March 29, 2015
Wars are fought for power over a region.
Lives are ruined for individuals to gain power.
Read through today’s headlines – and you will find stories of power. Chaos in Syria, Iraq and Egypt - Power struggles. Wars in Sudan, Nigeria and Congo – power. Political inaction, government shutdowns – power politics. Domestic abuse, divorce, teenage rebellion – unbalanced roles of power.
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt, he directly challenges the world’s power structures of his day and ours. At this moment on Palm Sunday the military, political, and imperial power of the Roman Empire and the high octane, high-pressure religious power of the Jewish national aspiration meet the powerful wind of God. Jesus seizes the moment, the Passover moment, the Exodus moment, to give voice to the true power on earth as it is in heaven.
The Roman Empire and its emissaries in Jerusalem ruled the world. From the island of Britain to the fertile Nile deltas of Egypt, Rome’s soldiers and engineers ruled. In Judea, a mid-level Roman elite named Pilate served as the Roman governor like an annoyed child. His main task: keep the inhabitants subdued, stop rebellions and keep the Middle Eastern grain supply open – no matter the cost.
Normally, Pilate ruled from the city of Caesarea on the coast – a modern Roman city with all the amenities – theater, fresh water, and baths. Now, Pilate sits in Jerusalem – the Holy City - for Passover because of the signs of a possible Jewish revolt. He needed to subdue any uprising during the large, Jewish festival.
Imagine Pilate’s response when one of his guards reported to him about the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday prior to the festival. The picture of country rabbi riding into Jerusalem on a donkey welcomed by the crowds chanting and waving palm leafs would have amused him. Where is this king’s army, his power?
Just behind the general also on the chariot stands a slave. He holds a crown above, but not upon the head, of the King. At this moment – as the King rides through Rome, the most powerful city in the world, wearing a purple toga – a sign of both his religious and political power – the slave whispers in his ear – “look behind you – you are just a man.” This is how a king enters his capital. This is power – not some Galilean carpenter on the back of a donkey. With the might of the Roman world – Pilate would mock Jesus and call him “King of the Jews.”
The religious leaders of Jerusalem recognize the invisible power Jesus displays as he enters. The symbols of power in Jesus’ entry can’t be missed. The donkey. The timing. The words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem challenged the power that kept the temple and the Sanhedrin standing, the balance of power between the religious leaders and their Roman overloads. In the form of a dramatic parable –Jesus’s entrance lived out the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
At exactly the time when Jesus was growing up, there was a movement, a political movement mixed with a religious movement that said it was time for God alone to be king. Tired of corrupt leaders, the people waited for God to become king. But did they know what this theocracy would mean or look like? No one knew who would fight the battle, overthrow the pagans, restore the temple, and establish the long-awaited role of justice and peace. So they waited - with Hope and even longer with sorrow.
They longed for a theocracy where God would rule. However, they had to have the right God ruling – one of their own choosing. They wanted their own ruler – and Jesus was not him. In spite of Pilate’s question and sign on the cross – the Jewish leaders would never call Jesus – King of the Jews! He could not be controlled.
This desire for God to rule over Israel and the desire for the religious leaders to keep their power positions clashed with the arrival of Jesus on the back of a donkey.
Beginning with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth a new power emerged on earth – God’s power. Yes, Jesus was from Nazareth. Yes, he was a Rabbi. But from the time the earliest of his followers began to write and sing about Jesus – there was something more about him. He did more than teach – he forgave sins. He did more than care – he healed. He did more than weep at death – he brought the dead back to life. Jesus was this combination of Davidic king and returning God
In Jesus – God was now in charge of the world. In Jesus was now king. Jesus was more than king of the Jews – Jesus was king of the world.
The Romans thought their wealth and army contained power. The religious leaders thought their positions and right theology contained power. Jesus, though, on the back of a donkey, welcomed by the crowds demonstrated God’s power on earth. God reigns. God rules. God is in charge and he rules from this humbled position.
This clash of powers – between Rome, religion and God – plays out in Mark 15 in Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Jesus stands before Pilate in the Roman military barracks in Jerusalem. Pilate asks, ““Are you the King of the Jews?” Do you claim to have the power of the people, the power of the rebels, the power to rule over Israel? Jesus answered him, “You say so.” Pilate assumes he is in charge at this trial – when in fact, God is in charge.
Because no one can see the real dynamics – the real power – Pilate takes the trial to the people. He asks this powerful question that becomes our question as we confront the rule of Jesus as King of the world. Pilate asks everyone in attendance: “What will you have me do with the King of the Jews?” Like the crowd of Roman soldiers and citizens of Jerusalem, this question confronts us too: What will we do with the king of the Jews who now rules the world?
1. Would we choose to join the crowd?
“Of course not,” we say. The crowd was fickle. It was easily swayed. “I would risk my life in the shadows with Jesus. I would confront the evil no matter how powerful,” we say.
Too often, though, our lives tell a different story. Like water flowing down a mountain, we choose the line of least resistance. We find the easy way. Would we be in the crowd shouting with our friends and neighbors – “Give us Barabbas, Crucify Jesus?” Think about it: How often do we choose the easy way when it comes to Jesus?
• It’s easier to sleep in on Sunday and enjoy an extra cup of coffee – than make it to church.
• It’s easier to believe in Jesus when it agrees with my politics – than when his words confront our politics.
• It’s easier to just live our work and home lives than go to Nicaragua or serve on the church’s Love the World day.
• It’s easier to not let my faith shape my business.
• It’s easier to not take time for Bible reading or prayer.
• It’s easier to not tithe.
The crowd standing outside of the Roman barracks early on Passover morning were not there by accident. It was easier to destroy Jesus than confront the truth of God’s rule on earth. What about you? Would you join the crowd?
2. Some of us would not join the crowd, instead, we would join the soldiers.
After Pilate also takes the easy way out – by giving the people what they want – he instructs his soldiers to prepare Jesus for crucifixion. The soldiers place a purple cloak on Jesus – the color of gods and kings. Then, they twist a crown like the one the slave holds over the emperor as he parades through Rome – but this one was not made of beautiful leaves – it was twisted together with thorns. Then, the soldiers “began saluting him, shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.”
Rather than noticing the power of God – the king of the world – in front of them – they mocked Jesus. They treated his kingship as the greatest of farces. Blinded by their own power – they missed God’s true power.
I would like to say that we would never treat Jesus in the same way as these soldiers did. Yet, I wonder if the way we live our lives tells a different story. How have our lives mocked the power and lordship of Jesus? How have our words said one thing about Jesus – hail, king of the Jews – and yet, our lives told a completely different story.
• Jesus rules the world – and we fight him for control of our lives.
• Jesus rules the world – and we choose the sin that pleases.
• Jesus rules the world – and we forget him each day.
• Jesus rules the world – and we play games with his love.
• Jesus rules the world – and we fail to tell anyone.
Would we join soldiers in patronizing Jesus, disqualifying his power in our lives?
3. Or would we join the first Christians who claimed the Kingship of Jesus in the world.
The apostle Paul wrote down one of the earliest of Christian hymns in the 2nd chapter of Philippians. In this passage, Paul outlines the power shift that happens in the person of Jesus – displayed on the back of a donkey.
“Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The earliest Christians knew that with the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem the power of the world shifted. God was now in charge. And they gave their lives to Jesus – completely, fully. What about you?
Today - Jesus invites us to be agents of God’s kingdom in the world.
N.T. wrights says it this way: “Jesus rescues human beings – you and me – in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended.” In Jesus the kingdom of God is indeed now being launched. Jesus is Lord of the world. His kingdom is being implemented through human beings. This is the way God designed it.
Modern Christians use the word witness to mean “tell someone else about our faith.”
The Gospel of Luke uses the word differently. Witness means to “tell someone else that Jesus is the world’s true Lord.” Jesus is King. God is in charge.
The story of Jesus in the world is a picture of God’s kingdom come. When we look at the Gospels – the ministry and authority of Jesus – we are seeing a picture of how Jesus is starting to rule the world. This picture is what it will look like when God becomes king on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus rules the world today not through his people behaving ourselves, keeping a code of ethics and practicing certain spiritual practices. Rather, Jesus rules the world through people like you and me who launch new initiatives that radically challenged the acceptable ways of doing things in the world: soup kitchens and cold weather shelters, camps for artistic kids and camps for troubled kids, networks of believers and investments in Central American villages.
We have domesticated the Christian idea of good works, so that it has simply become the keeping of ethical commands. In the New Testament good works are what Christians are supposed to be doing in and for the wider community. That is how the sovereignty of Jesus – the king of the world - is put into place.
What about you? How will you respond to Jesus – the King of the Jews who is now the King of the World? Whose power will control your life? How will you answer Pilate’s Question? How will your life be an agent of God’s Kingdom in the world? The challenge and the opportunity are yours as we enter into this Holy Week experience. Amen.