I hesitate to ask this, but has anyone here this morning ever been involved in a riot?
I did just a little bit of reading about riots last week; and the more I read about them, the more interested I became.
It’s really interesting to me, how big groups of people work. Crowds take on personalities of their own… and what’s interesting to me about riots is how a crowd consisting of seemingly regular people like me and you…can erupt into violence without much warning at all.
It’s not like we plan riots.
It’s more like they break out.
…Well, this might be a little hard to believe, but Harrisonburg, the city where Christine and I lived before moving here almost six years ago, has had a little bit of a problem with riots in the past.
I don’t know if or how things have changed in recent years, but when we were living there it was almost an annual thing, that eventually towards the end of one semester or another, you’d hear about a riot breaking out at the neighboring university, JMU.
The first few times I heard about these riots, it was fairly shocking.
I grew up in a small, rural town, where the only exposure I had to the word “riot” was on news coverage of the Los Angeles riots in the wake of police brutality against Rodney King.
So to be living in a city where there was an actual riot…like I said, the first time it was kind of shocking.
But by the end of our time living there, these riots had become kind of normalized in my mind. I started to think of them like headaches; just part of putting up with that “other” university in town.
It was just a fact of living in Harrisonburg. “Oh yeah, JMU had a riot last night…again”.
Basically, what would happen is, that towards the end of the semester, students at JMU would gather in droves for an enormous party that would literally last all night, or even all weekend or all week. These parties would involve multiple houses, apartment complexes, and multiple blocks in one general area of the city.
Literally hundreds of college students would gather at these various locations, they would drink instead of sleep, sometimes for days on end.
Obviously they would lose all inhibitions, they would start acting out and eventually, the crowd would grow…riotous.
Sooner or later, the police would show up, and because there was almost a riot-culture that had been formed there over the years, a riot would break out.
Then, the next morning, the rest of the city would read about the latest JMU riot it in the newspaper.
So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you take a few hundred restless young adults who have just finished their final exams for the semester, and you add a great deal of alcohol, subtract sleep, mix in a history of rioting and a handful of police officers…you’ve created the perfect recipe for a riot!
And I’m assuming that most of us in this room would avoid a gathering that met all of those criteria…probably for more reasons than simply our personal safety…but you get the idea.
Most of us, I’m guessing…if we were part of a crowd that was growing ‘riotous’…we’d probably be somewhat uncomfortable, and we might try to find a way out before the violence started…and we might try to encourage the people we care about to leave with us.
Now, the reason I’m spending so much time talking about riots this morning is because I want us to be a little more sympathetic to the Pharisees in this story we’ve called the “triumphal entry”.
The scene is tense. We often like to imagine children waving palm branches (like we’ve seen this morning already), and a crowd smitten by the love of God expressed through Christ…but I think we’ve missed something if that’s all we can see in this celebration.
Sure they cry out in celebration “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
They line his way with branches, they throw their cloaks down on the path, symbolically paving the way for their king who comes in peace to take his rightful throne.
And these are all Greek symbols that are full of imagery; these are honors typically given to beloved kings in times of peace; the donkey instead of the war horse, the palm fronds are symbols of victory, the lining the streets are honors given to kings in their hour of victory…
But we are so familiar with the story and how it goes…that it’s easy to forget the victory had not yet been won…and the crowds were expecting a very different outcome on the other side of this parade.
We still do.
The reality is that the crowds in Jerusalem would have been really wound up, tense, even riotous.
It wouldn’t have been the kind of drunken tension that I was describing in Harrisonburg…it was much more justified than that.
I could talk this morning about Roman oppression, or the Puppet Pilate, or the oppressive tax system that was in place. I could talk about the iron fisted government, the social, the religious, and the political tensions that grouped around the Passover celebration every year.
I could talk about power; and empire, and the principles that maintain the status quo in any social system no matter how broken or how whole.
I could talk about how all of these tensions would rise and grow even more complex when Jerusalem tripled its population during Passover. Can you imagine?
Triple the amount of people in the same amount of space.
I get to feeling riotous within my own soul just trying to drive through Berlin in the summer! 🙂
Do you get what I’m saying?
It’s not just that tensions were high when Jesus takes this donkey into town.
It’s that the tensions were explosive.
The time was ripe for a riot; a rebellion…and if history is a teacher, there’s no telling what might set the crowds off.
So I can empathize with the Pharisees, you know? “Teacher tell your disciples to stop.”
In other words, “Teacher, let’s step back from this for a minute and take a deep breath.”
Are you sure you want to do this now?
I know we’ve had our differences Jesus…but do you understand how this could go?
“Jesus, if you want to get yourself killed, there are simpler, quieter ways to do it.”
But when Jesus responds, He doesn’t seem to care too much about keeping the peace.
“If these were silent, the stones would cry out.” He says.
In other words, enough is enough. This riotous world has been like this for too long.
You’re not going to understand it. These crowds are not going to understand it.
And two thousand years after it’s all said and done…people even then aren’t really going to understand it.
But for now,
if there are voices like yours
who aren’t praising God
and giving glory to heaven
if there are people like you
who refuse to see me as
the righteous one
who comes in the very
Name Of God,
then even the stones are willing
to cry out
on your behalf.
You blind guides.
And those words can sting a bit
because at the root of this story, the focal point of this story, the end to which Jesus’ action is aimed… is this city that welcomes him with arms wide open
and then turns against him, thirsty for crucifixion just days later,
Our hearts are something like this city that Jesus is aiming for.
Our lives are tense today, in ways the world has literally never seen before.
We are conflicted within ourselves, with other people, and by the suffering we’re exposed to any time we turn on a screen or a radio or open a newspaper.
Our problems are much different than those in the first century…and yet our problems are mind-numbingly the same.
Our world is much different than Jerusalem in the first century.
But our condition hasn’t changed.
In both cases we think we know what this Messiah should do…and in both cases, the Christ rides on, intent on one thing…a salvation that’s big enough for all of creation from the stones that line his path, to the living stones that comprise his Holy House.
The victory was won, even though it appeared otherwise.
The world has been set to rights though it often appears otherwise.
The rightful king is on his throne, though it does appear otherwise.
So it becomes a matter of allegiance.
Now, I’ve always had a really hard time writing conclusions to my sermons.
I was trying to think of a good conclusion, something that would affirm the faith and the hope that we have, something that would contain a reaffirmation of the faith that we profess and send us on our way energized to serve the rightful king, who is Christ our Lord.
So I thought of the Lord’s Prayer.
We often say this together, for a lot of good reasons…and this morning I’d like to invite you to stand if you’re able as we close with this prayer, stand in recognition that Christ is both the righteous and the rightful king of creation, and I hope standing helps us also focus on these words in a different way.