A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.

March 16, 2014

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (NRSV).

I was getting coffee on Friday, and when I finished paying the young woman behind the counter said, “Have a good weekend.”  I said, “Oh, I’m going to have a great weekend.  This Sunday is Palm Sunday!”  “It’s what?”  “Palm Sunday,” I said, “you know, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the crowds were waving palm branches and shouting ‘Hosanna!’?”  “Sounds great!” she said, but I was pretty sure she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and I didn’t have time to explain.  So, this is for you, Jennifer, wherever you are.

I hope you’re watching.

The first Palm Sunday was during the annual festival of the Passover in Jerusalem, and the Passover is a story all by itself.  It happened like this: God’s people were slaves in Egypt, crying out to the Lord day and night for their deliverance.  And so God sent Moses (you’ve heard of Moses?) to tell old Pharaoh (the king of Egypt), “Let my people go.”   But Pharaoh wouldn’t do it.  So God sent a series of plagues on the Egyptians: swarms of gnats, flies, and locusts, thunder and hail, pitch black darkness, and finally this—the death of the first born in every Egyptian household.  But not in the Hebrew households.  God had told his people to smear the blood of a lamb on the lintels and doorposts of their houses, so that when the angel of death came it would pass over the homes of God’s people (“Passover,” get it?).  The very next day Pharaoh let God’s people go, and that’s what Passover is all about: it’s the Jewish Fourth of July, a festival of freedom, a time when the Jews pause to remember their deliverance from a cruel and oppressive foreign government.

Which makes Palm Sunday that much more interesting. 

Because when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that day, God’s people were once again under the thumb of a cruel and oppressive foreign government.  It wasn’t Egypt this time, it was Rome: the vast and sprawling Roman Empire, of which Israel was a tiny, insignificant appendix.  The people had hopes that someday God would send someone to deliver them, not another Moses so much as another King David, the one who had made Israel great all those years ago.  They could almost picture it: the Messiah—God’s anointed one—riding into town, running off the Romans, restoring Israel to its former glory, and sitting on the throne of his ancestor David.  In fact one of their prophets had seen a vision:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! 

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! 

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 (Zech. 9:9).

And so you might imagine the excitement Jesus stirred up when he came from Jericho, leading a huge crowd of followers, and sent his disciples to fetch a donkey; and how that excitement might have grown when they came back with a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey, just like that ancient prophecy; and how the excitement might have reached a fever pitch when Jesus got on the donkey and began to ride into the city of Jerusalem.  It was just like the prophet said: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look!  Your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey!”  The crowd went wild, with some people throwing their cloaks on the road as a way of “rolling out the red carpet” for Jesus, while others cut the branches from palm trees, waving them and shouting:

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!

So that when they got into Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil, with everyone asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds told the truth.  They said, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.  It was the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth.  Jesus was so much more than that, wasn’t he?  To the Romans and the religious authorities he was a threat: they sensed that he could easily turn the people against them and overthrow their power.  But to the crowds he was a promise: the promise that Israel might soon be restored to its former glory, with a son of David sitting on the throne.  “Who is this?” the people asked, and that’s the question, isn’t it?  Or perhaps, on this Palm Sunday, a better question would be: “Who is this to you?”

That’s the question I asked on my Facebook page yesterday.  These are some of the answers I got back:

  • Aylett Lipford: Jesus is my friend. Someone to laugh with and cry with and the only one who is there with me every step of the way.
  • Susan Hughes: My rock, my redeemer, and the lover of my soul
  • Kay Smith: The one who came to show us how it’s done. I would rather have someone say that I am Christ-like than to call me a Christian.
  • Lynne Bailey Miller: When I stray away, He brings me back.
  • Jeannie Dortch: (laughing) My psychiatrist, and he provides the insurance!
  • Ann Whitfield Carter: Jesus—the way he lived and the way he loved—is a role model for the way I should live and love those around me.
  • Elizabeth Southworth: My best friend, my confidant, my Savior, and the light and lover of my soul.

These are just a few of the responses I got back, but what people were telling me over and over again is that Jesus means everything to them, and that they would do anything for him, which is as it should be.

I mean…think about what Jesus has done for us.

This week we are invited to think about what Jesus has done for us and to think about it deeply, to enter into the drama of Holy Week and walk with Jesus every step of the way.  But many of us will refuse.  Some people tell me they don’t like to come to our Maundy Thursday service because it does precisely that: it walks us through the drama of Holy Week and brings us to the very foot of the cross.  Preaching professor Alyce McKenzie says:

“[In the church] it is much easier to pop in for Palm Sunday, and then pop out for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before popping back in for the trumpets, the lilies, the new clothes and the candy on Easter Sunday. But somebody needs to stand by Jesus this year. Somebody needs to hang in there with him. Somebody needs to stay at his side as he is humiliated, beaten, mocked, and killed.  [Remember how he told the Pharisees on Palm Sunday that if his disciples were quiet the very stones would shout?]  Holy Week is our annual opportunity to choose courage over cowardice, to choose to be a shouting stone rather than a silent disciple. If we don’t have the courage to stand by Jesus, who will? I don’t know. Maybe we can find someone who will do so in our place. If we choose to be a silent disciple this year, lackadaisical in our devotion and lukewarm in our compassion, who will continue to praise Jesus to the skies? I don’t know. Maybe we can find a stone, some brave person, who will shout hosannas to the King while every other voice mocks his name and he hangs, almost completely deserted, on a hill.”[i]

Today is Palm Sunday.  It is the beginning of Holy Week.  And, as Alyce McKenzie reminds us, it is an opportunity to take our stand with Jesus, to be a shouting stone rather than a silent disciple, to ask not what Jesus can do for us, but what we can do for Jesus.  Whitney Rice, an Episcopal priest from Indiana, suggests that one of the ways we can do that is to immerse ourselves in the lectionary readings for this week (posted on our website at www.fbcrichmond.org). She says we have an opportunity to “walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.[ii]

“And it is a struggle,” she says. “In the gospel for Monday in Holy Week, Jesus has his last meal at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Jesus and Lazarus never got to say goodbye to each other when Lazarus was dying. Jesus heard that he was sick, but stayed away. They’re back in the same situation again. One of them is about to die, but this time Jesus doesn’t stay away. Maybe he wanted to do more than say goodbye. Maybe Jesus needed to see Lazarus alive, talking and eating and laughing. Maybe his human side needed to reaffirm the evidence of his own eyes that someone can die and come back to life.

“On Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ struggle with his approaching death continues. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” We can feel the conflict in Jesus’ soul, his divine conviction of what he has to do, warring with his human fear.

“The gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week takes the spiritual crisis to the next level. For the first time, Jesus addresses not just death but betrayal. The gospel tells us, “At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’” Whitney Rice says, “The reason betrayal hurts so much is because it has to come from someone you know and love. A stranger cannot betray you. Someone who hates you and always has, cannot betray you. And the only thing worse than being betrayed is being the betrayer yourself.”  But on Maundy Thursday there we are, having our feet washed right along with Judas’s.

“By Friday morning we have lost control of the situation completely. We find ourselves stumbling along with the crowds toward Golgotha hoping we are not recognized by anyone as one of Jesus’ followers. There is a numb sense of disbelief as we watch him being nailed to the cross. As every minute passes, we are certain that this is the moment Jesus will unleash the power within him, the power we have seen again and again heal people from illnesses, allow him to walk on water, feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. Each second we’re sure now, now is when he will stop this cruel drama, come down from the cross and save himself.

“But nothing happens. Jesus simply lets his life bleed away, one agonizing moment at a time, growing weaker and weaker until he seems to prove that he’s given up on himself and on God the Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries. This is the moment that we think the other disciples who hid away during the crucifixion absolutely had the right idea. Staring up at him on the cross, we realize that Jesus is actually going to die right in front of us. He cries out, takes his last breath, and the unthinkable moment comes to pass.

Whitney Rice says, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. At that moment our souls are torn in two. At the moment the living love between God the Father and the incarnate Jesus Christ is torn in two. At that moment the disciples’ hope for the defeat of Rome and the rule of Jesus on earth is torn in two.  This is the terrible risk that we take, by committing to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, that our hearts will be torn in two by this experience.

“But Jesus’ life and our emotional equilibrium are not the only things destroyed on Good Friday. The barrier between God and humanity is torn in two. The record of our sin is torn in two. The reign of death is torn in two. And finally the shroud of our grief and fear is torn in two by the joy of the resurrection. If we are willing not to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, not to avoid the darkness that stains these upcoming days, but to enter into it with Jesus and stand in solidarity with him, the healing that we experience with his resurrection is twice as deep.

“Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him, loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death, or we can hide away, unwilling to let our composure be torn in two with the temple curtain.

“The only tools we need are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

“Like Jesus, our fear, our sin, our grief and our illusions about ourselves have less than a week to live. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.”

[i] Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, April 3, 2014  (from the Patheos website)

[ii] The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis. These (lengthy) excerpts are from her sermon “Walk Through Holy Week with Jesus.”

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