Letting Go of One Dream to Take Hold of Another
Matthew 21:1-12, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 13, 2014, Palm Sunday
It was an ancient dream that brought the crowd to the road going into Jerusalem to meet Jesus. It was the dream that someday Israel would be a real nation again, with a real king and a real army. It had been centuries since their nation was in its glory days, a thousand years since David was king and unified the country and even extended it into a small empire. The people that welcome Jesus shout to him “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They are welcoming Jesus as another David, another king who would reign in power and majesty and defeat the pagan armies who had abused God’s people for so long. In the other three gospels, the crowd explicitly calls Jesus the King.
The triumphal entry isn’t about people welcoming a man who taught peace and forgiveness; it was about fanning into flame the hope of a mighty king who would replace Caesar. The palms they waved and spread on the road had become (in the period of the Maccabean wars 200 years before) a symbol of Jewish nationalism against the empire of the Greeks. The dream that drove the crowd was a dream of national greatness being restored. No one in that crowd had ever experienced anything but being occupied by foreign powers, but the dream of restoration lingered. You see it being expressed in some of the Old Testament prophets through the centuries, although they often qualify the dream as being a dream of shalom for everyone in which war was no more. But for most people, it was the dream of the Good Old Days. The fondest hope of the people was that Jesus would take them back to the Good Old Days.
It appears that Jesus not only approved of the parade but made arrangements for it; he made sure there was a donkey to ride on. The donkey is a signal that Jesus has his own dream. Triumphal entries were a common thing for rulers back then—the Roman emperors and generals most famously, but the tradition went back centuries to earlier Near Eastern rulers. The king or conquering hero (often the same person) would enter followed by his army and a procession of prisoners of war and the booty taken from the conquered country. Jesus’ parade is by contrast an ironic procession. It’s a parody, a kind of Saturday Night Live send-up of the tradition of triumphal entry. Instead of the ruler entering on a warhorse as a symbol of strength, Jesus enters on a donkey, a symbol of humility and warlessness. There were no chariots, no soldiers, no prisoners, no booty. Just a ragtag band of disciples being welcomed by peasants with makeshift branches, laying down their coats on the dirt road.
Matthew makes it clear what Jesus meant by this parade. He says that it was done to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 9: “Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Matthew reads the Hebrew poetry that often repeats the same line using a different word—a donkey, a colt, a foal of a donkey—which simply meant that Jesus rode a young donkey, but Matthew thinks that it means that there were two animals, a donkey and a colt, so he revises Mark’s account to fit the prophecy as he understands it. The other three gospels confirm that it was just one donkey.
What does that donkey mean? Already we have heard that the donkey is tied to humility, but it also means peaceableness. The next verse in Zechariah (9:10) says of this coming king that he will get rid of chariots and warhorses in Israel, that he will get rid of battle bows and command peace to the nations. Zechariah’s dream of the Messiah is a king who demilitarizes and rules by spiritual power. Earlier in Zechariah, the Lord says “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit” (4:6). Matthew may be confused about the donkey, but the writer who recorded the Sermon on the Mount is not confused about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. It is not about might or power, but about God’s Spirit and forgiveness and love. When Jesus stands face to face with Roman power, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus’ dream of God’s kingdom was one he’d been talking about all along. His reign is like a plant growing in secret, growing all by itself, he said. The discovery of God’s dream for this world is like a person finding a perfect pearl or a great treasure unexpectedly. My regime, Jesus says, is one that welcomes latecomers as generously as those who have been with us from the beginning. In my kingdom, the one who has wasted everything is welcomed back as a child. In my kingdom, you are not rewarded for being careful but for taking risks. In my kingdom, we speak words of kindness, we never return violence for violence, and we give all we can with a view toward equality.
That was the new dream Jesus came to announce—and it was a dream foreshadowed by the poets of the 8th through 6th centuries before him—but it was not the dream the people were used to. Like most people everywhere, the people around Jerusalem and those who followed Jesus around still had the dream of the Good Old Days. They did not know, as Jesus said, the things that make for peace. They did not understand that power and glory and kingdom belong to the Father and not to us or to our earthly kings.
You can see this clearly in the story of Peter, the loudest disciple. In Matthew 16 Jesus asks the twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter says immediately, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Both of those are titles we still use for Jesus, but for Jews both of those titles meant King—the king chosen and anointed by God. Peter confesses not that he think Jesus existed before he became human but rather that Jesus is secretly the King of Israel. Jesus charges the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the King. Then he begins to clarify his own dream: “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16:21). Peter has his own dream, so he rebukes Jesus: “God forbid! This will never happen to you!” I’ll see to that. But Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You, Peter, are the voice of the tempter. That is not God’s dream, but a human dream.”
It seems that Peter still didn’t get it. Jesus repeats his statement of the divine necessity of suffering two more times, but the disciples fail to accept it. They are still seeing him through the lens of their own dreams. Jesus’ dream, which I think he probably absorbed most clearly from Isaiah 53, was that as the Servant of God he was to suffer on behalf of the people and be the agent of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and the sinful people. But the dream of everyone else was to be removed from the suffering they were currently in. Their dream was to get the power to defeat their enemies. It was a dream of the Good Old Days.
When Jesus says that conflict is coming and his disciples will fall away, Peter insists that he is a good soldier who will never abandon his captain. When the temple police come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter pulls out a sword with which he only pathetically cuts off the ear of a guard. “Put that thing away,” Jesus says. Not your dream now, but mine.
Soon after that, Peter denied Jesus and his dream of himself died. Then Jesus was put on a Roman cross, and Peter’s dream of Jesus died. It was only after he had completely bottomed out that he was ready for the new dream. When he learned that the Father’s power had raised Jesus from the dead, it began to dawn on him that this was a kingdom of the Spirit not of might or power. At the end of the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus pulls Peter aside and asks him if he really loves him. Three times Peter says yes, and three times Jesus says “In that case your job is to take care of my followers.” It’s not about becoming powerful or defeating enemies; it’s about training people to live out my reign in this world. That’s when I become king fully: when you make disciples and love them into maturity.
It may be that the hardest thing Peter ever did was to give up the old dream so that he could take hold of a new dream. In his case, it took failure and trauma before he could let go. Often that’s the way it is, but it is possible to make the choice to let go. The image that has stayed with me since my first big vocational trauma is that of the trapeze bar. I’m holding on to a trapeze bar, and it has carried me this far in its arc, but this is as far as I can go on this bar. Moving toward me is another trapeze bar. I know on one level that I need to take hold of it, but first I have to let go, and there is no net under me. This is a picture of God’s leading in our lives, or a picture of faith. We have to let go of what we know to take hold of what we do not know. We have to let go of the old dream to take hold the new dream God has for us.
A few weeks ago I finally stumbled upon a copy of Tony Pappas’ book about leading the small congregation. It was an eye-opener and a little devastating. He wrote the book in 1988 when he had been on Block Island a dozen years, and I haven’t had a chance to sit down with Tony to ask if his view of things has changed in 25 years. In the book Tony looks at the small church—and all the examples are from this one—through the lens of what anthropologists have written about small tribes in Central America. A small church is a folk society, he says, with nothing in common with modern rational technological society. By extension he suggests that Block Island is also such a folk society. He says a lot about identity and authority with that diagnosis, but the key point he makes is that in a folk society—and in a small church—the vision of the future is the past. There is no desire to progress or become something other than what has always been. The only dream is the dream of the Good Old Days, whether those are perceived as one generation ago, or centuries, or a thousand years back in a mythical golden time. In fact, Tony concludes his book by telling pastors to stop trying to change things. “Don’t kick against the goads.” The only way to move forward is by appealing to the past, by pitching what you see as progress as a restoration of what once was.
I understand that there is wisdom there, but I cannot get past my deep conviction that Jesus is the troubler of old dreams, that Jesus’ kingdom is a new dream for the world. I cannot believe that the best Jesus has for us is what has already been. I think he is always out in the future ahead of us, our scout, our pioneer. And he is always calling us into the future, into the dream that he has dreamed for us. So one message this morning is that the church has to let go of the dream of the Good Old Days and grasp the dream of God’s future for us and our ministry in this place.
But there is also a message for you as an individual, whatever your age. What is your dream for yourself? We all know that we can’t go backwards in life and become young again, but is it possible that our deepest wish is to restore what we have lost, and that this wish keeps us from taking hold of the future God has for us? On one level, there is a straightforward theological proposition involved here: Is God’s dream, God’s kingdom, a matter of getting power and influence for Christians in society or for us as individual Christians? That was the dream of the crowd, but not Jesus’ dream. Jesus wants us to share his dream of being a people of redemptive and suffering love, the dream of renewing the world through our sacrifice and bringing our neighbors into a relationship with God. The focus of your life, Jesus said, must be God’s dream for the world and not your dream for yourself. If you seek God’s kingdom and seek to be in a right relationship with God, all the stuff of material needs will fall into place by God’s provision.
But beyond that, God also wants you to be fully human as Jesus was. He wants you to mature and develop into all that you can be. The very early church father Iranaeus said “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” No one can be fully alive and remain the same person for a lifetime. It appears to me that life is a series of trapeze jumps. You don’t get from youth to wisdom in a straight line like one of those zip lines in the rain forest. It’s more like a series of transitions. You have to let go of one dream to grab hold of the next. To hold onto one dream forever is to realize that you have gone as far as you can on that trapeze, and now you are moving backwards, and eventually left dangling.
For some of you, the dream you’re stuck on is a relationship. For some, it may be a habit that you know is harmful and infantile but you can’t let go. For others, it is an occupation you need to let go of so that you can take hold of something new God has for you. For some of you, it’s a way of being spiritually that you are holding onto, and have been holding onto since Sunday School or since some high point in your life when God was near. You need to let go of that comfortable old way of being Christian to take hold of what God has for you now. It may be that for some of you Block Island or even Harbor Church represents the trapeze bar, the old dream you have to let go of, and it’s time to move onto another stage of life. It’s not easy to let go. But it’s deadly to hold on thinking that some day things will get better even though I do not change anything. What God has for you is never the Good Old Days. It’s always something new, something better, something you have not yet imagined.
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Block Island, RI 02807