Sunday, April 01, 2007

Palm Sunday

Luke 19
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

I went as a pilgrim and came home a historian.

Okay, that is not entirely true. I also went as a historian, hoping however, to set that aside while I followed the footsteps of Jesus. Otherwise, why travel to Israel? We go to walk where he walked, the sit under the same sky, and to scan the same vistas.

There are disappointments, to be sure. 21st century street level is two or three metres higher that Jesus’ day, making it very difficult to retrace his steps. The walls of the city are Turkish, and rather late, and only the odd gate remains. However you experience Jerusalem, you are only getting an approximation of the authentic experience so many go to seek.

What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming presence of Rome wherever we went. The remarkable aqueduct near Caesarea Militaria, bringing fresh water from the mountains of Lebanon to the principal seaport of the Roman navy. Herod’s Winter Palace at Masada, with steambaths and mosaics that with a little renovation could still be in use. And the Roman roads. I took so many photos of the pavement at Bet Shean I’m sure people mistook me for a civil engineer.

Some of the most significant Roman structures are noteworthy, however, in their absence. Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple is gone, destroyed by Titus in the siege of 70 AD. This is also the moment when the walls are largely destroyed, aided by Roman knowledge that the largest stones, when heated to great temperature, would explode and bring down the surrounding structure.

Also destroyed in 70, the Antonia Fortress was leveled to make room for the tools needed to destroy the temple. Here the Roman forces destroy their own fortress to better destroy the religious symbol that was the inspiration for the resistance to Roman rule. The fortress itself was huge. Covering four acres, it contained the Praetorium where Jesus was tried and handed over to be crucified. It was the seat or Roman power in the region, and as such was the true centre of the city under the occupation.

Enter King Jesus.

Back in the 80’s when I went to school we were required to take the basics such as Bible and theology as well as a variety of classes under the heading “the practice of ministry.” These varied over time, and usually reflected the latest interest in theological education or trend in learning. Family systems theory was big, along with “active listening” and becoming “the wounded healer.” It was also political. I took half-course on the virtues of communist Cuba (including a class trip) an well as an innocently named class called “Social Action.” It included tips on how to write letters and press releases (“write it like you want it to appear – journalists are lazy and will reprint it without changes”). We talked about how to get arrested successfully and how to respond. The final assignment was to plan a large-scale protest and take the class through it step-by-step. Mine was a farm protest called “Pigs on Parliament.” I got an A.

We were introduced to local activists who could tell us their “war stories” and give us additional pointers from their experience. One of my favourite stories was from a man named Bob (later famously arrested for dressing as Santa and trashing the toy section at Zellers). Bob mounted a one-man protest against ARMEX, the big military equipment sale held in Ottawa each summer. Bob dressed in a blue shirt, took a clipboard and managed to redirect most of the traffic around the exhibition, causing hours of traffic chaos. It was an interesting time to be a theological student. Hearing these stories and understanding a little bit about royal symbols in the ancient period, I know a good protest when I see one.

Enter King Jesus.

The time for Passover had arrived. The people were busy preparing for a time rich with tradition and ancient symbols, sacred meals and ritual remembering. The oldest child was being prepared to ask the leading questions of the meal (“why is this night different from other nights?”) and the well-worn answers were present in the minds of the older ones as the food was prepared.

The Passover always seemed to exist outside of time, the kind of holy moment where people would say “a path was opened for us in the midst of the sea” and it had all the intonation of a first-person experience. Time collapsed as another generation recited the story and the ancient word of liberation and triumph over Pharaoh.

But this time there was more to the uncertain feeling of time, more ambiguity as the past seemed largely present once more. Caesar was the new Pharoah, Rome the new Egypt, the soldiers in the Antonia Fortress the new charioteers ready to maintain imperial power. Even the social conditions seemed similar: one had slaves struggling to make bricks without straw and the newer version had landless peasants entering the city each day, hungry, discontented, and looking for the one to overturn the existing order.

Enter King Jesus.

He came to the seat of power knowing full well what happened to prophets in Jerusalem.
He came to Jerusalem to mount a protest, to manage a symbolic action in the face of the greatest power the world had ever known.
He came as the new Moses, come to free his people (it was hoped) from the slavery of foreign occupation.

On the surface it wasn’t much. A few dozen followers maybe, a borrowed animal, royal symbols that could be quickly grabbed from shrubs on the way. This protest had everything: low cost, only a few people to organize, the appearance of spontaneity and popular interest, symbols to directly convey a message, and a leader who was willing to risk arrest to get his point across. Sympathetic people leant their support, and the whole event was timed to happen when the largest number of pilgrims would be in the Holy City to see.

Enter King Jesus.

Who was this symbolic king, riding on a donkey? Where were his legions, the ones to liberate the people? Why did the group shout “save us!” when there are so few resources for saving? Whether they saw it or not, they were present for a conversation between God and power that has been going under the surface since the beginning or time. In most times and places, it appeared that God blessed those in power. They ruled at God’s pleasure, and fell when the reverse was true. Until Moses, that is. Remember that God, through Moses, defeated God and the people were free. But Pharaoh remained. He did not fall, although certainly his economy was ruined. God only acted to free his people, the end their suffering and bring them home. Moses mounted a successful protest (it happened on a rather grand scale, but it was a protest nonetheless). It wasn’t a coup or a revolution, more of a protest followed by a successful rescue mission.

Enter King Jesus.

The conversation between God and power continued. Jesus confronted royal power that day not with guerrilla fighters or a campaign of misinformation but rather with symbols: kingship that should humbly serve the people, kingship that was based on biblical models of faithfulness and not the sword, kingship that was located in heaven rather than on earth. It was a protest and it was the beginning of a conversation. The conversation would continue in the temple as tables flew, in the Antonia Fortress when Jesus talked with Pilate and on the cross when death appeared to get the last word.

In Luke 9 it is said Jesus "set his face to Jerusalem," the very direction that informs the whole of his ministry. We was going to speak to power, going to send a message of liberation that we now know was liberation from the powers of death in this world and the power of death itself. This week we join the conversation. We have an opportunity to consider our own relationship with power, and the ways we can further the liberation God seeks. May God bless us in the coming days, ready to enter Jerusalem once more. Amen.


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