Jesus Comes to the City

When they were still in Galilee, Jesus began talking with his disciples about having to go to Jerusalem. He mentioned it not just once, but several times, speaking of betrayal and condemnation, of being handed over to be executed and of being raised.

They tried to persuade him not to go. His reputation as a teacher and healer had grown, but so had the concern of the authorities in the city. Delegations had been sent from Jerusalem to investigate his ways: they challenged him, questioned his teachings, tried to identify his weak spots.[1] In Galilee Jesus was safe; he was with his own people – rural folk, poor people mostly, people who weren’t impressed with delegations of educated experts from the city, having come all the way to harass one of their own.

Jesus’ friends thought it was a mistake to go to Jerusalem, to make himself so vulnerable, but he insisted. The city was where he had to go. They followed reluctantly, dragging their feet, one day amazed at his courage and determination, the next day frightened to death.

On the road, the crowd of people walking to Jerusalem grew larger and larger. It was spring, time to make the pilgrimage to the Temple to celebrate Passover, time to celebrate God’s mighty acts in liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt. Conversations among the pilgrims were marked by joy and expectation, but occasionally even the casual observer could also detect overtones of wounded national pride and signs of barely contained religious fervor. Jerusalem was the holy city, God’s own city, their city, but it was also a center of Rome’s control over the land and its people.

Facing a city crowded with pilgrims, Rome’s representatives were understandably nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the politically charged memory of liberation from Pharao’s yoke, and the mix easily became explosive. Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. He brought along elite Roman soldiers to keep order and to quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare.

Lots of people were on the road before the festival. Imagine two processions approaching Jerusalem at about the same time. One a festive, happy throng of pilgrims, colorful and noisy, with small children, goats and sheep; the other a long, orderly column, a Roman battalion, rows and rows of foot soldiers, led by troops on horseback; banners flying overhead, golden eagles mounted on poles; helmets and weapons glistening in the sun; the sound of marching feet, the clanging of hooves, the clinking of armor, the beating of drums. Rome knew how to project power and remind a city filled with pilgrims that any trouble would be crushed. The Pax Romana, Rome’s peace, would be enforced.

Jesus and the disciples reached Bethphage, on the outskirts of the city, at the Mount of Olives. Jesus had walked all the way from Galilee, but now he stopped, only a couple of miles outside the city gates, and sent two disciples for a donkey. It wasn’t that suddenly he couldn’t walk anymore and needed a ride. Everything in this story is about the unfolding of God’s purposes. “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.” Words from Isaiah and Zechariah illuminate the scene with the light of promised redemption. People stripped branches from trees and the cloaks off their shoulders and spread them on the road to make a carpet for the one who comes in the name of the Lord, a carpet worthy of a king, their king. Hope and expectation were stirred, but also fear. The whole city was shaken, questions flying from every side, “Who is this?” and the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Two processions entered the city that day, one led by Rome’s governor, riding on the largest horse he could find in his stable, the other led by Jesus, a Galilean peasant, riding on a donkey. Some look at this scene and they see prophetic theater, comedy of the oppressed at its best, a parody of imperial pomp and circumstance; but the people who asked, “Who is this?” didn’t just ask out of curiosity. There were men with little black note books in the crowd who reported to the authorities, both at the temple and at the governor’s residence. They followed Jesus to the temple, eager to record verbatim his inflammatory speeches, but he didn’t give any speeches. He entered the temple precinct like any other pilgrim, but instead of purchasing an animal for the sacrifice, he drove out the merchants and money changers, words of the prophets pouring from his lips. On his first day in the city Jesus managed to irritate the occupying power and the religious authorities, not to mention the merchants who didn’t like having their holiday business interrupted.

He spent the night in Bethany, and some of his disciples probably wished he had stayed there, in the suburbs, away from the complications of the city, but he didn’t. Everything in this story is about the unfolding of God’s purposes. He had to be in Jerusalem, the holy city, God’s own city, the city of memory and hope that was also a hub of political power. He had to be there, not to take over the system and put himself at the top, but to topple the whole power scheme and its principles of fear, greed, and control.

Days later, after the powers that be had decided that they needed to get rid of him expeditiously, the governor would ask him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus would say neither yes nor no.[2] He was and is a threat to the power arrangements of the city because he refuses to play their game, our game, and instead he continues to proclaim the kingdom of God, a reign based not on fear or coercion but on faith and unsentimental, dependable love.

Jesus comes to the city. He comes to bless and to heal, to teach and to comfort, but also to challenge, confront, and disturb us. We spread green branches on the floor of our sanctuary today to remember and celebrate his entry into Jerusalem when the empire was Rome’s, but we also do this to remember his claim on our city. We do this to remember that he does indeed ride his donkey all the way down Broadway, passing churches and synagogues on the way, hospitals and schools, hotels and arenas, law firms and banks, the governor’s office and city hall. He has no interest in a bigger pulpit, a bigger desk, or a bigger campaign fund. He rides his donkey down 8th Avenue, past the massive, most impressive Music City Center, and on down Lafayette and past the Union Mission and the Campus for Human Development. He knows this city, from the hippest condo in the Gulch to the fragile encampments under bridges where those without housing try to find shelter. He enters our city and rides through its streets, inviting us to follow him, and on the way we discover life in his city. His city is built around the table where he shares his bread with the hungry and brings the homeless poor into his house, all of us. His city is built around the table where he gives himself to us to heal our broken, fragmented lives with his compassion and his deep trust in God’s faithfulness. His city is built around the table where we look around and finally see that we are brothers and sisters, members of one household, all of us.

Two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day before Passover: One from the west, a parade of imperial power, a show of force led by Rome’s governor; the other entered from the east, a parade of hope, surrounding a man of fearless humility. We know where the two parades ended; on a hill not so far away. We know which man was tortured and executed, and which one washed his hands.

A few weeks ago, Amanda Miller taught a class during our adult education hour on Sunday morning. We learned a lot about life in the cities of the Roman Empire, including the curious detail of the very restricted use of the color purple. Only members of the imperial household and a small class of officers were allowed to wear clothing made from purple cloth or decorated with purple accents. Purple was the most expensive dye, the color of highest status, the royal color. I chuckled because the church soon adopted the practice of color coding its hierarchy with bishops in purple and cardinals in red. Then I came upstairs and looked at the table.

You can see the bright purple cloth, it’s been on the table all through Lent. It was a bold step for the church to strip the emperor of his purple power suit and to put it on Jesus of Nazareth, as it were, to declare which of the two truly was Lord and Savior and whose vision and power ruled all things. It was a bold step. It was also a dangerous thing to do, given the human inclination to seek power. The challenge remains to this day, will the gentle and fearless way of Jesus transform how we negotiate and organize power in our communities, or will our old imperial ways of domination and control co-opt the name of Christ for our own purposes?

The church was bold to not only claim the royal color of the empire for the Lord Jesus but to combine it with the cross, the empire’s preferred instrument of execution for slaves and trouble makers. This table cover is a bold statement of our hope that the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, will indeed overcome our death-dealing ways with redeeming love. The purple cloth of Caesar embroidered with the cross of Christ is perhaps a greater statement of our faith in the resurrection of the Crucified One than all the trumpets of Easter.

Jesus is riding into town on a donkey, he wants to build his city here. Following him, we discover what it means to be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. Following him, we discover the just city.


[1] Matthew 15:1; 16:1

[2] Matthew 27:11