The longer I am a pastor, the more I see Holy Week as a lesson in learning how to hold on to things lightly.
This is Palm Sunday and we traditionally begin with what we refer to as the “Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.”
We begin this day by hearing this story of Jesus riding a donkey into the city, as people hail and acclaim him in kingly fashion.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” they shout, waving their palm branches and strewing the path with their garments and those branches.
It is a very “kingly” kind of entry, reminiscent of conquering generals and rulers coming to claim their spoils after the siege of a city.
There is a “new rule” coming.
The whole scene is draped with images that seem to signal “We’ve really got something here!”
Here is the one who will drive out the Romans!
Here is the one who will restore the Kingdom of Israel!
Here is the one who will reclaim the Temple and restore it!
Here is the one who will speak for the “little guy,” who identifies with the poor and the oppressed, finally come to set the world to rights!
The expectation coming into Holy Week is one of the culmination of Jesus’ power and presence. We are about to see Jesus come into what his whole ministry has been leading up to! The procession dupes us into thinking that we know exactly how this will all play out.
The world could not be more wrong.
The shouts of “Hosanna” from the sunlit entry will give way to howls of “Crucify Him” in the dark of night by the angry mobs.
The apparent power of the crowds gathering to hail Jesus as King will give way to mobs in the darkness, coaxed on by shadowy “leaders” into ugly actions.
The apparent promise of peace and Jesus dealing with the occupying Romans forces will evaporate into the meekness of his arrest, a mock trial by night, and the violence of state sanctioned execution for inciting an insurrection.
The Jesus of the triumphant ruler entering the city on a donkey becomes the Jesus of the cross.
The magnificent entry to hailing crowds evaporates into a lonely exit observed by only a few, and a hasty burial in a borrowed tomb.
If the expectation we held tightly to of Jesus riding into Jerusalem as an earthly ruler come to claim his rightful throne and shake up the powers that be, then we learn in Holy Week to hold on to that image very lightly and to release it, for it will not last even a week.
There is tucked into this story from the beginning a comment that we often overlook. It is one which should have seen as a clue as to the nature of Jesus’ ministry and purpose, and how things would play out.
I am struck this year by this little detail in the story. It’s about the donkey. From the very start of the story a promise is made that whatever it is that God requires from you will come back to you.
If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.”
That’s the message from Jesus to any who questions what the disciples are doing in untying the donkey and taking it, and strangely enough, that seems to be enough!
They are allowed to take the animal.
We must assume that the animal makes its way back somehow, although we are never told about the return, just the promise and the reason.
“The Lord has need of it and will send it back immediately.”
That should have been our cue to understanding what Jesus was about more than the “pomp and circumstance” of the triumphal entry.
Throughout his ministry, his time in Galilee, Jesus had been lifted up time and again that what you give up to God, comes back to you.
“Those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.”
“What you give will come back to you, a goodly portion, shaken down, measured, and overflowing.”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will remain but a single grain, but if it dies, it will bear much fruit.”
“Sower went out to sow some seed…and it yielded back a harvest, some twenty fold, some sixty fold, some one hundred fold.”
What God requires of you, will come back to you.
This is the lesson that we find most difficult to learn.
God does demand our very lives but does so with the promise that what God has need of will be returned.
We find that very difficult to believe or to trust.
And so, we hoard our lives, holding to them tightly, fearfully.
We look at the events of this world and find ourselves always expecting some earthly ‘return on our investment.’ When we think of giving things, (our lives included) to God, lurking in the back of the mind is the “if I do this I’ll bet God will….” Or “What will I get out of the deal?”
That mentality is not technically giving ourselves, but rather it is a form of usury, where we expect something in return.
Usury is something that the scriptures warned against, because it fostered the honorific system of inequal obligation, someone always owing someone else something, that could be used to manipulate and control people.
“Owe no one anything except to Love each other….” Paul admonishes in Romans.
So then, how do you learn to let go of things, your life included?
How do you learn to let go of your expectations? Of others and of yourself?
How do you learn to relinquish your need for power, trusting instead that the more you empower others the more power there will be to go around for the good of all?
How do you learn to let go of your need to always be “right?” Or to always make the “right” decision? Or to always be on the “winning” side of every equation?
How will you learn to do that?
In marching into Jerusalem Jesus was letting all of our rampant expectations gush before us, letting them all be made known and put on public display.
This is the way we want it to be, the way we want you to be, Jesus. Ruler in the way that the world would recognize and acting in the predictable ways of this world, perpetuating systems of obligation, of “owed honor.” The “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” and the whole lop sided system of obligation – only now, as you come as earthly king, make it work for us instead of them!
But all of that is turned upside down as Jesus from his first moments in Jerusalem begins to model how you let go of things.
You let go of the need to be in control.
You let go of the need to receive the adoration from crowds and from your own disciples.
You let go of the need to win every argument.
You let go of … well, in the end– life itself.
You die on a cross and you go from being the name that is on everyone’s lips at the start of the week, even the Greeks coming to see you, to becoming the stranger who is buried in Joseph of Arimethea’s tomb.
This is what Jesus models for us in this week called “Holy.”
He models that you can let go of it all because of the promise of God.
What God requires of you, God will give back to you… in three days time, or in what must have seemed “immediately” to one who is lying in the grave.
The donkey was the sign.
It was not the sign we expected it to be, of triumph and exaltation in this life, but rather that something could be let go of for God to use, and a symbol of God’s trustworthiness. That what you let go of would return again, because that is what was promised by Jesus.
So, in this week called Holy, watch and learn how to hold things lightly.
Learn to let go of your own expectations, for things do not always go as we would expect them to go.
Things go instead as God expects them to go, and God’s promise in the midst of all of this is that what you give that God needs, God will return to you.
Even and especially, life itself!