I chanced upon some writing this week by a minister who said that he loves preaching on Palm Sunday more than any other Sunday of the year. So much so that he begins thinking about next year’s Palm Sunday sermon almost immediately after finishing the one he just gave.
I was amazed by that, because for me, it is just the opposite.
For me, the closer Palm Sunday comes the more reticent I feel and the further away seem any words worth speaking.
It is not that I am not moved by Palm Sunday, I am. And it is not that I am not deeply honored and humbled to be standing before you today, truly I am!
It is just that we standing on the threshold of arguably the most important week in our faith tradition, I feel the challenge of trying to really grasp what happened during that first Holy week and even more importantly why it happened?
So, I was thinking that perhaps, the best use of our time together would be to take these next 12 minutes and spend them in silence so that each of us could have some time to think about all that will happen to Jesus this week as he enters Jerusalem and to think about what we would say.
But don’t worry, we are not going to do that. I am going to presh ahead and attempt some words today. But even as I do, I encourage you to take time this week to consider what it is you would say? I invite you to grapple with today and all that will transpire this week and to ask yourself how you make sense of Jesus’ execution on the cross? How is this week Holy for you and not just a devastating tragedy?
But before we go any further, let us pray. Holy one. It is not enough to say that you are a mystery that we cannot comprehend. For you came into the world and lived among us so that we see and know what living your word looks like. And so we ask you to guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts so that we may come to a greater knowing of what it is you would have us know, not just in our minds but in our very flesh and blood. In the kind of knowing that you lived and for which you died. Amen.
Jesus knew just what to say. He had been talking about and making real “good news for the poor; release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) He had been proclaiming in word and action that what God intends for all of God’s creation is fullness of life. To have life and have it abundantly.
And so I wonder:
Why didn’t Jesus just keep doing what he had been doing? Why didn’t he just stay up there in Galilee? There was so much healing and teaching still to be done. Why take go to Jerusalem? Why engage in such a provocative way the social, political and religious powers of that city? Why take on those who had the power to put an end to not just his ministry but to his life?
You see we are at a distinct disadvantage from those who on that first Palm Sunday waved palms, who shouted hosanna. We are at a distinct disadvantage to those who laid their cloaks on the ground and whose hearts were filled with such hope and expectation. The crowd that day looked at Jesus and saw their Messianic King. They saw scripture come to life and their dreams fulfilled. Here was the one finally that would deliver them from their oppressors and who would restore rule of the House of David. And the timing of course could not have been better! For as you know it was Passover and all the people were coming up to Jerusalem for the Festival to remember and commemorate that great act of deliverance where God freed the people from the tyranny of Pharaoh and walked with them to new life in a land flowing with milk and honey.
So they cried “Hosanna,” “O save us” as Jesus made his way down the Mount of Olives and through the gate into Jerusalem.
Though we wave palms today and sing “Hosanna” like they did, we are at a disadvantage. For unlike them, we know how all of this is going to end. We can see the cross even now on the hillside. We know that not only will Jesus’ suffering be too much to bear, but it is likely that you and I, like almost all of them, will run away, deny, betray, and disappear into the shadows of fear before the week is over.
And so, at the dawning of this week, I found myself asking again. Why? Why do it, Jesus? Did it have to be this way?
For some of us, even asking the question why can feel somehow inappropriate or heretical even for we were told that the whole reason Jesus lived was so that he could die. That all of this is God’s plan. The purpose of incarnation is crucifixion. Jesus came into the world in order to die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, so that God would forgive humanity for the debt that we owed God for our transgressions, a debt we could never repay on our own.
We have been told this but I do not believe it. I do not believe that Jesus lived so that he could die. I do not believe that the cross was preordained by God as a means of recompense. I do not believe that God would be so cruel.
So if Jesus’ death was not God ordained why did he come into Jerusalem that day?
Well, I believe that Jesus, the word made flesh, came to Jerusalem that day because he had something important to say. Something that could only be spoken there and that the only language that could give it word was his own flesh and blood.
And what was it that Jesus came to say?
I believe he came to say “No! No more of this! It is finished!”
Jesus came into the world to heal and to bring us and all God’s good creation to fullness of live. But in order to proclaim such a “YES” to life, Jesus needed to say NO! No, once and for all to abuses of power that impede God’s grace from freely flowing and uplifting the lives of all God’s people.
This is where it gets messy because we rightfully respect the separation between church and state, religion and politics, but we do Jesus and the Gospel message a disservice if we do not see that Jesus came into Jerusalem because he knew that part of the reason he was alive was that he needed to say “NO!” to our propensity to use violence and fear as a means of control in the realms of our social, political, economic and religious lives.
When we are afraid, when we feel violence is brewing, and when we feel that the social order is tenuous, what we have learned is that a very effective way of restoring calm and order is to channel that very same fear and violence in a very specific way. A way that has come to be known as scapegoating.
Mark Heim, a Professor of Christian Theology at ANTS writes: “We humans took a terrible thing – scapegoating violence and made good [use of it]. We learned that scapegoating one, sacrificing one brings the rest of us together. It unites us against a common enemy. We overcome our conflicts and make peace by finding a common enemy, by hating together.”1 And professor Heim contends that what happens this week is God’s willing to be a victim of this bad thing, in order to reveal its horror and stop it.
The text tells us that the city was in turmoil. Pilate and Herod and the chief priest Caiaphas heard in the cries of “Hosanna” and felt in the turmoil of the city, that they were starting to lose control and knew they had to shut it down. And the best way to shut it down was to make someone pay. Someone needed to be singled out and demonized so that people would turn on him, discharging all their discontentment and fury on him. Then by eliminating him, order could again be restored.
Mark Heim continues. “God agrees to be handed over to our sacrificial process to reveal the abuse of it for what is through his own flesh and blood. Jesus could not simply instruct us about our situation. For we are all far too enclosed in the scapegoating process to be able to break out the spell of it.” (p. 223). Even faithful Peter gets caught up in it through his denial saying “I do not know that man” not once but three times, all to save his own skin. So that he would not be the next one to be handed over to the machinations of violence.
The Gospel writers are quite clear, that the events of Holy week are terrible ones. That an innocent man was made to suffer in a horribly unjust way and that when Jesus breathes his last even all creation registers its protest “the earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matt 27:51b). Even the centurion (an elite Roman soldier) who was keeping watch over Jesus, when he saw the earthquake and al that took place he was terrified and he said “Certainly this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47). Jesus gave himself over to the mechanisms of violence so that we could once and for all see how very wrong it was. Jesus should not have died on that cross. Our ability to see that is the whole point of him doing so.
I am more and more convinced that finding our voice and our courage to say “No!” to the misuse and abuse of power is a very real part of the salvation that Jesus offers us. Heim says that what happens is that the cross becomes a magnifying glass helping us to see more clearly the victims of the abuse of power in our day.
So do we dare look at our lives through the magnifying lens of the cross? If we do what will we see? What would it take for us to say “no!” not just with our words but with our actions? with our own flesh and blood?
For the point the whole point of saying “No” to what we humans have gotten so terribly wrong is so that we can finally hear and live into the “YES” that Jesus has been saying and has been living it and has been bringing it to life in the lives of others all along. The whole point of Jesus saying “No” on the cross to how we humans have gotten it so terribly wrong is so that we can finally see and live in the Way of Jesus a way where forgiveness replaces retaliation, love overcomes hate. When the cross is replaced with the communion table.
Jesus came down the Mount of Olives that day on the back of a lowly donkey right through the gates of Jerusalem, trusting in his deepest being that on the far side of his “No” would be God’s “yes.” The “Yes” that Easter does and will again bring.
So let it begin. Let this Holy week begin. And let us discover what it is we have to say, and not just with our words but with our flesh and blood. Amen.
1 S. Mark Heim. “Saved by What Shouldn’t Happen: the anti-sacrificial meaning of the cross.” in Cross Examinations. (Augsburg Fortress: 2006). p. 224.