The Empire Struck Back
(The worship bulletin for this day included the
following insert, which many read before the sermon:)
Here are the answers to four questions you haven't asked:
Jesus rode a donkey or colt to enter Jerusalem because
Zechariah told the story of the restoration of Israel with a
donkey-riding messiah, who will command peace and literally destroy
the weapons and vehicles of war. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Disciples threw garments on the donkey and in the path (as
recounted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke) because when Elisha anointed
Jehu King of Israel as a reformer King, folks put garments on the
ground then. Jehu had to face religious and political corruption and
made progress. (2 Kings 9:13)
Mathew and Mark report that folks waved branches or leafy
branches at Jesus' procession, and many believe that these meant
olive branches, locally available, which symbolize peace. (Mark 11:8, Matthew 21:8)
Only John has palms, and palms were reserved for conquering
kings, which means that while the crowds got the part about Jesus
being a king right, the use of a palm meant they still didn't
understand the nature of his kingship all too well. And that's why
we don't call it Garment or Garland Sunday, but Palm Sunday, because
in our hands we're still holding a reminder that there is more to
learn, as well as a very present symbol of our faith and hope and
God's gift. (John 12:13)
Hold this message in your mind as we re-hear the Palm Sunday story:
Jesus didn't go to Jerusalem to die as a substitute for
us but to
confront the empire and disentangle people from its clutch.
Five years ago on Palm Sunday, I preached my first sermon here: a
candidate's sermon, which ministers call "preach for your
life." Based on your performance, a congregation votes to offer or
withhold a call to ministry.
Obviously there was a long journey to that moment, mostly out of
view, that included conversations, planning, praying, vision, and
references. One Sunday this search committee visited my church in
Connecticut to watch me, and that day I opened my sermon by singing a
song. At our next interview here, after my vocalization, Tom Fletcher
asked the fist question, and he mentioned that event and said,
"What were you thinking?"
I appreciated this question for many reasons, not the least being
that he believed that I had a plan and a purpose and a reason, which I
This year, two of my favorite scholars, Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan,
wrote a book about Palm Sunday and Holy Week that answers one central
question: what was Jesus thinking? Therefore, why was Jesus killed?
They say that we know the end of the story of crucifixion, but lots of
us don't know the beginning and middle of the story from just before
Palm Sunday through Friday. And to know that part reveals a huge amount
about the conversations, planning, prayer, vision, and references of
Recently we had a class on the Cross here, and I talked about five
Biblical models for its meaning. A lot of us know one of them: that
Jesus was executed, somehow, as a sacrificial offering for sin. Despite
whatever Mel Gibson emphasizes, this is the least logical of the
Biblical models, so ponder seven days of evidence, and bracket your
assumptions to see what Mark and Luke emphasize. Indeed, very different
from the idea of substitutionary atonement, where Jesus substitutes for
something, Mark emphasizes a participatory theology, which means Jesus
calls us to get involved in His passion procession
Borg and Crossan say that if we want to understand Passion Week, we
have to ask what Jesus was passionate about. So let me set the stage.
Did Jesus celebrate Passover in Jerusalem every year, or was this His
first visit? The Gospels disagree. But historians from beyond the Bible
agree that Passover was riot time in Jerusalem, since it celebrated
divine deliverance from the Egyptian empire during the Roman one. By
the year 30, the year we study, Pontius Pilate regularly left his home
and headquarters in Caesarea by the Sea and rode to his palace in
Jerusalem with cavalry and troops to reinforce the locals until the
holy day was passed. Every year he rode into town on a war horse, with his Roman flags
flying and swords at hand, reminding the crowds that
Caesar is Lord -- riding in from the west.
Then in the year 30, the same day that Pilate rode in from the
west, Jesus rode in from the east. With planning and preparation, He
mounted a donkey, because Zechariah says that a donkey symbolizes
banishing weapons and war and promoting peace. He organized garments
to remind folks of Elisha and Jehu, the king who revolutionized his own
contemporary times. He offered an alternative procession to Pilate's.
Now, did He do this to get killed? Did he do this to sacrifice Himself?
Well, the scriptures say He did it to confront Roman imperial power
and religious collaboration with it. And the multitudes, say the
Gospels, called Him king. The people were on His side.
Early on in the Iraq war, President Bush told the world that we were
either with him or we were against him. There was no grey and little
interpretation. The most powerful empire on earth demanded what's been
called patriotism, loyalty, and allegiance. We were asked to join the
march from the west.
Jesus comes into town from the east. And in a sense He presents the
same challenge. There were two parades in Jerusalem. Folks had to
It wasn't easy then. It isn't easy now. But ponder the day by day
witness of Jesus' journey, from Mark, to understand our story.
Sunday, He arrives in town, and He examines the temple, but there is
no crowd, so He leaves, and Borg and Crossan point out that He will
emphasize engaging and inspiring the crowds all week long.
Monday, the people are back, so Jesus demonstrates against the
temple. For 24 years, the chief priests have been appointed by the
Romans, not voted by the congregation, and Jesus turns over tables and
quotes Jeremiah calling it a den of robbers, which is not where they
rob, but where they live. Yet Jesus isn't against the people, the
masses, or the faith. He's against the empire. The safe house for
healing has become a safe house for Herod.
Tuesday, the conflicts with the temple authorities increase through
argument and debate. The scriptures report that the multitudes are with
Jesus, and even the authorities see, repeatedly, that the people believe
On Wednesday, the authorities give up. Have you noticed that? They
give up. They literally say, don't try to arrest Him. There will be a
riot. Public action would be dangerous. Jesus has won. Until late in
the day. Something happens late in the day, and it is as simple and
serious as a stroke. Judas makes them an offer they can't believe.
On Thursday, Jesus eats supper with His disciples. And when the
crowds are finally gone, and His friends sleep, then the most powerful
empire on earth reveals its true nature. An extraordinary rendition is
possible out of the people's view. Jesus is arrested in a dark
On Friday He is tried in private. What about that crowd that
calls for Barabbas? What about the ones who say, "Crucify
him?" Remember where they are? They are in Pilate's courtyard. You
don't get in there unless you are a supporter, as in a private rally of
screened sycophants. This is not a jury of peers or a reflection of
public opinion. This is a "deportment" of justice. The Governor, the
priest, and the traitor comprise the poisonous alchemy of church, state,
and mercenaries. The empire's voice to crucify God drowns out the
consensus and spirit of the multitudes, and the theology of
participation hangs in the balance -- on the crossroads of two
Have you ever noticed that all the Gospels begin and end with
processions? Matthew has the Magi, Mark the people following John the
Baptist, Luke has Mary travel to Elizabeth, and John has Jesus speak His first words as folks follow him and
He asks, "What do you
seek?" The Gospels begin that
way and end with the entrance to
Jerusalem and the long procession from trial to execution.
Have you ever pondered that today's Gospel, Luke, begins with the
temptation to turn stones to bread, take power on the earth, and perform
spectacular feats, and then it ends with Jesus breaking bread, asking
his followers to put away the sword, and giving up His clothes in a
spectacle of nakedness?
The story of this week brings full circle all Jesus' passions and
processions. It recalls His announcement that the Kingdom of God is at
hand, that He brings good news to the poor and oppressed and a
revolution in our realm. The world, sometimes said to be in the devil's
hands, is being pried away from the empire, bit by bit by bit. Jesus'
passion isn't about the invocation of an ancient rite of sacrifice but
a frighteningly contemporary revelation of danger and distorted
allegiance. Bill Coffin once said, "God is not too hard to
believe. God is too good to believe." God is displaying good news
here, even in the darkest, most despairing times.
Jesus wanted people of faith to come unstuck from the empire.
Caesar's picture was on the coins. But God's image is in our being.
Don't give yourself to the empire.
You are savvy and wise enough to know the dangers of empire in our
day. Economic systems that feed the wealthy and starve the poor.
Consumer choices that make us think there is no way to drive
differently, heat differently, or love the planet, and that we are
stuck. Political claims that the way of war is the only way, and all
marches must proceed from the west. Cultural claims that the way of
heterosexuality is the only way, and all families must proceed to its
Since the beginning of Luke, empire has been associated with evil
and has been the source of consistent lies. But the multitudes, savvy
themselves, understood Jesus' way, even the way of sacrifice, as God's
It has been a tough Lent around Greater Boston. Repeated teen
suicide in Wellesley. Repeated teen homicide in Dorchester. Four years
of war. Four-fold increase in home foreclosures. Injury and illness.
Divorce, death, and depression. Climate change. And Newton is as safe
and fortunate as any city in the empire. Yet our world is broken.
But the story doesn't end this day, this week. On this day we
remember that Jesus confronted the principalities and powers on behalf
of God's good news. And we can, too. We can choose our direction for
how to enter and whom to follow.
Amen.Copyright © 2007
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.