Melancholy Messiah (sermon 3/20/16 – Palm Sunday)

palm sunday processsion

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “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. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As 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, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” – Luke 19:28-40

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Palm Sunday is always one of the most enjoyable Sundays of the year. With the added fun of the children processing in with palms, and the joyful spirit of a lot of the music typically performed on Palm Sunday, it’s definitely one of my favorite worship services, and I suspect it’s probably one of yours, too.

The gospel text is also one of my favorite stories to try to insert myself into, to walk around within it and try to experience it through the eyes of the people involved in the story. And what a story it is. Just imagine it unfolding. First, there are the two disciples who are sent out to commandeer some transportation for Jesus, and when the donkey’s owner asked the two what they were doing walking off with his animal, they just told him “Oh, the Lord needs it.” I have to admit that if it were me, I’d have probably said something along the lines of, well if the Lord needs it, he could darned well buy it, or keep on walking. However that part of the story actually played out, move forward to the scene of Jesus now about to set out from Bethany on his way into Jerusalem – a fairly short trip, just about two miles in total. Imagine Jesus, sitting on the back of this ridiculously small animal, his legs practically dragging on the ground, looking more like an adult on a kiddie ride at the amusement park than the messiah come to save the people of Israel. And yet, even given that somewhat unimpressive image, the people are ecstatic, shouting in joy, laying cloaks and branches out in front of him the way they would for a king or a victorious general coming home from a battle, shouting out verses of scripture referring to the coming messiah – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna – save us, save us!”

And Jesus starts out from Bethany, and he follows the narrow road leading downward and curving along the edge of the Mount of Olives, and looking straight ahead on the next rise in the landscape, he sees the entire city of Jerusalem laid out in front of him – all of the hustle and bustle of the city, now more than doubled in size with all of the pilgrims there for the Passover, full of activity and Roman soldiers out in the streets to keep order, and straight ahead is the Temple and its walled outer courts, dwarfing everything else in the city.

What must Jesus have been thinking as he rode along, knowing what was about to unfold? Knowing that all these people who were in that moment singing his praises and loving him and thinking he was the greatest thing since sliced bread, in just a short while would all reject him. They’d toss him out like last week’s newspaper, some would curse him, some would even yell “Crucify! Crucify!” when Jesus didn’t act the way they’d expected once he hit town, and they’d all run off to look for the next would-be messiah. I can only imagine that there were mixed feelings. Feelings of despair over the fate that he knew was about to befall him. Feelings of sadness, and no doubt even anger and some sense of betrayal, over the fickle loyalties of those people surrounding him. But along with those feelings, and I think surpassing them, were feelings of compassion and love for them. He would go into the city, where for several chapters of the gospel now people had been warning him not to, that he’d be arrested and killed if he did; and he would do what he had to do, and not just what they wanted him to do, because he loved them all too much not to. If he didn’t love them, well, Jesus was a smart man. I imagine he’d have turned the donkey around, never gone into town, and headed over the horizon in the opposite direction. Maybe just find a nice quiet job somewhere working construction, or as a fisherman, and settle down into a simple but stable life, maybe even raise a family. Despite what must have been a very real temptation for him in that moment, he kept riding forward, in the midst of the cheers and the celebration, into the city.

Frederick Buechner wrote that despair and hope both rode together into Jerusalem that day – just as despair and hope travel together on every road that we take ourselves. Despair at what in our own craziness we bring down on our own heads in life, or what’s dropped on our heads due to the craziness of others; but also hope in the one who travels the road with us, and who’s the only one of us all who isn’t crazy. Our hope is in the one who gave us the greatest gift in spite of ourselves and our pre-set expectations of the way he should go about things, the gift of showing us that the power of self-giving love is more powerful than anything else the world can offer as a substitute. We carry the hope that by the grace of God the impossible will happen, and that this one who rode into the city on a donkey will ride into our hearts too, and that because of it, we’ll know true peace – peace in our hearts and peace in the world. That’s surely a hope worth singing and dancing, and waving branches, and shouting for joy over.

Thanks be to God.

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2 thoughts on “Melancholy Messiah (sermon 3/20/16 – Palm Sunday)

  1. I used to love Palm Sunday, before it started morphing into Palm/Passion Sunday and getting dark before I’m ready. I like spreading it out! Thanks so much for sharing your Palm Sunday sermon here. Good thoughts to ponder.

    Have you read Borg/Crossan’s “The Last Week”? It gets even more interesting when you juxtapose Jesus’ entry on a colt by one gate, while the Roman ruler enters on a stallion through the other gate. Quite a statement.

    • I haven’t read that book, but a few years ago I did a Palm Sunday sermon examining that same juxtaposition. It is a striking political statement, which all too often is missed, unintentionally or otherwise.

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