BIBLE READING: Matthew 21:1-11 The entry to Jerusalem
For the first time Easter will be celebrated in our homes. We will not come together to mourn on Good Friday nor will we lift our voices together to proclaim Jesus risen from the tomb. Somehow this makes this year's celebration of Easter even more serious.
I guess with time on our hands even Palm Sunday can become a serious business.
We still have time on Good Friday to remember the way Jesus died - but today we might think about that movement we've already seen from palms to a cross.
Today is a point of transition. Today we move from peace to passion - from Jesus riding on a donkey - an image that delights children and seems playful and a bit comic - to Jesus nailed to a cross - an image that most of us handle only by ignoring its brutality and violence.
A grown man on a donkey isn't very dangerous. He's unlikely to cause us pain, or take our belongings or hurt our children. He's more likely to be a farmer than a soldier - more likely to be a poor man than a king, he's definitely old-fashioned - he's the sort of person we'd take a photo of and call him cute and quaint.
But the same man being executed by being nailed to a cross is anything but cute. If we saw that on TV we'd 'phone or write in outrage that such a thing was shown where children could be watching. A man being killed is dangerous - sensible people don't get involved when violent people are doing horrible things. They avert their eyes, they hurry away, partly because brutality like that is unreasonable, and unpredictable, and might spill over onto us - and partly because it simply hurts just to look, because seeing suffering causes us pain, and we often have enough of our own sadness without adding someone else's.
But today we know that the man on the donkey is also the man on the cross - and the crowd that welcomed him into Jerusalem becomes the crowd that called for his death.
Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew's version of the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem. As you know, each of the Gospel writers tell the stories of Jesus in slightly different ways - and the differences are important to their message. When Matthew tells the story there are no children - in fact, despite all those Palm Sunday hymns putting children into the story, none of the gospel writers talk about children. Children become part of the story for us probably because of the donkey - and because generations of preachers and Sunday School teachers have thought donkeys and kids go together.
So in Matthew's story when Jesus rides into Jerusalem there are no children, and instead of just a donkey, Jesus seems to be sitting a bit strangely on both a donkey and a donkey's colt at the same time. And that's because, for Matthew, what's important in this story is that Jesus is fulfilling a prophecy. Matthew quotes from the prophet Zechariah, who talked about the king - the Messiah - arriving in Jerusalem humbly, riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey. For Matthew what's important isn't what Jesus was riding, but that he was the Messiah - so he uses the words of Zechariah's prophecy and his image of Jesus is a little uncomfortable. For the other gospel writers that image is not as important, so they leave the donkey's foal behind - but for Matthew those words of Zechariah are important, because they explain what happened next.
In Mark and in John the crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem were the people of Jerusalem - but in Matthew and in Luke, the people making a noise for Jesus were just his own disciples. For Luke that's not a problem. He goes on to tell a story about the Jewish leaders telling Jesus to keep his disciples quiet - and for Luke, Jesus is not only the Messiah, he's not just the king of the Jews - he's also the Lord - he's king of the world.
It's Matthew who has the problem, and that's because Matthew is writing his gospel as a member of a Jewish Christian community - and with most other Jewish Christians, including Peter, James, and Paul, he's deeply sad that Jerusalem - the city at the heart of Israel - not only didn't recognise the Messiah when he came, but then went on to call for him to die. So when Jesus, surrounded by the crowd of his disciples, entered the city in humility and peace the people of Jerusalem were confused. Instead of joining in the fun and welcoming their humble Messiah as their hope for peace and healing, Matthew says the city was in turmoil - not peaceful at all, but frightened and confused and divided, and asking the disciples and each other - "Who is this man?" and probably thinking - 'what does he think he's doing!?'
For Jerusalem, the sight of a crowd of people noisily approaching the city waving palm branches just before Passover was anything but peaceful and calming.
The palm branches and the shouts are reminders of the triumph of the Maccabees and the overthrow of the brutal Antiochus Epiphanes 150 years earlier. The Jews had risen in revolt because Antiochus had forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death and he had set up an altar to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on it in the Holy of Holy’s the most sacred place in the Temple. It is hard to imagine a greater offence to the Jews. An old man named Mattathias and his five sons, started a guerrilla war. Mattathias soon died, but his son Judas, called Maccabeus (which means "hammer"), kept on and within three years was able to cleanse and to rededicate the desecrated temple. It took 20 years more of fighting before the Jews finally achieved independence.
Of course, there was a great celebration. In I Maccabees we read "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."
Then came the Roman legions and freedom was gone again. For the Romans, Judea was well-located on the trade routes both north-south and east-west. But it was more than a bit unruly, because the people of Israel were not inclined to suffer in silence. Not too many years before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, there had been the Zealot revolt inspired by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee. Some 2,000 freedom fighters were taken captive in that rebellion. Not content to simply win the war, the Romans wanted to insure the peace. In order to send a message to any others who might be tempted to rebel, Rome crucified them all. Imagine Princes Highway from Sydney to Georges River, and every 40 metres or so, a cross and a corpse. Would that be enough to get the message to rebellious Jews about how Rome handles political revolutionaries?
But people have short memories. In the past five years leading up to Jesus’ entry, there had been thirty-two political riots - that equates to more than one every two months. Every sixty days for five years. All of which Rome had put down.
The Romans were the occupying power and whenever they thought there might be a threat to their control and order they lashed out quickly and brutally - and they didn't care if the people they hit were troublemakers or the ordinary citizens of Jerusalem. The peace the Romans maintained - the Pax Romana - was peace by blood and fear, and if anything unusual happened in Jerusalem - especially in the weeks before Passover when there were thousands of strangers in the city - the peace of the Romans would be enforced with whips and swords and executions - and if no other scapegoat or public example could be found the Romans would be visiting the citizens of Jerusalem. So it's no wonder they asked, with some fear and distress "who is this man?", and they weren't made more peaceful at all to be told "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee."
Galilee was a difficult province. It was poor and isolated and neglected - a bit like Macquarie Fields or Mount Druitt. It was far enough away from the centre of power to be under the Roman radar - so problem people went there to run away from trouble, and problem people came from there to cause trouble in other places. The people of Jerusalem - and especially the leaders of Jerusalem - knew that Galilee was a worry, so when the disciples of Jesus said "He's a prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee" you can just imagine what the Jewish leaders thought.
The Jewish leaders wanted peace - but the only peace the leaders could maintain was by compromise and secrecy and schemes and deals and betrayal. They didn't have the troops, but they had the network - and as soon as anyone threatened their security the evening meetings began, and secret agents were deployed, and the troublemakers were neutralised - either by bringing them in on the deal or by arranging for blood to be spilt. And that's what the leaders did as soon as they learned about Jesus.
Jerusalem looked like a city at peace - but it had none of the wholeness or joy that Jesus had to offer. It was peace by oppression and peace by corruption - and wherever that kind of peace is maintained illness grows and the people perish.
True peace is God's hope and intention, and that's the peace that's born in grace, secured in sacrifice, and maintained in daily forgiveness.
Today we move from peace to passion - and by putting those 2 images together, we'll see that one is necessary to the other.
True peace doesn't come without a cost. It only comes with love, and with courage, and with sacrifice. Peace comes when we realise that we can't ignore the man on the cross. It comes when we refuse to turn away, and decide to look closely at all kinds of crucifixions - when we look at our own fears - our fear of pain and dying, or our fear of being seen as weak and foolish, and then looking beyond ourselves, to our families and our friends, and the pressures and strains that are tearing them apart and beyond them again, to people being tortured and killed by the world's injustice and cruelty.
The man on the donkey is the prince of peace - and as he rode into Jerusalem he was also looking closely at his cross. The only way to the peace he was offering was through his own death. The only way he could prove that love is stronger than fear, was to challenge it, and let it do its worst, and show that in the end, it's power is broken.
As we travel this last week with Jesus, into our own Jerusalem - the heart of our faith and the seat of our power, may God help us to find the peace we need to approach the cross, and find our way through the passion of Christ, to live every day in his peace.