This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, 2019 at Church of the Apostles, Kansas City. The audio recording can be found here.
I think we all need to recover after that long reading! I’ll go ahead and open us with a prayer and you can allow your legs and mind to rest for a moment 😉
The Sunday before Easter is a bit of an anomaly. It is like the Sunday that could not make up its mind: Palms or Passion, Palms or Passion, Palms or Passion…at some point there was a gathering and it was decided that instead of picking one or the other, we would do both.
We are covering the whole of the Passion from a big picture, 40,000 foot perspective today and then we will begin focusing in ever more closely during the coming week. Palm Sunday was used for centuries as the day during which churchgoers would hear the whole story of Holy Week other than the story of Easter. Why? Because getting people to church on a Thursday and Friday between two Sundays isn’t the easiest accomplishment…but I’m sure we don’t know anything about that! Palm Sunday became the one day when people could hear the full story of Holy Week, when they would be taught what happened on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Put it like this…let us assume that this is your first time in church. And let us also assume that you won’t be back until next Sunday…this assumption is only for this sermon, by the way, you are utterly and absolutely expected to be here Thursday and Friday…well then, if I kept my sermon only to the liturgy of the palms and the Triumphal Entry so that Thursday and Friday could be stand alone texts…then you would hear about Jesus entering the city on Sunday and the following Sunday you would hear about how he rose from the dead…are you following me? You might be a bit confused on Easter!!
So, I don’t want to focus my time on the intricacies of the Last Supper institution, though I could go on and on, nor do I want to add anything to the crucifixion scene—I’ll leave those two texts to these two preachers!—instead, I want to show you how Kingdom permeates the entire Passion narrative. We are not left with a choice between Kingdom and King on one hand and Palms and donkey on the other as if the two are mutually exclusive, as if we have to pick between Palms and Passion. The One who rides into the city amidst cries of Hosanna and palms on one Sunday is the same One who is exalted and enthroned upon the cross on that Friday. Let us begin.
For many Christians in the world, the Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday. We heard from Ellis last Sunday about the scene at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. This took place in John 12 and then the story moves forward in John’s gospel to the chief priests plotting to kill Jesus AND Lazarus because it was his fault that Jews were deserting, and then the story moves to the Triumphant Entry and to the Last Supper in Jerusalem. The Gospels all place Jesus in Bethany before the Triumphal Entry. The Orthodox have a unique perspective leading into Palm Sunday and it is one that I think needs a great deal of reflection on our part. The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as “Lazarus Saturday” in the Orthodox tradition. Why? Well, we may have read John 12 last Sunday, but what story immediately precedes the scene at Lazarus’ house? Yes, you’ve done well! It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The Orthodox celebrate this miracle on the day before Palm Sunday because it creates a fantastic backdrop for the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and ultimately what will happen on Friday and Sunday. Think about it with me for a second: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and proclaims “I am the resurrection and the life.” He then shares a meal at their home and is prepared for burial by Mary. Then, and only then, does Jesus enter Jerusalem as a triumphant king…what exactly has he triumphed over?
We spend a lot of time in the church talking about how Jesus’ entry is one of a humble king, riding on a colt rather than a war horse. It was the people who placed their hopes for a king of a militaristic and political nature upon Jesus, ascribing to him the value and worth that they would for a conqueror. We then admit that Jesus wasn’t doing what they thought he was…or was he? Have we so missed the forest for the trees with our relentless theological nitpicking that we lose sight of the fact that Jesus was in fact entering the city as a conquering king?
In our attempts to highlight Jesus’ humility, even using the passage from Philippians 2 as support, we have poked so many holes in the triumphal entry text that it will no longer hold water. We have placed so many cuts along the support beams that the text can no longer bear the weight it was meant to.
John’s account of the triumphal entry includes what feels like a random verse from the Old Testament. John writes, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” We emphasize the donkey and minimalize the coming king. Here is the context for the verse: Zechariah 9 in which the prophet prophesies about the end of Israel’s oppressors, about their downfall and destruction, and about the God who is watching over his people and who will enter the city in triumph to the cries of the people. Here is the passage in full:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
13 I will bend Judah as I bend my bow
and fill it with Ephraim.
I will rouse your sons, Zion,
against your sons, Greece,
and make you like a warrior’s sword.
The King has come. The kingdom is coming. The entry on a donkey is in juxtaposition to the chariots and warhorses that Caesar or another demigod may use, but the coming King is still triumphant, still victorious. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious…”
The triumphal entry did not happen in a vacuum. It was not an accident. Everyone gathered together would have seen the meaning before them plain and simple. I would like to experiment with this idea and I need your full attention and effort. I will start saying a well known phrase and I want you to finish it for me. For example, if I were to say, “Give me a break, give me a break” you would say “break me off a piece of that kit kat bar.” Bonus points for those who said, “Fancy feast.” Ready?
The Lord be with you : and also with you
Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Chris is risen, Christ will come again
Ok, those were the easy ones because they have a natural response. Here are a few others:
Here’s looking at you kid.
Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!
There is meaning to these phrases well beyond the actual text. You know them because you have a context for them, they do something to you, they take you somewhere. For a moment there, even the most fleeting of moments, were you not on an airstrip in Morocco, or a bench waiting the hope on the bus, or even in the Scottish highlands many centuries ago? I won’t belabor the point much longer, but we are able to go to those places because we have been there, we know them, we have them ingrained in our memory, etched on our hearts…and now we have the triumphal entry.
This is a key to the whole text because even though we end up at the foot of the cross or outside of the Garden Tomb with Joseph of Arimathea, the whole liturgy is framed around Triumphal Entry and the Coming King. The star of the show, as it were, is this verse in Luke’s gospek which has been borrowed from Psalm 118. Surely you heard it twice today during the liturgy of the Palms and your mind went straight to the Sanctus during the Eucharist. You have a context for this theological concept: holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna means “save us.” The people lining the street to Jerusalem were singing the praises of YHWH and crying out to him that he save them, that he rescue them, that he deliver them. They did this and then anointed the “King who comes in the name of the Lord.” You heard the majority of the Psalm read this morning: it is a Psalm of praise and victory. The LORD heard the cry of his people and his mighty hand has delivered them! The use of Psalm 118:26 here suggests to us that the whole Psalm would have been used by the people against the backdrop of Israel’s long history with YHWH. This crowd may have cried “crucify!” just days later, they may have expected Jesus to overthrow Pilate and Caesar in explicit fashion, but they got one thing right: the King was entering the city in righteous victory and they, the crowd, were in desperate need of salvation and rescue…
We’ve spent the overwhelming majority of our time this morning going through the passages from the Liturgy of the Palms because honeslty the rest doesn’t make sense without it. Jesus as the true King, as the one coming in the name of the LORD, as the one entering in triumph, this is what helps us to understand the passion more fully. It was never about human thrones and powers, it was always about triumph over evil and death. The One who resurrected Lazarus comes to Jerusalem in faithful obedience to the covenant to allow humanity to expend its evil upon him and to resurrect from the dead.
Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem with his face set like flint ever since he descended Mt. Tabor after the Transfiguration. As Cynthia reminded us, he walked slowly through the crowds en route to his destination, but he was always on his way to palms and passion, cross and tomb, death and life. He enters the city after demonstrating his power over death only to be met by the full embodiment of human evil and execution: the Roman cross. He rides into the city that is the center of Israel’s religious life, the city on a hill that was see as the meeting place of heaven and earth, the city that would have been the logical site of a restored Israel…and he does so only to leave the city a few days later under the burden of a wooden cross and a crown of thorns…
Humanity exhausts its evil upon the Son of God.
The powers and principalities of the world snuff out the light of rebellion.
Satan claims victory over the God with whom he thought equality could be grasped.
And friends, there isn’t any relief from this predicament. We don’t get to move beyond the text and see resurrection here. We don’t get to see the story fulfilled and completed. As we journey through the texts today and through the next 6 days we are left with this unhappy and uneasy feeling of “but what happens next?”
We have to do some work today to hold firmly in our hearts and minds that which Israel had never forgotten: YHWH was covenant maker and covenant keeper and he would redeem his people. This is what Lazarus helps us to see: the God who raised Lazarus from the tomb is the same God who made the valley of dry bones walk and is the same God who will raise Jesus from the dead. The story of Lazarus is a kingdom story. It is triumphant. It is victorious. It is the beginning of the reversal and renewal of all things and it is (one of) the reason that Jesus can enter the city hearing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Friends, here is what I ask of you today:
As you look upon the King entering the city, say…
As you look upon the Lord sharing a meal with his friends and followers…
As you witness the beating and scouring of the King of the Jews…
As you gaze up at the King who is enthroned upon the cross…
As you enter into Holy Week and travel toward Easter…
Perhaps we can make it more personal: Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, a city over which he would weep, and he does so in triumph as the one who raises the dead to life. What parts of your life need raising? What areas of your heart need the triumphal entry of Jesus? What gates and doors in your hearts, minds, emotions, imaginations, or dreams need to be flung open to allow the King of kings and the Lord of lords to enter? Or, if we can move out just a moment: what parts of our city, our offices, our state, our nation, our world, need to be opened up to the entry of Jesus?
This is not religious speak! This is real, friends. He comes to you in the same way he came to Jerusalem…amidst the praises of the people, enthroned by the cries of “salvation” and royal welcome…he comes to you to lead you through Passiontide, to guide you through Holy Week, to bring you to share in his meal, kneel at his cross, wait by his tomb, and proclaim “Alleluia” once more next Sunday…will you join?