March 24, 2013 – Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is a bitter-sweet day in the liturgical calendar. We want to welcome Jesus with cheers and not think too much about what’s coming on Friday. Those who don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday experience jump from “Hosanna!” to “He is risen!” without the Last Supper, praying in the Garden, trial and crucifixion. The seemingly anonymous overseers of the liturgical calendar have tried to remedy this by inserting Passion Sunday to focus on the events around Jesus’ crucifixion either the fifth or sixth Sundays in Lent. Few churches want to give up Palm Sunday festivities on the sixth Sunday, and observing crucifixion on the fifth Sunday, a week before Palm Sunday, is disturbingly out of rhythm.
I have heard plenty of Palm Sunday sermons about fickle people who shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” on Good Friday. Unique among the Gospels, Luke is clear that these were two different groups. Vocabulary that is apparent throughout Luke becomes blatant from Palm Sunday through Good Friday. Luke calls those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday “the people” or “the disciples,” meaning all of his followers not just the Twelve. And Luke calls the mob that cried for his crucifixion “the crowd.” Our English translations don’t always make this as clear as it is in Greek.
While John 12:12 emphasized that pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for Passover went out to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday, Luke emphasized those who had followed Jesus from Galilee and witnessed his deeds of power shouted praises as they approached Jerusalem. This is not a conflict but the bitter-sweet way Luke 19:29-44 sets the stage for Jesus’ response as he came around the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry concludes the transition we have been watching through Lent from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to his destiny with the cross in Jerusalem. In this space, Jesus was teaching on the go and had become increasingly pointed, foreshadowing the climatic confrontation with the Temple leadership in Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.”35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,42saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
For Luke, the bitter-sweet of Palm Sunday was not fickle people but that Jesus’ disciples enthusiastically shouting his praises, oblivious to his weeping over Jerusalem. Contemplating this incongruity opens a vista into our spaces between humiliation and exaltation, where we can listen for the voice of God to identify our growth zones.
Matthew 21:5 quotes Zechariah 9:9 to specify that Jesus purposely chose to ride a donkey as a sign of humiliation. Jesus presented himself, not as a conquering hero on a white horse but as a servant riding a beast of burden.
In the midst of the exhilarating exaltation of the cheers of his disciples, Jesus was insulted by the Pharisees. Even deeper, his humiliation was knowing that he would not be recognized by the Temple leaders in Jerusalem. He wept for the fate of Jerusalem. If only they recognized him!
In that space between humiliation and exaltation, Jesus yearned for the people of Jerusalem, and I believe for us to identify where we are growing in the things that make for peace: faith and harmony with God.
Philippians 2:5-11 is clearly a hymn of the New Testament Church. Scholars speculate whether Paul inserted a known hymn to make his point or whether he composed it himself. I’m inclined to think Paul used something the Philippian church already sang in worship, but I don’t think it matters. But recognizing how Paul introduced this exquisitely theological praise is critical. “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul is purposely practical!
Jesus leads the way for us through humiliation to exaltation. When you think you deserve some respect or appreciation, remember you are following the one who emptied himself of divine prerogatives to ride a donkey to the cross, weeping, not for himself but for people who couldn’t recognize the things that made for peace.
In your spaces between humiliation and exaltation, how can you listen for the voice of God to identify your growth zones? We may squirm, but these are not deficiencies as much as the zones where the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to grow. Do you feel your hackles coming up when someone challenges you? Maybe it’s when you’re sure you’re right and someone else tells you that they’re sure you’re wrong. Maybe it when you’ve made a decision that affects other people and someone questions your right or authority to make that decision. Behind the noise of your own heart, can you hear the whisper of Jesus saying, “Here is where you are growing now”?
Much has been made of Pope Francis being the first Latin American Pope, the first Jesuit Pope and the first Pope to choose the name Francis. Francis of Assisi never aspired to be a parish priest or bishop, much less a Pope. In fact, he clashed with Popes. Yet in 1208 Pope Innocent III had a dream of the Church sliding off its foundations, stopped by the little monk, Francis. You can see Giotto’s fresco of that dream with the QR code or web address on the back of the bulletin. Francis refused to be called the leader of the Friars Minor, “Little Brothers.” We know them as the Franciscans. Francis would have been horrified to have something named after him. He even refused to be the leader of the band of 12 brothers with whom he lived and served. Though others recorded some of Francis’ sermons, teachings and prayers (some of which are more legendary than historical), he never wrote with the idea of leaving a legacy. Nevertheless, Francis is one of the most influential Christian since the apostolic age. While claimed by Roman Catholics, Protestants and even non-Christians love Francis. Legend has it that in 1219, during the 5th Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines for an audience with the Sultan of Egypt who is reported to have said, “If more Christian were like Francis, I would consider becoming one.”
For centuries the Jesuits and Franciscans have been rivals, making Pope Francis’ choice of that name extraordinary. Pope Francis’ recent symbolic gestures and statements suggest he aspires to emulate Francis of Assisi. How that unfolds remains to be seen. But Francis of Assisi shows us the journey through humiliation to exaltation.
From Luke’s bitter-sweet account of Palm Sunday, as you join the cheers of the multitude of Jesus’ disciples, can you also watch Jesus weeping and hear him whisper, “These things make for peace. You are growing here.”