The Perplexing Message of Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday poses problems for preachers. We who know the trajectory of the story know that the celebrations quickly give way to a state-sanctioned execution of a possible troublemaker. Of course, we could just skip Good Friday and jump to the triumphal glory of Easter. It’s a much more cohesive message. Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, hailed as king and then God graduates him to heavenly glory. We can go from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” to “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” There’s no need for us to sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” After all, in my subdivision, the children will get to engage in the annual Easter Egg Hunt on Saturday – the day before Palm Sunday!
Now this perplexing Palm Sunday situation could be avoided -- We can focus on the Passion Sunday texts (and two of the text I’ve chosen come from that set of lections) – but perhaps we need to be reminded how easy it is for us to misread what God is up to. How then do we make sense of these texts that speak of glory and suffering? If we are called to follow Jesus, then what is required of us? Must we suffer to experience glory?
Because there all these choices available for this Sunday’s service – whether Palm or Passion Sunday -- I’ve mixed and matched, taking the Passion Sunday texts from Isaiah and Philippians, while taking the Gospel reading from Palm Sunday, choosing John 12 over Mark 11. Both gospel readings offer ways of entering into the conversation about how Jesus was perceived by his contemporaries, including the pertinent question for this week: What did they want from him? From this question we can then move to why did they turn on him? (Now in posing these questions, I’m taking the texts, at least for the moment, at face value. We actually don’t know the entire story as history; we know it as it has been told to us. Whatever the “history,” this story raises the question: What are our expectations? And what happens when those expectations don’t get me?
In the midst of this conversation comes another, the one dealing with suffering. This is an issue fraught with danger. There is the question of atonement theory and questions about whether suffering should be an expected part of discipleship. It’s clear from the gospels that Jesus suffered a most horrible death, and the church sought to find a way to interpret this death in a redemptive way. It did so in a variety of ways, but what is the nature of suffering in relationship to the Christian faith?
We start with Isaiah 50, a text from the Exile that depicts Israel as the suffering servant of God. The servant receives a word from God, having his ear awakened by God. God issues a call to follow God down a pathway that will lead to vindication, but along the way the servant will experience great suffering – both physical and emotional. Despite the violence that is thrown at the servant, there’s no turning back.
Instead, I gave my body to attackers, and my cheeks to beard pluckers. I didn’t hide my face from insults and spitting. (vs. 6-7a).
The reason the servant can take this path is the confidence that God will be the sustaining power, who vindicates and empowers. So in the end, who could condemn the suffering servant? So, what about us? Where do we stand in this picture? Are we the suffering servant who goes forth and stands firm in the midst of opposition, or are we the ones who answer the call to stand with the servant in this righteous cause? Either way, the invitation is clear: join the servant in boldness and courage, standing not in our own power, but that of God.
Now, in the Christian reading of Isaiah 50, Jesus is this suffering servant, and we find our boldness in standing with him, at his invitation. And in this context of Holy Week, we watch him challenge the status quo, for which he paid dearly, but of course God vindicates his cause. The question for us is: Will we stand firm? Or will go along to get along? As I consider this question, I recognize in myself a certain cautiousness that won’t push the envelope to fast, too far, but here is Jesus doing exactly that! In this context, what is our calling?
Philippians 2 is also part of the Passion Sunday emphasis. It is a powerful hymn to Jesus, which lifts him up as our model for Christian living. “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul exhorts his readers. Here is your model, your example. Be like this person. It is a call to servanthood, a calling that may involve suffering. Now, the point is not to suffer, just to suffer, as if martyrdom is a higher calling, but rather recognizing that discipleship will involve suffering. If we do what is right there might be, as Jesus experienced, a cross to bear. Jesus was, as Paul suggests, faithful in all that he did. He was a servant, though this needn’t have been his destiny. But because he is faithful in his servanthood, God raises him to glory.
It is clear that this text offers up a very high Christology. This is not merely a prophet of God. This is the one who shared equality with God prior to life on earth, and then returned to that place of glory afterward. There is a clear declaration of pre-existence in this hymn that we should acknowledge. There is also the word here about choice. Though he shared equality with God, he thought nothing of it, and emptied himself of this glory, and took on human form, which would be the same as becoming a slave. That’s not the end of course, because this choice would lead to his suffering and death on a cross. But all was done in obedience to God’s direction. There is great beauty in this hymn, but it also raises questions, especially for more liberal Christians (myself included).
As is true with the servant in Isaiah 50, Jesus’ ear had been awakened. He heard his calling, and he didn’t turn back, despite the suffering of the moment. And as in Isaiah 50 we hear a word of vindication. The one who declares the servant innocent, honors Jesus by giving him “a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11 CEB).
As we listen to Paul, we’re hearing word that in the end the course of God’s work will be vindicated, even if we choose to resist. God is persistent, and Jesus represents that persistence. We as human beings may subject the messenger of God to violence, but this violent response will not win out. Jesus ends this cycle by not resisting in kind, but rather in giving his life, he brings to an end this cycle of violence that marks so much human experience. As a result, he is honored by God, and we will honor him as well, by bowing to him, but also by living as he lived.
Finally, we come to the Gospel Reading. Here in John 12, we stand and watch the Palm Sunday Parade commence. It’s a glorious scene, but if you know something of the rest of the story, this scene has to be perplexing. The Palm Sunday texts remind us that it’s easy for us to misread God’s intentions and to import our own agendas on God and on the ministry of Jesus.
It’s not an exact parallel, but in some ways this scene is strangely reminiscent of the expectations placed on Barack Obama as he ran for President in 2008. There was this messianic fervor that seemed to take hold among many in the American populace. Then, when it turned out that he wasn’t the messiah who would usher in a new age some grew disillusioned. Now, I’m not saying that Jesus and Barack Obama are equivalent. Indeed, the President would be horrified by such an equation, but the point seems relevant. In our eagerness to see our dreams come to fruition, we can put on persons, including Jesus, our own agendas. Then, when things don’t work out as we hoped, we become disillusioned. Many a pastor knows this same feeling – expectations of salvation for a congregation is placed upon the new pastor who is unequipped to fulfill the messianic expectations, and thus go through a Good Friday sort of experience.
John’s account of Palm Sunday is brief. A crowd is gathering in Jerusalem for the festival (Passover Week). Some of them have heard that Jesus is coming into Jerusalem, and in preparation for his entrance, they take palm branches and go out to meet him. Reading this reminds me of a childhood experience. It was 1968 and Richard Nixon was coming to town, and because my parents were active in the Republican Party, we went out to line up along the road from the airport to town to wave at him and let him know we believed that “Nixon is the One” (that’s what the sash said that we all wore as waved at him). Now, even as Obama isn’t the Messiah, neither was Nixon, but that slogan has messianic tendencies as well. They waved and shouted and greeted the favored one, just as we did that day in 1968. According to John, they shouted the acclamation that Jesus was the King of Israel, who came in the name of the Lord!
Now Jesus didn’t enter the city in a limo, but rather, on a donkey. Now to us that might seem a rather lowly form of transportation. Surely a war horse would be better, but the donkey fills a need. Jesus enters the city as foretold by the prophet, sitting on a donkey, so that Daughter Zion need not fear (Zech. 9:9). It would appear, from this telling of the story, that Jesus knew what he was doing, even if his disciples were clueless. Jesus was sending signals, but perhaps they were misread. It’s interesting that in Zechariah 9, reference is made to the humble manner in which the king arrives. So, it seems that there is a contrast being made between the humble king and the one who seeks to come in power and glory. Whatever the signals given, this is clearly a political act, and not one that the Romans or their collaborators among the priesthood, would have appreciated. The problem isn’t the political nature of the act, but the way in which all parties seem to have misunderstood the nature of the realm that Jesus sought to inaugurate. Jesus’ realm is one built not on violence, but nonviolence. It is not built upon the sword, but upon the Spirit of God. Now John says that the disciples didn’t understand at first, but after he was glorified “they remembered that these things had been written about him.” But did they understand, really, and more importantly do we understand? Do we truly understand the nature of God’s reign?
The only way we can truly understand Jesus’ intentions is to continue the journey from this point through to the cross. If Jesus is, as I believe to be true, inaugurating the realm of God in this Holy Week experience, then we must seek to understand the means by which it is accomplished. Are we willing to take this much more difficult path, a path that can, as Isaiah and Paul remind us, take us on a pathway that might lead to suffering? As we contemplate this question, let us also enjoy the parade while it lasts. Just remember this isn’t the reality that God seeks to inaugurate, and that can be perplexing to the one who doesn’t know the pathway leads to the cross.