It Ain't Bragging
A sermon preached March 20, 2016, based on Luke 19:28-40.
We wrestled in my front yard to decide who would be captains in our three-on-three football game. I lost. The captains picked their teams, and picked me last with a good-natured shrug that let me know it was nothing personal. An air of inevitability settled over the game, once the teams were chosen. It was a foregone conclusion, with only three people on each team, that my team would lose. It’s not that I was especially srawny – I was about average in height and weight, but I made up for it by being extraordinarily slow. We lined up for the kickoff, and one of my friends on the other team speculated with a grin that they would score every time they got the ball. He dropped back to receive the kick, and I responded the way any self-respecting 9 year old would. I put on a fierce game face and told him to shut his mouth, and when the kickoff went up I ran toward him with intent. For his part, he juked around one of my teammates, ran away from another, and soon it was a footrace between him and me. And I do not win footraces. He ran to the neighbor’s driveway, our endzone, and spiked the football and danced like Billy White Shoes Johnson and as he walked back to midfield he said to us, still grinning: “Hey, it aint braggin’ if its true.”
I hate losing. I hated it then; I’ve hated it ever since. The only thing worse than losing is knowing that you’re going to lose before you’ve even started. That’s the feeling that hung over the Passover celebrations of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. The Passover is the meal when the Jewish people would remember what it was like long ago, when God’s people were ruled by an emperor from Egypt. During Passover, the city would swell with tourists and pilgrims who came from all over the world. Foreign Jews from Africa and Asia Minor would join the locals in the temple, and as they gathered to worship, they would tell some very powerful stories. At Passover, the Jews would talk about how God drowned the armies of their conquerors, they would talk about a great teacher named Moses who had given them God’s law to live by, and above all, the Jews would talk about the day when God would send a new Moses, a messiah who might set God’s people free for good. These were not the sorts of stories that the Roman occupiers wanted to hear. And so every year, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor would come to Jerusalem for the Passover. In fact, he came a little early. He would come on a Sunday, as it turns out. And when Pilate would come into the city, he would make his arrival into something of a parade. He would come with trumpets and drums and large banners that had the image of the emperor Caesar on them. He would come with warhorses, and soldiers carrying swords and shields, and the soldiers were not just for show. In the first year that Pilate made his Sunday parade into the city, Pilate ordered the soldiers to carry their banners right up to the Temple wall. The great historian and philosopher Philo says the residents of Jerusalem nearly lost their minds when they saw graven images of Caesar, a false God, hanging in their holiest place. They rioted in the square and kept shouting. According to Philo, Pilate wasted no time in surrounding the people with spearmen, until everyone was too scared to make a the first move. Every year after that, Pilate would come parading into the city with the banners and swords and wealth and power, and his heralds would go before him, announcing his presence and announcing that he was in charge. In fact, the Roman army had particular members with the particular job of announcing how wonderful the Romans were – they were Rome’s evangelists, and the official name for a Roman victory announcement was “gospel” – the good news. We borrowed that word, but the gospel that people were used to hearing in Jesus’ day was that whenever, wherever, and over whomever, the good news was that Rome was in charge. It ain’t bragging if its true.
So you can see, it wasn’t personal (except that of course it was) when the Pharisees asked Jesus if he could please shut up his disciples. No good could possibly come of staging a parade on the same day as Pilate, with a bunch of ragged travellers shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Talking like that in public could only stir up trouble for everybody. And besides, it couldn’t be true.
“Blessed is the king?” What kind of king would ride in on a borrowed young colt? What kind of king would enter with a throng of peasants where he should have a column of guards? As they entered the city the people were telling the stories of all that they had seen God do, but stories don’t win a kingdom, and stories won’t stop a spear. The Pharisees had seen lots of wannabe rebels and so-called kings, boasting that they would be the ones to rescue God’s people. But none of them had made good on their promises or their stories. The people called Jesus King, but it couldn’t be true. And if it ain’t true, it’s just bragging.
But of course, there’s another possibility. The possibility that it is true, the possibility that all these mighty deeds of God didn’t just happen in the past, and didn’t just happen at random. There is the possibility that healing, and feeding, and repentance and everything else that the people shouted about – there is the possibility that all of these are what it looks like when God becomes king. What if these are the kinds of battles that God wins? That would make Jesus a different kind of king, one who is ruling not just the cities and structures of the world. That would make Jesus a king who rules over hearts, and minds, and bodies, and even over the very substance of the universe.
“Why are you untying that colt?” the bystanders asked. “Its master needs it.” Jesus is King, even of the beasts.
Why won’t your disciples be silent?” the enemies asked. “Because then the stones would take up their cry. Jesus is Lord, even of the ground, even the very stones.
“Teacher” the Pharisees said. “tell your disciples to stop.” But how do you stop a tide or a landslide? If a true king is king over all of creation, if a true king is bigger than any one nation, if a true king is the one who writes the very song of the universe, then it ain’t bragging to sing along. If Christ is king, then we are just carrying his tune, and it’s all the silent ones who are breaking the rhythm and the harmony of the new creation. When we sing “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” we are singing with all the saints who have gone before, and all the saints who will come long after, and we are giving words to the tune that all creation is humming.
It ain’t bragging. It’s belonging. It’s belonging to a story that’s bigger than us, a story that is ruling the universe. It’s ain’t bragging because it ain’t about us. If we drop the tune then someone else will carry it, and if they drop it a rock will sing out. It ain’t bragging because we aren’t singing it about anyone else. We aren’t singing to try and convince you; we aren’t singing to prove that you’ll lose. We are singing because we can’t do anything else, because the song of praise is true. We sing because we’ve seen great things, and because we’ve learned to see great things in places where others don’t bother to look, and because we know that all the parades and conventions for all the elections, all the parties and trophies, all the self-important ad pitches of all the self-important powers of the world are just empty boasts when compared with the good news that we have to announce
“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens."
It ain’t bragging, cuz it’s true. Blessings, peace, and glory have come with the Lord, and the most troublesome thing you can do is live like it.