I love to travel. Traveling is wonderful, but, as you probably know, travelling can be stressful.
Have you ever tried to get to the Atlanta airport during the Friday traffic rush?
Have you ever tried to negotiate which restaurant your vacation group will attend for the evening –
you know, that one particular restaurant with the great menu, the variety of foods,
and the reasonable costs, that one which meets everyone’s dietary needs and financial wants?
Have you ever attempted to fit everything you’ll need for a spring break into one suitcase,
when the weather in the place you’re going can vary from requiring winter coats and boots
to t-shirts and sandals?
Travelling is a privilege not to be taken for granted, but it can be stressful.

Weddings can be stressful as well.
Part of a minister’s role on the night of the wedding rehearsal
is to be the “non-anxious presence” in the room, because most everyone else is anxious about something.
We try to set a mood of welcome and relaxation, as much as possible,
on the big night before the ceremony.
I often tell wedding parties on the night of the rehearsal that part of the drama, part of the anxiety,
is that we are acting out something very important, something that words alone cannot express.
Wedding parties wear special clothes.
They stand up straight and walk down the aisle just so, in a reverent and joyful way.
They are surrounded by beautiful flowers and serenaded by worshipful music…
all to express that what we do on a wedding day is very, very important.
What we do in a wedding ceremony changes the world,
at least changes the lives, in some way, of all those gathered for the occasion.
So yes, in a first world sort of way, weddings can be stressful.

Imagine the stress upon Jesus, the bridegroom, as he entered Jerusalem.
Imagine the anxiety of Jesus and his band of followers as they travelled to the holy city.
All the leaders, both Jewish and Roman, were on edge.
The temple guards were working double shifts.
The food vendors in the streets were trying to keep up with the long lines of demand.
Every unblemished lamb within a hundred miles found itself in the city,
anxiously feeling the pull of a rope was around its neck.
Not only had crowded Jerusalem swollen for the Passover to over twice its normal population
as the people made preparations for the feast, but the air was thick with tension.
The occupying Roman forces were trying to keep the peace;
the local Jewish population were feeling the weight of their oppression.
The law required every adult male living within 20 miles of Jerusalem to come to the Passover,
but not only the Jews of Palestine came, but from every corner of the world they made their way,
a tremendous pilgrimage to the greatest of their national festivals.
Jesus chose this dramatic moment to act out something words alone could not express.
He chose this moment to travel to that fateful city, a city surging with anxious people,
streets full of people with certain expectations about the Passover,
the celebration of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
Jesus chose to enter at a time when the poor felt like they were enslaved by the rich,
and the rich felt like the poor might revolt at any minute.
The city was a virtual powder keg waiting to explode.

In this environment, Jesus comes riding up to the city gates on the back of a donkey,
a donkey along with her foal, a mother with her baby.
Surrounded by penniless peasants, waving palm branches and laying their cloaks on the ground
before him, Jesus rides toward the city gates.
How extremely different this entry must have appeared as opposed to the warrior kings
who had entered the city before, arriving on the back of a massive steed,
the most grand and impressive horse they could find, escorted by hundreds of well-armed soldiers!

And yet two important Old Testament images are in play.
First, from Zechariah 9:9 –
Zechariah has prophesied that the king would come to Jerusalem, humble and writing on a colt,
on the foal of the donkey. Jesus’ choice of timing and form of entry is a deliberate messianic claim.
Jesus is offering himself to the people as their Messiah, the anointed one of God,
the One who will deliver the people from their oppression.

The second Old Testament image relates to Psalm 118:25, when the psalmist cries out:
“Save us, we beseech thee, oh lord. Save now!”
“Hosanna” means “Save now!”; it is the cry for help from a people in distress,
a cry addressed to a king or to God, to one they believe can help.
The same psalm was sung by crowds with palm branches nearly 200 years earlier, in 175 b.c.,
when Judas Maccabeus was welcomed into Jerusalem after retaking the city
and reconsecrating the temple that had been desecrated by pagans.
As the disciples and others lay their cloaks upon the ground before Jesus
and many waved palm branches in the air, they re-enacted what the crowd had done years before,
for Simon Maccabeus as he entered Jerusalem after a notable victory in 175 b.c.

Jesus’ entry into the city and procession to the temple was not only proclaiming that he was the Messiah,
he was also acting out his desire to cleanse the temple of its impurities,
to purify the hearts of the people, to re-consecrate their worship.
The very next verses in Matthew, just after the triumphal entry,
speak of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers and driving them out of the courtyard.

Jesus, surveyed by anxious leaders, surrounded by a fickle and anxious crowd,
escorted by a fearful group of disciples, knew what was to come.
He had some sense of what the next few days would hold.
Can you imagine entering a city fully aware that you would die there?
Can you imagine being fully aware that the fickle crowds now celebrating you
would turn against you in a heartbeat, and demand your death?
Can you imagine being fully aware that the authorities would arrest you, have you beaten,
and put you through a mockery of a trial?
It is difficult to imagine the weight that Jesus must have felt.
Even the disciples, his precious friends walking with him, would not stick around for long.
It would be only a few days before they all would abandon him.

“When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
There was no social media, no way to “google” the image of this rabbi from Nazareth.
There was no twitter to share with friends on the other side of the temple grounds or those back home.
There was just the word of mouth of the crowd, which can be effective, but unpredictable.
The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee…”
But we know what happens to prophets.
Not only are they not welcomed in their home towns; in Jerusalem, they are usually killed.
Jesus would cry out a few days later:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,
how often I have longed to gather your children together,
as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Matthew 23:37

Riding on a donkey with her foal, symbolizing peace and hopefulness,
speaking of a hen gathering her errant chicks under her wings, seeking to protect them from harm,
Jesus embodied unconditional love.
The Church needs to speak more about unconditional love.
The Church needs to live and act more often with unconditional love.
Unconditional love changes everything.
Unconditional love transforms relationships.
Unconditional love saves marriages and renews families.
Unconditional love brings friends back together and strengthens foreign policies.
Unconditional love ultimately brings peace to the world.

Unconditional love means that I will act on your behalf, I will seek what is good for you,
I will do for you what you will not even do for yourself,
even when you hate me or ignore me or seek to do me harm.

The occupying Romans offered conditional love – we will take care of you and protect you
IF you obey us our soldiers’ demands and pay us all the oppressive taxes we expect to glean from you.
The Temple Sanhedrin offered conditional love – we will include you in the temple worship
and offer you opportunities in the community and we will hear your court cases
IF you live just the way we think you should live, if you follow all our explicit rules.
The crowds offered Jesus conditional love – we will continue to adore you
IF you are the kind of leader we want you to be,
if you do for us what we think we need, if you give us what we want.

Thankfully, Jesus did not wait for the motives of the crowd to be pure.
Jesus did not wait for the religious leaders to have pure hearts.
He did not wait for the Romans and the Jews to sort out their differences.
Jesus came to seek and to save and to rescue the lost.
He came for the ones on bended knee, barely able to lift their heads, exhausted from guilt and shame.
He came for the ones standing in opposition, with raised fists, energized and ready to fight.
He came for the ones sitting on the judgment seat, with lifted noses,
convinced that they alone know what was good and right.
He came for the ones going about their daily tasks, taking care of others, taking care of business,
wondering what life is all about and whether God has any knowledge or care of them at all.
He came for those afraid of the future, afraid of what it might hold, or what it might not hold.

Ultimately, our communion celebration today is about unconditional love.
Jesus took the bread and having blessed it, he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
this is my body broken for you, you powder keg of Jerusalem,
broken for you, you busy and traffic-filled Atlanta.
In the same way, he took the cup after supper, saying,
this is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you, Romans and Jews, for the forgiveness of your sins,
shed for you, rich and poor of Atlanta, for the forgiveness of your sins.
Drink of it all of you –forceful occupiers and oppressed poor, fickle crowds and fearful disciples.
Drink of it, all of you – you who are wealthy and well-to-do, and you who struggle for the next meal,
drink of it, you who are caught up in whatever is popular at the moment,
and you who just want to be faithful.

I have come for you, to embody for you unconditional love.
Look, open your eyes and your ears…I gave sight to the blind man.
I healed the woman in her desperate disease…I raised Lazarus from death to life!
And now, here I am, ushering peace into your anxiety-filled world,
during the Passover feast, so that whatever stress and evil you face may pass over your homes,
so that you will know peace with others and reconciliation with God.
I give you my body so that all in your city, so that all throughout the world, may live, now and forever.

What are you afraid of in this confusing and dangerous world?
We who are mere humans, vulnerable, susceptible, and fleeting, what brings us real anxiety and fear?
Storms that rage throughout the city, interstate highways that burn and collapse?
An earthquake that strikes a neighboring county, tornadoes which drop down unexpectedly?
Chemical attacks and air strikes in Syria that threaten war?
Continuing lack of collaboration in Washington?
Cancer cells that attack children, opioids which bring down young men and women?
Mortgages and credit lines that overwhelm families?
Heart attacks which stop 60 year olds in their tracks?
What are you afraid of? What wakes you up at night?

In one sense, Jesus riding into town on a donkey is laughable –
what can this small town rabbi with his band of unarmed peasants do for me? for the world?
In another sense, his presence has proven powerful beyond measure.
He has ushered in a new sort of kingdom, a hidden kingdom, a kingdom without end,
a kingdom for stressed travelers, and brave souls entering marriage,
a kingdom for penniless peasants and powerful kings,
a kingdom for you and for me and for all people,
a kingdom initiated and sustained at this Table by unconditional love.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
April 9, 2017