“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” – Matthew 21:9
Today is the beginning of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, a day where we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with adoring crowds waving palm fronds, shouts of Hosanna, a procession fit for a King. We began today with the joy of Palm Sunday, waving our palms singing our coronation songs just as the crowds did in our first Gospel reading today. And why wouldn’t they? The crowds in Jerusalem who were there for Jesus’ entry into the city, were expecting a King, they were expecting a Messiah, someone to overthrow the Roman oppressors, a King to rival the power and might of Caesar and bring the days of prosperity and glory back to the nation of Israel. Jesus seemed to fit the bill – he preached about the coming of God’s Kingdom, he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, he miraculously fed the hungry, John the Baptist had even hinted that Jesus was the Messiah. Up to this point in the story Jesus’ ministry had been concentrated in the regions around the sea of Galilee, and so this was Jesus’ coming out party his entry onto to the grand stage of Jerusalem’s complex religio-political scene. The crowds were clamouring for and rejoicing in their mighty saviour – Hosanna literally means ‘save us’. The crowd expected their salvation was at hand, God was on the move and the Romans would be out in no time!
All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” – Matthew 27:22
While we do celebrate Palm Sunday this morning, today is also Passion Sunday, where we heard read the full story of Jesus’ trial and execution. Today we heard the same crowds who had shouted hosanna a week before, who had shouted with joy that their salvation was at hand, shouting in anger and hatred for him to be crucified. After the joy and glory of the palms, we are given a glimpse of the action ahead, we are primed for the events of Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ betrayal and the events of Good Friday and Jesus’ execution. There is a seeming disjunction between the emotions and symbolism of Jesus’ triumphant entry on Palm Sunday and his shameful march out of Jerusalem to the Cross: we have traded in that joy and celebration for the sorrow and despair of the Crucifixion.
I must admit that for the longest time the mix of Palm and Passion Sunday seemed to me an odd choice: we should stick to one or another – either the joy of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem or the pain and sorrow of his Passion. We will after all recount again his death on Friday, so why do we do it today? At my most cynical level, we recount Jesus’ death today for those people who will not be with us on Good Friday – so that the celebration of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection next Sunday is set within the context of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. While this might be sufficient to explain having Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together, I believe there is something more important going on today as we deal with the conflicting emotions and symbolism of the two passages from our Gospel reading.
Today we are given two different tableaus of the nature of Truth and of Kingship: In our reading for Palm Sunday we are treated to what the world expects of a King, even if Jesus doesn’t fit the description – the crowds worship and adore Jesus, they shout for joy because they believe their salvation is at hand, they can taste the defeat of their enemies, they can envision Jesus gathering a powerful army and marching on Jerusalem to defeat the Romans, or use his extraordinary cosmic power to miraculously restore Israel to greatness. Great kings or leaders of the world are powerful, they wield mighty armies, their rule is extended and exercised through strength and by the fear of their enemies. While we might believe that we have progressed beyond this seemingly primitive and barbaric ideal of leadership to a more just and equitable vision, the reality is that the same is true today: even in our democratic age of governance the world celebrates and lifts up leaders who are powerful, powerful in terms of their wealth, their influence, the might of their armies. While we might not see Kings lifted up because of their strength of arms, is it any better that our world’s vision of leadership rests with those who are powerful in terms of wealth and economic control?
In our reading for Passion Sunday, and over the course of the coming week we are treated to God’s vision of Kingship and Truth: Kingship and Truth unlike anything the world can envision. The joyful parade of Palm Sunday is traded in for Jesus’ shameful march to the Cross; the shouts of adulation and Hosanna are traded in for hatred and ‘Crucify him!’ Crucify him!’; the cloaks covering the ground in honour are traded in for the purple cloak and crown of thorns placed on Jesus by the mocking soldiers; the celebratory and supple palms are traded in for the torturous whip and the hard nails that crucify him.
This is the coronation of God’s King, this is God’s vision of what leadership and Truth really look like: embodied in the
broken, twisted body of Jesus upon the Cross, betrayed and alone, raising no hand or word in his on defence – that is our true king. True kingship is not about power, and might, but about being a servant to all – about sacrifice for the sake of others. Today as we grapple with the disjunction of the joy of story of Palm Sunday and the pain and suffering of Passion of Jesus, we are confronted with the fact that God’s truth is different than the truth our world holds, that God’s truth is different than our truth. Is it any wonder we can feel out of place on this day where this reality is exposed so clearly in the two stories from the Gospel?
And so on this Palm and Passion Sunday, God’s truth about true Kingship – kingship that is rooted in service to others and self-sacrifice – should give us pause to examine our priorities, examine who’s truth governs our lives, examine who’s truth governs the decisions we as a church, both here as Grace but also the wider Church make. Do our lives reflect the King who gives his life for us? Do the decisions we make as a church on how we spend our money, how we minister in our community, how we relate to one another, reflect the truth of the King who suffered beatings, humiliation and death so that we might have life? Do the decisions we make as a denomination, or as a global church reflect more the truth of our world than the eternal truth of the Crucified King? Are we more ‘conformed to the world’ than transformed by the renewing of our minds as Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans?
I think in some ways we as disciples, as a church, as a diocese, a denomination are more comfortable in the truth the world offers us, a truth which seems easier, a truth which is more comfortable since it fits in with the world around us. In many ways we have allowed our culture to dictate our truth – money is the ultimate marker of value, sex is merely for self-gratification, marriage and family life are no longer a gift from God, the individual and their wants and desires are the most important considerations for our world and on and on. We as a Church are called to a deeper Truth, a truth that is rooted in the self-sacrifice and pain and suffering of the Cross; a truth that will likely come with pain and suffering for us as we walk the path of discipleship; a truth that rejects the expectations and valuations of the world and opens for us the path to life eternal and abundant life in God’s Kingdom both here and now and forever; a truth that does not enforce, or demand, but which offers an alternate vision of the world in love and mercy; we are called to a truth that puts the needs of others: of the poor, the marginalized, the widows, the orphans before our own.
This is truth which the King we worship today offers. He doesn’t defeat Sin and death by the power of his armies or the strength of his arm – instead our Lord and King stretches his arms upon the Cross and bears the full weight of death, so that each of us have the opportunity to choose life.
As we begin the holiest of weeks this year, I pray that we may all come to know the true King, I pray that we may all be convicted of the ways that we choose the world’s truth over God’s truth, and I pray that we might know the life that God promises to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Choose life, worship your King – even if the world around us mocks and humiliates us. Let us pray.