Sunday, March 20, 2005

Palm/Passion Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54

Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.

As I began thinking about this week’s lessons, I found myself recalling the same old complaint about the texts. Why are we rushing the passion by reading the entire lesson on Palm Sunday? Can’t we take Holy Week just one day at a time? I even went to last year’s Midweek Oasis and as I read the opening paragraphs I laughed because I was finding exactly the same words on the page that I wanted to write this year.

We automatically assume that Palm Sunday has been set aside to meet the needs of those who are too lazy to come to church a few extra days one week, or whose lives are too full of the business of life to devote an hour or so on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday so that they can hear the rest of the story. To be honest, I have wondered why we have changed our traditions to cater to those who are too lazy or distracted to bother to come. My favorite Holy Weeks were spent at our church in California where we had a brief worship service every morning. The pastor read and preached on the texts that related to each day’s activities by Jesus and the disciples.

It was always an amazing week, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus each morning. Then on Thursday we held a seder dinner with a communion service, we joined the community for worship Friday afternoon and held a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. Easter Sunday began at sunrise and then culminated after breakfast in a joyous celebration of the Resurrection. Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, it was possible to attend more than a dozen different services. Each moment was precious and it helped me to better understand the attitudes of the people following Jesus, those who were unsure and those who were against Him.

We find it hard to believe that Jesus could lose so many followers in such a short period of time. After all, they went from singing hosanna to betrayal in less than five days. It is even harder to imagine if all we know of the passion story is that Jesus was briefly tried and executed on the cross. Even the narratives we now read on Passion Sunday give us little indication as to why the people would turn so fast. We almost have to assign blame to someone in the crowd, an instigator who took advantage of the mob to turn people’s attitudes away from Jesus.

However, as we look at the story between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that there is far more there than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those few days attacking the status quo. He went into the temple and taught, He overturned the tables of the money changers, He spoke in parables that painted the leaders in a less than positive light. He turned their world upside down – not just the leaders, but also the people. He assaulted everything they knew and they did not know how to handle it.

Most especially, He rejected the expectation they had of Him. On Palm Sunday, they welcomed a king, the king whom they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to make Him king of Israel so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus came to give.

It is not hard to imagine why most Christians would rather not hear the whole story, and thus to understand why we have to at least give them the passion narrative once a year. See, Palm Sunday is a day of joy, a celebration of salvation. Though most people surely know that the cross comes between, the average Christian can easily take the joyous celebration of the Triumphal Entry and extend it to Easter. If all we see on Palm Sunday is the parade, we can go from one mountain top to another, never having to see the valley that was crossed for us in between.

Most Christians would rather not spend time at the cross. It is too hard to think about the suffering that Jesus experienced. No human being should ever have to falsely accused, beaten and killed in such a horrific manner, particularly not for the sake of others. Jesus was innocent of the crime. It is much easier if we simply fast forward through the bad parts and watch what happens at either end of the story.

So, we have come to understand this perspective of all too many Christians and not wanting them to forget this most important aspect of the Christian faith, we have put the passion narrative on Palm Sunday so that they too may witness the fullness of Christ’s love for mankind.

I think where we most go wrong is assuming that the moment on the cross when Jesus died is a moment of defeat. We would rather move from glory to glory. Yet, the triumphal entry is not really a moment of glory, since the people were praising a false notion of Jesus. The true moment of glory is found on the cross, when Jesus fulfills His purpose for the incarnation.

The trouble with those mountain top experiences is that there we become comfortable with a type of glory that is fleeting. The praise and adulation of Palm Sunday never lasts. Eventually something changes and we are disappointed because our expectations are destroyed. Jesus did not live up to their idea of a Messiah. They did not see passages like the one from Isaiah as a description of the one for whom they were waiting.

In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord speaks with a voice of humility and sacrifice. Isaiah writes, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” These are not the words of a king, how could this possibly refer to a Messiah? Yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this is exactly the image of Christ that we must see and we are called to live in that same attitude, which is one of humility.

Paul writes, “Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Where did God exalt Jesus? Was it on that day when palm branches were spread before Him as He rode into town on a donkey? Was it on that day when He was found missing in the tomb?

No, God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering and cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of you and I. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Christ is glorified. This is made especially clear in Matthew 27:54, “Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” It was not the raising that convinced the centurion of Jesus’ identity, but rather it was the dying.

Yes, those of us who will walk with Jesus through holy week might not like that we have set aside the celebration of the palms for those who won’t be around to hear the story of the passion throughout holy week. And yet, it is in the passion we truly see Christ’s glory. Perhaps we could and should hear it over and over again.

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