Sermon: “The Way of Peace”
Text: Zechariah 9:9-10 and Luke 19:28-44
On the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem through the eastern gate, a royal military processional would have been entering the city through the western gate on the opposite side. In their book, The Last Week, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe it as “a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.” Through that western gate came “the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.” (Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, p. 3). According to Roman theology, the emperor was not only the ruler of Rome, but also the Son of God. The emperor’s military processional carried divine significance. It was to be praised and worshiped, as the security of the whole empire rested upon those soldiers and their swords and shields. It was an awesome show of might and power that entered through the western gate that day.
As we read this familiar Palm Sunday text, it’s not hard to see what was happening. The way of the world and the way of Jesus were on a collision course. On one side we see military power; on the other, a man riding a donkey. On one side we see swords and spears; on the other, palm branches. If you read Mark’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, you’ll see this contrast quite clearly. In Luke, the contrast between the way of Jesus and the way of the world is even more profound.
Again, we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a Donkey. There is no mention of palm branches, however. Waving palm branches was a traditional greeting at the entrance of a king or emperor, so presumably in Luke the palm branches are all over at the western gate, hailing the arrival of Pontius Pilate. Luke also tells us that there are no large crowds greeting Jesus. Presumably, they’re over at the western gate as well. The only people greeting Jesus as he enters Jerusalem are his own disciples according to Luke. They greet him not with shouts of “Hosanna”, which means “save us now”, but with cries of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” Peace. Glory. I wonder if the shouts of Hosanna, save us now, were over at the western gate as well. Most Jewish people at that time were expecting their Messiah to be a military leader who would save them by the might of his army, not a man plodding along on a donkey.
This may have been why the Pharisees in Luke tell Jesus to order his disciples to stop shouting. Maybe they thought it absurd for this lowly man to be hailed as a king. Jesus, however, answers them by saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
Finally, Luke presents us with one of only three occasions where Jesus weeps. One is at the grave of Lazarus, where he cries with his friends over the death of one they love. The second is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus cries as he prays to God before his arrest and subsequent death. The third is here in Luke as Jesus weeps over a city about to be destroyed by the ravages of war.
Luke is trying to hit a particular note of contrast between the two ways into the city. One is the way of military power. The other is the way of humility and peace. Jesus rides a donkey, he even draws attention to that fact. He may be intentionally enacting the words of Zechariah, which read: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The next verse then reads: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Presbyterian minister Dr. E. T. Thompson writes that translated into modern terms, this passage from Zechariah would read, “And he will do away with bombing planes, intercontinental missiles, and nuclear submarines; and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from Washington to the ends of the earth.” (Ernest Trice Thompson, The Gospel According to Mark and Its Meaning for Today, p. 180). Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is not just about Ephraim and Jerusalem. It’s about us.
Luke means for us to follow Jesus’ way of peace from the very beginning of his gospel, when angels herald his birth, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” We’re meant to imagine ourselves in the small crowd of disciples that hail Jesus at the eastern gate, crying “Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest heaven!” We’re meant to share tears with Jesus as he nears Jerusalem, weeping over a city whose lust for military power will only lead to its own destruction. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” he cries. In each instance, Luke uses the Greek word, eirhnh (i-ray-nay), which we translate as “peace”. A fuller definition is “a state of national tranquility”, or “exemption from the rage and havoc of war.” This is what Luke’s Jesus brings. Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of God, and in the words of the prophet Micah, “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Micah 4:3) Jesus walks the way of peace into Jerusalem. And we are to follow.
That, of course is a difficult thing to do, and there are different ways of doing it. A few years ago there was a story in the news about two hundred and twenty-two people who participated in the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. They consisted of members of several denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as ministers and even a few former moderators of our own General Assembly. All 222 of them were arrested as they sat in protest in front of the White House. One woman, an 83 year-old Presbyterian from Arizona gave two reasons for participating in the Peace Witness. “I would really like to see peace,” she said. And secondly, “I hate to stay home and dust.” (Presbyterian News Service, March 20, 2007, What Church Should Be). She was one of many who felt that following Christ means proclaiming peace and speaking out against war, even if it gets you arrested.
That’s just one way that some Christians follow Jesus’ way of peace. Certainly it’s not what all of us feel called to do. Others have made the very difficult sacrifice to serve in the armed forces, recognizing that sometimes force is necessary to protect the innocent, and many of them are faithful Christians as well. We do live in a world in which there are times when force seems necessary to maintain peace. Still others simply feel an obligation to discuss what it means to be a Christian in a time of war. It means asking questions. It means being engaged in current events. It means trying to find an answer to the question: What is a faithful Christian response to war? Certainly it starts with praying for the nations and leaders of the world, praying for those who are serving in harm’s way, and also praying that one day human beings will learn war no more. But where do we go from there? What does it mean for us that we follow – not the emperor’s military processional through the western gate – but the processional of Jesus, the one who goes to his death and even asks forgiveness for those who kill him? What does it mean for us that we follow the one plodding along on a donkey, shouting for peace and shedding tears for a city doomed to destruction?
Each of us may have a different answer. In 1983, the American Bishops of the Catholic Church issued a letter entitled, The Challenge of Peace. In it, they agreed that Christians may take different stances about war, but that all Christians will “find in any violent situation the consequences of sin: not only sinful patterns of domination, oppression and aggression, but the conflict of values and interests which illustrate the limitations of a sinful world.” (Pastoral Letter of the American Roman Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, 1983). In other words, all Christians can recognize the atrocities of war, and in response pray for the day when we live in a world without war. All Christians can pray for the day of peace.
All Christians can also affirm the sovereignty of God in times of war, when insecurity is the predominant mark of our culture. After September 11, 2001, many people said things like, “Things are different,” and “Nothing is ever going to be the same.” Those statements have proven true, as the world just doesn’t seem to be as secure as it used to be. Death at times seems more real than life. We long for life to be secure, so much so that sometimes we’ll try to guarantee our security through aggression, or oppression, or military power (Douglas F. Ottati, Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species, p. 75). We forget, though, that this is not our world, and ultimate security is only found in God. God is the only one who can save us from sin, and death, and destruction. In the words of Psalm 33, “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. Our soul waits for the Lord; he alone is our help and shield” (Psalm 33:16-17). God alone can save us, and God’s Kingdom comes no matter what. No military processional can either secure it or thwart its reach. Even if all cries for peace are silenced, Jesus says, the very stones themselves would shout! God’s Kingdom comes in the person of Jesus Christ, and its coming depends not on us… but on God.
That’s why we can enter through the eastern gate with Jesus in the first place. Because we believe that our lives are not our own and we belong solely to God, we can take the risk of forgiving instead of retaliating. We can take the risk of breaking circles of violence in our own lives and refusing any promises of security based on human power (see Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations: War and Survival in a Liberal Society, p. 117). Because we believe that all of creation is and always will be in God’s loving and secure hands, we can follow Jesus’ way of peace: to the table, to the cross, and on to the empty grave. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and on earth! And glory to God in the highest!
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This sermon was written by Lee A. Koontz and delivered on April 1, 2007.