Psalm 31:9-16, John 12:9-19
April 9, 2006
This is my first Palm Sunday with you folks. In fact, it’s my first Holy Week. I am so glad to be sharing this most important time of the year with you! I’m also very glad to be sharing with you sermon number 1001! I know that number will start to get old before long, but for the moment, it’s still hard to believe!
When I think about the stories of Holy Week – or any of the stories in the Bible, for that matter – I sometimes wonder what kinds of things you’ve already heard about them. I guess I’m a little afraid of saying the same thing someone else has said, or worse, contradicting something someone else has said! (Especially if you liked what they said!) Nevertheless, I have to trust in God’s grace – and yours. So here we go – again!
We look today at the Palm Sunday story. This is the day we celebrate the time long ago when Jesus entered the Holy City. And we think about the week ahead, and all that happened that literally changed the world. By Palm Sunday Jesus was becoming such an important public figure, and such a popular man, that he could no longer go anywhere without drawing a crowd. And that’s what happened that day.
We read today from John’s Gospel. And like the other Gospel accounts, John describes this as being a procession. A parade, if you will – albeit a short one! For the news of Jesus coming to Jerusalem had indeed drawn a crowd. And as we read this story, we find that Jesus has actually planned this event. He has “staged this scene.” And with the help of John’s Gospel, I’d like us to notice the various groups of people in this story, and maybe try to see what they were thinking.
The first group we notice was “the people” – the “great crowd of Jews” who came to see Jesus. John gives us a little different take on this event, as John often does. For him, much of the excitement of the day came from the previous miracle when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That was an important part of this event for John. In his view, that was why a lot of the people were there in the first place. In fact, it was such a big factor that John tells us that the chief priests plotted to do away with Lazarus, too. The priests were concerned with people believing in Jesus and forsaking their faith. Listen to their exasperation in this final verse we read. “You see? You can do nothing! The whole world has gone after him!” I’ll come back to them in a minute.
For now, I want you to think about that crowd. They were very “excited” that day. John’s connecting this with the story of Lazarus only heightens what’s actually going on here in this processional. The people were about to make Jesus their King. This was the start of a revolution against Rome. Their words, and their actions made that clear. Several hundred years before Jesus, Judas Maccabees had led the successful revolt against the Syrian occupation. And when Judas rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, guess what the people did? They waved palm branches and shouted “Hosannas!” Sound familiar? The intentions of these people on Palm Sunday were very clear.
Little did they know that they were right in one way, and wrong in another. Yes, Jesus was riding an animal that a king would ride in that culture. But it was a donkey. And remember that Jesus chose that animal deliberately. And a donkey was the animal a king would ride into a city when he was coming to make peace! He was not coming as a conqueror. If he was he would have ridden a war horse, which is what Judas rode all those years before. That’s what these people really wanted. They wanted the revolution to start. At least some of them did.
I suspect not everyone felt that way. I think some of them were afraid. You see, not everyone agrees with the revolutionaries. Even in our own American Revolution, only part of the people in the colonies wanted to break free from England. Many were loyalists. Many people in the colonies were happy with a life they saw as consistent. No matter how much oppression they were under, England was still their security.
I’m sure the same was true of some of the people that first Palm Sunday. Revolutions are “messy things.” And they were risky things, too! Because sometimes they failed! And these Romans were ruthless in crushing revolts. During some earlier uprisings, hundreds of the “revolutionaries” were crucified together, their crosses lining the street coming into the city.
Think again about the religious leaders. They were concerned. They were worried. They were “verklempt!” (They were so verklempt they could plotz!) (If you spoke Yiddish, that would have been really funny!) Yes, Jesus had threatened their power. But that was only part of this. In recent years, I’ve been giving these religious leaders more of the benefit of the doubt. I think too often we’ve cast them into a purely “adversarial” role. But I think they had a heck of a job. And Jesus made their job much tougher than it had ever been before. They were charged with the keeping of the faith. And they took that job very seriously. They felt it was their job to deal with anyone who they saw as corrupting the faith and leading people astray. And though some of the leaders liked Jesus, many saw him changing things too much.
Besides that, they also had a great deal of concern for the people. They knew what the Romans had done with revolutionaries before! In the previous chapter, we hear them saying, “What are we to do? If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” These people were worried – they were verklempt – and legitimately so!
You’ve got to wonder how the Romans were feeling that day. If you’ll allow me a little speculation, I’d like you to consider that they were “nervous.” They were charged with keeping the peace. And that wasn’t easy in Jerusalem. They were concerned about revolts, and large crowds made them “edgy.” But they were trained well, and they were ready to “do their duty” on command, even if that meant using harsh measures to control these pesky people in Jerusalem.
All this was about to come to a head. As I said last week, John is the one who consistently gives us more of the dialogue, more of the controversy, more of the emotions. That happens nowhere more than in the story of the Passion. And here on Palm Sunday we see those emotions running high! By the end of the week, this picture would change dramatically. These people will have lost hope in this Jesus, the religious leaders would have manipulated the crowds and the Romans into sentencing Jesus to death, and it will all have come to an end. But not really!
So where does this story leave us? As I often tell people, it is we the readers who have the best perspective in the stories. We know what’s going to happen. The characters in them don’t! We have the best vantage point from which to see and understand Jesus. Yet I find myself wondering whether we have some of the same feelings and reactions to Jesus ourselves.
Like some of these people, are we a little nervous when it comes to proclaiming Jesus King? Are we more concerned with the stable, consistent part of our lives, and don’t want to see things stirred up very much? Like these religious leaders, are we concerned about how our world will react to us? (A world which seems to be more and more antagonistic to Jesus all the time?)
When we read this story, I think we often say to ourselves, “Well, if I were there I would have followed Jesus, like the crowds shouting ‘Hosanna’- no matter what.” I think we’d even say, “I wouldn’t have gone along with those who shouted ‘Crucify him!’” Maybe, but remember, that’s only because we know what’s going to happen. These people – the crowd, the disciples, the priests, the Romans – they didn’t. And in our own life of faith I think we have our own version of this. We often have the same kinds of things facing us. We don’t know our immediate future. We don’t have a book telling us what’s going to happen. Sometimes we are scared, and worried, and verklempt.
I think the call to follow Jesus in our lives is not that far from what it was like for these people on Palm Sunday. We too are called to think about Jesus as King. We too are called to think about his passion and his atonement. And a lot of people don’t want to these days. Many would lessen the significance of Jesus’ death, which is tragic. Because even worse than the horrific things that were done to him would be to think that it was all unnecessary. To make his death futile would be worse than saying it didn’t happen at all! To say that “God loves us all anyway and there’s no need for an atonement” is to put ourselves into the role of God. Yes, that would be nice. But it’s not the reality. God decided this was all necessary, who are we to say it wasn’t?
Like those people that day, there are many who would be uncomfortable about shouting “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” There are many who wouldn’t want to do anything all that challenging in their faith. There are many who would feel threatened by it. There are many who would shrug it all off as insignificant. What will we do?
You see, today is Palm Sunday. But then again, so is everyday. Every day is a day when we are called to make a decision about Jesus. How will we answer the call?
Eternal God, the story of what you have done for us is ever on our minds this Holy Week. Help us to follow Jesus, even when it is not so easy. Teach us the discipline of seeking your will above our own. Even in the dark times of our lives, help us to look to the glory of Easter Sunday. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.