April 5, 2020
Today is Palm Sunday and we are going to stay in the gospel of John as we have for weeks now… and as we will for the rest of Holy Week and into Easter.
So let me give you some context from John before we read this familiar story… Jesus has just performed the great miracle of bringing Lazarus out of the tomb. In John, this is his greatest sign and it not only causes many to start to follow and hope in Jesus… but it also sets into motion the plot to kill him. Those who are in power in Jerusalem are afraid… afraid that if Jesus keeps going on like this, it will cause the Romans to come and destroy the temple in Jerusalem and their nation. The historical irony is that by the time this gospel was written, the Romans had come and destroyed the Temple… but not because of the followers of Jesus but because of an armed Jewish rebellion. Anyway… following the words of the High Priest, Caiaphas… “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed”… they… the powers that be in Jerusalem… decide to put Jesus to death. For good measure, they hatch a plot to kill Lazarus as well.
And now… as people from all around come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration… so does Jesus and his followers. Listen for the Word of God speaking to you today from John 12:12-19.
READ John 12:12-19
“His disciples did not understand these things at first…” It wasn’t until I was older and a minister that I finally realized just how much this line applied to me. I had never thought too deeply about Palm Sunday. I enjoyed the palms and all the church celebrations… it was a sign that we were close to Easter. There was always excitement and energy in the story… and I never really went beyond that children’s Sunday School perspective. There was no reason to go beyond… to look for anything deeper. I was fine with not understanding… until I wasn’t. And it’s not like there was some event or great revelation that happened… I had to finally preach on this story and that forced me to look at what was happening… even here in John’s gospel.
The scene of this triumphant entrance into Jerusalem is based on all this symbolism from the Old Testament. It is the very image of the King of Jews coming into Jerusalem… whatever that king’s name might be. What the king rode may change and may say more about that particular king… but the overall scene is clear. And the crowds gathering and waving their palms are not oblivious to this… it is their hope… it is the basis of their excitement. Jesus, the son of David, the King of the Jews riding into Jerusalem… it ticks off all their messianic boxes… excited and testifying to all the signs he has done… great miraculous works showing how God is with him. Everything in this scenes screams Messiah!
And it is all wrong. This is not going to go as these excited and energetic followers think that it will.
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
That disconnect… that’s what Palm Sunday has come to mean to me now. The shouting of hosanna, but also knowing what is about to happen. The seeds are there in last Sunday’s miraculous raising of Lazarus. What more could we want… what more could speak to our existential fear of death than a man walking out from the tomb four days later when his death would have been final according to the belief of the day… when there would have been no coming back. That scene with the removal of the burial cloths… it gives us all we desire… except Lazarus is soon killed again and returned to the tomb. It didn’t take much to return him there in short order. His killers didn’t have to go on some quest for a special silver dagger or some other magical item to be used to counteract the miracle of his resuscitation.
But people see Lazarus… and people talk… and people are amazed at the power and want to align themselves with the power that Jesus is exhibiting… the power that is going to walk into Jerusalem and overthrow and cast out… and restore the throne of David. It’s everything they’ve ever wanted. They grew up believing and hoping in those stories of the coming Messiah who would accomplish for them what they were unable to accomplish for themselves. Temporal power. A return to the days of old before the time of empires put them underfoot… before they were reduced as a people. And when the people who on that road to Jerusalem… waving their palms excitedly… shouting hosanna… seeing in Jesus all the symbols of their desired messiah… when the people don’t get what they want… what they expect to receive… they turn quickly and call for death.
Palm Sunday… finishing the season of Lent… a season that began with temptations in the wilderness where the two stories split… the story of the people’s expectations and wants… and the story that God is telling through Christ… Palm Sunday is that last day where we can embrace God’s story and leave our expectations and needs out here on this road to Jerusalem. Leave them behind with the palms scattered on the road… palms that will soon dry out and wither away. The life God promises are not to be found in the palms. Perhaps that is why we keep them and burn them and use the ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday. The palms are the dust that we keep trying to elevate into being our god… but these expectations of the palms are ultimately dust and to dust they shall return.
Maybe that is the opportunity of this Palm Sunday… where we are all scattered and in our homes… when our normal has been taken away. There are expectations that each of us are carrying with us as we travel again on the Jerusalem road. There are needs to which we wave our palms and shout Hosanna! There is this other story that goes on in the practice of our faith… but what story are we telling… to which story are we giving our hope? The one of signs and miracles for our benefit… the one where the power of God wipes away the power of evil on our behalf as we passively watch in the crowd and prepare ourselves to receive our right and just reward? That’s a good story… so good that it keeps getting repackaged and resold and reembraced by people time and time again. But it’s not a story that goes past this point in the journey. That story leads here to this celebration and palm waving and sharing in the hope of a messiah who didn’t come… and won’t ever come in the way we hope. Those self-proclaimed messiahs that embrace and love the parade… they never last. They too return to the dust and ashes of history.
When Jesus enters into Jerusalem… the story God is telling continues on… and takes that twist that no one saw coming. And that story will be rejected. And there will be calls for it to be killed. There is always more love for human glory than the glory that comes from God.
I keep hearing how once we’re free from spread of this coronavirus, that there is going to be a new normal. That we will be forever changed by this pandemic experience. I’m not sure if that is a statement that we will learn new lessons for the next time… or if our perspective on life and existence will change… that we might do better as a species at letting the trivial be trivial and exploring more the depth of life and what it means to be truly human. For Presbyterians, the reason we go through the season of Lent every year is to better embrace the new normal of Christ’s coming resurrection and what, through faith, that brings to our lives. It is my prayer that somewhere in all this disruption that there will be for each of you an “aha” moment… some self-awareness about just how much we still have a foot in the story of the Jerusalem road. I mean, doing these videos makes it clear that we as a church are not coming to worship God for the show that gets put on. These videos are not going to be remembered years from now for their great production value… or how my own personal charisma really came through the screen. It’s not the show. As I’ve said… the only way I get through these sermons is pretending that you are there in your pew… each of you. I can look out at an empty sanctuary and I can see each of you. We seek God through community… our worship of God brings us together… inspires us to give of ourselves for one another’s benefit… motivates us to give of ourselves so that strangers in need might experience a break from that need if only temporary… this religion of ours helps us to see our purpose as human beings as God intends and not what the world in all its variations assigns. The declaration of faith is not a standing up to be passive… to wait for God to do it on our behalf… for God to magically answer our prayers… for God to give us rewards… waving our palms around as a declaration of the faith we hold is our promise that as we enter through the Jerusalem gates that we will continue on this journey… serving with Christ… bringing grace into the world… embracing life over death… aspiring to God’s story living and being told through us. A pandemic can either grip us with fear and anxiety and putting our survival as our greatest goal… or a pandemic can bring out the best of our faith where community and neighbor and service to the greater common good is the hosanna we shout as testimony to our trust and gratitude to God in all circumstances.
During this Holy Week… as John tells the story… while people are in the streets of Jerusalem plotting to kill… wondering what Jesus is going to bring them next… dreaming of the death and destruction of their enemies in new and satisfying ways… Jesus will be in a room with his disciples… and he will wash their feet… and he will share bread and wine with them… and in his prayers and teachings he will give them an important new commandment… Love one another as I have loved you. And the disciples will not understand… they will not understand… but the seeds of resurrection will have been planted in them just as they are planted in us. And as those seeds grow and give fruit… the glory of the resurrected Christ is revealed. Amen.