The Spring Offensive
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THE SPRING OFFENSIVE
The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
Palm Sunday + April 2, 2023
The 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!” (Matthew 21:9)
The winter of 2023 has come and gone. A whopping 2.3 inches of snow – never at the same time – has released us from its icy grip. In the rectory yard the magnolia tree is in full bloom, and daffodils have risen from the earth. No doubt, spring has sprung. You could call it a spring offensive, if you like. Sadly, the phrase “spring offensive” has another application these days. In Ukraine, now that the harsh eastern European winter has passed, we hear news of how the criminal Russian invaders and the defending Ukrainian army both are planning spring offensives. One critical piece of Ukrainian geography may turn out to be the hot spot: the Crimean peninsula that Russia illegally annexed back in 2014. The Ukrainians want it back. They want the Russians out of every square inch of their country, and that includes Crimea.
If the next phase of the Ukrainian war involves Crimea, it will be neither the first nor the second time that the peninsula, jutting into the Black Sea, has been a battlefield. In October of 1854 the British, French, and Ottoman Empires were there, trying to stop Russian expansionism. The British Lieutenant General, Lord Cardigan, led what became known as “the Charge of the Light Brigade.” Cardigan had received orders from his superiors to use his light cavalry unit armed with sabers to pursue a retreating Russian artillery battery. But the orders were open to misinterpretation. Thus instead of attacking retreating forces, Cardigan led his six-hundred or so soldiers mounted on horseback directly into a well-entrenched, heavily-armed Russian artillery battery. It was a slaughter.
History has never known quite what to make of the Light Brigade’s assault. Was it a valiant, or a futile, or even suicidal charge? Should the cavalry be honored or pitied? The British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson seems to capture the tension between valor and futility in his famous poem, the first stanza of which is:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns,” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Recent events in Ukraine remind me of The Charge of the Light Brigade. And Tennyson’s poem calls to mind still another infamous spring offensive – the one we commemorate today, and generally call Palm Sunday. The first Palm Sunday was all about politics: local politics delegated to Herod the King, international politics embodied in Pontius Pilate, and religious politics presided over by Caiaphas the High Priest. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem in or about the year 29AD, he charged into a political maelstrom. The region was held in the grip of the mighty Roman Empire. Why had Rome expanded into the historic land of the Jews? Why does any empire expand? Expansion is what empires do to safeguard trade routes, to create buffer states between themselves and outlying enemies, to spread their culture and influence.
At first Rome had resisted interfering with the Jewish ways of worshipping God. They even allowed the first King Herod to construct an enormous Temple. But by the time of Jesus the Roman incursions had reached into every area of life, and the people had had enough of Roman taxes and paganism. They’d had enough of Herod and Caiaphas, whom they knew to be in collusion with Pilate and the Romans. They wanted the Romans out of every square inch of their country. Revolutionary fervor simmered in the walled city, threatening to boil over at any moment.
It was at such a time that Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph, and those who spread their garments and palm branches along his way proclaimed him as King of kings. Forward, the Light Brigade! Into valley of death rode Jesus and the twelve. Tennyson continues his poem:
Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
How far could they go against the overwhelming forces surrounding them? Surprisingly, despite heavy casualties, some of the British Light Brigade made it all the way to the Russian line. Right through the line they broke, and with their sabers managed to scatter and harry some of the gunners. But in the end they were hopelessly overmatched, and soon had to turn in retreat. Then it was cannon to the left, and the right, and behind them while horse and hero fell, they that had fought so well.
Likewise Jesus made surprising advances into the city, despite the overwhelming forces conspiring against him. With Pharisees to the right of him, Sadducees to the left of him, and Romans in front of him, Jesus soon went to the Temple. There he overturned the tables of the money changers, and with a whip of cords scattered and harried those who would make God’s house of prayer a den of thieves. In the Passion reading to come you will hear how Jesus, by week’s end, will make it all the way to the inner chambers of the power brokers, and stand face-to-face with Pontius Pilate, face-to-face with Herod, face-to-face with Caiaphas before being cut down – or lifted up, as the case may be. Indeed, history has never known quite what to make of Jesus’ assault on Jerusalem. Was it a valiant, a futile, or even a suicidal charge? Should we honor him, pity him, or follow him?
What was Jesus thinking? What were his aims? Did he have any idea that he would penetrate as far into the centers of power as he did? If so, was his goal to die a martyr’s death and ignite the city in revolution? Was it to oust the Romans, or reform the Temple, or be the earthly King of the Jews? How did he think Pilate, and Herod, and Caiaphas would respond to the popular King of the Jews? Dare we ask the question: did Jesus blunder? Did Jesus blunder too far into the city, to the point where not even retreat was an option, but only a cross? “Blunder” is Tennyson’s word from his verses in The Charge of the Light Brigade. “Someone had blundered,” he wrote. Lord Cardigan had misinterpreted the orders from on high. Or were the orders from on high too vague? Or was it both?
What about the Lord Jesus? Let’s face it, God’s orders from on high can be difficult to discern and harder still to execute. In the Passion reading to come, you will see that by the time Jesus stands before Pilate, his disciples will have betrayed, deserted, and denied him. Those who proclaimed him King and Son of David have fled into the night. Now the only ones left are the mobs shouting, “crucify him.” And Jesus won’t seem to have much to offer in terms of defense or offense. The case could be made that he simply got himself in over his head.
Likewise, we Christians also seem out matched and underpowered if our calling really is to convert the nations far and wide. I remember Bishop Herbert Thompson in my previous diocese commenting on a popular slogan of the time that was even having its day in the churches: Commit Random Acts of Kindness. “That’s great,” lamented the Bishop at diocesan convention. “We face organized crime, corporate greed, institutional racism, and international terror. And we’re going to commit random acts of kindness.” Forward the Light Brigade? In our day to accomplish a border incursion you need tanks and troops. In Jesus’ day you needed war horses and chariots. What do we have? We have a guy on a donkey – not much of a spring offensive.
Ah, the donkey. Don’t underestimate the Palm Sunday donkey. The donkey is the clue that Jesus was by no means a blunderer. The donkey tips us off that Jesus was far too strategic to be wasting his or anyone else’s time by committing random acts of kindness. An ancient oracle from the prophet Zechariah (9:9-10) declared that God’s chosen Messiah would arrive in the city riding a donkey. Any good Jew who had studied the Scriptures would have known it. Matthew tells us the deliberate steps Jesus took to secure the donkey. A secret follower in the city had one, and Jesus made arrangements well in advance for his disciples to acquire it with a series of passwords. Jesus easily could have arranged for a war horse and chariot, but he knew not to engage the worldly powers with their own weapons. To do so would be to lose the moral and spiritual victory before the fight began. Rather, his aim was to stand in God’s strength alone, following God’s script in the Scriptures.
In studying the Scriptures, Jesus would have encountered not only the donkey, but also the mysterious figure we read about in today’s reading from Isaiah (50:4-9) – a figure we’ve come to call the Suffering Servant. Jesus would reach two revolutionary conclusions: First, it was to be this figure – not a military warrior – who was to ride the donkey. Indeed, the long-awaited Messiah was, in fact, the Suffering Servant. Second, this figure, this Suffering Servant, was none other than himself. Jesus understood that his vocation was to suffer and die on behalf of the people, and that God would redeem the people through his suffering and death. It is hardly logical to our 21st century minds. It is about as logical and linear as our opening Palm Sunday procession, which meandered round and round the church rather than simply going directly from Point-A to Point-B. The ways of God are strange to us. But let it not be said that Jesus is unworthy of our allegiance. Let it not be said that Jesus was a blunderer, or merely a starry-eyed idealist. He knew exactly what he was doing and why. Thus, when he commands “Forward! The Light Brigade!” we follow. Or do we back away? Palm Sunday presses the question: do we follow, or do we back away?
Just about the same time as the charge of the light brigade, one of the great thinkers of the Christian faith died in Denmark. Soren Kierkegaard was a prolific philosopher and theologian who has come to be known as the “father of existentialism.” He had a talent for sprucing his writings with vivid characters and parables. In one book he presses the question: do we follow or back away from the good? He describes a man who tries to do both at the same time – a man who walked backwards. He writes that most of the time it’s easy to tell when people are fleeing from you. They turn their backs and you see them running in the opposite direction. But every so often you encounter the people who walk backwards. They are inclined toward the good, but with each and every step they move farther and farther away. “While with appearance and glance and salutation they greet you, giving assurances again and again that they are coming immediately, or incessantly saying, ‘Here I am’ – although they get farther and farther away by walking backwards.”
I take Kierkegaard’s point to be that we who claim the faith of Jesus are more often than not the people who walk backwards. His assessment of our casual, even ambivalent Christianity is devastating, but perhaps just what we need to hear on Palm Sunday.
What’s that you say, Jesus? Take up my cross and follow you? I’m coming immediately. Here I am. You can count on me. This time around it’s going to be different. I promise. Hear me shout: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”