Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, March 28th 2010 on Palm Sunday
While I was growing up in Romania I was taught to always appreciate the heroes from our past. Our history teachers in school made sure we knew all these heroes and what they had accomplished. Almost all of them, of course, were military geniuses who defeated ridiculously large armies with very few men. One such hero was a prince called Michael the Brave. At the end of the sixteen century he was the first who united the three provinces that make up modern day Romania: Valachia, Transylvania and Moldavia.
In 1599 he made his triumphant entrance in the fortified city of Alba Iulia, announcing his military victory over the prince of Transylvania. I still remember the movie made about Michael the Brave, marching into the city all dressed in white, riding, what else, a white horse. He was going to be the new King over Transylvania, and one year later over Moldavia as well, uniting the three provinces for the first time in our history. He was a military hero, and the movie went a long way to portray the entrance in Alba Iulia as a triumphant display of military power, as he was escorted by his victorious army.
The movie portrayed a very romantic view of his entrance in the city, while historians show that the local population was not happy about what was happening. He was not greeted or cheered by the locals. But we weren’t taught about that in school. Michael the Brave was a hero. Of course he would be welcomed with cheering and dancing. We were taught such a romantic view of our military past.
In some ways, a similar entrance took place in Jerusalem the week before Easter, when Pilate, the governor of Judea and Idumea, was marching with his troupes into the capital of Judea. There was no cheering and no dancing. Nobody was happy about watching the symbol of Roman occupation marching in their sacred city with their horses, and shiny swords, spears and shields glistening in the sun.
It was normal practice for the Roman governor to march into Jerusalem around big festivals, in order to maintain order and prevent any rebellions by the locals. Marching into the city with an impressive guard was intended to impress, warn and intimidate the local population into submission to the power of Rome.
And the funny thing is, that all this was done in the name of peace. Around major Jewish festivals the national sentiment was always more fervent than usual, and the danger of rebellions against the Roman occupiers and their collaborators was very real and tangible. So in the name of peace and the maintenance of order, the Roman governor increased military presence in Jerusalem, ready to quench any revolt or unrest. That was the nature of the Roman peace: military domination and intimidation.
The passage we read from the Gospel according to Luke tells us what is happening at the other side of the city of Jerusalem. If at one side we have an impressive entrance by the representative of the Roman Emperor, who claimed to be the Son of God on earth, the one who brings peace on earth, on the other side we have a gentle king riding on a colt, entering the city of Jerusalem in the loud cheers of a multitude of his disciples who spread their cloaks in his path, declaring him to be their king.
What we have here is a stark contrast between two kings, and between two kingdoms. One kingdom was very much of this world, using military power and domination, while the other was not of this world, which meant that it didn’t use the methods of this world to establish its territory. One kingdom ruled by domination, the other ruled by sacrificial love.
The entrance of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem was a powerful political statement. His disciples cheered: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Their cheering was explicitly political, which made the Pharisees to be extremely nervous. They did not want to offend Rome and upset the balance of power in any way. That is why they ask Jesus to rebuke his disciples. But Jesus responds to them: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
When I say that the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was a political move, what does that mean? Does it mean that Jesus was planning to enter Jerusalem and banish the Romans, declaring himself to be the King of the Jews? That is probably what many hoped he would do, and what many others were afraid he might do. That is why the Romans printed ‘King of the Jews’ above his cross. That is why Pilate asked him if he is a King.
But the response Jesus gives Pilate provides us with the key to understanding what kind of King he was. He says to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Now, if Jesus would have stopped there, we could then say: ‘Oh, so his kingdom is up in heaven.’ But no. Jesus goes on: “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
Until Jesus came to us as a King, all the kingdoms of this world were established through fighting, through violence, through military power. But the Kingdom of God is a different kind of kingdom. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, he contrasted and criticised the domination system of the Roman Empire, but he did not set out to fight it by using the same weapons IT was using.
What we have in Jesus is a completely different kind of King; the kind of King that was never seen before, and was never to be seen again. A non-violent king. A king who establishes his kingdom not by military power and domination, but by laying down his life on the cross. He established his kingdom not by violence, but by self-sacrifice.
The prophet Zechariah foretold of this king, who would break the cycle of violence: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10)
A non-violent King? What would that look like? Because if the king is non-violent, then we, as his followers, have to be non-violent as well. What does that mean for us? What does it mean for the world? Can we even imagine a non-violent world?
But this is exactly what we are invited to imagine as we enter into the holy week and follow Jesus on his journey to the cross and beyond. Let us follow the king on his journey in the coming days, as we allow him to capture our imaginations with his peace.