Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
If you spend any amount of time with me, something that becomes evident quickly is that I love Star Wars. I have a ton of reasons why I think stories about space wizards with laser swords that take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away are the best. The Rogue One teaser trailer captures one of the aspects of Star Wars I really like. This scene, which did not make it in the final cut, has the main character Jyn Erso before the leaders of the Rebel Alliance. They need her for a mission, but they begin by confronting her with a long rap sheet from a troubled past. To all of this Jyn Erso simply shrugs and states, “This is a rebellion isn’t it? I rebel.”
The ideal of wide-eyed farm boys, lovable rogues, and outspoken princesses resisting an evil empire is one that really draws me in. The fact that there are dog-fighting spaceships, laser swords, and cantinas full of aliens is just an added bonus. Star Wars really romanticizes the idea of being a rebel. I am struck by how much that is different from our real life experience. We tend not to view rebellion in a positive light. I have personally learned how true this is as a parent. A kid refusing to do something simple like putting on their shoes after being told to more than once can quickly bring out the Darth Vader in me. I may be attracted to the romantic version of rebellion put forth in Star Wars, but when I am confronted by small acts of actual rebelling I tend to not deal with it well. Our rules, laws, and cultural standards are really made to reinforce a specific way of living and there is a low tolerance for deviation.
I am especially struck by how much faith and religion has played a part in enforcing this culture. A lot of people have a view that Christianity is a list of rules of what not to do. These do not rules essentially name what acts of rebellion are not allowed. We can see how this idea of not rebelling has really been baked into our faith experience. For instance, most of us (me included) will joyfully sing, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” I have nothing against the song and it has a lot of wisdom in it. However, the statement that the only way to be happy is to obey is a little strong, and really does show how modern Christianity has been propped up as a tool to suppress rebellious attitudes. This is a little ironic, because Christianity is a rebellion after all. The early Christians were viewed by both the Jewish authorities and the Roman rulers as rebels. As far as the Roman Empire was concerned, Jesus was a rebel. From a Roman legal standpoint, Jesus was crucified for insurrection. The Romans were not entirely wrong. Jesus was not attempting to overthrow Caesar, but he was, he is, leading a rebellion. The rebellious nature of Jesus is seen throughout the gospels, but it is perhaps most overt in the familiar story of Palm Sunday. Jesus entering the temple on a donkey was an explicitly rebellious act. Contemplating the actions of Palm Sunday should lead us to also consider if perhaps as followers of Christ we should still be a little rebellious.
Palm Sunday is one of the fixed times in the church calendar. We know that every year on the Sunday before Easter we are going to read the scripture about Jesus coming to the temple and on any year but this one we would all be waving palm branches around. We are so used to this, that I think sometimes we overlook just how odd this story is. I mean it essentially starts out with Jesus telling his disciples to commit grand theft donkey. The gospel of Matthew, which this morning’s scripture comes from, is really good at giving us the gospel connection to the Old Testament. He does that here as well, and informs us why Jesus needs the donkey. It is to fulfill a scripture from Zechariah: “say to Daughter Zion, ‘See your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a cola the foal of a donkey.’ “What Matthew does not let us in on is why Jesus riding a donkey to fulfill the scripture is significant.
In First Century Israel the air was ripe with messianic expectation. Judea had been a Roman province for close to a century by the time Jesus entered into the temple on a donkey. During those decades, the people of Israel grew in hope that the messianic prophecies of the prophets would be fulfilled. They looked with expectation for a messiah to come and deliver them. During this time, tradition had formed around the prophecy from Zechariah as well as other Messianic scriptures. Many thought that the Messiah would come during one of the high holy days like Passover, and tradition had come to believe that when the Messiah rode into Jerusalem on a donkey they would come via the Sheshun gate into the temple. This is what Jesus did. Jesus did not ride into the temple on a donkey to check off a box on the “prophecies fulfilled” scorecard. Jesus did it to publicly declare in no uncertain terms, “I am the messiah.”
Again, we are so used to celebrating Palm Sunday that we do not always question what is going on in the scripture. I think as a result of that we also have a wrong idea about the people waving the palm branches. There are two primary Palm Sunday hymns and they both paint a similar picture. In the third verse “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” states, “Into the city I’d follow the children’s band, waving a branch of the palm tree high in my hand.” Then “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” begins with “Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang.” However, The crowd that waived the palm branches and praised Jesus was not as innocent as we like to think. It was a rag-tag collection of rebels. There were two primary groups that waved the branches and escorted Jesus into the temple on that fateful day. The first were the disciples of Jesus, and as far as the good religious people of the day were concerned they were upstarts. They were rebels who challenged and disrespected the traditions and the way things have always been. They followed the teachings of a rabbi who broke with the way the Pharisees did things. The second group that was there that day were the zealots.
It was the tradition that at the beginning of Passover, many people had gathered by the Sheshun gate, just in case this was the year when the Messiah might actually come. These people were zealots, Jews who actively wanted to see the Roman Empire overthrown and Israel become independent again. Palm branches were a symbol adopted by the zealots that represented Jewish sovereignty. This is also why they shouted Hosanna, roughly translated means “Please save us”, and finds its roots in Psalm 18. Like the palm branch, this is a phrase that was adapted by the zealots. It was their rallying cry, it was their political marketing slogan. It was not a band of wide-eyed, innocent children that greeted Jesus and waved palm branches it was group of rebels. When we realize what was going on and what Jesus was declaring it is no wonder that verse ten of this morning’s scripture declares “the whole city was stirred.”
Jesus was greeted by a group of rebels, but the zealots were ultimately disappointed. They were wanting a political insurrection, and that was the not the kind of rebellion that Jesus was leading. Make no mistake though, Jesus is leading a rebellion. It is a rebellion against the oppression of sin and darkness, it is a rebellion of grace against legalism, and it is a rebellion of love against hate. It is a rebellion built on hope. Jesus is Lord has always been a rebellious statement. If we live it out seriously, it is still a rebellious statement. Rebellion is an act that subverts the status quo, the way things are, in order to change it to something else. The world we live in is broken and fallen, and any act as Christ followers we take to shine light or fix it is going to be perceived as upsetting the status quo. If we are following Jesus correctly, then someone will see it as being rebellious.
This has always been the case. When we look at our history, at the Christians who made real and lasting differences in the world, they were always accused of being rebels. There is one woman whose story I think wonderfully illustrates how following Jesus can lead us to be rebels. Amy Carmichael was an Irish woman born in 1867. She felt called by God at the age of 20 to be a missionary. She initially met resistance on account of her being a woman. Eventually her perseverance pushed through and she found herself with a missionary organization stationed in India. Like all missionaries, Amy’s life calling was to share the good news of Jesus Christ, but she did not take the standard approach of that era. Missionary enterprises of the 19th century had good intentions, but they had a very colonial outlook. They tended to look down on non-Western culture and talk down to indigenous peoples. Instead of casting herself as better and different to the people of India, Amy sought to assimilate to them. To better reach the local population she took on their their diet, dress, and way of life. Instead of preaching about how the people of India should change their ways, she instead sought to show them God’s love through her actions. This, of course, drew a lot of criticism from European missions and church leaders. She specifically reached out to the poorest, youngest, and most oppressed population. This too, drew a lot of criticism. In India during this time it was common practice to give unwanted children over to Hindu temples, where they essentially had to serve a lifetime of forced servitude, of slavery. Amy found her purposes and began rescuing these children. Despite threat of death, she built a home to protect these children that became known as the Dohnavur Fellowship. Those who benefited from these enslavement practices tried to tear her down. They tried to give her a tarnished reputation and call her the “white woman who steals children.” Despite that, Amy held to helping the least of these. She would often travel for days just to rescue a single child. She sought to save and care for children for fifty-five straight years. She never took a break, she never went home. Amy’s lifetime resulted in over 1,000 abused, abandoned, and enslaved children being loved, provided for, and free.
In 1867 women were not supposed to be missionaries, but Amy rebelled against that. At that time missionaries were supposed to also import Western culture, not go native for the sake of the cross. Amy rebelled against that. Giving children to temples was a long standing culture practice regardless of how wrong or evil it was, but Amy rebelled against that. Amy’s entire adult life was one marked by rebellion, and I have no doubt that at the end of a life well lived Amy Carmichael heard her savior say, “well done good and faithful servant.”
Following Jesus should still lead us to rebel against the world we find ourselves in. We live in a world that seeks to polarize people, to divide into us versus them. We live in a world that seeks to train us to look at “those people” (whoever those people maybe) with disgust and as enemies. Yet Jesus rode into the temple on a donkey to declare he is the Messiah, and in his kingdom there are no “those people”. Everyone is preciously created by God with sacred worth. Jesus went all the way to Calvary to prove that the ground at the foot of the cross is level. All are invited to into God’s kingdom and all are welcome. It is the culture of our world today to ask, “are you with me or against me?” Let’s rebel against that. May that kind of division not be our message, but may instead our declaration be “I am with you and I will love you because Jesus loves you.”
When Jesus declared himself to be the messiah he was surrounded by a bunch of rebels, by a ragtag group of radicals. Sometimes I fear that rebellious spirit that should be central to our faith has been diminished. It should not be this way. The world was lost to sin and death, and this morning’s scripture celebrates that Jesus declared himself the Messiah and he rebelled against that way of the world. He was at the forefront of an insurrection of grace. When Jesus declared himself to be Messiah, the zealots shouted “Hosanna”-please save us. Friends, we’ve seen the end of the script we know what is coming. Jesus does indeed save us. That is good news, it is radical news. May we not be quiet about it, may we seek to follow Jesus. In doing so, may we love others, may we reach out to others, and may we seek to transform this world even if someone thinks that doing so might subversive or rebellious. May we be proper Christians, and may we rebel.