Sunday, March 24: Palm Sunday

Written by Alan Combs, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Salem, VA

Trees with light coming through. A Voice in the Wilderness

Zechariah 9:9-12

Lent is a time of preparation and expectation. In the early church it began as a time of final preparation for those who would be baptized at Easter, but it eventually expanded to incorporate an opportunity for all Christians to remember the promises of their baptism. It is a time of expectation because in that preparation our hope is to bring our whole selves to journeying with Jesus to the cross. Part of that journey leads us to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is clear that both Matthew and John had this passage from Zechariah in mind when they described this scene:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech. 9:9)

One has to wonder how these words were directed for the first audience who heard them. Who is the king that comes to them? Is it the Persian King Darius who allowed the exiles to return from Babylon and allowed the creation of the Second Temple? Other scholars think it a reference to Alexander the Great passing through Jerusalem and receiving a welcoming reception. In all likelihood, the prophet keeps the identity vague on purpose because the growing expectation was that this coming king would be different from all the kings that Israel had known.

The first clue comes in the words used to describe the king. The prophet describes the king as “triumphant and victorious,” which at first conjures up an image of a king leading a victorious returning army after a brutal battle. Zechariah is quick to upend that image by comparing the colt this king rides and the war horses of the kings of the earth. The prophet says, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off” (Zech. 9:10). To ride on a donkey is to proclaim peace, as opposed to a conquering king on a war horse. The king of this prophecy is different from even the “good” kings and rulers of this world, who still often enforce what many consider as “peace” through violence.

It doesn’t take long to see why Matthew and John thought of this image when they thought of Jesus. They lived in a time where one of the chief benefits of living under the rule of the Roman Empire was the “Pax Romana,” the peace of Rome. While the Pax Romana might have meant a relative amount of stability and lack of conflict, the way the Romans maintained it was through military might and violence when necessary. Jewish folks knew that first-hand.

Of course the hope of the occupied and oppressed Jewish community for a Messiah wasn’t necessarily the king envisioned by Zechariah; it was a conquering king of their own who would overthrow Rome and return Israel to its former greatness. You can see this even in the questions of the Disciples where their assumption was that at some point Jesus would lead his followers to overthrow Rome and restore Israel. But Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah most folks were looking for. Instead of the conquering king riding in on a war horse, he is Zechariah’s king, who is a herald of peace, in whom “the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (Zech. 9:10). Instead of conquering through violence, Jesus offers himself up to the violence of this world, and it is his death that he conquers sin and in his resurrection that he conquers death.

We see through a glass dimly, and while the prophet probably did not have a clear sense that this king would be Jesus as we know him from the Gospels, it is powerful that the expectation he named already spoke of a king who would be a Prince of Peace, not a general of war. Even after exile, in the midst of the building of the second temple, Zechariah knew Israel’s (and the world’s) hope couldn’t be found in the cycles of violence that continue to try to dominate our world, and in which we often continue to seek security.

Another ambiguous line in his passage is the promise that God will “set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” Again, many people theorize who this could be about. Is it the exiles returning from Babylon? Is it another oppressed group? I think it is purposefully vague. Perhaps one faithful way of reading it is in the context of the contrast between this colt-bound king who announces peace and the rulers of this world who wield their power with violence. When we are told to look at the world “realistically” we are told that violence is just a part of the way things are. That we assume that nothing can be done is a pit of our own making. We need Jesus because we are in a waterless pit out of which we cannot climb on our own.

In the United Methodist Baptismal Covenant we make promises to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,” “reject evil powers of this world,” and “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression.” These are not one time declarations, but a way of life we live into through Jesus Christ. To live into them, we look to that same king who rode a donkey, proclaiming peace in a world full of violence. We “confess Jesus Christ as [our] Savior, put [our] whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as [our] Lord.” When we surrender to him this way, as we seek to live according to a different way than the ways of this world, certainly we become what Zechariah describes as “prisoners of hope,” and as he rescues us from the waterless pit we are saved by water and the Spirit.

A Voice in the Wilderness: Lent 2024

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