Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Mary Oliver, in “The Poet Thinks about the Donkey,” imagines the scene we’ve just been reading about, from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into the city.
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
The donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
He stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
Leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
Clatter away, splashed with sunlight!
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let a stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
As he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
That closing line, “and stepped, as he had to, forward,” mirrors so beautifully what Jesus himself was doing on that important day, doesn’t it?
The crowds were impressive, and Jesus was greeted with great acclaim, with waving palm branches, with cloaks strewn across his path, and shouts of “Hosanna! Save us!”
But he knew what he was getting into. Luke had alerted us to this some 10 chapters earlier in fact. Back in Luke 9:51, we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knew what was coming when he reached the holy city, and he and the donkey both “stepped, as they had to, forward.”
We’ve been talking about the Lord’s Prayer over the last several weeks, and today we arrive at its conclusion, words that appear in a few ancient manuscripts at the end of the prayer, and which most Protestant churches include when we say the prayer together: “for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.”
This line may have been added later on – no doubt by someone who felt it was a bit abrupt to end with the line we discussed last week, about being delivered from evil – but it is certainly a fitting conclusion to end the prayer with a doxology like this, that is, words of praise and glory to God.
It sounds an awful lot like King David’s doxology in I Chronicles 29:11, in fact, and may have even been drawn to an extent from that source. That prayer reads:
“Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty… yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”
At the very least we can hear echoes of King David’s prayer in the one we pray together every Sunday, ending as we do with the words: “thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”
Focusing on these words on Palm Sunday, however, brings to light just how differently Jesus understood kingdom, power, and glory than did those who greeted him in Jerusalem that day.
Kings, after all, would have arrived in town on impressively large horses, or drawn in royal chariots, not on the backs of donkeys, however sweet and obedient they might be.
And the power Jesus brought along with him was indeed power to save, but not in the way the crowds expected. They were looking for a triumphant overthrow of the Roman government, not a savior whose greatest moments of triumph would come first on a cross and then in empty tomb.
And as for glory? The kind of glory Jesus demonstrated is summed up for us beautifully in Philippians 2:
"though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
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."
That’s the kind of glory we’re told Jesus exhibited.
It’s all turned on its head, isn’t it?
Defining glory in terms of humility and sacrifice.
A powerful ruler, who rides into town on a donkey.
A king who washes his own servants’ feet.
But this shouldn’t surprise us, really, if we’ve been paying attention to Jesus story as it’s given to us in Luke’s gospel.
After all, these kinds of dramatic reversals were just the sort of thing Jesus’ mother Mary sang about back in chapter 1, as she caught a glimpse of the world that her son would bring about:
A kingdom in which God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,
Brings down the powerful from their thrones,
Lifts up the lowly,
fills the hungry with good things,
and sends the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
Jesus himself had given us fair warning too, when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue back in Luke chapter 4.
His kingdom would be one with good news for the poor,
And release for the captives,
Recovery of sight to the blind,
And freedom for the oppressed. (Luke 4:18)
Elsewhere, Jesus taught that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
He taught that true greatness is about welcoming the last and the least. (Luke 9:48), that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
He taught that treasure in heaven comes from giving away all we have to the poor. (Luke 18:22)
Those whose lives are marked by the sort of power, glory, and authority that the world dishes out, really ought to get a little nervous when they hear Jesus’ kingdom talk in the gospels.
For the kingdom of God is all about upsetting expectations.
But for this same reason, the proclamation of God’s kingdom comes as tremendously good news for all who are beaten down, trampled underfoot, and in danger of losing hope.
That’s one of the reasons this prayer has been such an encouragement to so many.
“In a prison camp in World War II, on a cold, dark evening after a series of beatings, after the hundreds of prisoners of war had been marched before the camp commander and harangued for an hour, when the prisoners were returned to their dark barracks, and told to be quiet for the rest of the night, someone, somewhere in one of the barracks began saying the Lord’s Prayer.
“Some of his fellow prisoners lying next to him began to pray with him. Their prayer was overheard by prisoners in the next building who joined them. One by one, each set of barracks joined in the prayer until, as the prayer was ending with ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,’ hundreds of prisoners had joined their voices in a strong, growing, defiant prayer, reaching a thunderous ‘Amen!’…
“And then the camp was silent, but not before the tables had been turned, the prisoners had thrown off their chains, and a new world had been sighted, signaled, and stated…
“Wherever, since the day that Jesus taught us, this prayer has been prayed, even in the darkest of days, the worst of situations, prisoners have been set free, the blind see, the lame walk, the poor have good news proclaimed to them, and a new world, not otherwise visible to us, has been constituted.” (Hauerwas and Willimon, Lord Teach Us, pp. 108-109)
Jesus’ betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane await, later this week, as does the cross on Good Friday … but so too does the glorious triumph of Easter morning, when we will be invited to re-imagine, yet again, what it means to celebrate God’s rule. (Spoiler alert: death doesn’t get the final word.)
Still, the whole of Holy Week is so important, in helping us to appreciate the joy we will share together next Sunday.
So I pray we will notice just how differently Jesus’ story unfolds, in Jerusalem, than it would have if he had bought into the world’s understanding of kingdom, power, and glory.
I hope, finally, we feel brave.
I hope, finally, we love the man who rode so lightly upon that donkey.
As he now lifts one dusty hoof to begin this journey with Jesus,
May we all step, as we have to, forward.