Sermon for Palm Sunday 2021
Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 31:9-16 Philippians 2:5-11 Mark 14:1-15:47 Liturgy of the Palms Mark 11:1-11
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 Mark’s Passion narrative. Now the hosanna’s are drowned out by “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 resolved, we may hang onto bad feelings about someone, and then as time passes we forgive and reconcile. Our days are filled with the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the sin, repentance, forgiveness and redemption of life.
A while back when the evenings got chilly, Zebi has changed her behavior. When I get up in the middle of the night as nature calls, she moves into the space I left. I don’t know if it is the warmth, the smell or just to aggravate me. But, I started thinking, what do I do with the space that is made available to me. You may recall my saying that one of the first messages I got during Centering Prayer was, “I will fill the space that you make for me.” So what am I doing with that space – studying God’s word, sleeping later in the morning, reading more devotional materials, reading more murder mysteries? What is my plan for Holy Week, now that all the bulletins are done?
Holy Week, the seven days before the feast of Easter, from Palm Sunday morning to Holy Saturday night and the Easter Vigil is charged with meaning. It is a microcosm of Jesus’ public life. All of its components are there – the population at large, the temple priests and their concerns about beliefs and teachings recognized by the church, the prophetic words of Jesus and the political concerns of Roman officials for the social upheavals they feared may come. They were concerned about the arrest and isolation of Jesus and the fears and confusion of His followers. Condensed into one week, all these elements in the life of Jesus are laid bare for all to see. It is a dark week, a week heavy with the intensity of the drama among us.
But it is also a week of two distinct parts. Palm Sunday - also called Passion Sunday, to signal the full reading of the Passion narratives in the Scriptures – provides the framework for the week. It reminds us that at the moment of what seems to be the height of Jesus’ public ministry also begins the process of His public betrayal, His public failure, His public abandonment. Only in the mind of God is Jesus any longer a success, it seems. It is the contrast between the laws of the world and the law of God that dooms Jesus. On Palm Sunday, we are forced to remember the distance between public success and personal commitment. Jesus stays the course to the end, we see, and so must we, despite all other pressures, both internal and social, that pull us away. Here in the Passion narrative, just presented to us, we trace the struggle, one scene at a time, between the Word of God and the ways of the world.
We see all the forces of evil collude and collide. We watch as Jesus, caught in the grip of religious and political agendas, goes on speaking out, doing good, regardless. No political spin here. Then, in the first part of the week – Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – we get a glimpse into what will happen as a result. Jesus will die, yes, but not only. There is more than death to come.
All in all, it is a week that brings us face-to-face with the great question, why must this happen? What is all this suffering about? But deep down inside of us, we already know what the life of Jesus and these first days of Holy Week confirm: there are some things worth living for, even if we find ourselves having to die for them as well.
We suffer things we would rather not undergo because we realize that if we fail to endure them, we can never achieve what we want most in life. People struggle for days to stay afloat after a shipwreck, because they have families at home who depend on them. Firefighters brave injury and death to save our cities. To be able to see a worthy relationship between the suffering we face and the fulfillment of the human vision is to be able to bear almost unimaginable amounts of suffering. Seeing the larger picture of our learning and growing in our understanding of who God is for us validates the actions. Jesus knew the whole story, and so do we after so many years of hearing it read in church. We hear it, but this week we live it. We live it moment by moment with Jesus, the disciples, his family, his followers.
We begin with Mark 11:1-11 which is used in the Liturgy of the Palms, Jesus ridicules the political powers through a carefully planned carnival procession into Jerusalem. And he invites disciples to worship him, rather than serving any other “powers that be.”
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.
In Mark, Jesus demonstrates his divinity by overcoming disease, demons and death. Although he had the power to be king of the earth, Jesus chose to obey the Father and die for us. It’s true: the great Story is indeed reaching its climax; but the ending is not what they had expected. They had expected a warrior king and Jesus came riding on a donkey, speaking of the way of peace. They had expected someone who would restore the Temple fully and finally, and Jesus came with an acted parable of its destruction. They had expected a son of David who would drive out the pagan enemies and leave Israel head of the nations, and Jesus came speaking of the Son of God who would be rejected and killed, but who would turn out to be the Stone, the corner-stone of God’s new building.
The Palm Sunday story naturally leads into a sequence of parables and disputes in which Jesus confronts the chief priests, the elders, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the crowds in general. It’s easy for us to forget what job they were doing in the overall story. But Mark never forgets. These short scenes are meant to explain what Jesus’ action in the Temple was all about, and to explain in advance what his next actions would mean. What Jesus did in the Temple on Palm Sunday and what he did in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday go together. Together, they point beyond to the greatest action of them all, the one which follows on Good Friday.
Today, we meet Jesus, not as the charismatic teacher who triumphantly rode through the gates of Jerusalem, but as the one betrayed, abandoned, and facing the inevitability of death. Shouts of Hosanna give way to shouts of “Crucify him!” Jesus’ voice fades into the background, overshadowed by a cacophony of unsubstantiated claims and misguided assertions as the religious leaders accuse him of treason and convince the people to demand his execution. On the cross, we see our brokenness and God’s grace. We see our need to be loved and God’s expression of love.
Walk into Holy Week with all the confidence of Easter, but never with the naïve notion that Easter will arrive before the shadow of death has had
its awful, brutal and crucifying way with Jesus. May we hear God’s word, and so live within the story, that we find ourselves in five days time at the foot of the cross and in seven days at the empty tomb, and find ourselves repeating, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.