Casing the Promised Land

By The Rev. J.C. Austin

(NOTE: This is an expanded version of the sermon The Rev. Austin presented)

I’ve had some wonderful transcendent moments in my life, but there’s only one that I would really call a conversion experience. It happened in, of all places, Giants Stadium in New Jersey, about 12 years ago. It was more or less around my birthday, and for my birthday I had gotten tickets to see Bruce Springsteen play in Giants Stadium. I had always wanted to see Springsteen live, but not because I was a huge fan. I mean, I knew he was important as an artist, but I knew of him more than I knew him or his music, beyond a couple of songs.

Honestly, I wanted to go more out of curiosity than anything else. I knew enough to know that Springsteen was renowned for the energy and length of his live performances, and that he had an unusually devoted fanbase. But I didn’t really understand why. I mean, what I knew of his music was fine, but I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. So the chance to see him not only live, but in his native New Jersey, seemed like the best experience I was going to get to try and figure this out. So when I walked into Giants Stadium that night, it was with the most casual of interests.

Almost four hours later, I walked out a total convert. It would be hard to overstate just how extraordinary an experience Bruce Springsteen playing a stadium show in New Jersey is. First of all, the crowd was not so much a crowd as they were a kind of Pentecostal congregation: loud, exuberant, chanting “BRUUUUUUUUCE!” between every song and singing every word in the songs in perfect sync with one another, all while having intense moments of personal transcendence.

The energy and power of the music was extraordinary; when he played the songs that I recognized, the difference between the way they sounded on the studio recordings versus there in the stadium was like the difference between trying to appreciate the Grand Canyon at midnight on a moonless night versus the spectacle of it spread out under the brilliant sun of an Arizona spring day.

And Springsteen himself was like some kind of charismatic preacher. He would call out to the crowd, and they would answer, and his energy seemed boundless, including sprinting around the entire perimeter of the crowd down on the field, all while singing, in the middle of one song. The only breaks he took in the entire show of well over three hours was to count off the tempo, “1-2-3-4!” for the next song. I simply have never seen anything like it, before or since.

But as good as the performance itself was, I came away with a completely new and fervent appreciation for his music. He played the entire Born to Run album, arguably his most important work, in the middle of the show, most of which I was unfamiliar with at the time. That part of the show opens with the song that opens the album, “Thunder Road,” which is a sort of story song about a young man trying to convince a woman to join him in fleeing the dim prospects of their dead-end town for the uncertain possibilities of the open road.

And I remember standing there in awe as the song unfolded between the band and the accompanying crowd, with an extraordinary stream of theological images as the narrator makes his argument. He sings about crosses, about how she shouldn’t mistake him for a savior rising from the streets, but that he does offer a kind of redemption through the escape that his car will provide, trading in trading in her angel’s wings for the wheels of his car. And then he offers what has become one of my favorite lyrics of all time: “Oh, come take my hand / riding out tonight to case the Promised Land.”

“Casing the joint,” of course, is an old American idiom that was made popular in movies and TV shows about 1930s gangsters. There are multiple theories about where the expression exactly comes from, but the meaning of it, in any case, is to carefully examine a location or establishment before you rob it. So a gangster who wanted to rob a bank would go there a few days early and “case the joint”: check out the number of security guards and their patterns, the entrances and exits, the location of the main safe, how attentive the tellers were to what’s going on, etc.

But in “Thunder Road,” the joint that the narrator is casing is not a bank or a speakeasy, but the Promised Land! But that’s not as odd of a juxtaposition as it sounds at first. If you were in worship a few weeks ago, you heard the story from the book of Numbers in which Moses sends a group of scouts into the Promised Land to, well, case the joint: check out the size and strength of the people who are already living there, along with the size and strength of their cities, and then report back as to whether they could go ahead with their plan to seize it.

Similarly, in the song, the narrator sees the open road as the path to a kind of “Promised Land” of freedom and opportunity beyond where he is now, but getting there involves intentionality and risk: the Promised Land is not simply given, and it needs to be checked out cautiously before simply barreling in, to make sure what was promised is really there.

When we think about the Palm Sunday story, we always think about the exuberant crowd lining the street into Jerusalem. The title, “Palm Sunday,” by definition puts the focus on the crowd, because it is they who are depicted by the Gospel of John as specifically waving palm branches, symbols of victory and triumph in Greek and Roman culture, from which the day gets its name. Interestingly, though, it is ONLY John that specifically mentions palms, even though all four gospels describe Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem a week before his resurrection from the dead.

But while Matthew and Mark, as we heard today, include a detail about branches, they don’t specify what kind they are. Honestly, it might have made more sense to call this special worship observance “Colt Sunday,” because that’s both a detail that all four gospels emphasize, AND it puts the focus on Jesus rather than the crowd, and Jesus is surely where the focus should be.

When I talk about that concert in Giants Stadium, I may have gone in some sense because of the crowd, because people were responding so intensely to this person and I wanted to see what that was about, but when I talk about it, I talk about “the Springsteen concert,” and not, “the crowd that said ‘BRUUUUUCE!’” The center of the attention should be on the person the crowd has gone to see and what that person does, not what the crowd does.

Even the language of “Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” as this day is sometimes called, is very misleading. “Triumph” doesn’t simply mean a proud celebration of victory, which is the way we generally use the word. As you may know, the Roman Empire had a specific public ceremony with religious dimensions called a “triumph.” Triumphs were rare, because they were considered such an extraordinary honor, but their pageantry and meaning were very prominent in the collective cultural mind.

Think of them as very roughly analogous to a ticker tape parade in New York City, in that sense, but far, far more elaborate and important. In a triumph, a military commander who had won a particularly notable campaign or battle would ride dramatically into Rome on a war horse or in a war chariot, driving his prisoners before him and displaying the wealth that he had taken from them.

The Senators and other civic authorities would immediately precede him, and his officers and troops would follow him. And all along the route, crowds would gather to cheer on the procession and celebrate the general as someone who had transcended the status of a mere mortal and become, at least for a moment, almost divine.

Given all that, the parallels to the story we remember on Palm Sunday are obvious, both in terms of how strong the association is, and how ridiculous the association is. Because there are clear analogies: the public celebration and even adulation, of course; the celebrated figure at the center of the celebration riding dramatically through the gates of the city. But given the associations with a Roman triumph, it is also patently absurd. The “triumphant procession” is one colt. Nobody would call one clown on a tricycle a parade; how is this a procession?

And it’s definitely not triumphant. Jesus is not on a warhorse or a chariot, but a colt; he is not stomping proudly or rolling loudly into the city, but is on top of a juvenile horse that is barely fit to ride yet, straining under his weight and uncertain of where to go. At best, the colt symbolizes that he comes in peace rather than military conquest, as some would argue.

But it’s also possible that it’s essentially an intentional farce of a triumph to ride in alone on a colt. There are no prisoners before him; there is no wealth on display; the civic authorities, if they are there at all, are watching suspiciously and disapprovingly from a distance, not escorting him into the city; and perhaps most important of all, there are no soldiers or officers around or behind him, no army backing him up that he has led victoriously into battle. It is, quite simply, absurd: what Jesus is doing is a farce of a victorious and heroic military leader.

And yet the crowd doesn’t see or understand that. It is the crowd that, ironically, turns this from a farce into an actual triumphant procession. It’s like the opposite of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” folktale. Jesus knows exactly what he is wearing and what he is doing; he has no delusions or desires to be adorned in the elaborate and magnificent garments of imperial power.

In fact, it is that kind of power that he has come to confront and overcome: any power, whether individual, systemic, or supernatural, that seeks to divide and capture and exploit and dehumanize anyone bearing the image of God with which God has blessed all of humanity to claim us as God’s own. The problem that the crowd has, then, is a problem of imagination. Because they, too, want to overthrow the power of imperial Rome.

But their imagination for how that could be done is so limited: they are looking for “a savior to rise from these streets,” as Springsteen put it, but offering redemption through conquest rather than escape. They want Jesus to be the kind of military hero that gets a Roman triumph, and they are preemptively giving him that triumph in the expectation that he will go through those gates and begin to earn it by leading them to take back what is theirs from the Romans.

Which, I suspect is why Jesus goes through those gates and begins to…well, do nothing, really. It must have been a pretty dramatic disappointment for the crowd who had gathered to see him. Jesus goes through the gates and the crowd must have surged in behind him, both to see what he was going to do and to, at least figuratively, play the role of the troops in Jesus’ army that the triumph would normally have. He makes his way to the Temple and dismounts the colt. Every eye in the crowd must have been on him. He makes his way up the stairs and into the Temple.

And then, Mark says, he just sort of turns into a tourist: “He entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” That…that’s it? That’s the end of the triumph? Wandering around inside the temple, looking at the art and ornamentation, maybe taking a photo for his Instagram story in front of the curtain marking off the Holy of Holies before going outside to meet up with the disciples again and maybe grab a falafel from a local vendor’s cart before he heads back to his AirBnB in the nearby village of Bethany?

Maybe the crowd wrote it off as Jesus “casing the Promised Land,” checking out the Temple and its surroundings as preparation for coming back to seize it and kick off the revolution against the Romans and the corrupt local religious and political leaders collaborating with them. And, in fact, right after our reading, Mark describes Jesus coming back to the Temple the next day and running out the vendors and moneychangers who profited off of exploiting pilgrims to the Temple, which must have given some of them hope that he was going to earn that triumph after all.

But the truth is, I think he was casing the Promised Land; just not in the way the crowd wished. I think Jesus intentionally interrupted the narrative of the triumph because the people clearly weren’t understanding that he was not, in any way, a conquering military hero, nor would he be; that, in fact, everything about his procession into Jerusalem is designed to undercut that perception of him.

Jesus understands just how powerful a draw the mythology of a free and perfect Israel in the past is, and how much the people wanted to return to that and to find someone who would lead them back to it. It’s why, throughout his ministry, Jesus continually admonishes people not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, because he knows how badly they want one and how clearly they will hear that only in terms of a warrior king coming to restore Israel to what it once was.

That’s not why Jesus has come. Jesus has not come to restore Israel to what it once was, or what it never actually was but people wished and believed it had been; Jesus has come to restore all of humanity to what God always intended it to be. The Promised Land that Jesus is casing as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is not simply the land of Israel, but the Earth itself, the home of humanity. And the enemies he has come to drive out of the Promised Land are not the Romans, but nothing less than sin and death itself, which he will do through plumbing the depths death himself and being resurrected to new life on Easter.

As we celebrate together on Palm Sunday, I wonder if this little detail of Jesus wandering around the Temple to see everything, breaking the triumphant narrative, is significant for us right here and now. Perhaps we, too, need to pause here before plunging right into Holy Week; perhaps we, too, need to do a little wandering and looking at everything, to allow ourselves an opportunity to focus on what God is really up to in our lives and in our world, instead of letting ourselves get swept away by what we expect God to be doing, by what we want God to be doing.

And in doing so, we will have the opportunity to gain a new perspective and understanding about the promises that God has given us in Jesus Christ, and how those promises are claiming us even now in and through the one who comes in the name of the Lord, before we can even cry out, “Hosanna! Save us! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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