Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
5th of April, 2020
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 special offering of respect to the one who saves. The people welcome Jesus with euphoria as a prophet and King.
Today is normally a great day of celebration for the Australian church. After five weeks of Lent Palm Sunday offers us a reprieve from the solemnity, penitence, and preparation that began with Ash Wednesday and the reminder of our deaths. While churches are still bare of flowers, and Christ candle is still unlit, palm crosses are usually made and blessed, and congregations often process with palm branches and singing. In a normal year all of this can seem a little incongruous, on the verge of Holy Week, as we are about to commemorate Jesus’ death on Good Friday. We are puzzled by a crowd that acclaims their King today and calls for his crucifixion a few days later. Today is sometimes celebrated instead as ‘Passion Sunday,’ with an emphasis on the suffering that Jesus will undergo on his way to the cross, which seems to make more sense as an introduction to Holy Week than the celebration of Palm Sunday.
This year everything is different. There can be no gathering of crowds, no waving of palms, no celebratory processions. There can be no ‘Walk for Justice for Refugees’, which churches and community groups have held on this Sunday for years as our government’s attacks on people seeking asylum have got worse. We are seeing a very different Palm Sunday, a much more subdued one than we would normally experience. But its importance, its message, remains the same.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is an acted parable; an act of political street theatre. He carefully stage-manages his entry to show the people the sort of Messiah that he is. In doing this, Jesus is drawing on a prophecy from the Book of Zechariah of the King’s triumph over the nations:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your King comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (9:9-10)
The beginning of today’s gospel 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, 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’. In his telling of Jesus’ entrance into the city Matthew deliberately edits Zechariah’s 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.
It is not only Jewish expectations of the Messiah that Jesus is subverting here. His entrance, his acted parable, is also a parody of a Roman imperial procession, with its war chariots and blaring trumpets, its great generals and accompanying slaves. Here we see the true King showing an alternate vision to the Pax Romana, a different way of exercising power, with humility and gentleness. As the crowds respond to this vision it is no wonder the powers that be, both Jewish and Roman, 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. The Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, is 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 both 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.
Normally today I would be encouraging you to follow Jesus and his disciples by literally taking to the streets, acting out another parable that challenges and subverts the Powers-That-Be by calling on the Australian government to welcome asylum seekers and refugees, including those who come by boat. There is a long-standing tradition of Christians in Australia using Palm Sunday to say to the state: Jesus is the only King in our lives, and we must do what is right even if it is not politically popular. When I was young, we did this through peace marches; more recently we have called for justice for refugees and those seeking asylum. We cannot do that in person today, but we can do it virtually, by writing letters and sending emails. Most importantly during the COVID19 crisis, we can ask that asylum seekers be released from detention, where it is impossible to self-isolate, and for government support to be offered to the asylum seekers on bridging visas. COVID19 makes it more vital that we care for asylum seekers and refugees, not less. This pandemic means that we are all experiencing the isolation, uncertainty, and fear for the future that asylum seekers and refugees have been facing; maybe this shared experience can prompt the empathy that leads to change. Maybe we can learn that we are, truly, all in this together.
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. 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.
Note: We can’t take to the streets this year, but check out the Uniting Church’s ‘Rally for Refugees From Home’ here.