Processional Reading: John 12:12-19
12The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15“Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
First Reading: Deuteronomy 32:36-39
36“For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free. 37Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, 38who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection! 39See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.’”
19Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord. 20“This is the gate of the Lord; he who is righteous may enter.” 21I will give thanks to you, for you answered me and have become my salvation. 22The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. 25Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. 26Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord. 27God is the Lord; he has shined upon us; form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar. 28“You are my God, and I will thank you; you are my God, and I will exalt you.” 29Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.
Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11
5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Gospel: Luke 22:66 – 23:25
66When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, 67“If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, 68and if I ask you, you will not answer. 69But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” 70So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” 71Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”
231Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.” 6When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. 13Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16I will therefore punish and release him.” 18But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas” — 19a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.
Palm Sunday, a Day of Contrasts
Over the years, the tradition of how we celebrate this particular Sunday changes. Some congregations and pastors will focus solely on the Triumphal entry of Jesus, thus the designation Palm Sunday. For these congregations, it’s celebrated as almost a mini-Easter — a prelude to the ultimate celebration of the Resurrection. And then there’s the other side of today. The passion side of this Sunday is focused more on the Last Supper, the betrayal, arrest, the brutal treatment, and the ultimate crucifixion of Jesus, thus the Passion of Christ. When celebrated as Palm Sunday, the focus is on waving palm branches, of joy, and of singing “Hosannas.” Whereas Passion Sunday makes the day more like the prelude to Good Friday – a day of somber reflection, on the suffering and passion, of our Lord. The fact is, both these celebrations for today are appropriate.
Therefore, today is, above all days, a day of contrasts, a day of opposites! It’s a day of opposite moods – of joy and grief. It’s a day of opposite motifs – a “theology of the Cross,” and a “theology of glory.” It’s a day of opposite and mixed messages. On the one hand, we celebrate the uplifting and comforting message that we will be with Jesus around the table in His kingdom (Luke 22:30); but on the other hand, we’re reminded that Jesus came to rock the boat, that Jesus came to “stir people up with His teachings,” that Jesus brings both peace and a sword (Luke 22:36). In reality, both the Triumphal Entry and the Passion of Jesus, was a seven-day period that changed the world.
Thus, these seven days have been the topic of a million publications, countless debates, and thousands of films. These seven days have inspired renowned painters, skilled architects, and gifted musicians. To try and calculate the cultural impact of these seven days is impossible. But harder still, would be an attempt to account for the lives of men and women who have been transformed by them. And yet, these same seven days, as they played out in Jerusalem at that time, were of little significance to anyone but a few people involved. So, what really happened on those seven days? To summarize:
1. On Sunday, the first of the seven days, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of Hosanna, fulfilling an old prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.
2. On Monday, He walked into the Temple drove out the animals and overturned tables where money exchange occurred. Roman drachmas were being exchanged for Jewish shekels since Roman coins were not allowed in the Temple since the image of Caesar was a violation of the second commandment. But the Temple authorities were using the Commandment to cheat the people, thus making the Temple a place of profit rather than a place of prayer.
3. On Tuesday, Jesus taught in parables, warning the people against the Pharisees, and predicted the destruction of the Temple.
4. On Wednesday, day four, we know nothing. The Gospel writers are silent. Perhaps it was a day of rest for Jesus and His weary and worried disciples.
5. On Thursday, in an upper room, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples. But He gave it a new meaning. No longer would His followers remember the Exodus from Egypt in the breaking of bread. They would remember His body given and His shed blood. Later that evening in the Garden of Gethsemane He agonized in prayer at what lay ahead for Him.
6. On Friday, day five, following His betrayal, arrest, imprisonment, desertion, false trials, denial, condemnation, beatings and sentencing, Jesus carried His own cross to “The Place of the Skull,” where He was crucified with two other prisoners.
7. On Saturday, Jesus lay dead in a tomb bought by a rich man named Joseph.
8. On Sunday, day seven, His Passion was over, the stone was rolled away. Jesus was alive. He appeared to Mary, to Peter, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the 11 disciples gathered in a locked room. His resurrection was established as a fact.
For the Jewish people, then as now, these seven days are called Passover. And for Christians around the world, we know these seven days as Holy Week, the Passion of the Christ. Yet sadly, for a great many in our culture, the emotion, pain, and passion of the crucifixion of Jesus has been lost. Let me further explain. The next time you go into a Christian bookstore, look for artwork that depicts the death of Jesus. Little, if any of it, will reflect the horror of the crucifixion. If you do find a piece of art that reflects the piercing of Jesus’ side, it will probably be a trickle of blood. This is not the reality that St. John records; “One of the soldiers stabbed him in the side with his spear. Blood and water gushed out (John 19:34).” Watch any of the Hollywood produced films of the past.
None, save one, do justice to the painful death on a Roman cross as mentioned in Scripture: “Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46). Rarely in artwork, film, or sculptures will there be evidence of the beating at the hand of the cruel Roman leader Pilate, who had Jesus flogged (John 19:1).” History records that Roman floggings, with lead-tipped whips, were so severe that sometimes the victim would die before they were crucified. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a depiction of what’s recorded in Matthew. The Gospel records that when Pilate’s soldiers mocked Jesus putting a staff in his right hand, (meant to be a king’s scepter), they then took it from Him and struck Him on the head with it “again and again.”
A moment ago, I mentioned that there is one film that is the exception to all this, The Passion of Christ. If you’ve ever seen this film, you know why the movie was rated R. And based on the description given of these events, the Gospels themselves should probably be rated R. Sadly, we’ve sanitized the crucifixion so we can hang pictures on our walls and show it to our children. All in all, the death of Jesus was a horribly violent event. But the violence and realism isn’t the great achievement of Gibson’s film, rather, its greatest achievement is the showing of the redeeming power of love.
As you watch Jesus’ body being cruelly abused, you see there’s more to the event then violence. The movie captures the fact that Jesus was acting on our behalf, out of sacrificial love, which hopefully makes you want to act sacrificially. With all this in mind, it would be good for us to take a few moments to examine these seven days and see how it all began.
It was Sunday, the first day in Passover. Jesus is preparing to make His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It was a strange kind of a day, a day of contrasts: of climax and anti-climax, of fulfillment and frustration; of hosannas and tears, of tragedy and triumph. And in a way, Palm Sunday, this Triumphant entry into the city, was tragedy. I say it was a tragedy because excitement was running high, as it always did, at the time of such festivals as the Passover. But the natural excitement was heightened by this procession, this strange entourage that wound its way toward the city gates. There, at the head, rode a quiet figure of a man on a donkey. All about Him the crowds gathered, curious at first, but soon they were shouting and singing and turning Jerusalem upside.
As Jesus entered the ancient city, the crowds went wild with cheering. There were shouts of, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. People grabbed anything they could get their hands on. They tore palm branches from trees. They pulled the clothes off their back. They laid them in His path as a kind of regal carpet. The shouts of hosanna, which meant “save now,” grew louder. The green palms waved more and more frantically. Something tremendous was about to happen.
Singing, shouting confidently, the crowd swept through the city gates and finally stopped on the plaza in front of the Temple, the most sacred of shrines. There, Jesus dismounted. It was a fitting and appropriate place for Jesus to make His big move. The crowd, tense with anticipation, watched His every move. Some of them glanced toward heaven, looking for a sign; after all, was this not the Messiah, the Chosen One, for whom legions of angels would descend from heaven and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. How can you and I possibly imagine the sensation that these people were feeling?
We could possibly compare it to the allied armies marching victoriously into Paris and throwing off the cruel yoke of Nazi oppression, or we could compare it to the 3rd Infantry Division rumbling into Baghdad during Desert Storm. Jesus was suddenly seen as a one-man liberation army that had marched right into the heart of Jerusalem, right into the midst of these poor troubled peoples groveling under the yoke of pagan Rome. This was the moment that had kept their faith alive throughout the centuries. This had been their hope. This moment had been the inspiration of their worship. They suddenly saw Jesus as the right man at right time.
Then the moment that everyone had been waiting for came. Jesus entered the temple. The crowd grew quiet, only a low murmuring could be heard, as all eyes focused upon the Nazarene. Time passed and an uneasy restlessness came over the crowd. What was Jesus going to do? St. Mark records that, He went into the temple, and when He looked around at everything, since the hour was already late, he went out again.” That was it. He went into the Temple, He looked around, turned, and walked back out. Jesus, to the shock of the people, did absolutely nothing.
The crowd, I’m sure, was stunned. Perhaps no event in history has built up to a greater anti-climax than Palm Sunday. Then, slowly, one by one, the crowd began to melt away. All that was left was this kind of eerie silence and this empty feeling in the heart. That was the end of their singing and shouting, the hosannas, the waving of palms. Something quite obviously had failed to transpire. It was a tremendous buildup to an equally tremendous let down.
In the centuries of retelling the story of Palm Sunday, it seems that we so often miss the point, that to the people of first century Palestine, the events of that day fell like one big thud. In their eyes Jesus had failed to exploit this one great moment in history. And yes, many of them must have felt betrayed. One by one they left the scene, terribly disillusioned with the One whom they thought would be their exalted leader.
The crowds wanted a winner; Jesus had other plans. And this is the tragedy of Palm Sunday, and it sets the tone for what we now call His Passion. There were two expectations being played out. Two storylines occurred: the hopes of the people were one, and the Passion of the Christ was the other. The hopes and dreams of the people could not be matched with those of Jesus. The two goals were mutually exclusive. To pursue a king’s crown would defeat the purpose of the cross. To pursue the sacrificial cross would preclude any chance at a crown. Thus, we have the Passion. So what then does it mean?
Why do we call it the Passion? To better understand this, we must go back several years to the old meaning of the word. At one time the word meant the sufferings of a martyr. So quite simply, it means the sufferings of the Christ. Here Jesus stands before this throng of people who are looking to Him for leadership. They have just celebrated a kind of King’s reception with the donkey, the palm branches, throwing their robes to the ground in humble subjection to this king. And He knew He must disappoint them.
He knew He must walk away, or they would try to follow through with the ceremonies and pronounce Him king. So begins the sufferings, or the Passion, of the Christ. The crowds would begin to turn against Him because of their disappointment over this incident. And for that reason, Palm Sunday was not His triumph, but His tragedy. But for you and me, we know that Palm Sunday was indeed a triumph. It marked the triumph of love over hate; what the people wanted was a war, what mankind received was sacrifice.
It marked the victory of God in human affairs. God’s affairs triumphed over human affairs. Because we cannot reach up to God, God ,in grace, came to us. God is not above it all, He’s in the midst of it all. And because of His presence among us, there is forever a triumph of love over hate, of life over death.
A number of years ago, Newsweek magazine carried the story of the memorial service held for Hubert Humphrey, former vice-president of the United States. Hundreds of people came from all over the world to say good-bye to their old friend and colleague. But one person who came was shunned and ignored by virtually everyone there. Nobody would look at him, much less speak to him. That person was former president Richard Nixon. Not long before, he had gone through the shame and infamy of Watergate. He was back in Washington for the first time since his resignation from the presidency.
Then a very special thing happened, perhaps the only thing that could have made a difference and broken the ice. President Jimmy Carter, who was in the White House at that time, came into the room. Before he was seated, he saw Nixon over against the wall, all by himself. He went over to [him] as though he were greeting a family member, stuck his hand out to the former president, and smiled broadly. To the surprise of everyone there, the two of them embraced each other, and Carter said, “Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!”
Commenting on that, Newsweek magazine asserted, “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.” The turning point for us is Palm Sunday. It’s our moment of triumph. It was a triumph because Jesus decided to ignore our miserable state and act in our behalf. He chose to ignore the crowd’s version of Palm Sunday and go with His.
No matter what we’ve done; compromised our principles, sold out to the expediency of the moment, given in to sin, God comes into our world and welcomes us home. We may not deserve to be there, but He welcomes us just the same. If there ever was a turning point of our long ordeal in the wilderness. This is it! The tragedy of their misunderstanding is our triumph. So let’s wave our palms, even as we ponder the sufferings and death of Jesus. When we do, we can then celebrate the ultimate triumph, Jesus taking on our sin in His death on the Cross, and of the defeat of death in His resurrection.