My father, my brother, and myself are all diehard Kansas basketball fans. My father, and my grandmother both graduated from the University of Kansas, and they raised my brother and I as Jayhawks. Kansas does not have an awful lot to boast about, its not the most cosmopolitan state, its lacking in interesting geographical features, but they do have Kansas Basketball. The University of Kansas has a tradition of excellence in basketball dating back to when Wilt Chamberlain was a student. And we have made it into the NCAA Tournament, March Madness, every one of the last 28 years. And that, is what I want to talk about. The Tournament.
The NCAA Tournament is the one and only way to decide who is the National Champion, for Men’s College Basketball. It’s a thrilling single-elimination tournament featuring the best 68 teams in the country. And every year Kansas enters the tournament as a very high seed, this year, like most years, we were a number 1 seed. So I begin March, in a spirit of joy and pride. My Jayhawks just won yet another Big 12 title, and now they’ve gotten, yet another #1 seed for the Tourney. Things are looking good. This is gonna be the year. But this, was not the year. In fact, over those last 28 consecutive tournament appearances only once has this year, been the year. So, this year, like nearly every other year, my overwhelming excitement at Kansas’ great promise, is followed quickly by crushing disappointment. Literally, every year. I can’t help it. I can’t help but enter this cycle of joy and hope and disappointment. What choice do I have? I love Kansas, I want them to win, to be the champion, and the Tournament is how that happens. I have to cheer them on every year, even though I know that most likely, that crushing disappointment is coming for me. If I want to be cheering by the TV on the day of their future victory, I’ve got to be prepared to take some lumps along the way.
The people of Jerusalem had been waiting for a Messiah to redeem them, to throw off their oppressor’s and restore the glory of the Davidic Monarchy, for over 500 years, by the time Jesus rode that donkey into the city. Five hundred years ago, the Babylonians had conquered them. Since then, it had just been one imperial ruler after the next, Persia, Greece, and now Rome. But these were a proud people, a people who believed God had destined glory for them, and they held to the belief that God would one day send them a Savior, a Messiah, who would set things right.
And that was exactly what Jesus was claiming to be when he entered the city riding on donkey in fulfillment of the Zechariah’s prophecy of a humble messiah. The desire to keep the story underwraps from earlier in Matthew’s gospel, keeping this messianic secret, is gone entirely. Jesus is publicly, proclaiming to all of Jerusalem that he is indeed the Messiah, the Savior, the anointed one of God. There had been pretenders to the throne before. Religious charismatics, leaders of rebellions, but all of these had met tragic ends. There is every reason to think that Jesus will suffer the same fate, but what are the people to do? How can they keep from shouting? How can they keep from cheering? They love Jerusalem, they love their people, they love their God, and they want to be there on the day of God’s victory.
But there is something peculiar about this Messiah. Everyone knew of the prophecy that he would enter the city riding on a donkey, but no one really thought he would be riding only a donkey. Certainly, the messiah would come with chariots and armies ready to send the Romans running. The donkey is a nice nod to God’s promise, but where is the power behind it? To enter Jerusalem this way, during the celebration of Passover, was sure to upset the authorities. The religious elite would not tolerate another backcountry preacher riling up the crowds with his blasphemies, and the Romans certainly wouldn’t allow a disturbance with the city packed with people for the Passover. Jesus had to know that he was bringing trouble on his head, he had to know they would come for him, does he really think that God and the donkey are all that he needs? Doesn’t he know how vulnerable he is?
What does it mean to follow a vulnerable messiah? What does it mean to cheer his entry to the city, to proclaim the Kingship of this vulnerable one? Where does following this messiah lead? To us, those who have come after Christ’s resurrection, we know that the ending of this story is indeed victory. We know that Good Friday and the humiliation, and suffering, and death on the cross, is not the last word. But we’re not to that part of the story yet, we are still here cheering on our vulnerable Messiah, our defenseless Son of God. To cheer on the naked vulnerability of selfless love as it marches towards corrupted power, is to recognize the tragedy that is to come, but to nevertheless hold onto the belief, that somehow, in the end, an end we may not live to see, love wins.
We, those who cheer and wave palms at the vulnerable messiah as he rides into the city, we have claimed a new understanding of power. A power located in vulnerability. A power that is willing to suffer. A power that is willing to die. A power that overcomes religious persecution, a power that overcomes empires, a power that defeats sin and death, and conquers the world. In our celebration on Palm Sunday, we declare our allegiance to the power of love, the power of God made perfect in human weakness.
Reflection on the Crucifixion, Matthew 27: 11-54
I had Bible professor in seminary from South Africa, who spent a lot of time putting on what he called “Contextual Bible Studies.” For these bible studies, he would enter a community, and spend some time with them, learning about them and their context, and then he would work with them to choose which portion of the bible they would like to study. He told me once about preparing a study for the residents of an HIV/AIDS clinic in South Africa. He had expected that the residents, all of them infected with this life threatening virus, would hone in on stories of Jesus healing the sick. But that wasn’t their primary interest. The stories that they were most interested in were the stories of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, his hanging on the cross next to two criminals, his touching the hemorrhaging woman. What my professor came to realize was that what these people wanted to hear most was that Jesus, and God, had not abandoned them. Sure, they wanted to be healed, but more than that, they wanted to know that God was still with them, that even though their society, their tribes, often even their families, had abandoned them, despised them, that God had not. They wanted to hear the stories of Jesus loving the despised and the outcast. What they wanted was to know that Jesus loved them even unto death.
At the beginning of the week, as he entered the city riding on a donkey, his disciples and the crowds were cheering him on, the picture of loyal devotion. Things have changed. The corrupt power of the Roman Empire and the religious authorities in Jerusalem have stuck back. Faced with the power of empire, with arrest, trial, and crucifixion, the crowds have turned on him. One of his disciples has betrayed him. Another has denied him three times. And according to Matthew they have all deserted him, only the women being brave enough to watch his crucifixion from a distance.
Throughout the gospels, when the Pharisees and scribes oppose Jesus, it is easy to laugh at them, to point out their mistakes. But now, at his crucifixion, it becomes much less comfortable. For now, the opposition is not just Rome, not just the Pharisees, it now includes the crowds of his former admirers. It now includes, his disciples, those who claim to follow him. Now the opposition includes us.
One of the great revelations that comes to us from the crucifixion is that the desire of those South Africans, the instinct that God stands with the oppressed and the despised even unto death, is true. God in Jesus Christ, lives the life of an oppressed person. He suffers the fate of the oppressed, humiliation, suffering, and death at the hands of the state. The crucifixion demonstrates Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed even unto death.
But the crucifixion also reveals to us a great deal about ourselves. It reveals the human tendency to value our own safety and security above all else. It reveals how we, turn on one another, how we turn on ourselves and our deeply held values. It reveals how we are all too happy to allow another to suffer and die in our place. It reveals how we are content to offer a scapegoat, so long as it save us from having to suffer. It forces us to acknowledge that we live in and contribute to a society that despises people. That outcasts people. That humiliates and tortures people. That executes people. The crucifixion forces us to see that we participate in the injustice that kills the very Son of God, the very incarnation of love.
The crucifixion is a hard story to hear about ourselves, as truth often is. But we know that the crucifixion is not the end of the story. Jesus does not only offer solidarity with the oppressed, he also invites the oppressor into his grace, into new life in him. It is to the very disciples that denied him and abandoned him that Jesus returns in the resurrection. It is to the very crowds which turned on him that he pours out the Holy Spirit. In the resurrection we have the firm knowledge that we are forgiven for all our sin, that Jesus loves us too, loves us even to death as well. In the resurrection we have the firm knowledge that Jesus has not left us to our sin, and scapegoating, and selfishness. In the resurrection we have the knowledge that we may have a new and eternal life with God in Jesus Christ.
But the resurrection does not come until after the crucifixion. Just as the crucifixion is a necessary pre-requisite for the resurrection, so too, is our recognizing our sin and complicity a prerequisite for our new life in Jesus Christ. The story of the crucifixion reveals to us Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed even unto death. It reveals to us our complicity in the oppression of the world, how even our best efforts at righteousness, neutrality, or devotion, are, by themselves, doomed to failure. But the crucifixion also shows us that there is no length that God will not go for us. It shows us that there is nothing for which God is not willing to forgive us. It shows us that even death, as powerful and awful as it may be, cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. May we remember this always as we journey through Holy Week. We are loved by God. We are destined to fall short. We are forgiven. And we may enter into the love and life of Christ Jesus, all of us.