Sermon for Palm Sunday 2019
Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 31:9-16 Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56 Liturgy of the Palms - Luke 19:28-40
This Sunday is a challenging one. We begin with the wonderful celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. While we still have the hosanna’s echoing in our ears, we hear Luke’s Passion narrative. Now the hosanna’s are drowned out by “Crucify him, crucify him!” What a roller coaster ride. But isn’t life that way?
We may have a loved one who is very ill and then gets well, we may worry and fret about a situation with a child and then it is resolves, we may hold bad feelings against someone, and then as time passes we forgive and embrace them. Our days are filled with the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the sin, repentance, forgiveness and redemption of life.
In these readings, we can feel the tone of the service as it shifts. Jesus enters Jerusalem – Jesus the Messiah is proclaimed for all the world to hear. This event relates one of the wildest and most politically explosive acts of Jesus’ ministry. It is a reminder of the political challenge of Jesus’ ministry, as well as the political character of Christian praise.
In Luke 19:28-40 used in the Liturgy of the Palms, we hear echoes of the Christmas story. When Jesus was born, angels appeared to sing, “Peace on earth.” Now, as Jesus rides his colt toward Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Heaven sings of peace on earth. Earth echoes back, “Peace in heaven.” As the church gathers today, we are caught in this crossfire of blessings.
It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since, Christians have celebrated this day, Palm Sunday, as the first day of Holy Week. With its climax of Good Friday and Easter, it is the most sacred week of the Christian year.
As we return to the story of Jesus’ procession entering Jerusalem, we are struck by the simplicity. Though the story is familiar to us, there are many surprises. Jesus planned it in advance. As Jesus approaches the city from the east at the end of the journey from Galilee, he tells two of his disciples to go to the next village and get him a colt, a young one, never ridden before. Jesus rides the colt down the Mount of Olives to the city surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic followers and sympathizers, who spread their cloaks and leafy palm branches on the road. We can imagine the excitement in the crowd, the pushing and shoving to be closest to the road, closest to Jesus. Though much simpler than the military procession, it is rich with promise. “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Then the shift happens. Pity the disciples because the whirlwind has come upon them and they can’t see it for what it is. They remain a few steps behind Jesus throughout this longest and hardest week. By the time they finally catch up, it is too late.
Foolish disciples. Jesus pours his heart out to them over dinner. In words and signs, he tells them that death is coming closer. His suffering is about to begin. He breaks bread and share the cup one last time with his beloved friends. He tells them that one among them will betray him. They fret a little about which one that might be – and then immediately begin to argue about who among them is the greatest.
Clueless disciples. They miss the forest for the trees. Jesus patiently offers remedial instructions to them about true greatness. They don’t get it. He reminds them about his leadership of servanthood. He gives them credit for staying by his side through everything.
Poor Peter. He is so quick to make promises of faithfulness unto death. Jesus tells Peter to strengthen his fellow disciples and reminds him of his coming denial. Jesus speaks clearly: “The cock will not crow this day, until you have denied me three times that you know me.” It is so difficult for Peter to be so fully known. It is for all of us.
Confused disciples. Jesus reminds them that they are going into a frightening world. They must be prepared. In a short time, they will become outlaws with him. One of them offers two swords, and Jesus says it is enough. This is an unclear response at best. Enough words? Enough talking? Enough what? Jesus walks out before they can ask or understand.
Weary disciples. Here, we too feel sorry for them. Called to prayer, they do their best. But it is late and it is dark. They are so tired from a long day. They are confused and afraid. Jesus is just out of sight, gone to pray alone. They try to pray and they fall asleep. Jesus comes back and his face is lined with bloody tears. He wakes them up, “Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” But it is already too late. The coming trial is now upon them.
Weak Judas. Does he believe what he is doing? Does it seem like a dream? He prepares to kiss Jesus. But Jesus stops him with words of his betrayal. Is it now that Judas sees the truth about Jesus? Is it in this moment that Judas sees himself? Is this when he loses hope?
Disarmed disciples. They have two swords, and one of them is used. Swung wildly with little control, it cuts off the slave’s ear. Now Jesus speaks in that voice that once calmed the sea. “No more of this!” Jesus touches the slave and heals his ear. The destruction by the sword is not welcome here.
Powerless disciples. Jesus challenges those who have brought swords and clubs to capture to capture him. Who do they think he is –a thief, a bandit? They do not answer. They take Jesus away to the house of the high priest. Everything is in motion. The disciples can’t stop what will happen next.
Weeping Peter. At first, he keeps his promise, following as Jesus is led away. He comes to the high priest’s house and warms himself by the fire. Then the question is asked – three times. Peter says no each time. The cock crows and Peter remembers. He leaves and he weeps.
We know this story well. We can name the characters and even recite some of their lines. We can anticipate what happens next. It’s all so familiar. Yet, the story has not lost its sting. The retelling hasn’t lessened its power to stir our emotions and cause us pain. We take comfort from what comes later. But here and now, on this Passion Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, we look and listen. We remember as if we were there.
In a way, we are. We are modern disciples and we can recognize ourselves among those in the company of Jesus on that longest and hardest night. We recognize our own weakness, our foolishness, cluelessness, failure and denial. We recognize the disciples’ deep desire to be faithful to Jesus along with their inability to know what that really means. We see ourselves in them.
That recognition is a gift – a painful gift, but a gift. It assures us that Jesus does not expect perfection from his followers. Jesus takes us as we are – fumbling, failing, clumsy, well-intentioned, trying to get it right the next time. We recognize ourselves in his disciples, including Peter and Judas, because denial and betrayal are familiar to us. In recognizing ourselves as imperfect as we are, we see Jesus more clearly.
Jesus knows exactly what Judas will do. He knows exactly what Peter will do. Jesus is not surprised to return from his prayer and find the disciples asleep. He isn’t shocked when one of them tries to battle with his captors. He knows them through his experiences with them and perhaps some divine insight brings other things to light. Jesus knows who is sharing that last meal with him – just as Jesus knows us in all of our humanity. And still he gives himself into the hands of God as he makes his way toward the cross. This week, we are following along – loving, listening, weeping and rejoicing. This week lays its claim on our hearts and on our lives. Jesus lives. And we live because Jesus lives. Amen.