Kum Ba Yah

Syria. Egypt. Afghanistan. Russia. The illegitimate so-called Islamic State. North Korea. European nationalism and neofascism. Resurgent American militarism. It’s a dangerous world out there, and full of violence and potential violence.

The song “Kum Ba Yah” has come down to us as the epitome of head-in-the-sand hippie flower power, a sort of desperate “give peace a chance” denial of reality while all around the bullets are flying. The modern equivalent of “‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace”. A milquetoast refusal to confront evil combined with an unrealistic appraisal of the likelihood of everyone putting down their guns and just being nice to one another. Hello; this is the real world calling.

In our modern cynical age it’s fallen distinctly out of favour, but it actually started life as a Christian song.

“Kum ba yah”, as I was told in ye olden days when we occasionally sang it at school, is some kind of African dialect for “come by here”; the song is a prayer for God to show up and do something. Someone’s crying, Lord. We need You.

There’s injustice happening. People with needs unmet. Prayers apparently going unanswered. Danger, famine, nakedness, sword. We need You, God; You’re our only hope.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Things are good right now, but we still need You. But for Your grace it all falls apart.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah.

And really, it sounds hippie and unrealistic, but what’s actually wrong with people and nations being nice to one another for a change? Couldn’t we all do with a bit more niceness in the world?

People that don’t just try to get whatever they can for themselves. Institutions that don’t act like the problem you’ve gone to them about is a real pain in the arse? Nations that act based on justice, respecting their neighbours and trying for a win-win solution to international problems. People the same, with their interpersonal problems.

Niceness may be underrated as a rallying-cry, but we all appreciate it when we encounter it.

Kindness. Peace. Patience with our weaknesses and failures. Not bringing the hammer down for something we may not have been fully able to help. Love, in the broad sense, not necessarily sexual or romantic.

And now this is looking a little more like the fruit of the Spirit and less like a Sixties hippie commune. Maybe – no, probably – that’s why the hippie movement failed; trying to gain peace, love and understanding by human effort rather than the Spirit of God; but you can’t deny that the impulse is a good one. Give peace a chance. Put down the sword and the gun and the tendency towards violence and oppression. Let’s all just try to get along.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah. We can’t do it without Your help. What we’re longing for in our dealings is the evidence that You’ve been at work. We confess that we’ve been infected enough with the cynicism of the age that we don’t hold out much hope for peace and justice in international affairs, but we believe You are the King of kings. You overrule the nations. The movers and shakers aren’t actually in control of world events; You are. You’re the Prince of Peace; extend Your influence not just in our lives but among the nations.

Kum ba yah.

Palm Sunday has just come and gone; the annual celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the incongruous mount of a donkey. It was a fulfilment of Scriptural prophecy of the Messiah, but more than that: the donkey symbolically stood for humility and peace, counterpointing and opposing the martial pride of a stallion or chariot. Your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey. The world was pretty messed-up if you were a Jew back then, just as it seems to all of us now. Evil pagans oppressing God’s people. Where are the Godly leaders? Who can make our nation great again? It wasn’t for no reason that the people shouted out “Hosanna!”

But the King being lauded isn’t a proud warrior lord, a rebel who will overthrow the evil government oppressing us and return everything back to the way it was in the good old days; He’s a Prince of Peace, humble and gentle, who will give His life to save us from the evil within us and return us to how we were meant to be in the very beginning.

Hosanna. Save us. Kum ba yah. Come, Lord.

We need You. You’re our only hope.

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Hosanna

Sunday will be Palm Sunday. The start of what has traditionally been called Holy Week, and the continuation of another round of the great liturgical calendar of the Church.

We’re familiar with the story, most of us. Jesus knows that His time is coming. He sends His disciples to go and find a donkey that’s never been ridden and bring it to Him. They put their coats on its back as a saddle, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem, accompanied by throngs of people cheering His entry as the Son of David and the One who comes in the Name of the Lord.

And this year, I wonder how much the crowd knew.

How familiar were they with Isaiah’s prophecy that the King-Messiah would come to Zion riding on a donkey?

Were they aware of the prophetic import of Jesus’ choice of mount, or were they expecting someone more in the image of an Alexander or a Caesar, astride a mighty war-horse or pulled in a chariot?

Were their shouts of Hosanna an actual prayer of “Save Us!”, or just the emotion of the moment?

It’s difficult to tell. On the one hand, the wider cultural expectation was that kings don’t ride donkeys. It would be like the President of the US driving himself around in a Fiat Punto.

On the other hand, according to many historians Messianic expectation was running fairly high in Jesus’ day, and the crowd’s shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” are certainly what we would expect from people who were familiar with the prophecies and knew something of what to expect from their Messiah.

So how much did the crowd really know?

I don’t have any absolute answers, but it does look like they knew a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. We’re apt to juxtapose their loud acclamation at the Triumphal Entry with their equally loud cries of “Crucify!” a week later, and dismiss the shouts of Hosanna as the emotionalism of the moment.

I’m not sure I buy that. Based on what they were shouting, it looks like they had an understanding of the prophetic significance of riding into town on a donkey. This was the action of the Messiah-King, coming in to set the nation to rights, drive out the evil Roman pagans and set up a Divine Kingdom in the image of King David’s. With liberty and justice for all. The crowd knew about the prophecies. They memorised the Scriptures, heard and read the words of Isaiah and the other prophets. They knew enough to at least recognise it. Here was the King.

But then, once in Jerusalem, Jesus doesn’t behave at all like the Messiah is supposed to. He doesn’t drive out the Romans from the city of God; He evicts Jews from the Temple. He doesn’t raise an army to oppose the Imperial taxes, He instructs His followers to give to Caesar what belongs to him.

He opposes the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the holiest people around and as model Jews, but surrounds Himself with prostitutes, drunks and Roman collaborators.

Then He commits the worst error a Messiah can possibly make: He gets defeated.

Dragged off in chains by the holy Pharisees and handed over to the evil Roman overlords, it’s little wonder they turned on Him. “How dare You raise our hopes and then dash them like this?”

How dare You claim Messiahship? You aren’t He; He is God’s special King and does not get defeated!

Disillusionment can turn easily to anger. If Jesus wouldn’t act like a proper Messiah, then He must obviously be a deceiver. Away with Him!

So the appropriate question may not be “how could they turn on Him so quickly?”, but “how do we react when God won’t do what we think He should?”

Heal my mother/sister/brother/father. Make me wealthy. Fight against the godless liberals/conservatives/radicals/oppressors. Condemn this group or that group of evil God-haters. Make my country the world leader that it ought to be.

God may not be fighting the godless liberals because He is fighting something more fundamental than which side of the political dividing line we are on. He may not be making me wealthy because He wants me to seek Him for Himself rather than for rewards. He may not be making my country a world leader because the government belongs to Him, not to any one nation.

In other words, our ideas of what He ought to do may need some adjustment.

After all, He is good. He is the Source of good; everything good and perfect comes from Him. More, He’s omniscient; He really does know everything and see everything, so He knows what is really good and what merely looks the part. More than that, He’s all-powerful. Nothing can prevent Him from doing the good He intends. He can’t be forced to do evil.

More even than that, He’s pure. He alone has pure motives and is incorruptible. Even something He wants will not bend Him towards evil; there is no shadow of turning in Him.

If we can’t trust Him to know what He ought to be doing far better than we do, we have a problem. We’re in unbelief, trapped by a false image of who He is.

Jesus rides into our Jerusalem on a donkey in large part to deal with this. The crucifixion was all part of the plan; it was the only way to separate beloved Humankind from the sin and deceptions that dominated us. He has already died to put an end to our sin, and risen to set us free from it.

Hosanna, indeed.

Expecting Someone Taller

Palm Sunday being the day before yesterday, I’ve been thinking again about the Triumphal Entry.

Most of us probably know the story.  Jesus knows His time is coming.  He tells His disciples to go and find someone else’s donkey – a donkey, we’re told, that has never been ridden – untie it and bring it to Him.  In a weirdly code-and-cypher bit of sign and countersign, He tells them the password to say if someone challenges them.  Then Jesus gets up on the donkey, which in addition to never having been ridden has recently foaled, and calmly rides it into Jerusalem for the biggest festival time of the year, into a din of noise and hubbub that would be guaranteed to freak out even the most placid of animals.  All the while, his disciples and others in the crowd are shouting expressions of praise to God, waving palm branches and laying their coats on the road in an impromptu red carpet.

It’s indisputably Messianic – this is Jesus doing it, right? – but it’s not really what anyone was expecting.  Especially not in the context of what was to come.

First, the donkey.  Anyone who’s watched (or especially read) any Westerns knows how dangerous it is to get up on an animal that has never been ridden before.  In the natural, it’s going to freak out as soon as someone throws a cloak or blanket over its back as a saddlecloth.  Something is on its back, and it smells wrong.  Equines kick when they are placed in this situation; they don’t sit there calmly while you mount them without a stirrup.  Add in the fact that the donkey had recently foaled and was going to be nervous because strange people were around its colt.  And add to that the hubbub and confusion of people shouting praises and waving palm branches and all the festal crowds.

The disciples knew animals the way we know cars.  They knew what ought to happen.  But they also know Jesus.  They’d watched him still storms and raise the dead.  Still, they had to have been nervous.

I don’t know how aware most people were of the Messianic prophecies concerning the Promised One coming to Jerusalem “meekly, on a donkey”.  I imagine the Pharisees and religious people at least knew.  It’s there for anyone with eyes to see.  But as we can tell from our own day, not everyone seems to have eyes to see, in that sense.  Was this a generally-known central portion of Messianic expectation, or an obscure prophecy which had mostly been forgotten?

Given the political expectations of Messiah at the time, and the contemporary norm for rulers, it could the latter.  Kings didn’t ride donkeys.  Donkeys were small, common and unheroic; Kings rode horses.  Great big war-horses for preference, riding crowns and armour if possible.  The people of Judea seem to have been expecting Messiah to be a rerun of the Maccabees, but on steroids: a military campaign to drive out the Roman oppressors and install a Divine monarchy which would sweep Israel to political prominence in the world.

But it could also have been a generally known Messianic expectation.  It would explain the crowd’s enthusiastic participation easily without necessarily making everyone into mindless sheep following each other without any real understanding of what they were there for.  Yes, people would have been curious.  “What’s going on?” is a natural human reaction.  But to participate as enthusiastically as we’re told they did, they’d probably have to have at least some inkling of what was afoot.

Then there’s the reaction of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Upon hearing the hosannas to the Messianic Son of David, they get offended. They’d already made up their minds about Jesus. Jesus didn’t do what they expected a righteous prophet or Messiah to do. He didn’t conform to their popular religious ideas about the Sabbath, tithing, fasting and ritual purity. He touched lepers, hung out with tax men and did the “work” of healing on the sacred Sabbath. He acted like he was a sinner, or at the very least condoning sin by hanging out with the obviously unrighteous. Therefore He couldn’t be the Messiah.

It’s difficult for us to conceive of just how shocking Jesus’ actions were to established religious norms. To religious Jews of Jesus’ day, honouring the Sabbath and ritual purity were the two great tests of orthodoxy.

We look at it and tend to see that it should have been obvious that the Sabbath and the ritual purity laws weren’t the all-consuming be-all and end-all they were being made into. That justice and mercy rather than tithe and Sabbath were the priorities of God is obvious to us, and I’m sure most Pharisees would have given verbal assent to the idea. And yet their behaviour was the opposite. Tithing their garden herbs yet creating and perpetuating vast injustices.

What are our modern shibboleths? Do we believe and say all the right things about what God wants and then act as if one or two particular issues are what really define our faith? I have to look at the way many of us approach abortion and homosexuality and say maybe.

What’s interesting is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees about this mismatch of priorities. He doesn’t tell them they are wrong to tithe their herbs, but that they are wrong to do so while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

Being righteous in a minor matter does not count for much if you’re sinning in a major one.

So here comes Jesus, on the back of a donkey. Not fitting our image either of a ruler or a religious man.

We were, as they say, expecting someone taller.

But what we have is what we need. Friend of sinners, because all of us fall into that category. Healer, no matter whether all the theological rules say they deserved what they got. Full of grace and truth. Humble, because arrogant truthfulness is no good to anyone. Coming into Jerusalem as Messiah-King, but to be borne up on a cross, not a throne.

Hosanna. Save us, O God.