A Sermon for 9 April 2017 — Palm Sunday
A reading of the entrance into Jerusalem from the gospel of Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.
“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “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.” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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!” 10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
A reading from the prophet Isaiah 50:4-9a (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5 The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. 7 The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9 It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Upheaval. If any word sums it all up well today, it is upheaval! Upheaval in that Jerusalem entry. Upheaval in the Psalm over God’s steadfast love. Upheaval from Isaiah for the One who gives his back over to be struck. Even this service is an upheaval. Maybe you expected it, but the choir wasn’t up front when we started today. I read the gospel text for the day right after the opening hymn. Which in itself was an upheaval, with a procession and all. Calling us to do something out of the ordinary – particularly for Presbyterians who like to keep things decently and in order, especially in worship! But the band came by, the palms were waving, and we all were invited to leave the safety of our pews – eek! To walk around the sanctuary. Waving palm branches no less???!!! What an upheaval – getting us to worship before God – at least once a year – with our full body, soul, and spirit! It’s an upheaval!
It had to feel that way that day. Like an upheaval! Down came Jesus, winding along the path on a donkey and a colt, at least according to Matthew’s gospel. Down he rode that steep slope from the Mount of Olives, east of the city; through Gethsemane and the Kidron Valley, right into the old city gates. Though we don’t know for sure, it’s likely he entered through the Lion’s Gate. A road that would have taken this upheaval right past Pilate’s palace on the right and the Temple mount on the left. All the while, as the gospel of Matthew records it, a throng of people crowded round. Before and behind him men, women, and children too, I suspect. They threw down their outer cloaks. Some cut branches from the trees to involve all creation in an uproarious parade. As our processional hymn said, we could call them the saints that were marching in. Running and dancing and celebrating chaotic-like more than marching in in-line like obedient soldiers. And they shouted: “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!” Save us! Words neither appreciated by Rome or the Temple leaders. All of whom are within earshot. Son: of the great King David? Descending into the city? Humbly on a donkey and colt, as the prophet Zechariah foretold. Entering the city as the triumphant King, come to “command peace to the nations;” the prophet wrote. “His dominion . . . from sea to sea, and from the River (likely the Jordan) to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10). According to the prophet Zechariah, war will be no more once this King arrives. For domination, control, fear, force-over-another shall not be his way.
Talk about an upheaval! The gospel records that this first, unruly palm parade left “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” (Mt. 21:10). One commentator points out that the Greek word used for turmoil literally means to tremble. Used too of “the earthquakes at Jesus’ final breath upon the cross and at the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb. The shaking of the earth is associated with the ‘day of the LORD’ and the presence of God” (Audrey West, Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, p. 157). The commentator further explains: “Although the people of Jerusalem do not fully comprehend the significance of Jesus’ arrival, their reaction to him is fitting: when the Messiah comes, it is an earthshaking event” (Ibid.). Upheaval. 100% total upheaval to the powers of this world, to entrenched religious ways, to our very lives. . . . We can celebrate joyously all we want today. But before too long, this One will enact in full what he demands of all. Emptying himself for the sake of Love, he shows us the only path that leads to Life. With a wink and a smile from that donkey and her colt; he nods: “Come walk it. Follow me.”
Upheaval. Total upheaval. Because he will not let us claim him Christ, then go on as if nothing much in life really needs to change – like the orientation of our hearts, the direction of our actions, and the will of our desires. . . . It takes courage to jump in on his parade, going where the Spirit leads like wind that cannot be controlled. If we’re brave enough to tag along, we’ll be tossed to and fro through the events that mark this Holy Week. The joy of today. The awe of a table on his last night. The chill of what happens one Friday because of what’s in us that will not tolerate pure Love. Few of us will keep a fast from sundown Friday until sun-up Sunday morning as some devout followers used to do – and certain traditions today continue yet. Most of us don’t like that kind of upheaval to our bodies. Or our schedules. We’re too busy getting ready for special Easter afternoon feasts to slow down enough Saturday to consider why it is classified as Holy. . . . I’ll never forget how the chapel at my college campus marked the week. Imagine a sanctuary able to seat 3,500 people. Everyone waving palm branches together one Sunday, only to gather right before sundown the very next Friday. As we heard the whole story from God’s covenant in the creation of the world, through the enslaved’s liberation, to the waiting and watching and calling back to faithfulness, until at last a baby cried from a Bethlehem animal trough. He grew. And taught. And fed. And formed. And angered. And, for the sake of Love, he would not change his course. As we sat those Good Fridays in that college sanctuary that naturally darkened as the sun went to bed for the night; at last the paschal candle was snuffed out. “It is finished,” we heard. The One on the cross breaths his last to surrender himself in full. Not an eye was dry as we fumbled through the dark night out of that flame-less sanctuary where a pin drop alone would crash through the stunned silence. Something about the way those college chaplains did Holy Week for us brought us to the wrenching ache of death. It was as if the gloom of collective grief hung over campus beginning the night of Good Friday – the night they sent us out in silence into a star-less, dark world. Can you feel the emotional upheaval deep within? And who could imagine what it might be like to gather just before morning Sunday. Outside, still in the dark. Until, one match is struck. A new candle lit. A whisper begins: “Upheaval! The forces that obliterate the Light do not have the last say. The path of Life leads through death. . . . Upheaval. Total upheaval! For which we will give great thanks!
But first, the turmoil. First, the last. First, learning the self-emptying path. As he heads full force to his death, hear him nod, “come walk it. Follow me.”
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2017 (All rights reserved.)