It is hard to believe that a week from tomorrow marks one year since my brothers Curtis, John, Luke, and I embarked on a journey to the Holy Land to lead a pilgrimage. Each of us brothers prepared two reflections to give at designated sites during our two week journey. I was assigned to give my first meditation at ‘The Shepherd’s Field,’ in the countryside just outside of Bethlehem where tradition says the shepherds would have encountered the great angelic hosts proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ birth. My second meditation I gave at the teardrop-shaped church on the Mount of Olives called ‘Dominus Flevit,’ which is Latin for “The Lord wept.” It was here that I could begin to piece together in my mind the scene we celebrated at the beginning of this morning’s liturgy.
If you have never been to Jerusalem, it is helpful to know that the Mount of Olives isn’t really a mountain in the way we think of them. In truth it looks to be about the same elevation as Jerusalem itself, only on the other side of a ravine facing the city. From its height you have an unobstructed view of the Old City, and in particular the magnificent Dome of the Rock which stands atop the ruins of the Jewish Temple. In Jesus’ day, the prominent gold dome would have been absent and instead you would have viewed the grandeur of the Jewish Temple. It is from this point on the Mount of Olives that Jesus was met by large crowds waving Palm branches and cheering on the one in whom they had hoped was the long awaited Messiah of God. And so our liturgy this morning begins outside the church with the blessing of Palms, followed by grand hymns stating: All glory laud and honor to Thee Redeemer King and Ride on, ride on, in Majesty!!! And we make our way into the church, welcoming Jesus into our midst as we embark on our own journey into Holy Week, imitating the hope of the crowds from two thousand years ago yelling “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
As I prepared my meditation to give at Dominus Flevit, I was drawn to the fact that this triumphant entry into Jerusalem amid cheering crowds was made on a donkey. Why a donkey? The savior that the Jews envisioned was a mighty warrior, a king who would ride into Jerusalem on a horse and lead an uprising powerful enough to humble mighty Rome and expel its occupying forces from the land of God’s chosen people. A horse was a symbol of might, a majestic beast in which kings rode to war. Indeed, for the crowd’s vision of Jesus as Messiah, wouldn’t a horse have been a better choice?
But Jesus sends his disciples ahead, not to get a horse, but rather a donkey. As a child, and indeed for most of my life, I had always assumed that this was all this poor carpenter’s son and itinerant rabbi from Nazareth could muster, and based on this assumption, it would be easy to view this pitiably. Further research on this story, which is iterated in each of the gospels in varying detail, sheds light on the fact that Jesus did not have to settle on the poorest means by which to fulfill his mission, but rather He intentionally chose those things that would help proclaim the gospel message of God’s life, light, and love. This gospel message presented a dichotomy that turned the political and religious establishments upside down.
In my reflection to the pilgrims at the Shepherd’s Field I noted that the first to receive the announcement of Jesus’ birth were the lowly shepherds tending sheep in the rural regions outside Bethlehem. Moreover, this ‘Lamb of God,’ named Jesus, was not born in a palace fit for a king, but rather in a feeding trough fit for a beast of burden. Throughout salvation history, God has always defied our expectations. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. Jesus intentionally rode into Jerusalem on a donkey because in first-century Palestine, that is what a king would ride when he came in peace. The crowds were expecting Jesus to incite war. Instead, Jesus defied expectations by ‘inciting’ peace.
And it is to Bethphage that Jesus sends two disciples to find the donkey he will ride into Jerusalem. I imagine as he rode toward the city, his heart grew heavy as he intuited that the peace he was offering would be rejected. In Luke’s telling of this story, Dominus Flevit is the spot where Jesus stops with the grandeur of Jerusalem in full view and weeps, saying: If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.
This story is iconic. You may know that an icon is an image of a figure or a sacred scene from a scriptural story that points to something deeper. How is this story of Jesus ‘triumphant’ entry into Jerusalem drawing you into a deeper understanding of God? Perhaps the place to begin is by prayerfully examining your own expectations. I said just a moment ago that those cheering Jesus on expected a different course of action than the one Jesus took. Their own expectations kept them from seeing and excepting the peace and healing that Jesus was offering, deepening their confusion to the point they were willing to turn their backs on this peace and in turn nailed Jesus to a cross.
I once read in a book of meditations this quote: “Today’s unmet expectations are tomorrow’s resentments.” You may be expecting God to act in a certain way amid the chaos of your life and in our shared civic life and as a result deepening the divide between you and God rather than bridging the gap in your relationship. In your prayer life, tell Jesus about this. He can handle it. Has there been a time in your life when you’ve resisted God’s gentle nudge in a direction you were not willing to go? Has there been a time when you’ve felt yourself unworthy of God’s nurture and care? If so, hear Jesus’ assurance of God’s love for you. What could seem to you as block in your relationship to God is actually a bridge. Jesus spans the gulf. Maybe you have been faced with a difficult situation, relationship, or perhaps a time when you’ve felt the need to arm yourself for battle? Is Jesus inviting you to surrender your might and to adopt instead an intentional posture of peace and calm?
In a few moments when you come forward for communion, bring those expectations, hopes, fears, doubts, desires, and needs with you and offer them to God and then receive the sustenance you will need to journey into Holy Week with Jesus. In the words of a famous 12-step slogan: Let go and let God and follow Jesus on the path to a peace that exceeds all your expectations.