Scripture: Luke 19:29–44
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Several weeks ago, now, you woke up in First Century Palestine, somehow becoming the apostle of Jesus known as James, Son of Alphaeus. You looked like James. You sounded like James. You even understood the language that the women and men around you spoke. You fell asleep in Kansas, and you woke up as one of Jesus’ disciples. Over these weeks, you have followed Jesus, as he has taught and healed and ruffled feathers through every small town between Galilee and Jerusalem. And finally, you can see the city on the hill, rising in the distance. Jerusalem awaits.
Along the way, you have had a few sleepless nights, tossing and turning your way through every science fiction theory, trying to figure out what is happening. You have seen enough sci fi movies to know that there are at least two options for what is going on. The first is the Back to the Future hypothesis. That is the idea that if you go back in time, you have the potential to change history. You save your mother, and you cease to exist. Deep down, you hope this is not the case. You’ve tried to minimize your contact with others, but that day when you accidentally dropped a heavy pot of food on Peter’s foot, you wondered if that would make it into the Gospel of Luke! Meanwhile, you have also considered another possibility, what you have called the Prisoner of Azkaban hypothesis. According to that one, history is just that…history. If you go back in time and do something, that something has already happened. You cannot change what has already happened. Of course, that hypothesis gives you fits, too, because you wonder if part of the reason that you never hear much about James, Son of Alphaeus in the Bible is because it was you all along, and you were trying to stay out of trouble!
Needless to say, your brain has been doing loops over these last weeks, but you still see it all as an amazing gift. The chance to see Jesus’ final march toward Jerusalem. To see his amazing power displayed. To listen to his words. You have tried to settle into the role of interested observer, soaking in as much as you can, while saying as little and doing as little as possible. Let the Sons of Thunder thunder, and Simon Peter open his mouth every ten seconds. You stay quiet and take it all in.
But things, you might say, have become complicated. You cannot count how many times in your life you have sung that old hymn, “O How I Love Jesus, because he first loved me!” But in hindsight, you were really loving a concept, or an idea, or a story. You would say that you had a relationship with Jesus, but that relationship was a bit…abstract, to say the least.
But now, you have come to know this man standing in front of you. And you have found a deep love for him. You understand personally what it means that “a man might lay down his life for his friends,” because you have become friends with Jesus. And have discovered that love in new forms. The way Jesus looks at his disciples, even knowing that they are relatively clueless. The way he looks at anyone that he meets, everyone who stands in front of him. Even the way that he looks at you! You wonder sometimes if he knows what is happening. If he knows that you are actually from Kansas in the year 2021. If he knows where you actually live. If he knows what is going through your mind.
But whatever Jesus knows, he isn’t saying. Yet, he looks at you in a way that bores straight into your soul, not in an intrusive or unwelcome way, but in a way that makes you want to give him everything you are and hope to be, wrap it up as a gift, and hand it over to him. You understand the disciples so much better now. You would usually laugh at them from the other side of your study Bible, because whenever Jesus told them he was going to die, they didn’t believe it. Silly disciples! But now you start to understand…they don’t want to believe it. Jesus has become so important to them and to you, that even if the brain understands what is coming, the heart simply overpowers it. You simply cannot imagine Jesus ever leaving your side.
Which helps you understand even better the way that he finally enters the city of Jerusalem. You and the apostles, and all of the disciples who have left their homes to follow him on this journey, cannot bear to watch him enter the city like a commoner. You want him to enter like a king, like the Messiah he is, like the prophets of old wrote and preached about. So when he enters from the Mount of Olives, the place where the Messiah was long rumored to enter the city, and he sits on a colt, the symbol of peaceful power long foretold, you all want to make it special. Now, for your whole life, you remember celebrating the joy of Palm Sunday. The kids and the palms and the music and the “hosanna.” But now, as you stand in the muck and the raw sewage of the roadways of the city, you understand viscerally what was really happening. It wasn’t about the palms themselves, but about covering the ground as Jesus entered. You don’t want even the animal Jesus is riding on to become unclean! First, they stripped their cloaks…the one piece of protective outer clothing that they owned, and threw them in the mud. Then, they ran and climbed trees, pulling off the widest branches that they could so that the colt would walk in on a welcome mat instead of mud and muck like a commoner.
Yet, even that moment, so often remembered as joyful and exciting from Palm Sundays past, has a heaviness to it. As you see the disciples start to pick Jesus up, and lovingly lift him onto the colt, you are overwhelmed…by the love and care they use…by the honor that they bestow upon him…and by the realization that they next time his body is lifted up by many hands again, it will be to place him up on a cross.
You step away from the parade for a moment, as the emotion overwhelms you. You are so used to smiling children waving palms and celebrating that you are surprised when you experience a moment that feels more weighty than light and hopeful. You probably read it somewhere in those study bibles, that the word hosanna means “save” but when you hear dozens, if not hundreds of people around you chanting “save us!” there is a more desperate tone to the event than you imagined.
And you are not surprised, then, when Jesus stands atop the city and weeps tears of his own. You have seen him lament his people before, even the city of Jerusalem. But to see him standing, shoulders heaving, ugly tears on his face, you find yourself overwhelmed again with emotion…to know how much he loves these people and he simply cannot say or do enough to get them to see it. You are right there, and you know what is coming, but you still wonder if you barely understand what is going on.
The rush of sadness is matched by a feeling of terror that comes in waves over into the next hours and the next days. The Gospels make that last week of Christ take forever, but for you, it comes in a rush. Jesus’ sharp tone. Angry temple leaders. A violent military police force. Part of you tells yourself that you would never betray Jesus…you have said it out loud in Bible studies for years. “Weak disciples!” But to stand at the wrong end of a centurion’s spear, to be the target of angry looks and feel the vulnerability of being associated with Jesus, you start to understand what the disciples were feeling. You even understand the Pharisees fear a little more, when they try and hush the disciples on the day he enters the city…they fear retribution from those spears and violence from those sworn to protect the king. To hear a growing crowd chanting, “we want this Jew to be our king,” feels like political insurrection. And the kind of thing that Romans wouldn’t take too kindly to. Nor would they pay much attention to what Jews they are killing in response to a perceived insurrection. The Pharisees aren’t just jealous of Jesus…they are terrified of what his growing power might mean for them. With this oppressive and powerful force in front of you, you see why his message of inclusion and equality and love and forgiveness is an affront to their way of seeing the world.
But, alongside of that sadness, and that terror, comes a third emotion: Gratitude. You are so thankful for this opportunity to learn at the feet of Jesus. You don’t know if you will ever make it back to Kansas, but if you do, you know that you will live a changed life:
• You have learned to be less arrogant. Living through these days shows you how easy it was to “armchair quarterback” the Gospels from your place of privilege 2,000 years later. You thought you would do it so much better. But now, you understand how chaotic and anxious the times really were. Following Jesus then and there was good and faithful, but it was also risky and vulnerable and hard work and nothing like what you thought or understood, sitting around plastic tables in church basements your whole life, drinking bad coffee, highlighting your Zondervan NIV’s. You know what is coming, but you have learned not to judge Peter for his impending denial, even Judas for his impending betrayal, for you understand now that to live these things is a terrifying and unpredictable and incredibly difficult experience. And it has given you a new humility.
• You have learned what true community is. It’s not just hanging out with people who look like you and agree with you, patting each other on the back for being right all the time. But the community that Jesus lived with was risky and vulnerable and diverse and broken and really depending on one another. If you have learned anything, it is to spend less time worrying about your Netflix queue, and more about the line outside of Ladybird or LINK. Community is radical reliance, and Jesus has shown that to you, and there is a reason why Jesus picked these folks to hang out with.
You’ve learned about humility, and about community, and you have come to trust that in the end…
In the end.
Even has you turn that phrase in your mind, it strikes you that you already know the end of the story. You know what is coming. You know about Sunday. But in the moment, that feels so far away, feels so impossible. After a rush of the week…a rush of anger and reaction and betrayal and abuse and violence, you find yourself standing, looking up into the eyes of the man you have deeply come to love.
You ran, too. You assumed you would be better than them. But then the police in the darkness, pointing fingers and spears at you, sent you into the weeds along with every other apostle. And then the chaos of the night, the whispers, “Where is everyone else? Where is Jesus? What will happen next?” Even though you knew the outcome, your love for Jesus and your fear of his captors took your brain out of the equation. And so you ran and hid.
But now, there is no hiding from his eyes. Those eyes. The crowd is thick enough that you and the others feel as though you can get close enough to see Jesus on the cross. And at once, you feel the weight of that moment. Not just the weight of your own cowardice to run, when you promised yourself that you would not. But the weight of it all…of your own arrogance and sin and unrecognized privilege and brokenness and participation personally and systemically in the breaking of others. You feel the weight of it all on your shoulders…
And that’s when you notice that Jesus has caught your eye. You have wondered over the weeks if he really knew who you are, but now you have no doubt. Of course he knows. He knows your arrogance. Your sin. Your foolishness. Your selfishness. Your brokenness. He knows you, and he loves you anyway. He knows exactly who you are, and he went through it all anyway. To show you, to show the world, to show history, that there is a better way. That there is more to the Purposes of God than the rules of this world. That the oppression of the world and the violence of the cross is not the final story. That even the powers of violence and death and destruction and oppression will not win…in the end.