One of the few bits of freedom we have during this current pandemic is that we are allowed out every day for a little bit of exercise beyond our gardens, just as long as we keep our 2m distance from other people. I am aware that not everyone is able physically (or maybe emotionally)
to get outdoor exercise. But for those who are, you might have noticed that we are surrounded by Rainbows. Quite a large number of houses with children have put rainbows up in their windows.
Back in the 80’s it was very common for churches to have images of rainbows up in their windows or on noticeboards. A few still do, although the trend has now gradually dwindled out. The church rainbows were accompanied by the words ‘There is hope’. Although the rainbows in the windows of the houses during this time of pandemic are accompanied by the words ‘stay safe’ or ‘stay at home’ the meaning is much the same as the Christian rainbows of the 80’s. They are symbolising that if we all stay safe and follow the rules, there is the hope that one day this will all be over. The enemy of coronavirus will be defeated, and we will be able to meet together and hug each other once more.
The rainbow has long been a symbol of hope because if its place in Scripture. After Noah, and his family, and all the animals, got off the ark at the end of the flood, the Lord God promised his care over humanity. In Genesis chapters 8 and 9 God places the rainbow in the sky as a sign of his promise that never again will he destroy all living beings. He tells Noah that as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.
So, the symbol of the rainbow is a sign of God’s care over humanity; and life in general. There is hope. We will come out of the other side of this pandemic. Last week there was a beautiful rainbow in the sky. One of my sisters captured it beautifully.
There is no doubt that for all of us, in some way or another, this pandemic is a difficult time. And some will be finding it even harder than others. When times are difficult, we might find that we notice rainbows more, and allow them to lift our spirits with their beauty.
But hope and expectations are different things. Sometimes hope is fulfilled in a way rather different to how we expected it to be. Unmet expectations can result in sadness and heart ache. But hope is more open and flexible. Hope knows that everything will work out ‘in the end’ but places no expectations on when that end will be or what it will look like. Hope is realistic. And Hope lets go of our own need to take control: In other words, hope lets go and lets God.
Today is Palm Sunday. It is the Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem surrounded by a joyful crowd of Galileans who had come to trust in him. They had become his followers across the time he had been ministering in Galilee, including during the course of this journey to Jerusalem. These Galileans were filled with hope and joy in that moment. To them Jesus was their Messiah, their King, and their prophet. Though for many of them Jesus was going to fulfil their hope in unexpected ways. And for some of them those unmet expectations may have resulted in their cries of hope on Palm Sunday changing to cries of ‘Crucify him’ a week later.
Until this point in time Jesus had been the quiet Messiah. Whenever he had healed anyone, he had asked them to keep quiet. That is important because in the first century Jewish world hopes and expectations of a Messiah or saviour were very high. Although there was some variety in what the messiah would look like he would be God’s final, end time intervention in human history. One common expectation, though, was that the messiah would be a King. A King like David had been. A King who would defeat the enemies of the Jews. Including, and especially, the Romans who were at that time ruling over the Jews.
Not surprisingly, any claims or actions to be a Messiah, in 1st century Judaism, would have seen that person quickly eliminated by the powers of Rome. Jesus encouraged people to keep quiet about his actions because it was just sensible to do so. This is what Mathew 12 says about Jesus as the quiet Messiah.
15 When Jesus heard about the plot against him, he went away from that place; and large crowds followed him. He healed all the sick 16 and gave them orders not to tell others about him. 17 He did this so as to make come true what God had said through the prophet Isaiah:
18 “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
the one I love, and with whom I am pleased.
I will send my Spirit upon him,
and he will announce my judgment to the nations.
19 He will not argue or shout,
or make loud speeches in the streets.
20 He will not break off a bent reed,
nor put out a flickering lamp.
He will persist until he causes justice to triumph,
21 and on him all peoples will put their hope.”
But the keeping quiet changed at the opening point to the final week before Rome crucifies him. The people of Galilee had gradually come to see Jesus as a Kingly-Messiah, and as he approaches Jerusalem together with hundreds of the people that had followed him, he allowed them to praise him, and to declare him as King and saviour.
But Jesus had all this planned. He allowed himself to be seen as a messiah and King but he does so in a way that counters Rome.
The other parade?
During Passover week the population of Jerusalem would about quadruple as Jews came from all over to celebrate. In my research I came across a number of people mentioning a book called ‘The Last week’. I haven’t yet read the book, but it is by two scholars: John Crossan, and Marcus Borg. In it the authors argue that there was another parade the same day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. Each parade entering on different sides of the city.
Every year at the beginning of the Jewish Holy week Pontius Pilate who was the Roman Governor, would March into Jerusalem to keep an eye on what the Jews were up to at the temple. The Jews were celebrating their freedom from Egypt in the days of Moses, so the Roman governor marched in to the beat of drums. He would be riding a horse and surrounded by soldiers dressed in leather as though ready for battle. It was a parade to show force, and to show the Jews that although they were celebrating freedom, they were not free. They were under the authority of the Romans. And if the Jews were to rise up against Rome, Rome would quickly and forcefully put them back in their place.
On the other side of the city, Jesus’s Galilean followers laid down palm branches. This was a symbolic act. They had come to believe that Jesus was going to bring their freedom from the Romans. Roughly 170 years earlier there had been a great celebration to rejoice that Israel had been set free from its gentile oppressors of the time. That celebration had included the waving of palm branches and signing of hymns of praise and thanksgiving.
So, when Jesus enters Jerusalem the palm branches indicate expectations that Jesus will set them free from Rome. The words that they use to praise him also show their expectations. Hosanna is a term of praise but also had a meaning of being saved. And son of David indicated their expectation of Jesus being their Messiah King like David who would rule in power and might, and who would free Israel from their enemies, like Rome.
Donkey (v horse)
Pilate’s parade had him riding on a horse into the city. That was part of the symbolism of force and being ready to fight against the Jews and keep them from taking back their freedom.
While Pilate was on a horse, Jesus had arranged that in his counter parade he would be riding a donkey. This was symbolic of a King arriving in peace as the quote from Zechariah shows. Jesus was symbolising that although he was a King, and messiah, he was not intending on coming in force like Pilate. He was going to remain the quiet and gentle King. He wasn’t bringing war; he was bringing a revolution of the heart.
The Galilean crowds had their expectations but they most likely didn’t quite understand what Jesus was doing.
They might have expected him to stage a coup against Rome. But instead Jesus’ first move is to go to the temple. Because here he is symbolising how he is the Messiah and the true meaning of putting hope in Jesus.
As Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem the other Jews in the city questioned them. As a Galilean Jesus was something of an outsider. And entering Jerusalem is entering the centre of Jewish religion. And it is here he has something to say.
Matthew 21:12-14 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[e] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[f]”14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
He challenges religious traditions that have become oppressive. And he challenges religion that has lost sight of its true purposes. The true purpose of the temple is for prayer and worship only. And true worship includes and cares for the needy. For those reasons Jesus turns the tables of the money exchangers, and then turns to heal.
In these actions Jesus is showing that the enemies he is coming to defeat are the enemies of oppression, injustice, sickness, suffering, and death.
But, just like Jesus was the quiet Messiah in his earthly ministry, he remains the quiet and gentle Messiah. He doesn’t defeat these enemies immediately because he is gentle and merciful. He works through love, and through time. He won’t break off a bent reed, or put out a flickering lamp, because given the chance and the right care, these things may return to the way they were meant to be. Jesus works in a gentle way that gives everyone the opportunity, to see the ways in which they might be damaging others. Even the most wicked people are given opportunity to realise they are on the wrong side of the Kingdom. He is a Messiah of patience, and of love, and of mercy as well as justice. The healings of Jesus show that one day he will overcome sickness. Concrete realisations of that hope come when we do see healings from time to time in the life of the church.
But, although the kingdom has begun, it is also not yet.
Jesus’s first century followers may well have had the expectations they placed in their Messiah dashed. And Peter might still have been struggling with that when he cut off someone’s ear when Jesus was arrested. He may have been still struggling to understand that the fight wasn’t against Rome, and that salvation is for everyone, not just the Jews. He may have been struggling to understand that Jesus had to suffer as part of his mission, and that Jesus had to be gentle.
Expectations may be dashed but hope remains.
Because Jesus is gentle, salvation will take time. In the meantime, as Mathew chapter 28 tells us, Jesus will be with us until that time is fulfilled. And his Holy Spirit works in and through us, his people.
So, while there is hope in Jesus it’s not a hope that can be immediately fulfilled. It’s not a hope that sickness can be eliminated here and now; and our enemies destroyed here and now.
Instead it is a hope that people will gradually become more aware of their own ways of injustice, and ultimately change their actions and join Jesus in opposing injustice.
It is a hope that all forms of injustice will be overcome including religious injustice.
It is a hope for the transformation of hearts.
It is a hope that offers freedom to both the oppressed and the oppressor.
And a hope that there will one day be a healing of the whole of creation, when the Kingdom of heaven, which began in the ministry of Jesus, eventually comes in all its fullness.
In the midst of the darkness of coronavirus we have the opportunity to reimagine what we do and how we do it in order to show others the hope that we have in Jesus.
We get an opportunity to rethink what we do and how we do it when we meet for church.
And when this is all over there might just be a few more flickering lights burning brightly, and few more bent reeds standing tall.