What do we want? – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:21-40
This week as Palm Sunday has drawn closer, I’ve been thinking about the chants you hear at protests and marches.
Join in – if you know them! “Hey hey, ho ho, (eg racism) has got to go.” Or, “What do we want? (Justice!) When do we want it? Now!” Or, “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.” Or the classic, “The people, united, shall never be defeated!”
An image from the anti-government protests in Khartoum has gone viral this week of 22-year-old Alaa Salah standing on top of a car above a sea of people with her finger pointed toward the sky, chanting, “My people want,” and the crowd responding, “Revolution!” A Sudanese version of, “What do we want? (Revolution!) When do we want it? Now!”
I find it interesting that from the admittedly brief research I’ve done this week there doesn’t seem to be a lot of diversity in the chants used around the world – unlike placards where people get a lot more creative!
And within the community of faith, on Palm Sunday, we, too, chant or shout very familiar words and phrases, “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”, but – curiously – the gospel we read this morning – the gospel of Luke – unlike Matthew, Mark and John – has no mention of, “Hosanna.” It also has no mention of the greenery I asked you to bring – “branches from the trees” in Matthew, “leafy branches from the fields” in Mark, “branches of palm trees” in John (John clearly got the email!) Instead, the writer of Luke describes something far more like Cloak Sunday than Palm Sunday and crafts a very distinctive chant for the disciples to shout.
And there’s another difference in Luke’s account which has a bearing, I believe, on what the disciples shout as Jesus makes his way down from the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem. The first verse of our passage begins, “After he had said this…” After he had said what? What is Jesus saying right before he goes up to Jerusalem? In Matthew and Mark, the triumphal entry is preceded by the healing of the blind man (or two blind men), and Luke includes this story, too, but immediately before the triumphal entry, in Luke, Jesus tells the strange and rather terrible parable of the ten pounds (or the ten talents).
Now, this parable can be read in different ways. It undeniably speaks about using the gifts and the time we have well, but the nobleman in the story bears little resemblance to God, and a strong resemblance to Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, who was notorious for his cruelty. It is Archelaus who, in Matthew, Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus flee from into Egypt and who is given as the reason they resettle outside Judea, in Galilee. According to the historian Josephus, after his disastrous handling of the Passover uprising in 4 BC that resulted in the massacre of over 3,000 people in the temple, Archelaus travelled to Rome to assert his claim to rule over that of his brother’s and won Caesar’s support. Nine years later however in 6 AD he was deposed, and Judea came under direct Roman rule.
This is the story behind the parable Jesus tells:
“A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return … But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ … ‘But as for these enemies of mine,’ [said the nobleman] ‘who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.'” (Luke 19: 12,14,27)
Jesus, Luke says in verse 11, tells this parable because they were near Jerusalem and to counter the people’s expectations that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately. What the story does is establish a dramatic contrast between his kingship, humble and riding on a donkey, according to the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah, and his kingdom – reorientation toward God and toward the flourishing of your neighbour – with that of Archelaus and the Romans. And it is a cautionary tale, reminding his followers of the ruthlessness of those he is differentiating from; that the path of peace is not an easy one.
And so, firstly, what the disciples chant in Luke, has a particular note of defiance. When they say, not just, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” but, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” they are defiantly declaring Jesus as a counter king. And when they cry, “Peace…Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” they are consciously, deliberately calling out a world that contrasts with the oppression and cruelty and exploitation of their current reality. They are saying in effect, “My people want…Revolution!”
We know that this is a defiant, dangerous chants because the Pharisees tell Jesus to order them to stop shouting these things. And so, secondly, what the disciples chant in Luke takes perseverance. Jesus affirms what they are saying and their need to keep saying it, “If these were silent,” he says, “the stones would shout aloud.”
He is affirming that this chant should persevere, and that this chant shows prescience. For this is not just the disciples’ chant, but the eternal chant that we heard at Jesus birth, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…” It fills the heavens and finds a natural resonance in the rocks beneath our feet.
You don’t always require a voice to chant defiance and perseverance.
Phillip Yancy’s book, What Good is God, tells the story of the 2004 elections in Ukraine. Victor Yushchenko was standing for the presidency in those elections. Vehemently opposed by the ruling party, his face was disfigured, and he almost lost his life when he was mysteriously poisoned, but it was not enough to deter him from standing.
On the day of the election he was comfortably in the lead, but the ruling party tampered with the results. The state-run television station reported “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger, Victor Yushchenko, has been decisively defeated.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the screen a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news presenter regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine” she signed. “They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”
The deaf community sprang into gear. They text-messaged their friends about the fraudulent result and as news spread of Dmitruk’s act of defiance, increasing numbers of journalists were inspired to likewise tell the truth. Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held and Victor Yushchenko became president.
Philip Yancey writes
“When I heard the story behind the orange revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church. You see we as a church do not control the big screen….Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you see a consistent message. What matters is how beautiful you are, how much money or power you have. Similarly, though the world includes many poor people, they rarely make the magazine covers or the news shows. Instead we focus on the superrich, names like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey.… Our society is hardly unique. Throughout history nations have always glorified winners, not losers. Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, ‘Don’t believe the big screen – they’re lying.’”
It is not easy on Palm Sunday to keep defiantly and perseveringly chanting for peace, for a counter king and a coming kingdom. It was not easy on that first Palm Sunday coming down from the Mount of Olives and it will not be easy today in the streets around Hagley Park in Christchurch, or in Rwanda, remembering 25 years since the genocide, or in South Korea or Indonesia or Syria or Sudan or El Salvador or Bosnia and Herzegovina. And it will not be easy to keep chanting and working and believing in peace here in Canberra either.
What the disciples of Jesus chant is characterised by defiance – we don’t believe the big screen – and perseverance – if we don’t shout the rocks will – but, thirdly, if we are to keep defying and persevering, our chant must contain substance.
Verse 37 says, “As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives the whole multitude of the disciples…” – How many disciples were there? Is Luke describing what is happening there or is Luke also showing prescience, imagining the church of every age and through the ages? – “…began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen.” They shouted out what they had witnessed on this long journey of peace; the good news being brought to the poor, captives being released, the blind seeing again, oppression coming to an end, the fulfilment of the angels’ cry, “…and on earth peace among those he favours,” the assurance of God’s love and favour on their lives.”
Our chant as Jesus’ disciples, as part of that great multitude is the same. It is a chant of defiance, of perseverance and of substance of the deeds of power that we have seen, and we must keep calling out this chant – with the disciples, with the angels, with the very ground beneath our feet – until we see this king established and the worlds of heaven and earth reconciled.
I want to finish the sermon today by doing an exercise which I think we’ve done before…by saying together the apostle’s creed – the disciples creed, but instead of skipping straight from, “born of the Virgin Mary…” to, “suffered under Pontius Pilate” we are going to pause and call out – just as the disciples did – some of the actions, the deeds of life giving power that Jesus performed in people’s lives…and you might want to add things that resonate with your own life and what Jesus has done for you. Be bold – be defiant – and don’t be overwhelmed – persevere. And then I’m going to finish with a song that Roz and I have prepared for today. But first, just to give us something thinking time, reflecting time we’re going to remain seat and sing together, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”