Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart
through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the
joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord
and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
On Palm Sunday we are surrounded by joy and triumph, but we know what's coming. We've known since the beginning of our Lenten journey where we are going, On this Sunday, we turn the corner from Lent into Holy Week. This Sunday, the story is about to change.
Procession with Palms - John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.
So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
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.
Jesus enters Jerusalem, triumphant! And yet humble, riding on a simple donkey rather than a warhorse or a more noble steed. He's surrounded by adoring crowds, shouting "Hosanna!" and calling him King. Though this is not the Messiah they were expecting- the Old Testament is full of talk about the Messiah, and most of it involves expectations of war and conquering and probably a certain amount of riches. Jesus has avoided conflict, gathered no armies, and lives simply. For that matter, Jesus doesn't really sound like the kind of savior we'd expect today, in our culture that worships wealth and popularity.
If this were a movie, we might expect this part to be the ending- Jesus was born, grew up, started his ministry, wandered around Judea for a few years healing people and performing miracles, gathered some followers, got a lot of death threats. And finally arrives triumphant in Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds! But we who know the story, we who have been here before, know otherwise. The story is about to turn.
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
As Christians, we often see this passage as a direct reference to Jesus. After all, we have a teacher whose words bring comfort and who speaks with God. We have a person who does not rebel against God and who practices nonviolence- the parallels to "turn the other cheek" are obvious here.
So the next few lines are rather surprising- if it's Jesus we're talking about, he was not disgraced? He was not shamed? We aren't to the crucifixion yet, but we know it's coming, and it was the most disgraceful and shameful way a person could die in that time- so much so that full citizens of the powerful Roman Empire could not be put to death that way. It tells us something about Jesus' death, and his path to it, that there is no disgrace or shame involved, no matter the intentions of the other people involved. And what an appropriate ending line- who will declare Jesus guilty, indeed?
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
Here we have a Psalm about persecution, one which reminds us of what kind of situation Jesus really is in. Because while he was welcomed just a few minutes ago (in the service) into Jerusalem to the shouts of crowds, in a festival atmosphere, in less than a week the crowds will turn on him. We are on our way to Good Friday, and this is a Psalm written by someone who understood what it meant to not be able to trust the people around you. Soon people will flee from Jesus in the street, the whispers all around will come.
And yet, in the end, we will find parallels between the Psalmist's reaction, and Jesus'. But that's next week.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but 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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This text is commonly known as the Christ Hymn. As I mentioned earlier, during the processional text, Jesus did not fulfill all of the expectations of the Messiah who would save the Jewish people. He was humble where sovereignty was expected, he was peaceful where war was expected, and his parables never quite meant what the disciples first expected.
Here we also have a bit of the "first shall be last and the last shall be first" theology that we're going to hear about much more in the Easter and post-Pentecost Sundays. But Palm Sunday, a day of reversal, is a very appropriate time for it.
This text, when I was a kid, was strictly understood as optional on Palm Sunday, because this was before the whole Passion Sunday idea became a... thing. It's become more encouraged to do this text as well (or an even more extended version!) in addition to the processional text as the years have gone by. But I won't do it. No. I refuse. See, if you look this text up in the Bible (which, by all means, I encourage!) you'll notice it's the Passion story. It's the crucifixion. And the idea that's been getting more popular these days is that lots of people won't come to the Three Days services (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday) so you may as well tell the story on this Sunday too.
And that's the kind of thing that gets right up my left nostril, frankly. I don't think I could keep it up for the entirety of Holy Week, but I would rather hold a Good Friday service every two hours until past dinner on Good Friday, than to tell the Passion story on Palm Sunday. Because it messes with the narrative, and it messes with the Lenten journey, and that's not something I'm willing to do. We've spent weeks upon weeks getting up to this point- I'm sure there were a few Christmas sermons that mentioned this, so months of time, getting to now- and I will not ruin the journey we've been on this whole time right at the end. If a movie messed with pacing like this at the very end, after a complicated and riveting plot, you'd leave disgusted, wouldn't you? I won't do it.
So, read this text, certainly, please do. Study it, pray with it. But I'm keeping Palm Sunday about the procession, here- there's plenty of sermon there, lots of both Law and Gospel, it's a necessary part of the journey. I will not skip it. We will get to Calvary at the proper time.
Go in peace, remember the poor. Thanks be to God.