Sermon for Williamstown
13th of April 2014
So, here we are at Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem to choruses of praise and a crowd going wild. Rather than entering as most pilgrims do, on foot, Jesus enters riding a donkey. The people cut down branches and place them before him, spreading their cloaks on the road, one of the ways the people of Israel had traditionally acclaimed their kings. They greet him as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. They shout ‘Hosanna’, a cry previously addressed to King David. In all this the people welcome Jesus with euphoria as a prophet and king.
What do we do with all this jubilation at the beginning of Holy Week? We’re still in Lent, the period of penitence and preparation that began with Ash Wednesday and the reminder of our deaths. Our churches are still bare of flowers; the Christ candle is still unlit. We are entering the period of Christ’s passion, following him on the journey that will lead to the cross. In between the reminder of our deaths on Ash Wednesday and the commemoration of Christ’s death on Good Friday, where does the celebration of Palm Sunday fit? How can we understand the crowd that acclaims their king today and calls for his crucifixion on Good Friday? Today is sometimes celebrated as ‘Passion Sunday,’ with an emphasis on the suffering that Jesus will undergo on his way to the cross, and that seems to make more sense as an introduction to Holy Week. In the light of all that will follow it, what does Palm Sunday mean?
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is an acted parable; an act of political street theatre. He is carefully stage-managing the entry to show the sort of Messiah that he is. The beginning of today’s reading is taken up with the mechanics of organising Jesus’ entrance: Jesus sending two disciples to the village ahead of him to find a donkey and a colt; telling the disciples to untie them and bring them to him, and to answer any questions by saying ‘The Lord needs them.’ The disciples do as Jesus tells them, and with the donkey and the colt Jesus is ready to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. But he fulfils the prophecy in his own particular way. Zechariah had prophesied that the king of Jerusalem would enter the city ‘humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ And this is what Jesus does. But Zechariah also said that the king would enter ‘triumphant and victorious’, having ‘cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem’. Matthew deliberately edits the prophecy to emphasise the sort of king that Jesus is, gentle and peaceful. Jesus enters the city as its ruler, to acclamation. But he enters it humbly – not as a warrior. This acted parable is almost a parody of a Roman imperial procession, with its war chariots and blaring trumpets, its great generals and accompanying slaves. The true king shows an alternate vision, a different way of exercising power, with humility and gentleness. And on this day the crowds respond to that vision – no wonder the powers that be are threatened.
Jesus is going to die on the cross as ‘King of the Jews’. The excitement of Palm Sunday makes his royal status public. This is the King, the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, entering the city of David. The crowds describe him as ‘the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,’ which, given the homage offered to prophets like Moses, doesn’t diminish his royal status – it merely acknowledges that Jesus’ reputation has preceded him. Joy and jubilation greet Jesus the king. But the only throne he will find in royal David’s city will be the cross. The city that welcomes him today will refuse to accept Jesus as king. The crowds will turn: from crying out ‘Hosanna’ they will call out ‘Let him be crucified’.
Even at the triumphant entrance there are hints that all will not be well; Matthew tells us that ‘the whole city was in turmoil’ and the word he uses means stirred or shaken, as by an earthquake. This is the same reaction that the city had to the news of the birth of the king of the Jews that the magi brought so many years ago. Then, the news that shook the city led to the death of all the baby boys under two and the flight of Joseph and his family from Herod. Then, the baby King of the Jews escaped death. Now, the news that stirs the city will lead to the death of the king. And yet Jesus still enters Jerusalem, making his claim upon it, willingly going towards his death.
How could the crowds turn like that? On Palm Sunday the church relishes being part of the crowd that shouts ‘Hosanna’. We, too, acclaim Jesus as our king. We’re not quite so quick to identify with the crowd that shouts: ‘Crucify him’. And yet if we see ourselves in the crowd that acclaims Jesus, we must also see ourselves in the crowd that seeks to crucify him. It is the same people who praise and reject Jesus. We are those people, too, every day of our lives; the people who acknowledge Christ as the king, the only authority over our lives, the one we praise and acclaim; and the people who reject him, who refuse to follow him, who turn instead to the authority of Rome and the Temple hierarchy. So, today we rejoice; on Good Friday we will mourn and acknowledge all the ways we turn from God.
Today isn’t just a day for celebrating Jesus’ kingship in church. It’s also a very good day to take to the streets and acknowledge Jesus’ rule over every part of our lives. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was a piece of political street theatre; he was acting out a parody of a Roman imperial procession; the message of his entry was that here was the true king, whose authority was greater than that of the Temple or of Rome, greater than both Church and State –for all these reasons Palm Sunday is a particularly suitable day for Christians to be involved political protests. When I was a young adult Palm Sunday Peace Marches were an important part of Holy Week. Today we have been invited to join the Rally for Refugees as part of our celebration of Palm Sunday.
In both the Church Newsletter and last month’s Crosslight you’ll have read what Garry Deverell has to say about this, and he says it better than me, so I’m going to quote him: “Palm Sunday represents an invitation to all people, whether they are Christian or not, to self-examination. Are we really a people of justice and peace, or do we actually pursue lifestyles that undermine the coming of these realities into our world? … Palm Sunday is also an opportunity to reflect on the forgiveness and grace at the centre of all things, a power which is able to put aside even the very worst that human beings can do to one another and create the possibility of a new world, a world where justice and peace can find a permanent home … It is not surprising therefore that there is a well-established tradition of public marches and rallies for peace and justice on Palm Sunday. We can hope and pray for deep congruence between our participation in the liturgical life of our congregation on Palm Sunday morning; and ‘taking to the streets’ to advocate for justice and compassion towards refugees and asylum seekers.”
One of the things we celebrate at Easter is the ultimate victory of justice and peace over hatred and violence. But we only get to Easter by walking with Jesus step by step on his journey to the Cross, recognising all the violence that human beings can inflict on each other. Today, Palm Sunday, is a good day to commit ourselves to following Jesus as our king, and to pursuing justice and peace. The rally this afternoon is one of the ways we can do that. There are many others. But in everything we do, let’s try our best to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, acknowledging Christ alone as the ruler of our lives. Amen.