Backward Identity Matthew 21: 1-11

Palm Sunday is day of mixed feelings in the church.  It’s a mini-Easter as we join the excited crowds who lay their cloaks on the ground and wave palm fronds as Jesus enters the holy city.  The reason we are confused is we want to travel a straight path from this day to resurrection day, without all the suffering and sacrifice that comes later in the week.

For three years, Jesus taught, healed, and worked wonders on the northern front, the hinterlands, among people who longed for a person who would help set them free from foreign invaders.  Jesus had many sympathizers and disciples who would pilgrimage with him to David’s City for high holy days.  They would pass through Jericho, which sits notably below Jerusalem; it is lowest city on earth-800 feet below sea level while Jerusalem is 3,000 feet above sea level.  It is a long and rocky road that is very hard to travel by foot or beast.  They followed Jesus with hopes up that hill into the city of David.

Jesus’ entourage picks up steam as it enters into Bethpage and Bethany, which sits on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He gives instructions about the colt and his plans to enter the city.  Nothing would happen until it happened in Jerusalem.  So, when he enters Jerusalem is asking, ‘Who is this?’  The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee’.

It was Passover, the taste of liberation was in their mouth; they wanted to return to their old identity.  They paid homage to him like king ready to start a revolution; causing his entry to look like a royal military processional and campaign.  They wanted Jesus to organize this army of Jewish pilgrims so they might march on the Temple.  These folk who had been on the bottom sang Jesus’ praises; hoping he would put them on top.

His followers should have been tipped off; Jesus wasn’t coming to chase out the reigning regime.  He doesn’t whip the people into frenzy of war by taking up arms; he symbolically takes a knee.  Jesus presents himself as a backward king; refusing to receive glory of a conquering ruler.  He rides ingloriously into Jerusalem on a common colt instead of a seasoned steed; hardly a symbol of power.  This challenges their wrongfully placed expectations; pointing to the futility of defining their identity based on how much power they possess or positions they may hold.  Jesus is absolutely true to his backward messianic identity.

This parade will diminish and five days later and there’ll be another parade.  Jesus will carry a cross in this parade; leaving the city to be crucified and identified as a common criminal.  This time there will be no hosannas; instead they will jeer and spit on him.  They call him the king, but only in mocking ways.

Jesus shows in this first parade that our backward identity roots in God’s love for all who are God made in God’s image.  This parade is not about how others adored or hoped in him.  Neither is our status is dependent on the love of others and/or our pious demonstrations, which show others how much we love God.  Our identities cannot be connected to accolades we receive and feats we accomplish, as virtuous as they may be, nor how they may cause others to feel toward us.  This primary marks of following Christ are not signs of success; defined by what we do to impress others or God.  Jesus’ rides humbly into Jerusalem, regardless how loud the hosannas.

This story begins by looking like a victory to be claimed, and the story ends in victory over sin and death.  However, soon after the parade is over, things start to look like a real rout.  The victory won on the cross appears to be a defeat.  The way Jesus conquers the forces of evil and the grave is to become a victim to the forces of evil and the grave.  This is not what anyone expected when he rode into the city.

Leonard Cohen caught this idea when he wrote these lyrics in his song Broken Hallelujah: “Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and broken hallelujah”.  The phrase “broken hallelujah” haunts me; but it describes the way love wins.  Love does not abandon another caught in the depth of the crises; it simply will not let us go.  So, while we may sing alleluia, a cousin of hosanna, pure joy all the time is never possible.  Cohen knows every alleluia sung has been touched by some coldness and brokenness.

We don’t sing “alleluias” during Lent because we are paying attention to the coldness and the brokenness in the world and in ourselves that gave cause to Jesus’ act of self-sacrificing love for us.  We may want to pretend every Sunday is Easter Sunday, with unbroken hallelujahs, so we don’t have to labor with the duplicity and dejection of this Holy Week.  This tempts us to leap from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to Hallelujahs of Easter; acting as if these harsher realities are not nearby.  So we stay busy with our little lives during this Holy week avoiding the stories of suffering and the services of shadow.  Eventually all bliss is touched by circumstances beyond our control.  Why not walk this road all the way with Jesus, so we may sing more clearly our own broken hallelujah on resurrection day.

God’s backward ways is emblemized by this unusual entry; Jesus going to the Holy City claiming no special privileges as the Son of God.  He simply displays God’s humble compassion; riding atop of a beast of burden, willing to pay the cost of great suffering and even his own life.  This backward way that saves, humbles self; exhibiting a different kind of power that offers self for the sake of others, rather than advancing self for the sake of self.

A relationship based on exchange of getting something out of the person isn’t love; it’s infatuation!  This happens because it is humans tendency to “get more” than “give more”, which turns relationship making into business deals based on a cost-benefit analysis.  Love descends into the depths of hell for the sake of love; infatuation takes the elevator.  A backward relationship with Jesus isn’t about what we want in exchange for our love for Christ.  It’s about what Christ gives in love for us without regard for what we do for him.  What we see in this parade is our king beginning to lay down his life out of love for us; this is God’s backward way.

The backward mission of following Jesus enables us to find our identities by humbling ourselves as he did on that first Palm Sunday.  We too are to be willing stoop low enough to show every person how much they are loved for who they are.  It may not make sense, but the way to find our identity is to receive and express this backward love.  We do that best when we can give ourselves away; trusting God knows what do with a life lived backwards; a life that freely offers self for others.  The hosannas may sound different, but the backward way is the way to find our true identity.

Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frankenstein in the movie Young Frankenstein. In one scene, he asks to be locked in a room with the monster.  He says to his aides: “Love is the only thing that can save this poor creature.  I am going to convince him he is loved even at the cost of my own life.  No matter what you hear, no matter how cruelly I beg, no matter how terribly I scream, do not open that door or you will undo everything I have worked for.”  A minute later, he is begging to be let out.  

This backward way of love is not easy and becomes more difficult if we are only infatuated with the role Jesus played in the love story of Calvary.  This is more than just a great love story.  It is an invitation to love Jesus for who he is, instead for what we want him to be.  It is a call to allow Jesus to love you as you are; even in the cold and broken places in your life.  The way to join in the parade of love for the world is to sing you own broken hallelujahs in this broken world.  It’s Holy week, friend; let us make it HOLY!

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Published in: on April 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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