Almost ten years ago, my family and I moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a year so that I could teach at the Lutheran seminary there while on sabbatical from Luther Seminary. It was an eventful year, full of great joy and some challenges as well.
One of those challenges was learning how to drive in a sprawling African city with few working stoplights, sharing the road with pedestrians, livestock (donkeys, goats, cattle), and lots of, shall we say, creative drivers. Traffic jams were ubiquitous; it took us an hour and a half round trip to get our kids to their school, which was 6 miles away.
Thankfully, the red Toyota SUV (circa 1990) we drove had a cassette player. So, we brought with us some ‘mix tapes’ we had from college years and the music helped pass the time. I remember one time in particular when we were sitting still in traffic and the kids were squabbling in the back over something. We were listening to the mix tape that my dear friend Aana had made for me in the early 1990s. The Rolling Stones came on with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” And I heard from the back seat Esther (9) telling Sarah (4), “See, Sarah? You can’t always get what you want!”
Not perhaps what the Stones were getting at, but still, a life lesson: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find … you get what you need.”
The crowds on that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem didn’t get what they wanted. Caught up in the fervor surrounding this itinerant preacher from Nazareth, they seemed to want someone who would lead a revolt against Rome. They praised God “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
That takes some chutzpah, to cry out “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” when Pilate was in the city, his informants everywhere. Of course, they were quoting Psalm 118, a royal psalm which comprises part of the Hallel—the collection of psalms (113-118) sung during the three great pilgrimage festivals, including Passover.
Still, it can’t have endeared Jesus to the Roman authorities that they used this ancient blessing to hail him as “king.”
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” They speak the truth, as it turns out, but not in any way that they imagined it. This king does not come with earthly power to overthrow the empire. This king comes into Jerusalem not as a conquering hero but as a servant, and the crowds who hail him today will shout “Crucify him” by the end of the week.
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This talk of kings and empires and earthly power brings to mind for me the war in Ukraine. Of course, I’m guessing that this conflict is not far from anyone’s mind these days. Our screens are filled with the images of bombed-out buildings and bloodied civilians, refugees crowded onto trains and buses, trying to escape the brutal and unprovoked invasion of their country by Russia. And we cheer the bravery and resolve of President Zelensky and the army and ordinary citizens of Ukraine who are fighting against tyranny.
The images are hard to see. The siege and bombardment of Mariupol—where citizens are without food, water, and fuel—is a stark example of where earthly power takes us. One man’s delusional bid to resurrect an empire long gone has led to the deaths of probably tens of thousands, many of them his own soldiers. That anguished plea to Pharaoh by his advisers (after he has refused yet again to listen to Moses) rings true today, thousands of years later:
“Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Exodus 10:7).
No, Pharaoh does not understand, and neither does Putin. Despots act as despots have for millennia, agents of evil and death. Pope Francis referred to Putin this week as a “potentate” who has unleashed terrible things:
From the east of Europe, from the land of the sunrise, the dark shadows of war have now spread. We had thought that invasions of other countries, savage street fighting and atomic threats were grim memories of a distant past. However, the icy winds of war, which bring only death, destruction and hatred in their wake, have swept down powerfully upon the lives of many people and affected us all.1
The grim reality of war has engulfed the lives of millions of people, not just in Ukraine, of course, but in ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and, to my great sadness, Ethiopia. We had hoped that a conflict like the one in Europe, where the threat of nuclear weapons is real and terrifying, would not happen again; but such is the result of the sin of overweening pride and greed.
In times such as these, we who are church leaders have to name a thing what it is, and we have to hold out hope. Francis went on to urge his listeners to pray and work for peace: “Now in the night of the war that is fallen upon humanity, let us not allow the dream of peace to fade.”2
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This Palm Sunday, you have the opportunity, dear Working Preacher, to speak of that dream of peace, to speak of the Prince of Peace. This year, as every year, we begin Holy Week in praise of a king whose power is not that of tanks and fighter planes, drones and supersonic missiles. This week, we see the power of God to do something that no army can do: to give life, not destroy it; to change hearts; and to destroy the power of sin and death once and for all.
The crowds in Jerusalem so long ago dreamed of victory and glory. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, they didn’t get what they wanted, but they got what they needed.3
And what they needed, what we still need, is a Savior. Jesus rides into Jerusalem to topple the powers that be, but those powers are not the Roman empire, or any other earthly empire. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate later this week. The powers that be, the old order of things that underlie all human empires, are sin and death and Satan. These are the enemy. These are the ancient, and most potent enemies of the whole human race. Sin, death and Satan have the power to break our hearts, to take our lives and those of the people we hold most dear. It is these enemies that are defeated, by God’s power, through Jesus’ death on a cross, and through his glorious resurrection, when God says the final “YES” to Jesus’ life and ministry.
A king enters the holy city of Jerusalem, humble and riding on a donkey. He has come to destroy the old order of things, to defeat the ancient enemies of humankind, but not in a way that anyone there expected.
God bless you this week, dear Working Preacher, as you once again tell the story of God’s marvelous power that confounds all human expectations, and as you proclaim “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9-11).
- Philip Pullella, “Pope implicitly criticizes Putin on invasion, considers Kyiv trip,” (Reuters, April 2, 2022). https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/pope-says-he-is-considering-trip-kyiv-2022-04-02/
- A word of wisdom from an unexpected source. Or perhaps not so unexpected? “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)