Remember the good old days of the Cold War? Remember the air raid drills at school? Growing up outside Buffalo, I certainly do. Bethlehem Steel had a huge plant in Lackawanna – the fourth largest in the world –
and parts of it were only a mile from my home. You know the feeling of vulnerability, too – because of the Wheeling Steel and National Steel plants in the Ohio Valley.
So Civil Defense was important to us. Several times a year, our classes were interrupted by the rise and fall of
a siren in the hallway. We would go out and stand with our faces to the lockers, resting our foreheads on one forearm with the other hand protecting the back of our heads.
But I had read In Time of Emergency: A Citizen’s Guidebook to Nuclear and Major Natural Disasters from the Federal Office of Civil Defense cover-to-cover, and I knew my hand over the back of my head offered almost no protection from a thermo-nuclear blast. Some of you may have curled up in the fetal position under your desks – but that wasn’t much better than the hand on the head. The book told me that the heart of being prepared for nuclear war was having a fallout shelter – preferably on your property. I was comforted to know that the nearest one was the basement of the Blasdell Elementary School Annex – just three blocks from our home – and I could run fast.
I say the good old days of the Cold War, because we and succeeding generations now live with the ever-present threat of terrorism and mass shootings. Compared to today’s unpredictable randomness, some of us would prefer it all being over in a flash. If it were only that simple.
Because of mutually-assured destruction, nuclear war was not much on our minds. The greater threat during the Cold War was the threat of conquest by the Soviet Union or Red China. We were taught to fear being either infiltrated or overrun by the Communists, who would then tell us what jobs we would have and where we would live, limit our ability to travel, take away our constitutional freedoms, and exile Christians to Siberia – which would not have been much of a change for those of us in Buffalo.
The people around Jesus knew the suffering of being conquered. They had a long history of it – the most recent of which was by the Romans. Ordinary people had no rights. The emperor occasionally was insane and evil. Anything hinting of rebellion was crushed mercilessly. Soldiers were posted everywhere – often staying in in your home and eating your food, always watching you and reminding you that you were a conquered people. They could force you to carry messages or military baggage – regardless of how busy you were. They helped the crooked tax-collectors, who added to the people’s already-heavy tax burden. The people of Jerusalem were ready for a conquering hero!
Jesus was in the region around Jerusalem, just before the festival of Passover. Jews had come from all over to celebrate God’s deliverance of their people from the Egyptians – and there was talk that God was ready to do it again. People were speculating that this Jesus was the Messiah, the One Israel had longed for since ancient times – who had come to free them from Roman occupation – so the atmosphere around Jerusalem was electric.
For five centuries, the Jewish people had been hearing Zechariah’s prophecy: “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.”
And now, here comes Jesus riding down from Bethany to Jerusalem on a young donkey! He was identifying Himself as the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy without saying a word – so Jesus must have been a most welcome sight for that conquered people.
The crowd went out from the city to meet Him, waving palm branches – which was often done to pay homage to royalty or a conquering hero. They shouted, “Hosanna!” – which means “Save now!” and was right out of Zechariah’s prophecy that their king would come, “having salvation.” And they shouted. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” – since the Messiah would come as God’s anointed and appointed One.
To that they added, “Blessed is the King of Israel!” – again, right out of Zechariah 9.
All of that certainly got the attention of Jesus’ enemies among the Jewish leadership, who were tight with Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Their collaboration with the Roman authorities had earned them status and privileges – and this potential Liberator could spoil all that by starting a rebellion. Pretty ironic, isn’t it? The Jewish people were ecstatic that their Deliverer had come – but their religious leaders were fearful.
We don’t live so much today with fear of conquest by the Russian or Chinese army – or even a nuclear attack, unless it comes from North Korea – but we do live with some level of fear in our lives. And even though we don’t expect ISIS to conquer the United States – the ongoing War on Terror keeps us on heightened alert. Sometimes we feel powerless in the face of big business and big government – which feels a lot like being conquered. Or we feel the media and entertainment forces are rolling over us in the culture wars – and we feel defeated, just waiting for the serious persecution to begin.
Sometimes those fears and anxieties become so great they threaten to overtake us – and we forget what Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, who had it worse than almost everyone else: “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” Or as Paul put it, “We are hyper-conquerors.”
Right after the election of 2016, I attended a meeting of church leaders. Almost all of them were on the verge of tears because of the results. One man even said he found it hard to have any sense of God’s presence whatsoever because Donald Trump was in the White House. I don’t tell you this to make a political statement – but it is a spiritual statement that our politics have become so polarized that people feel that even God is rendered powerless. We fear that our side may be conquered by the opposition.
This fear can overtake our relationships, our joy, our purpose, our ministry. The fear of being conquered by something or someone can conquer us. So it’s good that hear Zechariah’s words every year on Palm Sunday:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! Look, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Jesus’ disciples did not understand all this until after He rose from the dead and was glorified. We, on the other hand, are on this side of His Resurrection – so we know that these words are as much for us as they were for the Jewish people in Jesus’ day.
Our deliverer is coming. Our King is coming. The second time – which will be for all time. He will bring an end to sin and death, bring the fulfillment of our salvation, establish the fullness of His Kingdom, and bring peace to His Creation. So don’t live in fear of being conquered by anyone or anything, because our Good and Gracious King has won the victory.