On this day, Christians around the world celebrate the event that got Jesus killed; his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where the common people proclaimed him King. The Roman authorities saw a rebellion fermenting, and the religious leadership of the Sanhedrin didn’t like Jesus’s challenge to their authority—which he displayed, soon after entering the city, by ransacking the Temple. Jesus knew that by entering the capital and confronting the religious and political powers, he was writing his own death warrant. But he was determined to go there. The Scriptures say Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. Matthew 19:1. Why Jerusalem? Why did Jesus have to go there? After all, it would be more convenient, today, if the place where Jesus died and rose from the dead were somewhere other than the land that’s also sacred to Muslims and Jews.
We read about Jerusalem in the books of Samuel and Kings as the city where David and his line consolidated their power. Prior to that time, the area around Jerusalem may have had some historical significance as the location where Abraham sacrificed Isaac, but as we have seen, worship traveled with the ark, judges ruled from wherever they happened to live, and there was no one place in the Holy Land set apart as the Holy City. It’s with David, Solomon, and the Davidic line that Jerusalem becomes the center of the people’s political and religious life.
And that is precisely why Jesus had to go to Jerusalem: because God had some problems with both the political and religious situation of the city, and indeed, of the world. Jerusalem means a number of things, but the most agreed-upon meaning of the name “Jerusalem” is the city of peace. And then, as now, there wasn’t a lot of peace in the city. The Roman occupiers maintained order through violence. They violated the Temple and installed priests loyal to them, rather than to God or the people. So the Jewish people were looking for someone to come in and fix it, a savior who would ride in on a big tank with guns blazing and set everything right. A few years ago, a documentary came out about education in America, called Waiting for Superman. The people of Israel were waiting for Superman. They were waiting for the promised Messiah, a new king from the line of David, who would show the Romans who was boss. They wanted David back. They wanted Solomon. The great kings of old.
That’s why they rejoiced to see Jesus riding in on a donkey. The people remembered 1 Kings 1, which you heard this morning.
And they remembered Zechariah’s prophecy: from Zechariah 9:9-10, that the king would come humbly, riding on a donkey colt.
So that is why they waved their palm branches—a symbol of hailing a king, or perhaps a reminder of the branches they waved during the festival of booths, which was one of the festivals we studied back in Exodus. They’re excited for David to come back, or one of his line, and kick some Roman you-know-what, and restore a godly king on the throne. And can we blame them? Don’t we want solutions, now, to the real physical and political and economic problems we face? Aren’t we waiting for Superman? Don’t we want God to heal our bodies, our finances, our nation? The people of Israel wanted to make Israel great again. And no matter how you feel about our President or his slogan, we do, all of us, long for a a greater America.
But a great nation wasn’t good enough for God. As we have seen, the good old days weren’t always so good in Israel (perhaps the same is true, if we are honest, about our own history as well). The line of David turned out to be a disappointment. Even David himself was far from a perfect ruler. Although Jesus is proclaimed king, when he enters the city, it’s not Solomon or David he thinks of. Instead, just after he enters the city, Jesus remembers what happened to the prophets, who truly spoke for God: Matthew 23:37 says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that stones the prophets, how often have I wanted to cover you as a hen covers her chicks under her wings!”
Jesus knows that his role is not just to restore power, but to share truth, and historically, truth doesn’t go over so well. You see, the people want a king, but God is not interested so much in what we want. You see, He’s tried that. When the people wanted a king before, He gave them a king. And in so doing, he preserved the nation, he preserved the faith, he preserved the relationship between himself and humankind. But as we have seen, it was not an ideal system, nor was it God’s design from the beginning. He wanted the people to turn to him, love him, and follow him. If we all turned toward God, we would have no need of a king, because we would live in justice and righteousness and peace.
God thinks bigger than the political problem that the Israelites see, and bigger than the short-term political solution they envision. And God sends us not a physical savior, not a political savior, but a Savior of our hearts and souls. Not the savior we want, but the Savior we need. A Savior who will not ride into the city on a chariot, like the Romans, but on a humble donkey—and not just a donkey, but a young donkey, a donkey cold. A Savior who will not wear a crown of gold, like David, but a crown of thorns. A Savior who will not speak on a throne, like Solomon, but from a cross. A Savior who rules not from power, but from love.
We try to accomplish things from our power, from our strength. We try to fight for what we believe in. And some things can be accomplished through political power and military might. But not the great things. The kingdom of Israel fell. So did the empire of Greece. The Romans, too. The British Empire, on which the sun never set—it’s history now. Hitler declared that the German Reich would reign forever—a few years is all it took before his tyranny crumbled. Political power, military might—they will fall. Superman might save us, for now. But what created the universe, what created life, what created you and me—the power that breaks down barriers and changes people and nations forever—is the power of love. And that’s the power that, deep down, the people saw in Jesus. That’s why they wanted to crown him king. They were right to do so. They just didn’t think big enough. They just didn’t know just how much his love could do.
I read a true story about what love can do, by a man named Richard Paul Evans. He writes:
For years my wife Keri and I struggled. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what initially drew us together, but our personalities didn’t quite match up…We were on the edge of divorce and more than once we discussed it….I was alone and lonely, frustrated and angry. I had reached my limit. That’s when I turned to God. Or turned on God. I don’t know if you could call it prayer–maybe shouting at God isn’t prayer, maybe it is–but whatever I was engaged in I’ll never forget it. I was standing in the shower…yelling at God that marriage was wrong and I couldn’t do it anymore. As much as I hated the idea of divorce, the pain of being together was just too much…why couldn’t we get along? Why had I married someone so different than me? Why wouldn’t she change?
Finally, hoarse and broken, I sat down in the shower and began to cry. In the depths of my despair powerful inspiration came to me. You can’t change her, Rick. You can only change yourself. At that moment I began to pray. If I can’t change her, God, then change me. I prayed late into the night. I prayed the next day on the flight home. I prayed as I walked in the door to a cold wife who barely even acknowledged me. That night, as we lay in our bed, inches from each other yet miles apart, the inspiration came. I knew what I had to do.
The next morning I rolled over in bed next to Keri and asked, “How can I make your day better?”
Keri looked at me angrily. “What?”
“How can I make your day better?”
“You can’t,” she said. “Why are you asking that?”
“Because I mean it,” I said. “I just want to know what I can do to make your day better.”
She looked at me cynically. “You want to do something? Go clean the kitchen.”
She likely expected me to get mad. Instead I just nodded. “Okay.” I got up and cleaned the kitchen.
The next day I asked the same thing. “What can I do to make your day better?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Clean the garage.”
I took a deep breath. I already had a busy day and I knew she had made the request in spite. I was tempted to blow up at her. Instead I said, “Okay.” I got up and for the next two hours cleaned the garage. Keri wasn’t sure what to think.
The next morning came. “What can I do to make your day better?”
“Nothing!” she said. “You can’t do anything. Please stop saying that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can’t. I made a commitment to myself. What can I do to make your day better?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I care about you,” I said. “And our marriage.”
The next morning I asked again. And the next. And the next. Then, during the second week, a miracle occurred. As I asked the question Keri’s eyes welled up with tears. Then she broke down crying. When she could speak she said, “Please stop asking me that. You’re not the problem. I am. I’m hard to live with. I don’t know why you stay with me.”
I gently lifted her chin until she was looking in my eyes. “It’s because I love you,” I said. “What can I do to make your day better?”
“I should be asking you that.”
“You should,” I said. “But not now. Right now, I need to be the change. You need to know how much you mean to me.”
She put her head against my chest. “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean.”
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you,” she replied.
“What can I do to make your day better?”
She looked at me sweetly. “Can we maybe just spend some time together?”
I smiled. “I’d like that.”
I continued asking for more than a month. And things did change. The fighting stopped. Then Keri began asking, “What do you need from me? How can I be a better wife?”
The walls between us fell. We began having meaningful discussions on what we wanted from life and how we could make each other happier. No, we didn’t solve all our problems. I can’t even say that we never fought again. But the nature of our fights changed. Keri and I have now been married for more than thirty years. I not only love my wife, I like her. I like being with her. I crave her. I need her. Many of our differences have become strengths and the others don’t really matter. We’ve learned how to take care of each other.
When we treated God with cruelty and hate, when we hurt God and one another in unforgiveable ways, God didn’t come down to show us who was boss. He asked “How can I make your world better? What more, beloved people, can I possibly do for you?”, and we answered, “die.” So He did.
And in doing so, He defeated the powers of darkness with the power of love. He was not the savior we wanted, but the Savior we needed.
What do you want from God? Are you praying for healing, praying for success, praying for someone to come and save you? Someone already did.
We pray for what we want from God. But what if, instead, we prayed for what we really need? Maybe it’s not healing from the disease. Maybe it’s the strength to carry on. Maybe it’s not greater success. Maybe it’s redefining what success really means. Maybe it’s not waiting for Superman to come and save us. Maybe it’s placing our trust more and more in Jesus, who already did.
This Holy Week, the world is already celebrating Easter, new life, all things bright and shiny and new, the triumph of the King. The world wants bunnies and eggs and holiday ham. The world wants easy answers. But we walk through Jerusalem. We watch the city of peace turn into a city run by cruel governors, corrupt politicians, and an angry mob. We see the worst humanity has to offer. And we see our salvation. Not in a king on a throne, restoring peace to the city for a time, but in a Savior on the cross, restoring peace for all people and for all time, not with the power of armies, but with the power of love.
Come. Let us walk into the city of peace.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.