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Peace for All Peoples

Pastor John Gibson preached this sermon on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016, on Luke 19:28 - 40.

Quintus squinted in the hot bright sun as he stared at the people below. Many were milling about talking, others haggling over squawking birds and bleating lambs, and more bobbing and weaving as they prayed. Quintus spit in disgust at them. He looked around to see if a centurion nearby, knowing he had violated orders. Sextus, who stood about 20 yards down the wall, smiled and gave him a thumbs up.

“May the gods curse this fractious people, constantly rioting and denying the gods,” Quintus thought. “What I wouldn’t give to be back in Italy instead of this forsaken backwater Judea.” In the distance to the west he saw a glint and remembered when he and the other members of the Third Italia Cohort marched through that pass and down toward Jerusalem.

His first site of the Jewish Temple almost took his breath away as the gold glittered and the sun reflected off the white marble looking like a mountain of snow. It was an amazing site. He’d never seen a temple like it even in Rome.

He continued to stare as the single glint slowly became a milky way of glittering spear tips and armor coming down the western road toward the city. “Right on schedule,” Quintus thought to himself as soldiers from the Third Italia reinforced the garrison in the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple. “If the Jewish rabble try anything this Passover, they will know the full might of Rome.” Quintus muttered to himself as he stared at the soldiers marching in step to the beating drums as the crests on the soldiers’ helmets waved proudly. At the front, the tribune rode on his great war stallion his armor gleaming like a god. “Hail, Caesar!” Quintus thought proudly to himself as he heard a shouting on the other side of the city. “What now!” he wondered, as he turned toward the Jericho road on the east.

There he saw a ragtag group of peasants, waving palm fronds and laying their cloaks in front of a peasant riding on a burro. “More Passover pilgrims,” Quintus thought to himself. He strained to hear the shouting. After three years in Judea, he had learned enough Aramaic to hold a basic conversation. He could barely make out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “King!” he straightened. “King! There is no king except Caesar. That is punishable by death.” He pounded the butt of his spear into the stone of the fortress wall. “Who do they think they are? Challenge Rome! This motley crew against the mighty Roman army. They’ll see. They can’t defeat the greatest army in the world.” He turned and watched as the Third Italia marched steadily through the city gate, swords and spears at the ready.

My fictional retelling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is indebted to biblical scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, who in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem depict the Roman cohorts entering Jerusalem at the exact same moment as Jesus and his followers. In fact, we do not know if this was the case. We do know that every year additional Roman troops came to ensure the peace during the volatile Passover, when thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled Jerusalem. We also know that Jesus entered the city on a donkey to popular acclaim.

Today I am beginning a three-part sermon series that I will continue on Maundy Thursday and conclude on Good Friday on the meaning of Jesus’ triumphal entry for how we live our lives. This sermon series is entitled Riding with the King.

In order to understand this text, we have to look at the Old Testament background. In 1 Kings, at the end of his life, King David says to his advisors, “have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. There let the priest Zadok and the prophet Nathan anoint him king over Israel (1Kings 1:33-34 NRSV). Jesus reenacts Solomon’s entry. In fact, Jesus performs what we today would call political theater, but in the context of the prophet was a sign act. His entry on a donkey proclaims that he is the king of Israel, but his kingship differs radically from that of Rome.

The prophet Zechariah proclaims, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zec 9:9-10 NRSV). Jesus’ kingship rests on the love of God rather than military might. He brings peace for all peoples.

This vision of peace for all peoples contrasts sharply with our current presidential campaign, the worst in my memory for demagoguery. Demagoguery plays on people’s fears and prejudices, pitting people against one another, and demeaning certain socio-economic or religious groups. Demagoguery is not new in American history. George Wallace in the sixties and seventies and Joseph McCarthy in the forties and the fifties are only the most recent examples.

Demagogues have existed as long as there have been democracies and are perhaps their greatest weakness. The Greek historian Polybius, who lived from about 200 BC to 118 BC, said demagogues inevitably convert democracies into a “government of violence and the strong hand” with “tumultuous assemblies” and ultimately “massacres.”

Recently at Grace, we have been working on our vision, mission and core values. One of our most important core values is acceptance. People said this loud and clear. The value of acceptance reflects Jesus’ call to love one another, to love our neighbors, whoever they maybe, as ourselves.

Friday evening, as I was leaving the gym, I met my friend Mohammed, who I have talked about before. For those who missed those sermons, Mohammed feels like a failure for something that shattered his family 26 years ago. I asked Mohammed, as I always do, how he was doing. He answered, as he always does, the same, a failure. I told Mohammed, as I frequently do, that I pray that he and his family will find peace, healing and sense of forgiveness. Mohammed thanked me and then he told me that it was an honor to know me and that I was a very special person.

I wish he were right, but you know me better than he does and you know that I am a very ordinary person with feet of clay like everyone else who some Sundays can’t even remember the name of someone he’s talked to for two years.. Mohammed though thinks that I am very special simply because I care for him. That’s all. That’s what it’s all about. That’s all we need to do, because that’s what Jesus did.

As followers of Jesus, regardless of our political affiliation, we ride with the King on a donkey rather than with the Tribune on a war horse. The Christian vision is not a world conquered by Christ, but a world transformed by the love of Christ, a world where all men and women are brothers and sisters. This is the world we work for.