FROM CHEERS TO JEERS
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
(Matthew 21:1-11, NRSV)
It’s been said that, “Disappointment equals expectations divided by reality.” Without a doubt, managing expectations is a key to happiness in life. I often have this discussion with couples in premarital counseling. Some couples opt to take a relationship inventory I offer that covers 12 areas of a relationship. It’s like taking the SAT, you need a #2 lead pencil to fill in the bubbles on a scantron form. I mail the answer sheets to a company called Life Innovations in Minnesota and get the results in a few weeks. One item the inventory measures is called “idealistic distortion” which is “the extent to which a person distorts their description in a positive direction. A high score indicates that a person describes their relationship in an overly positive manner and sees it through ‘rose colored’ glasses. A low score indicates that the person describes their relationship in a more realistic manner.” As you might guess, “Premarital couples tend to have higher scores in idealistic distortion, while couples seeking marriage therapy usually have lower scores.” By the way, the company that scores the relationship inventories measures each person’s idealistic distortion and adjusts the scores accordingly.
On Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago, the crowd that gathered to cheer Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey had high idealistic distortions—their expectations were grandiose to the point of being unrealistic. Surely Jesus knew this, knew that their expectations were unrealistic, knew the people had plans for him that he did not have for himself, knew that in the end he would disappoint them. In less than a week the crowd went from cheers to jeers as the hero became the hated—their expectations dashed.
What did they expect anyway? What they expected was a military messiah, a chosen one who would return Israel to its former glory. And it had been a long time since the glory of ancient Israel, a kingdom of 12 united tribes under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. The golden age the first century Jews pined for was short lived, only 120 years all told. A few years after Solomon’s death in the year 931 BC, the kingdom split north and south into two kingdoms—the Kingdom of Israel in the north, comprised of ten tribes, also including the city of Samaria. The Southern Kingdom was called Judah after the tribe that dominated the area, which included Jerusalem. Fast-forward almost 850 years in which the two kingdoms faced various foes, including each other—fast-forward through the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Macedonian Greeks. Throughout this period of 850 years the Jewish state was only independent for a 25 year period following the Maccabean Revolt. Their independence ended when the Romans invaded around 64 BC.
So what did the crowd expect and what did they get on that first Palm Sunday? What they expected was a conquering general on a mighty steed, but instead they got the Prince of Peace riding on a donkey. What they expected was an armed revolt, but instead they got an itinerant rabbi who counseled his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies. What they expected was a triumphant soldier taking down Pontius Pilate and the rest of the Roman oppressors, what they got was a ticked off Jesus chasing money changers out of the Temple. With their expectations in ruins, the rank and file began to turn on Jesus. In running the money changers out of the Temple, he exasperated the religious hierarchy who went from merely hating him to planning his demise.
Things went from bad to worse when Judas made a secret deal with those who wanted to do Jesus in. The last gathering of Jesus and his disciples happened during a Passover Seder in a rented room in Jerusalem on what we call Maundy Thursday.
For all we know the mood at the beginning of the meal may have been festive and celebratory. After all, the disciples were celebrating Passover, the meal commemorating God’s work through Moses to set the Israelites free from Egyptian slavery. For the disciples, the setting could hardly have been better. Here they were in Jerusalem, the epicenter of their faith, joyously sharing a Passover Seder with their band of brothers, and their beloved leader.
Everyone around the table knew the traditional readings and the symbolism by heart. As well they should, since they had participated in this annual celebration since childhood. It’s sort of like knowing that every Thanksgiving you’ll eat turkey and dressing, cranberries and pumpkin pie, except in this case the food on every plate was dictated by religious tradition and highly symbolic.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, “The Passover Haggadah demands that each person see him or herself as having personally come forth out of Egypt. Accordingly, the Seder is one of the most sensory-heavy rituals of the Jewish year. During the Seder, we don’t just tell the story of the Exodus, we see, smell, feel, and taste liberation…Many of the elements of this sensory experience appear on the Seder plate, which serves as the centerpiece of the Seder table. The Seder plate traditionally holds five or six items, each of which symbolizes a part (or multiple parts) of the Passover story.”
The traditional Seder plate contains karpas, a green vegetable, usually parsley. Karpas represents the flourishing of the Israelites after Joseph’s father, brothers, and sisters move to Egypt for food during the 7 years of famine. Generations pass, the Israelites have many children and grow into a great nation. So great, in fact, that the Pharaoh feels threatened. The Israelites are then enslaved and when the birthrate does not drop, Pharaoh does the unthinkable, ordering the murder of every Hebrew baby boy. Parsley is taken from the Seder plate, dipped in saltwater to remember the tears shed by the Jewish people, and then eaten. The next Passover food is haroset, a sweet fruit paste symbolizing the mortar that the Israelites used to construct Pharaoh’s pyramids and other structures.
Next those gathered around the table would take maror, a bitter herb, oftentimes horseradish or a root like chicory, to remind them of the bitterness of slavery. The maror is dipped into the pasty haroset to remember the work that caused so much bitter suffering. Then, hazeret, another bitter herb or Romaine lettuce, is used to make a Hillel sandwich containing hazeret with matzah, another reminder of the bitterness of slavery.
The only meat on the Seder plate is z’roa, the shank bone of a lamb to symbolize the lamb’s blood painted around their doorposts so that the angel of death would pass over, hence the name Passover.
The final food on the Seder plate is beitzah, “A roasted or hard-boiled egg that symbolizes the…sacrifice, which would be offered on every holiday (including Passover) when the Temple stood. The roundness of the egg also represents the cycle of life — even in the most painful of times, there is always hope for a new beginning.”
While there is a certain somberness associated with parts of the Passover Seder, on the whole it is a hopeful meal recalling when God liberated them from slavery. If the disciples had any idealistic distortion at the beginning of the meal it faded before the end when Jesus said that someone at the table would betray him and that Peter would deny him three times—solid as a rock Peter of all people. Then the Seder took a surreal turn towards gloom and despair as Jesus took the matzah bread, broke it, and told them that this symbolized his soon to be broken body. Next he took the wine and said it symbolized his blood that would be shed.
What in the world was Jesus talking about, they likely wondered. The disciples knew the Seder plate like the back of their hands, they knew the symbolism and it had nothing to do with anybody being broken and bleeding. They had no idea what Jesus was talking about, but in the coming hours when Jesus was arrested, beaten, and crucified the reality of his new symbols became all too real, especially when his lifeless body was sealed in a tomb. After that they locked themselves behind a heavy wooden door. There was no idealistic distortion, no idealism at all, with their world crushed beyond recognition.
With Jesus they never had to manage their expectations. Sure some of his miracles came out of the blue and some of his teachings came out of left field, but they knew him as much as they knew anybody. He was always loving, always hopeful. But not anymore.
From now on, there would be no idealistic distortions, no rose colored glasses, no feeling of certainty about anything or anyone. Not now. Not ever again. So they huddled together hiding lest the authorities make examples out of them. The room was dimly lit hiding some of the tears trickling down their cheeks. An uneasy and painful silence hung heavy in the air. No one knew how long they would stay locked in their endless sadness, refugees from life as they had known it, prisoners of a new life that was no life at all.
Happiness in life is about managing expectations. They now had no expectations other than their lives being an endless nightmare. What they needed to know was this: that what seems like the end may just be the beginning of something so unimaginably wonderful that had they been told about it ahead of time, they would have dismissed it as impossible. And they would have been right, if God had not had other plans—a cosmic idealistic distortion too good to be true called resurrection. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
April 9, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, we confess that we, like the crowd that shouted hosanna, have too quickly left the holy procession, turning our backs on Jesus. Forgive us. Meet us in the midst of our brokenness to heal and restore. Let your face shine on us, even in the shadow of the cross, where we feel alone and forsaken. As we hear again the phrases and stories so familiar to us, help us grasp the significance of this day. Touch our hearts that we too might join the procession of the faithful.
Through Jesus Christ we pray. AMEN.
This prayer was adapted from Whispers of God, by Lavon Bayler, p. 58 & 60.
 The sermon title was found at http://www.sermons4kids.com/cheers2jeers.html.