Palm Sunday and Holy Week: God’s Word for the Weary

Sermon delivered on Passion (Palm) Sunday A, April 9, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 21.1-11. Passion narrative: Matthew 26.14-27.66.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our OT lesson this morning, the so-called Servant—widely held by Christians to be Jesus—desires to faithfully preach the word of God to sustain the weary. But what does that look like and what does it have to do with our celebration of Passion Sunday today? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.

To help us understand what we’re dealing with, listen to this short list of news stories compiled from the past couple of days. Father Says Goodbye to His Baby Twins Killed in Syrian Attack. MIT Grad Arrested on Terror, WMD Charges. US Launches Missile Strikes on Syria Base Over Chemical Attack. 1 Dead, 2 Wounded After Shooting at Fitness Center in South Florida Mall. Terror in Stockholm: Four Dead as Hijacked Truck Plows Into Shoppers. Palm Sunday Bombings at Two Egyptian Churches kill at least 32. 11 Year-Old Boy Kills Himself in Response to Girlfriend’s Fake Suicide Prank on Social Media. I have to tell you. These stories and countless more like them make me weary. How about you? And they don’t even begin to address the things in our own lives that make us weary: life-threatening health issues with which we and/or our loved ones struggle, job and career struggles and uncertainties, chronic financial struggles that some of us face, fear of loneliness and broken relationships that don’t seem to get better. The list goes on and on. We see a world seemingly becoming more insane by the hour, not to mention parts of our lives that spin out of control with little or nothing we can do about it, and it makes us weary and afraid. When we get to this point in life—and all of us eventually do—we want to cry out to God for help. You’re all-powerful, God, so help us out here. Do something about the craziness in your world and in our lives and in ourselves!

Like us, God’s people Israel in Jesus’ day knew what it was like to be weary from evil and oppression and disorder in their lives. Their beloved land was occupied by hated foreigners. And while Solomon’s Temple, the very place where God chose to dwell with his people on earth, had been rebuilt, God had not returned to his people to live among them as promised. Neither had God’s promised Anointed One, God’s Messiah (or Christ) returned to lead God’s people. To top it all off, God’s people were assembling in Jerusalem for the great Passover festival that celebrated God’s mighty act of deliverance on behalf of his enslaved people in Egypt. Passover always raised people’s hopes and expectations that God would soon act on their behalf to expel the foreigners and restore right religious order in the land in preparation for God’s return to it.

St. Matthew wants us to see all this, of course, and like a good story teller, he lets the story itself convey his message. Jesus clearly saw himself as God’s Messiah, God’s anointed, who would lead God’s people and be their king. But not in the way the people expected. We see this in his choice to ride on a donkey and colt as he entered Jerusalem. As St. Matthew explains, this was to fulfill what the prophet Zechariah had written about how God’s promised Messiah would return to his people ahead of God’s return. In effect, God was promising his people that when his Messiah showed up, God wouldn’t be far behind, so it was time to get ready! And the people’s response clearly showed they understood the symbolism behind Jesus’s mode of entry into Jerusalem, or at least that he was proclaiming himself to be God’s Messiah. Their shouts of Hosanna to the Son of David (i.e., for the new king to save them from their occupiers), coupled with throwing their cloaks on the road and waving (presumably palm) branches, indicated that they understood something very special was happening. But did they really?

By choosing a donkey on which to enter Jerusalem instead of a warhorse, Jesus was proclaiming that he was not a Messiah who would be a conquering warrior. To be sure, Jesus did conquer Israel’s enemies that week, not to mention the world’s, but not in the way most of them or us expected. He conquered our enemies by shedding his blood for us in a way that helped fulfill the prophesy in our OT lesson this morning (cf. Isaiah 52.13-53.12). More about that in a moment. And while Jesus would clear the Temple later in the week, it was not for the reasons many of his contemporaries expected. As St. John makes clear in his gospel, this was the Word made flesh, God himself, returning to his people to announce that Jesus, instead of the Temple, would be the place to meet and know the One True and Living God. Astonishingly, God and Messiah were apparently one and the same! By his actions, Jesus was telling God’s people Israel that the Romans were not the real enemies. There were powers far more evil and sinister that had to be dealt with, and only he could do it because only he was God. Suffice it to say that this would not have been the word God’s weary people wanted to hear or what they were willing to believe. It would have violated their hopes and expectations to their very core.

Now if you want to have folks turn on you, and ferociously, all you need to do is to violate their deeply-held expectations. Do this and you can be assured that you will go from hero to villain in no time flat, and this is exactly what happened to Jesus. But violated expectations about Jesus are not unique to first-century Jews. They also apply to us. Like Jesus’ contemporaries, we cry out to the Lord to save us and our world and we expect him to answer in the way we want and demand because, well, we know better than Jesus. This is the challenge of Palm Sunday and Holy Week for us. Can we worship and follow a God and his Christ who constantly violate our expectations in how they should act to rescue us from the chaos and evil in God’s world, our lives, and ourselves? Will we let God’s word to us, spoken through an unfolding story, a story that reached its climax with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the subsequent events of Holy Week, be sufficient to relieve and sustain us in our weariness?

We would prefer God to bring in the tanks and destroy the forces of evil and their human minions, but God knows better because he knows evil runs through all of us. To destroy evil means God would have to destroy us and his entire creation because we are all that radically infected, and God simply won’t do that. So bringing in the tanks just won’t do. There has to be another way, a better way that shows God’s love for his world and its creatures, especially God’s image-bearing creatures. The better way, of course, was through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one way or another, the NT writers all insist that on the cross, God broke the power of Sin and Evil. As we have seen this Lent, the power of Sin—the outside, alien force that is greater than and hostile toward us—had to be broken and God did that by condemning Sin in the flesh through his Son (Romans 8.3-4), who willingly obeyed his Father’s will because both love us and hate what Sin and Evil have done to us. So God acted on our behalf in and through Christ to free us from the power of Sin and Evil, and to take his own good and just judgment of our individual sins on himself, thereby enacting the justice that is so necessary, thanks be to God!

But this is hard for us to believe because as our headlines scream out (not to mention the turmoil in our lives) the power of Evil, while broken, is not yet fully vanquished. That will have to wait until our Lord’s Second Coming. But the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death have been broken and defeated as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection (more about that next Sunday), and we are called to imitate our Lord in his suffering and humble obedience to the Father as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. We are to empty ourselves of our own false glory and live our lives in ways that show God’s glory revealed in his great love, mercy, compassion, and justice. In other words, we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow our Lord Jesus. Only then can we reflect God’s glory out into God’s world as we await our Lord’s return. It is a daunting task, precisely because it seems so counterintuitive to the ways of the world, and if we do not have real faith that begins to appropriate God’s strange and beautiful Truth contained in the events of Holy Week, we’ll never have the needed motivation to want to live this kind of life in the power of the Spirit.

This is why I appeal to you and exhort you to make the story of Holy Week your story first-hand. Come with our Lord to the Upper Room Thursday night where he will give his disciples a meal as the means to help them understand what his impending passion and death is all about. Watch with him in the garden as he struggles and shrinks from the gigantic task of allowing the powers of evil to do their worst to him, and the prospect of having to bear the judgment of God for the sins of the entire world, your sins and mine. Our own personal sins can be a terrible burden to us. Try to imagine having to bear the sins of the entire world. Come, therefore, and venerate the cross on Good Friday as you ponder and contemplate the death of the Son of God for your sake and the sake of the world. Such contemplation demands silence, desolation, and humility. Was there ever any suffering like our Lord’s (and if you answer no to this question, there’s a good chance you don’t really understand the magnitude of what happened on Good Friday)? Grieve with his first followers as they lay his tortured and crucified body in the tomb with no expectation of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the time to do just that, culminating with the Easter Vigil and the reading of the story of God’s salvation on Saturday evening. It simply won’t do to observe any of this from afar. It’s as unedifying as listening to one of Fr. Gatwood’s sermons. No, if you really love your Lord and have even an inkling as to what great love has effected your salvation and changed the course of history forever, how can you possibly stay away from our Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services? Easter Sunday will come with its great joy. But let none of us be too hasty to celebrate the great Paschal Feast without first pondering and agonizing and reflecting on the great and astonishing love of God that flows from God’s very heart as it was pierced by a Roman soldier’s spear. To be sure, it isn’t a pretty or fun thing to do. But if you commit yourself to walking with Jesus this Holy Week it will change you in ways you cannot imagine or envision, and for the good. It will change you because it is the Good News of our salvation, now and for all eternity. May we all observe a holy and blessed Holy Week together as God’s people at St. Augustine’s. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Prayer for Palm Sunday 2017

Almighty and everlasting God,
who in your tender love towards the human race
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our ?esh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Palm Sunday 2017: A 4th Century Account of How Palm Sunday was Celebrated

The following day, Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week, which they call here the Great Week. On this [Palm] Sunday morning, at the completion of those rites which are customarily celebrated at the Anastasis [the Lord’s tomb] or the Cross from the first cockcrow until dawn, everyone assembles for the liturgy according to custom in the major church, called the Martyrium. It is called the Martyrium because it is on Golgotha, behind the Cross, where the Lord suffered His Passion, and is therefore a shrine of martyrdom. As soon as everything has been celebrated in the major church as usual, but before the dismissal is given, the archdeacon raises his voice and first says: “Throughout this whole week, beginning tomorrow at the ninth hour [3pm], let us all gather in the Martyrium, in the major church.” Then he raises his voice a second time, saying: “Today let us all be ready to assemble at the seventh hour [1pm] at the Eleona.” When the dismissal has been given in the Martyrium or major church, the bishop is led to the accompaniment of hymns to the Anastasis, and there all ceremonies are accomplished which customarily take place every Sunday at the Anastasis [Church of the Holy Sepulcher] following the dismissal from the Martyrium. Then everyone retires home to eat hastily, so that at the beginning of the seventh hour everyone will be ready to assemble in the church on the Eleona, by which I mean the Mount of Olives, where the grotto in which the Lord taught is located.

At the seventh hour all the people go up to the church on the Mount of Olives, that is, to the Eleona. The bishop sits down, hymns and antiphons appropriate to the day and place are sung, and there are likewise readings from the Scriptures. As the ninth hour approaches, they move up, chanting hymns, to the Imbomon, that is, to the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven; and everyone sits down there. When the bishop is present, the people are always commanded to be seated, so that only the deacons remain standing. And there hymns and antiphons proper to the day and place are sung, interspersed with appropriate readings from the Scriptures and prayers.

As the eleventh hour [5pm] draws near, that particular passage from Scripture is read in which the children bearing palms and branches came forth to meet the Lord, saying: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The bishop and all the people rise immediately, and then everyone walks down from the top of the Mount of Olives, with the people preceding the bishop and responding continually with “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” to the hymns and antiphons. All the children who are present here, including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. From the top of the mountain as far as the city, and from there through the entire city as far as the Anastasis, everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence, reciting the responses all the while; and they move very slowly so that the people will not tire. By the time they arrive at the Anastasis, it is already evening. Once they have arrived there, even though it is evening, vespers is celebrated; then a prayer is said at the Cross and the people are dismissed.

—Egeria, Abbess, Pilgrimage

Palm Sunday 2017

He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us to himself, we are told in Scripture: “above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named,” now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He came without pomp or ostentation. Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.

—Andrew of Crete, Bishop, Sermon 9 for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday 2017: N.T. Wright on What Palm Sunday Means

r1405901_20102708The extraordinary twist in this story is that, having announced judgment upon Jerusalem for refusing God’s way of peace, Jesus went ahead, embodying simultaneously the love and the judgment of God himself, to suffer the Roman horror he had predicted for his people.

That dark royal story lies at the heart of all subsequent Christian understanding of the cross, though it is a truth so strange that few hymns or liturgies plumb its depths. Theseus and Oberon are one and the same. Good Friday, itself a form of Roman street theatre, was taken up paradoxically within God’s street theatre, the play within the play within the play that explains everything else.

But, even without that sequel, the questions of Palm Sunday itself force themselves upon us.

First, the questions of which story we are living in, and which king we are following, remain urgent within our culture. As our public institutions are less trusted than ever, and our behaviour at home and abroad is more confused than ever, the stories which used to make sense of our lives have let us down.

We thought we knew how the play worked: get rid of tyrants, and people will embrace democracy, peace, love and flower-power. How quickly things have moved from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The so-called Arab Spring has turned back to winter, as we have no idea what to do about Syria, about Israel/Palestine and, of course, about Ukraine. We have run out of stories, we have run out of kings of whatever kind; all we think we can do is trust the great god Mammon, as though our fragile economic half-recoveries would trickle out into the mountains of Syria or the deserts of South Sudan. Give me Psalm 72 any day.

But that’s where the second question comes in, a personal question. If the Palm Sunday street theatre means what Jesus meant, it challenges all his followers, then and now. The crowds may have been fickle, but they were not mistaken. The two on the road to Emmaus had hoped he would redeem Israel, and they were hoping for the right thing – God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, a this-worldly reign of justice and peace – but they had not glimpsed the means by which Jesus would bring it about. Right story, wrong king.

Sooner or later, this happens to all of us. We start out following Jesus because we think we know the story, we know what sort of king we want him to be – and then things go badly wrong, he doesn’t give us what we wanted, and we are tempted to wonder if we’ve been standing on the wrong side of town, watching the wrong procession.

Jesus warned us this would happen: we all have to live through a Holy Week, a Gethsemane, a Good Friday of one sort or another. That happens in personal life, in vocational life, as well as in public life.

Read it all.