April 10, 2022
Our second scripture reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. On this Palm Sunday when I have a tendency to focus too much on the crowd and their waving palms, Paul reminds us what was in the mind of Jesus as he entered into Jerusalem. Listen closely as God speaks to you.
Every year Palm Sunday presents a challenge to me as a minister… because there is the kid in me who always loved Palm Sunday… there is the wave of good, happy nostalgic feelings of waving the palms around. Childhood Palm Sunday is a warm memory even as the details get more and more blurry with time. When I was a kid, we probably also did Easter egg hunts on this Sunday… like our children are doing today. The worst thing that could happen to me on Palm Sunday would be that my Easter basket would break during the Easter egg hunt… and it did once… spilling all my eggs out of the basket. I’m sure a bunch of other kids swarmed around to pick them up to put in their own unbroken baskets because… returning to the ground… meant that those eggs were in play again. I know there were tears shed in that moment and it was tragic and horrible… but Mom bought us all really strong and sturdy Easter baskets after that so it wouldn’t happen again. A flimsy Easter basket is a disaster waiting to happen… both physically and theologically.
Now I know you have good memories of Palm Sundays past as well. Maybe marching around outside the church in a great palm procession. Shouting hosanna and waving the palms. Maybe your good memory is centered around singing loudly one of the hymns that we always sing on this day. The church growing up always made Palm Sunday seem like such a good day to celebrate.
Unfortunately, though… because of that strong desire to celebrate this day… I come to this Sunday now with mixed feelings… because I know that the story in scripture… what’s happening as Jesus is entering Jerusalem… well, there’s this disconnect between that story and our celebrations. And that’s where my conflict comes for me as a minister this morning… as I have to step up here behind this pulpit and give a yearly sermon about Palm Sunday. So do I give a sermon based on the fun and happy Palm Sunday the church wants to celebrate… that some of you may be expecting to celebrate… or do I give a sermon on what’s really going on in this story Luke is telling. Which one to embrace?
I suppose… in a way… this is the right conundrum to have.
The crowd in the story is having the Palm Sunday they want to have. Following behind Jesus who is riding on that colt. Surely the imagery from the prophet Zechariah is not lost on them. “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Surely this is being murmured excitedly and shared among the people in the crowd… their excitement growing as they praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen. And now this… now all their messianic expectations are heading toward Jerusalem… and at the time of Passover no less… when they celebrate their freedom from bondage in Egypt. God with a mighty hand was victorious over the might and majesty of the Egyptians… and now here in this Christ, God will be victorious over the might and majesty of Rome. Hosanna in the highest!
Now… of course… the Romans aren’t just going to pack their bags and walk out. That’s not an expectation of the crowd. Let’s be clear. People are going to die… but it’s going to be the right people this time… it’s going to be their enemies… those people are going to die so the people in the crowd will be set free from their bondage. That is the way the old story goes. That is the expectation of revolt and revolution. That’s how these things work. We still believe that… don’t we? We still live by that expectation today. In Egypt… at the time of that first Passover… it was all the first born. They were sacrificed… young and old… for the freedom of God’s chosen people. In the plagues, God had shown amazing power… power on a scale that the Egyptians couldn’t duplicate… and in the final plague… people would die… that was the price of freedom that the Egyptians had to pay. Greater power overcomes lesser power… and the world turns round.
Because of our own feelings of nostalgia today, I think we’ve come to believe that the crowd on their way to Jerusalem are cheering and celebrating the same thing we’re celebrating as the church… right? However, let’s be clear… the crowd in the story isn’t celebrating what we think we’re celebrating. As a child what we were celebrating as the church was never quite clear to me… I just knew we were celebrating something and waving our palm branches around just like the people in the story waved their palm branches around. Truth be told… I’m not sure if we as adults fully understand what we’re celebrating today either.
This crowd who walks with Jesus into Jerusalem… they are celebrating the Christ who is coming to take away the Roman occupation… they are celebrating the expectation of a son of David on the throne… they are celebrating the victory to come… a very specific and near victory. But then something else happens during the next few days… and when they begin to realize that they’re not getting the Palm Sunday they want… the Palm Sunday of their expectations… this crowd turns on Jesus… they turn on him and they walk him out of the city to Golgotha and to crucifixion.
That’s the bigger picture of this crowd who we are imitating in our celebration today. How far does our imitation go? That’s that disconnect. Yes, our expectations are different… but maybe the necessity of Palm Sunday is that we still need to take this day to ask if our own expectations for Jesus are going to be fulfilled… are we going to get the Palm Sunday we think we want… or is there something else happening that we’re either rejecting or denying?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Luke’s gospel has this strange encounter with the Pharisees telling Jesus to quiet the crowd… to order them to stop. And this is very puzzling to me. It’s puzzling because as I come to the pulpit on Palm Sunday, I find myself agreeing with the Pharisees. The crowd is full of wrong expectations… when compared to the bigger picture… to what Jesus is actually doing. The crowd is projecting all manner of ideas and hopes on Jesus that have nothing to do with the Jesus that has been revealed in the gospel story to this point. Actually… when you stop to think about it… this whole entrance into Jerusalem is somewhat screwy. The story doesn’t behave like… well… like I want it to behave. I want the crowd… wrongheaded as it is… I want the crowd to swarm around Jesus and put him up on that colt that just happened to be there. I want them to be swept up in all their wrong expectations and create this scene of a king coming into Jerusalem. That would at least conform to my expectations and how this whole thing is supposed to play out. But… it’s Jesus at the beginning who takes the steps to get possession of the colt… sending two of the disciples ahead. It’s Jesus who’s making all the arrangements to enter into Jerusalem in this way. It’s Jesus who… who what? Is playing into the expectations of the crowd? Is setting up the crowd so that their expectations come front and center? Who isn’t thinking about the crowd at all and is making a bold statement that yes… yes… he is the Messiah, the son of David, coming into Jerusalem to set us free… but in a way that inverts the Passover story… where there will now only be one first born of the dead? He’s told his disciples three times what’s going to happen in Jerusalem… three times they can’t comprehend and when the day comes they fall back into the old ways of understanding… an understanding that Jesus isn’t taking steps to avoid.
But to get back to Jesus and the Pharisees… when Jesus tells the Pharisees that the stones would shout out… if these disciples were silent… even the stones would shout out… what story of Palm Sunday do you think the stones would tell? What would the stones proclaim? Deeds of power? Deeds of humility? Deeds of triumphant victory? Deeds of peace? The power of sacrifice? Would the stones… shaped by the hands of God… would the stones tell God’s story… once again repeating what’s going to happen when Jesus gets to Jerusalem… even though no one is comprehending that story?
After weeping over Jerusalem, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace”… Jesus finally enters into Jerusalem and he reclaims the Temple as a house of prayer. Not a treasury from which silver can be stolen or used to betray. He clears out the sellers and shines the revealing light upon the politically empowered High Priest and other religious authorities. During the week to come Jesus will be challenged on the question of authority again and again as different groups within Jerusalem jockey for power and turn on one another. Who are you to say such things? What about paying taxes? Where do your loyalties lie? With what earthly power do you align yourself?
The crowd will eat it up every time he gets the better of those in power… they will cheer his name… until they don’t. And then the shouts for “Crucifixion” will fill their mouths.
As we enter into Jerusalem and take those last steps toward the cross and death… ask yourself again what is the difference between the cries of “Hosanna” and “Crucify”. If your expectations are crucified dead and buried, what leaves the tomb in resurrection? Amen.