Timid or Terrifying

Palm Sunday   April 13, 2014   Matthew 21: 1-17

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Which Jesus did you expect to encounter on this Palm Sunday when you came to church?  I imagine that you came looking for the gentle Jesus, the humble Jesus riding on a borrowed donkey, the compassionate Jesus who healed the sick, who welcomed children, and who cared deeply about his bumbling band of disciples.  That is the Jesus who usually makes his appearance on Palm Sunday.  He is the one we recognize at the heart of the joyful parade of pilgrims making their way from the Mount of Olives to the gates of Jerusalem.  They are all shouting and singing “Hosanna” and waving palm branches, laying them on the road in front of Jesus, and he is just quietly riding along on his little donkey. 

     He seems very timid for a Savior.  He’s rather unassuming for the Son of God.  In fact, he appears to be so mild-mannered that it’s hard to imagine him offending or upsetting anyone.  Usually on Palm Sunday this is the Jesus we envision.  And we add our “Hosannas” to those of the children; we join the crowd of pilgrims who are happy to welcome this rather timid, safe Messiah.

     Most years we stop reading the Palm Sunday story right there, when the joyful parade reaches the city gate.  That’s when Matthew tells us that the whole city is asking, “Who is this?” and the crowds respond, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  What a wonderful entrance onto the stage at the beginning of Holy Week.  Everyone is happy.  Everyone is cheering.  Obviously, they have embraced this meek and mild messiah-figure, just as have we.  This is a Jesus we can relate to.  This is a Jesus who goes with the flow.  This is a Jesus who is safe around children.  This is a Jesus who smiles and nods a lot.  How can you not love him?  It’s easy to love our Palm Sunday Jesus.  Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  But hold on, because that’s not all that happened on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew.

     “Then Jesus entered the temple,” Matthew tells us.  Two out of four Gospel writers have this happening immediately after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Mark says it happened the next day.  John sites it as having happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  But both Matthew and Luke place the cleansing of the Temple on Palm Sunday.  Suddenly a different Jesus has shown up.  This is an angry Jesus.  This is an aggressive and intimidating Jesus.  This is a Jesus who turns over tables and chairs and chases people out of the Sanctuary, a Jesus who shouts and accuses and frightens people.  This is a Jesus who gets mad about sin, and who is fed up with the criticisms of the chief priests and scribes.  This is a Jesus who is, quite frankly, terrifying.  Which Jesus did you expect to meet today?

     When Charissa and I were talking about this sermon earlier in the week, she shared with me a poster that someone had given her.  It is a picture of Jesus in the temple on Palm Sunday.  It is a portrait of chaos.  Jesus has just overturned a table which is now on top of a man.  A woman is reaching out to Jesus begging for mercy, while in her other hand she is clutching a sack of coins.  Another woman is sitting on the ground, having been thrown off her chair.  A wounded man is holding his head and running away.  And you can just see the rear end of a cow that is stampeding out the door.  The caption that goes with the poster reads: 

“If anyone asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.”  Here is another Palm Sunday Jesus.  Which one do you recognize?  Which one are you prepared to follow?

     Former president George W. Bush has recently displayed more than 30 portraits of world leaders that he’s painted since he left office.  What an amazing thing to do.  These were all people that George Bush knew and encountered during his presidency.  Included in the exhibit, now on display at his Presidential Library, are portraits of Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and the Dalai Lama.  George Bush said that the paintings were done “in a spirit of friendship,” and that he was trying to show how he felt about these world leaders.  I actually thought several of them were quite good.  Of course, I’m no art critic.

     Some actual art critics did offer praise for the president’s efforts.  But at least one critic, Greg Allen, observed that the paintings were all based on the first photo that came up when you Googled the name of that world leader.  Allen wrote, “Apparently [George Bush] did not tap the enormous archive of photos, taken by professionals who followed him every day for eight years, which are contained in his giant library.  Instead, it seems, he Googled the world leaders he made such impactful relationships with himself, and took the first straight-on headshot he saw.”  The paintings are intriguing, but it’s hard to see evidence of the actual friendships that supposedly inspired them.  They are just portraits based on a single photograph, and so, they remain rather one-dimensional and flat.

     When we look at everything that happened on Palm Sunday we are going to discover a complicated Jesus.  We will have our perceptions of him stretched beyond the obvious so that they encompass both the timid and the terrifying.  We can’t base our relationship with Jesus on the first picture that pops up when we Google his name.  On Palm Sunday we would then be left with a rather pale, pastel Jesus sitting on a donkey, not the vivid, formidable figure running roughshod through the temple.  In the Gospels, there is the equivalent of an enormous archive of snap shots of Jesus.  Why should we settle for a one-dimensional picture of him?  And if we claim to have a relationship with Jesus, why settle for someone else’s simplistic portrait of him? 

     We have to be brave enough to acknowledge that Jesus isn’t safe or simple or predictable.  The man who rode meekly on a donkey in the morning was wielding a whip and shouting abuse at the temple money changers by mid-afternoon.  He then took some time out to heal the blind and the lame, but after that he was seen arguing with angry priests and scribes while children danced and sang around him, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Your picture of Jesus, if it is accurate, will have to be one complicated portrait.

     Why should we be surprised by that?  Why should we be disheartened by that?  Jesus was a real person, not a flat template of the perfect human.  Jesus was a real Savior, not just our idea of the ideal savior, not simply a savior we can understand.  If you think you have Jesus all figured out, I’d venture to say that you don’t really know Jesus.  Why be lazy and just latch onto the first portrait of Jesus you see?  Why should you let that single flat photo dominate your relationship with this complicated Savior? 

     We have an enormous archive of pictures based on real relationships that Jesus had with people.  Don’t stop reading Scripture and don’t stop looking for the real Jesus until you begin to see a three-dimensional Lord.  In fact, don’t even stop then, because he will continue to surprise you.  Keep on reading the Bible, keep visualizing that Savior who at times appears timid and who at times is just plain terrifying.  We’ve only looked at one day in the life of Jesus, Palm Sunday.  Now we enter Holy Week when who Jesus is will be revealed in even more vivid colors and in even more surprising ways.  It will take some courage to encounter that Jesus in the days ahead.  Grab a paintbrush.  It’s time to make your portrait of Jesus as personal and as powerful as the Savior who lived and died for you.