December 6, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 21:1-11.
When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me. And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.” This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'” The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road. The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?” And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus, the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The prophecy is from Zechariah written about 520 B.C.E. in which he describes the messianic vision of the coming of the Prince of Peace and king of the Jews. Chapter 9:9 from which this is taken begins, “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he.” The crowd’s cry of “Hosanna” is taken from Psalm 118, “Lord, grant salvation!” This phrase in Hebrew has been translated into English as “Hosanna.”
Although this reading is reserved for Lent, it seems appropriate to me for the beginning of Advent as well. Advent is our time to rejoice heartily and shout for joy on the coming of our savior, the prince of peace. The people recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and joyously exclaimed his arrival in their hosannas, their expectation of salvation from their Roman overlords. This scene repeats one of nearly 200 years before when Judas Maccabaeus had driven out the hated Greek conquerors who had desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. As Judas Maccabaeus approached Jerusalem in victory the crowds strewed bare tree branches, green boughs, and palm fronds on the road before him and sang psalms to him. So, they had the same expectation of impending victory over the Romans led by Jesus. In reading the gospels it’s always important to keep in mind the political context.
But at the same time, the crowd refers to Jesus as a prophet. They still weren’t able to make the leap from the long line of prophets to the appearance of the Messiah, God’s anointed one and Son. Religion and politics were all mashed up together in their minds and in their daily lives. The arrival of Jesus had to be very confusing. He entered Jerusalem on an ass in a posture of humility. The ass was regarded as the symbol of peace while the horse was the weapon of war. So, people asked, “Who is this?” They couldn’t get a handle on Jesus. He was full of contradictions and defied expectations. As Barclay writes, “So when Jesus claimed to be king, he claimed to be the king of peace. He showed that he came, not to destroy, but to love; not to condemn, but to help; not in the might of arms, but in the strength of love….It was a last invitation to men to open, not their palaces but their hearts to him.” That’s what they couldn’t quite get — the kingdom of God at hand, Christ among us.
I think we’re still confused and conflicted by Jesus. He continues to contradict our human tendencies and defy our expectations. We still ask, “Who is this?” We still want him to be one thing while he’s determined to be another. He is the prince of peace; he loves and does not condemn; he forgives and does not reject; he builds and does not tear down; he is the heart of compassion and the act of justice. We are right to rejoice at his coming this Advent season, but what is it that we expect from him? I think the right question is what does he expect of us? His gospel makes that crystal clear, but somehow most of us don’t think he’s talking to us. If others would just change and be more Christ-like, then the world would be a better place. We could all get along. But the reality is that he is talking to me. Am I going to change in order to make the world a better place so that I can get along everyone else? And not just get along but see and embrace Christ in every other person? Am I going to have the heart of Christ? Am I a part of Advent or a bystander? Do people have to ask about me, “Who is this?” Or do I make it evident that I am a devoted follower of Jesus and his teachings? I need to pose that question to myself every day and all through the day.