Some of you sometimes ask what I like to do in my spare time and one of my favorite things to do is binge watching television. I like all sorts of things, from Grey’s Anatomy to Breaking Bad, but I also have a healthy obsession with British television and sci-fi. Both of which are perfectly satisfied by Doctor Who. About five years ago, I discovered Doctor Who and I think I’ve watched every episode of the newer material about three or four times.
So, what, you might be wondering, does Doctor Who have to do with Palm Sunday?
Well, this is a show about a time-traveling alien with twelve lives, but of all the places the Doctor could go in the world, Earth seems to be his favorite. One the one hand, he sees its vulnerability and innocence. On the other, he praises humanity for their survivability and curiosity, their fortitude and spirit of exploration. He wants to see them thrive.
In the series two premiere, Christmas has come, but chaos is reigning on our planet with a large alien war ship hovering over London. The Sycorax have seized control of 1/3 of the population and Prime Minister Harriet Jones issues an urgent plea – “Doctor, if you are out there, save us!”
That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it? Someone to save us? Someone to make everything better and the monsters and demons and agonies of our lives to go away?
When Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, people flocked to the countryside, to the houses, to the shores just to catch a glimpse of this man who would save them. He healed their illness, he cast out their demons, he even forgave sins… He made their worldly pains go away. He saved them from their current predicaments. He was amazing.
And then, like any good Savior, he rides in on a donkey, the ancient world’s version of a white horse or a blue box to save the day and make everything better.
You see, that’s what the people thought Jesus was there to do. He fufills the prophecy, as told in Zechariah 9: the symbolic triumphant entry of a King into Jerusalem on a young donkey:
“Rejoice, greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Unlike conquering forces who rode in on war horses, this was the sign of a true king – the one who brings peace and hope to the people.
And so when he rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, when he comes bringing peace and hope, the people spontaneously shout out: HOSANNA! Which means Save us!
Their lives are full of problems and stresses and this Jesus has shown that he can solve them.
He can heal them.
He can save them.
He is on their side.
Only, Jesus doesn’t save us in the way we expect.
They, and we, expect our hero to be a Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone type hero: riding in to save the day, confident, untouchable, there is no question that they will triumph.
But Jesus appears more like Frodo Baggins: he seems to be facing an uphill battle, he is humble, at times during this holy week questioning his purpose, and yet always willing to sacrifice his own life for the purpose to which he was called.
In our Philippians reading this morning, that picture of a humble servant is painted for us. It has come to be known as the Christ Hymn – a song of praise for the one who gave everything up, the one who emptied himself of power and life rather than grasping at it for himself and for others.
Repeatedly, Jesus demonstrates humility. He gave up his seat at the right hand of God to be born among us, an infant whose life was in danger from the very start. He reached out to the hurting and sick and those imprisoned by sin. He invited them to his table and was rejected for doing so. He touched the unclean and welcomed children onto his lap.
Jesus went to the underdogs of this world. Those who don’t have power, money, or the system on their side, and he loved them.
If that was how he lived his life, I’m not sure why we expect the road to salvation will be different.
We want fireworks and trumpets and victory, but instead the path before us this week is marked by the cross.
Jesus will spend the coming week in Jerusalem, but he doesn’t leave victorious… he leaves carried away to be buried in a tomb. The people couldn’t understand how his way of humility and love and grace and sacrifice could bring about the reign of God and TRULY save them and us… save us not from our current oppressive problems but save us to the core of our very being.
And so they stubbornly turn their backs on him. Like children, they stomp their feet and pout: If he refuses to help me the way I want to be helped, I don’t want any part of it.
I find “The Christmas Invasion” episode of Doctor Who to be such an interesting parallel, because the Doctor too is rejected in the end. He stands up for earth and is willing to be their champion in an epic duel for the planet. And although he defeats the Sycorax, he does so without killing the leader. He sends them packing with a warning – “When you go back to the stars and tell others of this planet, when you tell them of its riches, its people, its potential, when you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this… IT IS DEFENDED!”
And the Sycorax leave. They head back for the stars.
But Harriet Jones… the one who cried, “Save Us!” in the first place is not satisfied.
He didn’t save them in the way she hoped he would.
He didn’t save them in a way that would continue to isolate them from the stars.
He didn’t save them in the way that she was completely willing to do. And so with a word, Harriet Jones signals for a weapon to be fired and the Sycorax are blown out of the sky.
We are not happy when things don’t go our way. And when our “savior” comes along and isn’t what we expected, it is surprising how quickly we turn to violence. How quickly we become the very thing we are fighting against. How quickly we lose our humanity in a desperate attempt to cling to the salvation we think we deserved.
Just five days after they shouted in the streets for Jesus to save them, the people reject Jesus, and shout for him to be crucified instead.
And as Paul writes in Philippians, Christ was obedient to God’s will, Jesus remained the humble servant, even when it meant death on the cross.
When we praise Jesus, it is not the triumphant entry, but the cross that truly shows us God’s glory. In giving up his power, in emptying himself, in this act of love, Jesus reveals what divine power is all about: non-abusive, patient, never grasping, “power… made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Today, we live on the other side of the cross. We know the power of the resurrection. We know that death was not defeat at all, and that Christ has not only risen from the dead but has been exalted on high.
The question is: how do we live in light of that knowledge?
From a jail cell, Paul penned the “Christ Hymn” and encouraged the Philippians to embrace the power of Jesus… to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:5)
We are to let go of our power and live in obedience to God’s will.
Here at this church, we claim a particular vision: In Christ, live a life of love, service and prayer.
Our salvation demands that we live as Jesus lived.
And as we adopt the mind of Christ, our eyes are opened to those all around us who are in need of love, and service, and prayer.
We are called to love: we are called to go and stand with the widow and the orphan. We are called to the dark and lonely corners of this community – to the people who have no one and to carry the love of Christ with us… even if it means putting our own lives on the line.
We are called to serve: We are called to be in relationship with people and offer ourselves. We are called to sacrifice time and energy and money to help our brothers and sisters. And that service extends to more than just a handout… we are called to bow down in service and treat those with whom we minister as honored guests.
Finally, we are called to pray: Sarah Coakley believes that to be in Christ, we need to practice prayer. We need to “cease to set the agenda… [and] make space for God to be God.” In doing so… in praying for our community and our world, we set aside what we think we are entitled to and instead ask for God’s will to be done. We ask for God to give us the courage and strength to act on behalf of those who can’t.
Today, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.
He rides not on a war horse, but a humble donkey.
He rides not to conquer and destroy, but to die for our sins and to set us free.
As one of my colleagues wrote this week:
We thought that we wanted a King.
We thought of all that he would bring.
Power and might and wealth and singing.
We thought we wanted a King.
Instead, we got everything. (Jessica Harren)
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the one who sets the prisoner free!
Blessed is the one who comes to save us!