answer it.
Because if the Messiah was just a nationalistic warrior looking out for the dominance of his race or culture or even if the Messiah was just a nice guy who went around doing good, then we might as well all go home right now.
But if it is that God himself in the person of Jesus died on the cross for us, and conquered hell, and neutralized forever all of the devil’s power over us, then there’s hope for all us, and hope for everything, and everyone in this world.