On that first Palm Sunday Jesus rides between the hammer and the anvil.
The hammer is the mighty Roman Empire. Imperial guards stand on the walls of ancient Jerusalem. Roman soldiers control the city gates and check people for weapons. Roman flags fly from the fortress that faces the Jerusalem Temple. The Roman governor in Judea collects the taxes, enforces the peace, and leaves no doubt that Rome is supreme. Under it all, Rome is terrified of revolution.
The anvil is the chosen of people of God called Israel. They have waited for God make things right for God’s people. For almost five hundred years they have waited. They have endured the domination of empires. They have suffered under their own corrupt rulers. They have prayed and obeyed for centuries. Now, it is time for the revolution.
On that first Palm Sunday Jesus rides between the hammer and the anvil.
“Open to me the gates of righteousness,” shouts half of the happy crowd, “that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.”
“This is the gate of the Lord,” shouts the other half of the parade, “the righteous shall enter through it.”
They know what it means. God had been away for a long time. The Jerusalem temple has been an empty shell. Now God’s glory is returning to the Temple. The crowd knows the words of the prophet, Zechariah, by heart.
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey…
Do you see Jesus on the back of that donkey? He rides from the Mount of Olives—the place where the Prophet Joel said the Final Judgment begins. The people finish the great Song of Ascent as he passes through the gate. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they shout. “We bless you from the house of the Lord,” comes the reply.
Jesus rides between the hammer and the anvil. To the Romans he is either dumb or dangerous. To the Judeans he is either a fool or a fraud. He announces that God intends to be King. He declares that God will set right what is wrong, heal what is broken, lift up what is fallen down.
Jesus rides on the back of a donkey down the slope of the Mount of Olives. As the great city comes into view, Jesus cries. “If only you had recognized the import of this day, things could be different.” But that recognition was not forthcoming. As Luke tells the story, there is no welcoming delegation from the city as he approaches. There is only the anxious reproach of some of the Pharisees, urging Jesus to silence his disciples.
Some fear the iron fist of Rome. Others want confrontation. They pout when Jesus speaks words of peace. Still others are glad to make him a scapegoat to support the corrupt status quo.
Jerusalem elites, which example will you follow? The response seems clear to Jesus. They will follow the the path of accommodation to power, as they have for the previous hundred years. As a result, people will suffer and die. Jesus is the first to go, in the Lukan account. But he won’t be the last. From the cross, Jesus declares to the weeping daughters of Jerusalem (!), “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31, NRSV).
If only we knew the things that make for peace. In these days when graphic and horrifying images of destruction, death, war crimes, and attempted genocide fill our news feeds, I wonder if our Passion Sunday eyes can be turned anywhere else in our text. What are the things that make for peace? If only we knew, we would put those things to work.
Yet, the Lukan account is nothing but a record and report of those things that make for peace. Speckman argues that these things are listed and described in at least three locations in the gospel narrative. We can find summaries of the things that make for peace in the birth narratives, in Jesus’ Nazareth sermon Luke 4:16-18), and in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples (Luke 7:22). These are not descriptions of military strategies, lists of armaments, or the words of great military leaders. These are calls to God’s justice.
“This year, as every year, we begin Holy Week in praise of a king whose power is not that of tanks and fighter planes, drones, and supersonic missiles. This week,” writes Kathryn Schifferdecker, “we see the power of God to do something that no army can do: to give life, not destroy it; to change hearts; and to destroy the power of sin and death once and for all.”
No one wants what Jesus brings. The space between the hammer and the anvil is about to disappear.
Paul describes Jesus’ mission in Philippians two. Jesus
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
This is his path to the throne. We know that path passes through a cross. We know that path opens into an empty tomb. We know that path travels from death to life. We spend this week re-telling that story.
We spend our life re-living that story. We are the Church, the body of Christ. So we live between the hammer and the anvil.
The hammer is a secular culture of violence, greed and fear. The hammer commands us to keep quiet about this spiritual hobby called Christian discipleship.
The anvil is a religious culture that used to be in charge but is no longer. The anvil seduces us to trade strength, success and security for faithfulness to Jesus.
We need the “mind of Christ” if we are to be faithful. So we, the body of Christ, give life to the people, the neighborhood and the community we serve. They live in the same dangerous space we do. They live their days terrified that life would flatten them to death!
The things that make for peace are things that happen in our daily and ongoing work for justice and compassion in the world. That work happens in our individual and communal lives. That work happens when human governments act with compassion and integrity rather than with cruelty and deceit. Often, we may miss the things that make for peace – but not always. It is slow and often hidden work, but it is not in vain.
And though Jesus grieves over the hardness of human hearts even when given the chance to soften, that is not the end of the story. It is, rather, only the beginning. In Holy Week, once again we tell the story of a God who will not take No for an answer, even when that No comes in the shape of a Roman cross.
During the next week, we tell the only story that matters. Millions of people will hear that story in Christian churches. But tens of millions will not hear a word. They won’t hear it unless they hear it from you and me.
A faithful church is a witnessing church. If we have no story to share at Easter, we have no story share at all.
Millions of people will come to (Western) Christian churches this week. Some will come for the first time since Christmas. Some will come for the first time ever. But millions more will not come at all. They won’t come because no one invites them.
How often do we keep quiet in order to avoid attracting unwanted attention? How often do we do that with the best of intentions, with a panicked desire for safety in a dangerous and unpredictable world? We may not find ourselves in a political parade risking a violent response by the authorities – although some of us might. We may simply find ourselves in a difficult conversation in our church community, where the safest course might be to say nothing and thus keep a conflict from erupting. When church fights get going, who knows where they will end.
A faithful church is an inviting church. If we have no reason to invite at Easter, we have no reason to invite at all.
Millions of people will be part of real Christian community this week. But tens of millions will continue to live in the punishing loneliness of modern existence. They will face suffering and struggle alone and without hope. That will happen unless we embrace them.
Of course, Jesus’ words are the same, then, to us. “If these were silent, the stones would shout out!”
Our expectations are also profoundly shaped by our self-interest. I hear what I want to hear, for the most part. What I hear and see are shaped by what I want and don’t want, by what’s good for me and those I love. If I hear messages that conflict with my self-interested expectations, my first impulse is to reject those messages as wrong. How else can I maintain the status quo that serves me so well?
A faithful church is a serving church. We have the love of Jesus in our hearts and in our church family. Now is the time for you to help that family grow by loving the people Jesus loves.
There will more than a little hammering in the next few days. But soon the power of the hammer and the anvil will be broken at the mouth of an empty tomb. I invite you to be part that journey this week.