Updated: Apr 18
“WHO IS THIS?”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
April 2, 2023
Matthew 21: 1-11 NRSV
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
5 “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.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
We live in a culture that has all kinds of identity questions. You have a “reality” show where judges try to guess who the “masked singer” is. In reality, the singer is dressed in much more than masks. They are dressed in some kind of cross between a college sport mascot and an over-the-top Halloween nightmare costume. Artificial Intelligence and the Deep Fake Technology are making identity a question mark most of us can’t imagine. Remember what they used to ask about the Lone Ranger back in the day? “Who was that masked man?”
Today Christians around the world celebrate what we call Palm Sunday. Most of us know the story. Jesus enters Jerusalem like thousands of other pilgrims to celebrate the holiest of days – the Passover. He enters on young donkey, symbolizing the words of the Prophet Zechariah. He prophesied that the new King of Jerusalem would enter Jerusalem to assume the throne not on a powerful, prancing stallion but on a donkey, a sign of humility and servanthood. As this parade enters Jerusalem people question each other: “Who is this?” The answer was “this is Jesus, a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” This is our question for the day: “Who is this?” The difference is that each of us must answer that question for ourselves. But not only “Who is Jesus?” But who are we? To answer those questions I want to invite us to think of our lives as a parade.
Think about it: life is like a parade. We start out at one point and go to another like a parade. I don’t know of any parades that go in a circle. Our lives are made up of many different elements. We have family, friends, work, perhaps hobbies or sports we participate in, ways of expressing faith, and many other things. A parade is made up of many elements too: there are bands, and floats, sometimes performing acts, clowns, maybe a military unit, all representing themselves – who they are – as well as sometimes a tie in with the theme of the parade. As we parade through our lives, what do we want to tell the world about our identities and who or what we want to be identified with?
I suspect most of us aren’t wanting to “show off” or be stared at as we walk by folks even though some of us might be accused of wearing “clown shoes.” We might have even had a parent say something to us at one time or another about “parading around here looking like that,” – and not in a good way. But if you consider my metaphor of life as a parade the question remains, “who are we?” In every encounter, consciously or not, people are deciding who they think we are and how they will respond to us. Is he a good guy? Is she an honest person? And many other questions about the identity, the character of the person.
Getting back to Jesus and his parade, I have said before that, scholars tell us that Jesus’ little parade wasn’t the only one that day. Governor Pilate was responsible for keeping the peace in Jerusalem, the “Pax Romana,” for the Roman Emperor Caesar. The little nation of Israel was a very disruptive part of the Empire. Zealots and revolutionaries were always popping up to try to overthrow Caesar’s control. They all failed miserably, many on the primary tool of the Empire for keeping the peace: a cross. And the Holy Festival of Passover was one of the worst times. All the religious pilgrims, zealots, and revolutionaries flocked to Jerusalem, the holy city, for Passover. There were often riots and disturbances and Pilate was quick to put them down. To prevent some of these disturbances Pilate had begun to hold a parade of his own. At the beginning of the week, when the pilgrims were all arriving, entering Jerusalem by its gates, Pilate would mount a mighty war horse in full military regalia, followed by a large contingent or similarly armed - and armored - battle-hardened Roman soldiers. The message his parade was sending was clear: “Don’t mess with Rome.”
So the theme, and values, and identity of the two parade leaders that day couldn’t have been more different. Pilate’s parade was all military might, power and control, threat and oppression. The one who came on a little donkey, accompanied by a few ragged peasants shouting religious slogans, the prophet Jesus of Nazareth had a different theme. It was about what real peace meant, not “Pax Romana,” the “peace of Rome” guaranteed by military force. The Jesus parade was about the peace of Shalom, about humility and servanthood, not crushing opposition and threatening lives. The Hosanna crowd was witness to God’s vision for Jerusalem and for the world, not Caesar’s. But this little, peaceful, religious procession was still a threat to the power of Governors and Emperors then and now.
As one writer put it, “Jesus didn’t come to take over Pilate’s system; he came to replace it. When we confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ, the anointed king, we are leaving no room for the Pilates [ or would-be Caesars ] of this world.” [Dylans Lectionary Blog: 2005]. God isn’t interested in Christian Nationalism or seeing America or any other nation become some kind of human vision for a “Christian nation.” Human governments always get things wrong, even the best of them. And most of those visions of a so-called Christian Nation have little to do with the way God rules, or the way God uses power. Most of the people who want to impose their version of Christianity on everyone else want to do just that: impose their version, not God’s vision, of the world on everyone else.
So the question remains about our life parade. What is our theme? What are the “floats” of our lives representing? What are the bands and drummers we march to playing? What is the beat of the step we are marching to? Is Jesus the Christ our Drum Major?
Of course, that assumes we want people to see that we follow the way of Christ. Do we believe that we are following one some called “the Prince of Peace.” Do our actions and attitudes display a “ME – ness,” or do they have a definite “Other” orientation to them? The check-up for us all is to ask ourselves would anyone watch us in action and accuse us of being a Christian? Back in the days after Jesus’ execution at the hands of the governing powers, such an accusation could be fatal. To be labeled a Christian was to actually be at risk of suffering the same fate as Jesus. Can anyone blame Peter for denying he knew Jesus? Can anyone wonder why those first disciples admitted that their first reaction to Jesus’ crucifixion was to hide in fear for their lives?
It may not be quite as risky today, but maybe it is time for us to be proud enough of what we believe about Jesus Christ to make it more apparent to the world. I don’t think we have to go around with bullhorns, or a marching band blaring some religious battle hymn. But if people watched how we truly treated others would they be impressed that our faith in Christ was at work? If people paid attention to how we spend our money would they know we were as committed to following Jesus’ words: “whatever you did unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done unto me?” Would the way we talk about others be a parade-size banner showing that we treat others with the kind of respect and honor that Jesus demonstrated for those who were shut out, left-out, ignored, or otherwise hated on by way too many self-proclaimed Christians?
I would bet for most of you the answer to most of those questions would be yes. But it is always good to have a chance to review our lives and ask a few questions. When the parade of our days here on earth ends would people say the kinds of things about us we would want to hear? If people were honest would we be proud of who they described our lives?
I thought of this because I had the honor to take a small part in the Celebration of Life for Jerry Wilkinson yesterday down at Harry Harris Park. It was a great time. Over a hundred people came out. We invited people to share memories in addition to Mary Lou’s pastor and I sharing a message. I frankly didn’t say half of what I wanted to say, because I felt that having only known Jerry for less than two full years many others would go on about what I am calling the “parade” of his life. But I will say this now: Jerry was loved by people: children, adults, his spouse, his church friends, his fellow history buffs, and by a whole bunch of dogs, cats, birds, and chickens that live in his neighborhood. One of Jerry’s habits as many of you know was to get up 6 mornings a week and walk. He would carry dog treats, cat snacks, and bird seed and stop along the way to give them out. I walk a little later than Jerry normally but even now I see doves lined up on the wires and I suspect they are still looking for their benefactor to come along with a little bird seed. I believe that Jerry’s work as a historian will benefit and be talked about by people generations from now with admiration, appreciation and awe. I know every one of you could speak about Jerry’s spirit of love and the warmth of his welcome. There are thousands in this area who will benefit for generations from the various ways Jerry sought to add his efforts to community improvements and services. And that is just a small bit of what I know could be said about Jerry’s life.
If at the end of my life people could say these kinds of things about me, I would be satisfied that my life’s parade was worth it. But here’s the thing. I can’t live Jerry’s life and neither can you. We each live our own life. Each of us has our own parade. Certainly, the best parades aren’t individual, one-man band affairs. Hopefully we engage with others in a way that can truly have a great impact for good on the world. I believe each of us can do so without being “famous” or a “celebrity.” Someone once asked Rev. Martin Luther King, jr. what he hoped people would say about him after his death. He is reported to have said, “I hope they say that I was a drum major for justice.” Truly he was. He was a leader of that work for the ways of Jesus Christ our national life in a far better way than many visions of that today.
I’m certainly no drum major. I have any illusions of being compared to Rev. King. But despite my many, many failings and shortcomings I hope that others can and will be able to say, he followed that guy Jesus of Nazareth, the one some called a prophet, and others called Christ, or Lord, and some even called Savior. Think about it. What do you hope those who watched your life parade say you were representing as you go by? AMEN.