Palm Sunday: “The Surprise Guest,” Matthew 21: 1-11

When I was 14 TLC’s (The Learning Channel, not the folk chasing waterfalls) Town Haul, h-a-u-l, came to Laurens South Carolina.  It was at the peak of Trading Spaces’ popularity on TLC and they tried to capitalize on that momentum by bringing all the Trading Spaces designers together to renovate, not just a house, but an entire town.  Laurens was the second town they did, and let the record show that of the three seasons that aired our ratings were the best.  What happened is the show selected projects to do to revitalize the downtown area, beautify the space, different things like that.  The results were…mixed.  They converted an old office building on the square into a “teen club,” the ceiling collapsed six months later.  They built a Farmer’s Market, the person who donated the land didn’t like it and tore it down and built their own within a year.  But there were some successes, and the biggest thing that they did was build us an amphitheater, so that Laurens could become a major concert venue.  That might have been an unrealistic expectation but it’s a nice theater and its still in use, and the season finale of the show was grand opening of the amphitheater with a surprise musical guest.  And as the day got closer people went crazy over this surprise guest.  That morning and afternoon the local am radio station was dedicated just to speculation over who this guest was.  And around lunchtime the anticipation hit its peak.  Someone called in and said they saw a man in a black cowboy hat and a blonde woman walking around the square.  You know what that means…Tim McGraw and Faith Hill were playing the amphitheater opening.

Folks went nuts, they were convinced this was happening.  So we’re at the opening concert, which was literally 8 hours long featuring just about everyone in the county over the age of 13 who could play piano or guitar (cause this was the potential big break), and the anticipation is growing.  There are two curtains, one at the front of the stage and then one a little ways back that is keeping us from seeing the surprise guest’s equipment as they set up.  Finally its time.  The lights go down.  The host of the show makes her way up and asks us if we’re having a good time.  Its December and we’ve been there for 8 hours but we manage to get excited for the camera.  I’m like two people deep from the stage, I’m right there ready to go.  She talks on and on about how much they’ve loved being here and doing the show.  We start to get antsy.  She doesn’t take the hint.  Finally, she says “without further ado, give it up…for Hootie and the Blowfish.”

You could feel every person there’s shoulders sag.  There were audible gasps.  And people managed to play it off but there was legitimate shock in the crowd.  Remember, this is early 2000s, Hootie hasn’t started going by his real name yet.  The Blowfish are in a weird in between place where its been long enough since their peak for them to be exciting but not long enough to be nostalgic.  And they had just released an album so they’re singing new stuff.  Like, its 10 o’clock at night and we’ve been here since 2, play “Only Wanna be With You,” and “Hold My Hand” and let us go home.  The evening was not a total waste, I did catch a mandolin pick which I promptly lost.

It was a good concert.  And the band remains the biggest name to ever play the Little Amphitheater.  But there was moment where we thought it was going to be so much more.  There was this moment where, despite the fact that they’ve probably played venues that hold more people than the population of Laurens, we knew Tim McGraw and Faith Hill were in town that night.  And we didn’t give Hootie or the Blowfish the respect they deserved that night because of that, we didn’t realize what was happening in front of us because of what we convinced ourselves was going to happen.

There would have had to have been a buzz about Jerusalem as Jesus got closer and closer.  Even ignoring that Jesus was coming, the Passover festival would have created a stir in the city.  People estimate that the city had a population of 60-70 thousand at this point and that at Passover the number of people there rose to as many as 200,000 as Jews from all over the region flocked to the city to celebrate God’s deliverance of their ancestors from Egypt.  And yet even with that large of crowd coming in, the Gospels record that Jesus’ entry into the city caused people to pause and take notice.

In every Gospel except John this is presented as Jesus’ first time in Jerusalem, and they all point to the fact that the tension and anticipation has been building as he made his way toward the city.  The crowds around him are growing and shrinking and growing again, his interactions with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law are getting more tense, there’s this feeling that something is going on, something is going to happen.  People are getting excited, they’re apparently lining the streets, forming crowds – not just in the city – but on the road leading in as well.  They’re waiting, watching, searching, desperate to see what’s coming.  And then Jesus arrives…on a donkey.  He’s riding a donkey with its colt right there with him and he’s got leading the way…a bunch of nobodies.  The crowd that is following Jesus at this point is made up of women and children and peasants, its not the A-list group that you’d want heralding your arrival.  And I imagine there was a collective shoulder slump.  Maybe some audible gasps.  But then they caught themselves, then the moment took over and they cheered and put on their show but I think it’s a safe bet that in that moment, even if they didn’t admit it, even if they pushed it aside and pretended it wasn’t there, the thought going through the crowd was “is that is?”

“Is this all we’re getting?  Is this what all the hype was about?  This guy on a donkey.”  Another story from when I was in high school, as an FCA fundraiser we had a donkey basketball game.  Have you seen these before?  Its exactly what it sounds like, you play basketball on donkeys.  Donkeys don’t like playing basketball, they do not behave and hilarity ensues but even on a calm one, no one looks good riding a donkey.  No one is impressed by someone on a donkey.  Riding a donkey does not inspire people to flock to you, it doesn’t increase your standing, people don’t think “hey, that guy on the donkey looks like he’d be an awesome leader.”  And so in this moment the wheels have got to start turning, the moment Jesus comes into the city the anticipation and the excitement has got to get rocked a little bit, I have to believe there’s a moment where they realize that they may have over hyped this moment.

What did they really think was going to happen?  While there’s a big crowd gathered for the Passover, there’s also at least 500 Roman soldiers there keeping an eye on things.  There’s another couple thousand within a day’s march.  Even if they dealt with all of the soldiers nearby, Rome rules, basically, the whole world.  They aren’t winning that fight.  If Jesus had come in rallying everyone to riot, it would have gone the way every Jewish revolt against Rome went.  Maybe the last a couple of years, but eventually the numbers don’t add up.  It’s like a gambler on a hot streak, you can have a good run but eventually the house is going to win.  Or so I hear.  I wouldn’t know anything about that, I’m a good Baptist.  What’s gambling?

There’s no way the thing that the crowd is hoping for is really going to happen, but they let themselves get swept up.  They saw this new figure, someone who brought a new way of thinking, someone who wasn’t caught up in the way things already were, someone who seemed like he would change things and they let their hopes and expectations take over.  They started hoping for something too big to really happen but once it was in their heads nothing else would do.  Once you think Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are coming you can’t be happy with Hootie and the Blowfish.

The irony of all this, is that the people got so worked up, they became so obsessed with what they wanted to see that they failed to realize what was right in front of them.  They don’t see, in this moment what is at play.  They cannot see what’s about to happen, they don’t catch on to what it is that they’re witnessing.  God is in Jerusalem.  God is among them in this moment, and as they prepare to celebrate their deliverance in the past the stage is being set for their deliverance once and for all.  Something even bigger than what they want and imagine is happening but they miss it because they’re too wrapped up in what they wanted to see.

Matthew, looking back, saw what was happening in this moment and so he included a reference to the words of Zecheriah concerning the coming Messiah.  But he left something out.  The full passage reads like this:

 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.

Your king comes to you.  Righteous and victorious, lowly and riding a donkey.  Those don’t seem to go together.  A donkey is not a symbol of victory, humility and righteousness aren’t necessarily the hallmarks of kings.  But it’s the way God choose to come.  Humility is a hallmark of the life of Jesus, from his birth in a manger to his death on a cross he doesn’t act for his own glory but for God’s.  The people can’t see what God is doing.  The people can’t see that in coming in humility Jesus is blessing the humble.  They can’t see that by appearing weak Jesus is blessing those with no power.  They don’t understand that by rejecting riches and praise and power Jesus is elevating and blessing the poor and the outcast and the persecuted.  They don’t see the reversal that’s happening here.  They don’t see that by being defeated by the powers of evil and death Jesus will actually win ultimate victory over them.  They don’t see that in his death life will reign.  They’re so caught up in what they hope God will do that they don’t see what God is doing.  So they eventually turn away.  They fail to put their words into actions.  They have, I’ve heard it said, all of the notes but none of the music.  They’re present for what’s happening but they don’t really see it.  In the moments when we’re faced with that reality, may the example of the crowd empower us to do better.

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