Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
"But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God.
It is difficult to write about Palm Sunday (and next week Easter) when we have not really completed the journey to get there. Especially hard is the Passion text, which most churches will read this Sunday so that everyone will hear the story of what our Lord Jesus Christ did for us two thousand years ago. His suffering, humiliation and death is the foundation of our forgiveness. He paid the price for our freedom. He willingly went to the cross for our sake. Writing about the Passion today seems like putting the cart before the horse. We still have to get through the next nine days of our Lent disciplines. We have more readings to help us get to the place of understanding Jesus and why He did what He did. We still have to attend the Last Supper, and then we can join Jesus in the garden, where today's Gospel reading begins.
It is good to reflect on these passages so that we will remember everything He did for us. He did not just teach us how to be good Christians or heal those who were sick. He did not just come to be a rabbi or earthly king. Jesus came to take upon His own sinless shoulders the wrath of God and in doing so provided the way for grace to restore our relationship with our Father. This is it; this is the reason we've been walking this Lenten journey. It is the reason we have hope. It is the reason we have faith.
Despite the centrality of the Gospel text to our lives and our faith, I don't want to linger on it today. Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, so we know the whole story. We know what happens at the end. We know that even as Jesus died on the cross, He lives and in Him we have life. However, sometimes it is good for us to walk the journey completely, waiting and watching as if we are ignorant of the future. Sometimes it is good to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived it. They didn't know what would happen on Easter. They didn't even know at this point in the story what would happen on Good Friday.
Whispers of real danger were beginning to run through the people who were witnessing the actions of Jesus. He had done amazing things, including the impossible raising of Lazarus. The leaders were nervous because the people were crying out for a savior. They wanted a king that would save them from the Romans and make the nation great again. This kind of talk threatened the lives and lifestyles of those in control. It was not just selfishness and greed that made them hostile to Jesus; they knew a revolution would be dangerous to the people.
John writes, "But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor do ye take account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." He may have been a man who was afraid that he would lose his own power and authority, he also perceived the danger Jesus posed to the nation of Israel and he wanted the council to consider everything. What he didn't consider is that the path they were taking was exactly according to God's plan. They thought that killing Jesus would end the danger. Killing Jesus would do something more extraordinary.
Zechariah reveals to us the promise of Easter. Our King is indeed coming, and has come, but it isn't the kind of king that they expected in Jesus' day. He is the King willing to spill His own blood to set us free from the real oppressor: sin and death. This is reason for us to rejoice. Unfortunately, those who were there on the first Palm Sunday did not really understand the meaning of this promise. They rejoiced as Jesus went into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, righteous and humble, because they thought that Jesus would deliver them from the Romans. The cheered as He entered the city, threw down palms and their clocks to lay the way. Even His disciples did not understand until after the Resurrection.
He could have done everything they wanted. He could have called down legions of angels to defeat the Romans. He could have pushed Herod off the throne; He could have even defeated Tiberius and toppled the entire Roman Empire. But that was not His purpose. He humbled Himself even unto death, giving up the glory of heaven for the torture of the cross to serve you and I. We did not deserve His love and grace; we will never deserve His love and grace. He did not do it to reward us for our goodness. He did it because our Father the Creator made us good and though we were the ones who were unfaithful, He desired restoration. God sent Jesus so that we could be saved from ourselves, forgiven for our sins and set free from sin and death to live in His Kingdom forever.
The leaders were worried on that first Palm Sunday because it seemed as though the world was willing to follow Jesus. They cried out in celebration as He entered the city, praising God for finally sending the Messiah. The jubilation did not last very long, however, which will see in the continuing story of Jesus' Passion. They were easily turned by rumors and lies. They were shocked by the words and actions of Jesus who did not act like one who was determined to take the throne. He acted like One who set His feet on a path that led nowhere except death. Wisdom incarnate was foolish in their minds and they looked for another who would do what they wanted and expected the Messiah to do.
I read a cartoon about the Triumphant Entry that showed someone waving and crying out in praise and thanksgiving. "I love a parade" the character said. Another character answered, "Even if it leads to the cross?" The first character said, "I'm not thinking about that right now." This is not the attitude of today's devotion. We aren't ignoring the Passion because we don't want to think about it; we are walking in the footsteps of our Lord and He hasn't reached that point. Yet.
See, it was just as difficult for Jesus to accept the acclamation of the crowds on the first Palm Sunday. He knew what they didn't know. He knew that His purpose was not as they expected. He knew that within days those screaming fans would be persecuting Him. We are different because we understand that they are celebrating for all the wrong reasons. They think they've found a king; we know that we've been sent the King. They think that they've found a savior; we know that He gave up everything to be our Savior. They thought that they found someone who would honor their wishes; we know that He obeyed only God. We see the parade through the eyes of the Resurrection. We also know the only way to get there is through the cross.
I try to imagine how Jesus felt during those final days. He may have received their praise and worship on Palm Sunday, but He knew it would not last. Beneath the confident fašade was a man who knew that His true purpose was just days away. I don't think we can even imagine the pain He was experiencing deep in His heart. He loved every one of those people who were crying out and throwing palms. He loved every one even though He knew that they would all abandon Him in just a few days. He loved them so much, and us too, that He carried each of our burdens with Him to the cross.
The psalm for today gives us some idea of what might have been running through Jesus' head. Despite His willingness and obedience, Jesus still sought the Father's mercy in the garden when He prayed. The words may have been ringing in His head for days, perhaps even weeks. The burden on the cross was incredible, but He carried a hard burden in those days preceding it as He watched the crowds follow Him with praise knowing that soon they would abandon Him. Even so, Jesus trusted God and walked in obedience to God's will. He did this for me. He accepted the praise as well as the humiliation, the triumph and the letdown. He gave Himself into God's hands, accepting the suffering for our sake.
As we walk through Holy Week, read the Passion story daily. Reflect on it. Hear God's grace in the midst of the horror. Feel the pain that Jesus experienced both in His body and in His spirit. Walk with Him, remembering that Jesus did it all for you and me. The disciples, crowds and leaders did not know how the story will end, but even though we have twenty-twenty vision, we must see the sacrifice of Jesus with the same eyes as those two thousand years ago to appreciate that we, too, were among the crowds who honored Him one day and rejected Him the next. Even His closest friends did not know how to deal with the reality of Jesus' life and death. How can we expect to understand our own place in this story if we do not experience it as they did? So, let us walk with our Lord and see it through His eyes, to know it through His heart, to experience it in His presence as if we were there. Then we will see as they did, and remember when He is resurrected what He truly did for us all.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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