Today begins the most sacred week of the Christian year, the week that we walk with Jesus on the path that ends with resurrection, but first goes through betrayal, arrest, torture, and death.
Holy Week, as it is called, begins with a note of irony. Today Jesus comes to Jerusalem, hailed as a king. For weeks he has warned his disciples of the fate that awaits him there, but he seems to be welcomed upon his arrival, with cries of “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
We’ve tended in the Church to make Palm Sunday a day of triumph and celebration with hosannas and waving of palms.
But I’ve come to understand that on this day Jesus is once again doing what he has done throughout his life and ministry – showing us another way to live, an alternative to the evils of power and empire – in his day and in our own.
As we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in Jesus, God takes on human form and empties himself, taking on the form of a servant or slave, humbling himself.
This alternative vision starts even before Jesus is born. When Mary, a poor, unmarried teen-ager, learns she is pregnant with the messiah, she sings of God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
Time and again, Jesus’ teachings and actions reverse the expectations of his culture and our own. In God’s kingdom, he says, it is the meek, the poor, the persecuted, the grieving who are blessed.
Prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, and outcasts are closer to the kingdom of God than the religious establishment.
To live, one must first die, Jesus teaches. To be great, one must serve.
And this week, in the ultimate reversal, we will hear not of a king of power and might, of wealth and glory, but of a broken man undergoing torture and humiliation.
We will hear not of a king who rules from an ornate throne in an opulent palace, but of one who reigns from a splintered cross set in a garbage heap.
Instead of being robed in fine silk, this king will be stripped, then given a battered loincloth to wear.
Instead of a jeweled crown of gold, this king will wear a crown of thorns, shoved so violently into his brow that blood streams down his face.
Instead of eating rich food and the finest drinks, this king will be offered sour wine.
Instead of being surrounded by retinues of servants, this king will be surrounded by criminals, also condemned to die.
Instead of being greeted with adulation by the public, this king will soon be greeted with taunts and jeers, as he hangs in agony on the cross.
When we talk about Christ as king it is easy to slip into triumphalism, glorifying Jesus as the king who reigns in glory, at whose name every knee should bend, while forgetting about the Jesus who emptied and humbled himself, who did not stray from the path that led to the cross.
I remember reading a letter to the editor that looked forward to the time when Jesus comes to earth again “on a white horse, his eyes like flames of fire, followed by the armies of Heaven.
“This Jesus,” the letter writer said, “is an avenging, glorious, wonderful king.”
It is so much easier to prefer the conqueror to the crucified.
And certainly there is comfort in knowing that Jesus triumphs over the agony, humiliation, and death he faced on earth. Next Sunday this church will be full as we rejoice in the victory of the resurrection.
But we should not be so quick to forget the suffering servant, the king crowned with thorns, blood running down his face, left hanging on a cross to die.
Because the kingdom over which Jesus rules today is still the kingdom of reversals, a place where the poor, the sick, the aliens, and the outcasts have the places of honor before God.
The kingdom of God will not be won by armies and power and might, but by justice and love and forgiveness, by solidarity with all who suffer and are oppressed and afflicted.
It is precisely in times such as these, times of toxic fear and hatred spread by those in power and felt by those on the margins of society that we most need this great biblical message of reversal.
And so, as we head into this horrible, holy week, I leave you with this blessing from Methodist Bishop Woodie White, words to carry with us this week and beyond.
And now, may the Lord torment us.
May the Lord keep before us the faces of the hungry, the lonely, the rejected and the despised.
May the Lord afflict us with pain for the hurt, the wounded, the oppressed, the abused, the victims of violence.
May God grace us with agony, a burning thirst for justice and righteousness.
May God give us courage and strength and compassion to make our world a better world, to make our community a better community, to make our church a better church.
And may we do our best to make it so, and after we have done our best, may God give us peace.