Sunday, March 20, 2016

King of the Hill

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."

Have you every played the childhood game King of the Hill?

When I was young we neighborhood kids used to play. If you don’t remember the game. It went like this. One person would stand at the top of a hill and be the king. All the other kids would try to dethrone the king by grabbing him or her and tossing him or her down the hill and taking over the top.

So as the king, your goal was to guard your turf and protect your kingdom. As someone at the bottom of the hill, your goal was to get to the top of the hill by yanking the king down or plotting with others about how to overthrow the king who was at the top.

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and is hailed as a king. By Friday, Jesus will indeed be king of the hill. But it happens in a way that nobody expected.

You see the people of Israel haven’t had a king in their hills and valleys for a long time. The Romans had conquered Israel and the Jewish revolutionaries were longing for their own king. On my trip to Israel this past fall, the tour guide told us that we don’t always appreciate the political climate in which Jesus lived. Here are some things you might not know about Jesus’ time:

Remember when Jesus was born and Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered for the census? Because of the civil unrest created by Jewish revolutionaries, the Roman Empire wanted to keep track of every Jew in the country and this was not welcome news in Israel.

The Jewish Virtual Library says: The census was a profound shock to the Jewish people as a whole and it was only after considerable effort that the high priest at the time, succeeded in quieting the emotions aroused among the majority of the people. Nevertheless, *Judah the Galilean of Gamala joined forces with *Zadok the Pharisee to issue a call for armed revolt, since in their eyes the census represented outright slavery.” The Jewish people knew that being registered was yet another form of oppression. The gospels say Jesus was born in the midst of this.  

But, we know Jesus didn’t grow up there in Bethlehem. He grew up in a little town called Nazareth in the region of Galilee. But what we might not know is that Jewish rebels had attacked the Roman royal palace in Galilee a few years before Jesus was born. At one point the Romans crucified 2,000 people to stop revolutionary activity in Galilee. Jesus’ neighbors probably remembered this horror all to well.

We also may not realize that there were men who came before and after Jesus who claimed to the messiah. They gathered groups of supporters and planned attacks and skirmishes. They killed Romans when they could. They were protesting and sometimes rioting against the Romans.

So when we read our Palm Sunday story of Jesus, the donkey, the palms (which are actually not mentioned in Luke!) and people calling Jesus king, we have to remember the world in which Jesus lived. This wasn’t a worship service where people were lifting up their hands and palms in gentle praise and admiration. This was a world in which a rowdy crowd could quickly turn into a riot or rebellion.

And the palms that get waved? The palms are a symbol of Israel as a nation. Palms are carved into the stones of the ancient buildings and palaces all over Israel. Even today there are palms on the 1, 5 and 10 sheckel coins that Israelis use. Waving a palm was like waving the flag of Israel in the face of the Roman occupiers.

Calling Jesus a king was an act of sedition and revolution.

This probably wasn’t an orderly procession like all of our Sunday school pictures sow us, but something wilder, edgier. One word from Jesus and the revolution would begin in the streets.  People lined up because they heard Jesus might be the messiah—the one who would lead them like King David, and restore the nation through war. Jesus himself gave indication that is the messiah.

People were overjoyed to see Jesus riding into town on a donkey, because their Scriptures said that he would. The Old Testament book Zechariah says:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Seeing that Jesus was fulfilling scripture would have been a sign that maybe, just maybe, this Jesus is the real deal, the true messiah, the new king of a sovereign Israel. Maybe Jesus was the revolutionary who would bring victory.

But, Palm Sunday and Holy week unfold in a different way than the people expected. Palm Sunday reveals to us the upside down kingdom of God. Where meekness is power, the bottom is the top and kings ride donkeys instead of war horses.

From our vantage point in history, we can say Jesus is the messiah. Jesus came to offer restoration. But it’s a bigger restoration than the people who were lining the streets of Jerusalem were expecting.

They saw a national leader, we see a universal one. We see Jesus as coming to restore what was broken between humans and God in the Garden of Eden rather than restoring one nation to power. Jesus came to restore what is lasting and eternal, our relationship with God. His restoration isn’t just for one nation or people but all of humanity.

Jesus isn’t taking Israel back to its glory days, he’s going back to the glory days of God and humanity, before sin and selfishness entered the world.

Jesus’ message had very little to do with the Roman occupation or the borders of Israel as a nation. Jesus talks about the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom starts with Israel but it doesn’t end there. God’s kingdom expands beyond Israel and Rome and Europe and Africa and the world. God’s kingdom expands even beyond the borders of our own imagination. It’s a place where, as our scripture says, even the stones can cry out.

So what does the kingdom of God look like? What are the hallmarks of this place where Jesus is king? We look at Jesus ‘ life to find out. When we do we see healing, forgiveness, peace, and welcome.

·      Jesus heals people who have leprosy and people who are blind or deaf and even raises people from the dead. Jesus conquers disease and death, not political opponents.

·      With Jesus, justice is achieved through forgiveness rather than punishment. Jesus forgives the sins of the adulterous woman. When a paralyzed man gets lowered through the roof for healing, Jesus tells him he’s forgiven. Jesus teaches us to pray to receive and give forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer. He even forgives the people who crucify him.

·      When Jesus is king the cycle of violence ends and peace reigns. Jesus preached non-violence toward others and he practiced it. The Bible does say Jesus has a few temper tantrums and there is some talk of swords. But never once does he use his incredible power to hurt of kill someone, but rather Jesus restores life. He doesn’t call the crowd to fight with or for him. He’s a new kind of messiah.

·      In Jesus’ kingdom all nations come together. Everyone is welcome at the table—even Romans, Samaritans, tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus ministers to them all.

When Jesus reigns there is healing forgiveness, peace and welcome.

But this universal, Eden-vision isn’t what the people on the street wanted. They wanted nationalistic power. They wanted to make Israel great again in terms of this world, not God’s kingdom. They were an occupied country. They wanted to feel like they were in control of their lives and their livelihood. Who can blame them? They praised Jesus shouting Hosanna, which in the Old Testament means Help! or Save now! The only problem is, they were thinking too small.

And so a few days later, when it becomes clear that Jesus isn’t going to start a revolutionary war against Rome, the crowd turns. They wanted food for their bellies not some pie in the sky vision about a kingdom not of this world. They wanted a fighter, not a forgiver. The cheering crowd becomes a jeering crowd and calls for his crucifixion.

And Jesus is indeed made king of the hill. On a hill far away, on a cross, Jesus begins the
journey toward a new kingdom.  It’s not one where he defends his territory as king of the hill, shoving people down the slope so that he can stand above it all.

But rather one where he extends a hand and offers forgiveness—to you, to me. It’s a kingdom where (as Colossians 1:20 says) he draws all people to himself—all people up onto the hill—instead of pushing them away.

Jesus didn’t use his power to defend the kingdom of Israel, like the crowds wanted.

He used his power to extend kingdom of God through Israel.

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection show us that being king of the hill on God’s terms may not look like we expect it to. In God’s kingdom, we don’t win with a winner takes all attitude. We win when we have a winner gives all attitude.  Just as Jesus gave it all for you and for me.

So this week—this HOLY week—let’s ask ourselves: How can I begin to live in the Kingdom of God? How can I live like Jesus really is my king? As I ask the following questions, I’d like you to bring one person to mind and perhaps take time this week to reach out to them.

·      Who can I heal? With my presence or words or gentle touch?
·      Who can I forgive? How can I let go of the grudges and anger that drags me down?
·      How can I break the cycle of violence and anger and actively work for peace?
·      What outsider can I invite into my life to expand my understanding?

Reaching out is never easy.  We often think of healing, forgiving, peacemaking and hospitality as weaknesses. But we are so wrong. We don’t do them because they are actually some of the hardest things humans can do. Offering healing, forgiveness and peace force us to try something we are not comfortable with. Following Jesus is for the courageous of heart. 

It’s easier to ignore people or push them away and stay isolated on top of the hill. I know, I fight against this tendency all the time in inside myself.

And I ask God to help me with this desire to stay by myself on the hilltop because the Bible shows me that Jesus doesn’t want me defend a hill.

Jesus wants me to extend a hand.

To pull someone like you up on the hill with me. God’s calling me not just to cheer Jesus from the pulpit, but to actually follow him into his kingdom and invite you to join me.

And so I’m extending my hand to you. Won’t you come up the hill, too?