When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of what we call Holy Week. But Matthew’s telling provides a unique challenge to those who like to visualize the scene as they hear the story. Matthew has Jesus riding two donkeys at once. I once was given a gift from a missionary in Africa that had Swahili written on it. It came with a slip of paper bearing the translation: he who rides two horses is in trouble. Now, you’ve probably seen circus acts where a rider rides 2 horses at once, but we have no reason to believe Jesus had that kind of training. Plus, those are horses, not donkeys, and these two donkeys would have been two different sizes, mother and colt; plus the story says Jesus sat on them. How exactly does that work? It doesn’t.
You see, Matthew was intent on connecting Jesus’ story with the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture. A quick count tells me that there are at least 15 instances in Matthew’s Gospel where he says things were done in order to fulfill the prophecy. Well, this prophecy was from the book of Zechariah, and apparently the author of Matthew’s gospel missed the poetic elements of the writing. Zechariah says, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humbled and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It is poetic structure to be general and then specific. I might say he came riding into town in a truck—a Ford. So, believing that Jesus was the fulfillment of all prophecies of the Messiah, Matthew apparently decided the stories of Jesus riding on one donkey must have been inaccurate so he corrected their mistake, thus making his own.
So why am I sharing this, other than because I find it interesting? Because Matthew was not the first or the last to get things wrong about Jesus. The disciples got things wrong all the time, as did those who opposed him. Let’s look for a minute at what people saw when Jesus rode into town.
We know, of course, that the people had been waiting for, longing for, a Messiah. They hoped and prayed that this Messiah would help them overthrow the Roman government, with its cruel domination. The Roman governors could change with one slash of a sword, and the people never knew what to expect from the next leader. Then came Jesus, who disregarded the rules and was unafraid of those in power. Surely Jesus was the Messiah. And surely the Messiah would save them from their enemies. So when Jesus rode into town, they saw their king, their deliverer, the one who would lead them to conquer Rome and be free once again. It’s no wonder they shouted “Hosanna.” Hosanna is a plea for mercy, a cry to the anointed king for deliverance. They wanted to see a king, and that’s what they saw. But they didn’t see Jesus.
Of course, not everyone in the crowd saw a king. Some of the people, especially the religious leaders, saw a troublemaker. They saw this young upstart of a teacher who thought he knew better than all the religious leaders put together. He defied the laws of his people while claiming to uphold them. He worked on the Sabbath, touched the untouchables, ate with sinners, insulted the Pharisees, flouted the authority of the synagogue, and virtually thumbed his nose at the entire religious establishment. They expected to see a troublemaker, a heretic, and that’s what they saw. But they didn’t see Jesus.
And then there were skeptics—they are found in every crowd. They’d heard the stories, heard about the miracles, but they didn’t believe. Perhaps they just weren’t the believing kind. Perhaps they learned long ago that it hurts too much to hope. But they expected to see a fake, a fraud, someone who would accept all the accolades of the crowd without ever actually doing anything. They expected to see a fraud, and that’s what they saw. But they didn’t see Jesus.
And then there was Rome. Scholars have recently told us that Jesus’ parade wasn’t the only one happening in and around Jerusalem that day. Jesus came from the east, but from the west came the Roman army led by none other than Pontius Pilate coming to maintain order during Passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000–both conservative estimates. [No social distancing there!] [Plus,] Passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association. If the two parades had met in the middle of town, How would Pilate have viewed what we now call Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry”? Most likely as a threat to the empire and the stability he worked so hard to maintain. Pilate saw someone he would need to keep an eye on, someone who was a potential threat to the empire. But he didn’t see Jesus.
Over and over, people saw what they wanted to see, what they expected to see. But I’m not sure any of them saw Jesus. I’d like to think I would have. I’d like to think I would have seen him for who he was, and not who I wanted him to be. But I doubt it. I’m no cleverer, no more insightful, no closer to God than my counterparts in the religious community of Jesus’ day. I probably would have seen what I wanted or expected to see. We all do it.
Take this crisis we are in, for example. What do you see? Do you see only the hoarders, the profiteers. The guy who bought all 50 bottles of hand sanitizer at the dollar store in Mill Creek? The woman who bought every bag of cough drops at the drug store? Yes, there are people who are thinking only of themselves, and people who are intentionally taking advantage of others. But is that all you see? Is that what you’re focusing on? Or do you also see the people making face coverings for those who need them? Do you also see the birthday party caravans and the neighborhood “bear hunts” and the people volunteering to shop for others and deliver their groceries for free? You can look for the bad. There’s plenty of it. But there’s even more good. Look for that. You will see what you expect to see.
We do it spiritually, too. There are people who believe God is a harsh, judgmental, punishing God. And so in this crisis they see God punishing us for our beliefs or lack thereof. Their belief didn’t start with the COVID-19 virus. They already believed in a God who punishes and so they see the world through that lens. That’s what they expect to see, and so they see it. I think it goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, I’ll be clear: COVID-19 is not a punishment from God, not corporately and not individually. To believe so is to be wrong about God, trying to make God fit into our preconceived notions of what God should be.
I said earlier that people saw in Jesus what they expected to see. I think there is a difference between seeing what we expect to see and seeing what we need to see. I don’t know what you need to see in this worship service today. Maybe you need to see and hear that opening hymn, All Glory, Laud and Honor, with memories of children circling the sanctuary, waving their palms. Maybe you need worship to be full of cheer and hope, a bright spot in a dreary week. Or maybe that feels false. Maybe you need worship to be real, to be honest, to say that we are scared about what is and what is to come. Maybe you need worship to be communal, relational, so your attention is on the comments section part of the Facebook screen, so you can see who’s worshiping with you today. Whatever you need, I hope you find.
But, you see, there are plenty of places on line to go and get encouraged, to find those bright spots in a dreary week. There’s free art and free music and free learning opportunities all over the internet. And there are plenty of places to keep it real, to see how scary things are. And there are other ways to connect, other places to find virtual community. Church is unique because it’s all of these in one place—where we can get encouraged, where we can be real, where we can connect—and it is still more.
Church is more because of the memories we have—memories of our children, our grandchildren, our parents, our beloved. When a church I served was moving to a new location, one of the children said she didn’t want to leave because the walls of that church were sticky with our memories. Our memories are so strong that I recorded my sermon in front of a green screen so that I could project an image of the church behind me—not to fool you, but to help you find comfort in the familiar when so much around us is unfamiliar.
Church is not only about our memories of the past but also our hopes for the future. Someone I read this week wrote, “I miss the future.” She meant that she misses the future she was expecting. The future we counted on is unknown now. We don’t know what differences we will experience on the other side of this virus. But we know that the church will exist, because we are more than a building and more than a social club. We are the Body of Christ. Yes, the body of Christ right now is broken. The body right now is sick. The body right now is grieving.
But here’s the beauty: The Body of Christ has never NOT been broken. The Body of Christ has never NOT been hurt. Jesus BROKE the bread BEFORE he said, “This is my body, given for you.” We are heading into a week when the church has traditionally looked that brokenness straight in the face. Like the disciples, we don’t know what the next days will bring. We are in a place we don’t know, in a time we weren’t prepared for. We don’t know what to expect. But we are the same as we have always been—the broken, hurting Body of Christ. More importantly, we know this: resurrection will come.
Please gather your bread and cup so that we might share together.
For Holy Communion this morning, I invite you to lend Christ your table. On the first day of Holy Week long ago, people throughout Judea arrived at the dusty gates of Jerusalem, primed with “Hosanna” in their hearts and Jesus asked to borrow a donkey. On the Thursday that followed, Jesus rented or was given John Mark’s mother’s Upper Room to celebrate the Passover with the disciples. On the afternoon of the resurrection, Jesus was invited into a house in Emmaus and used the bread of that hospitality to break and bless.
In the same way, lend Christ your table, your bread, your cup and your heart, for, as the disciples told the person who loaned the donkey, “The Lord has need of it.”
We are one bread, one body, one cup of blessing. Though we are many throughout the earth and this church community is scattered, we are one in Christ. In your many kitchens, and living rooms, rest your hands lightly upon these elements which we set aside today to be a sacrament. Let us ask God’s blessing upon them.
Please repeat after me:
Gentle Redeemer, there is no lockdown on your blessing and no quarantine on grace. Send your Spirit of life and love, power and blessing upon every table where your child shelters in place, that this Bread may be broken and gathered in love and this Cup poured out to give hope to all.
Risen Christ, live in us, that we may live in you. Breathe in us, that we may breathe in you.
Words of Remembering
We remember that Paul the apostle wrote letters to congregations throughout places we now call Greece, Turkey and Macedonia, and they were the first “remote” worship resources. Our online service has a long heritage. The Communion words sent to the church at Corinth were these:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Sharing of the Elements
Leader: Let us in our many places receive the gift of God, the Bread of Heaven, for we are one in Christ in the bread we share.
Leader: Let us in our many places receive the gift of God, the Cup of Blessing, for we are one in Christ in the cup we share.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Let us pray. Spirit of Christ, you have blessed our tables and our lives. May the eating of this Bread give us courage to speak faith and act love, not only in church sanctuaries, but in your precious world, and may the drinking of this Cup renew our hope even in the midst of pandemic. Wrap your hopeful presence around all whose bodies, spirits and hearts need healing, and let us become your compassion and safe refuge. Amen