Isaiah 50:4-9a; Luke 19:28-40
St Barbara’s 14.04.19
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I have a confession to make. I have never found the celebration of Palm Sunday easy. I feel awkward, uneasy about it.
Not because of the waving of palm crosses or the processing around the church, or the donkeys that turn up in other churches. I think it is good to express key moments of the church’s year physically as well as verbally, to do something different that marks out events as significant.
No. What I find difficult about Palm Sunday is that we identify with a crowd cheering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and yet, when a mere five days later, Jesus is led on his way to trial, the best we can say of them is that they have disappeared or gone hushly quiet. There is no-one shouting “Hosanna” or “blessed is the king” before Pilate – only the terrible cries of “crucify him! crucify him!” There are no crowds singing his praises, no people demanding his freedom and release, on Good Friday. The people of Palm Sunday seem as fickle as football supporters turning on a saviour manager who has just lost a few games.
So why do we mark this day? We don’t have a special service to mark Judas’ betrayal or Peter’s denials – two other high profile cases of assertions of faith followed by acts of abandonment – so why mark this day? What is there about this day that prepares us for what is to come?
I think there are at least three things, and maybe one of these will help you during this time of holy week.
Firstly, I think deep down, part of the awkwardness of Palm Sunday is that we may see ourselves in the fickleness of the crowd. I know for myself, it can feel easier to praise God when things are going well, to be thankful when things are going as I want. It can be harder to praise God, harder to be thankful, when expectations stutter or fail, when things don’t turn out in the way I had hoped or expected.
As we look to the cross, as it becomes more and more our focus, during this week, there is no escaping the fact that Christ didn’t die for us because we deserved it, but because in our sinfulness we desperately needed it. The crowd of Palm Sunday reminds me that I fall short time and again – that I desperately am in need of God’s forgiveness and love – and Christ, knowing this, was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for me.
The second thing for me about Palm Sunday is that it marks Jesus out as a different kind of Messiah. The crowds were right to be excited. They spread their cloaks on the ground, a red carpet for a king. They wave palm branches in the air, an act last done two hundred years earlier, when the last liberator of Israel had appeared. And they sing of David, Israel’s greatest king, and the hope that the glory days would return.
And yet Jesus comes riding on a borrowed donkey, not on a white stallion or golden chariot – the modern equivalent of a Robin Reliant rather than a limousine or Sherman tank. He evokes the words of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah: “look: your king is approaching, humble and riding on a donkey.”
The Messiah we see throughout the Passion story, throughout the events of Holy Week, is not a Messiah promising power and might, but a Messiah offering love; who indeed will go to whatever lengths, will do whatever it takes, to bring us forgiveness, healing, hope, life. To show us love. No wonder all four gospel writers devote so much of their writings to this final week: here we see Jesus’ love more intimately than anywhere else.
And finally, Palm Sunday tells me something surprising about the value of the praise I offer. As Jesus enters Jerusalem he doesn’t reject the people’s praise, he doesn’t turn round and tell them “don’t bother – after all I know how quickly you will abandon me.” Instead, he accepts their praise. Their praise is still worth giving, no matter its roots may be shallow. For their praise points to a deeper truth that the crowd were unable to grasp. He is the king; he is the freer of Israel; he has come to bring back true worship, but just not in the way the crowds had expected.
There are times when we may struggle to offer worship, when we may feel that given our inner turmoil, or given our doubts and struggles, our worship may count for little. We may say to ourselves at times, “Given where I’m at at the moment, does God really want my worship? Is my worship worth giving?” But Palm Sunday shows us that our worship is always worth giving, despite our fickleness, despite our failings. For we all proclaim deeper truths than we can ever fully grasp. God not only accepts our worship; he welcomes it and delights in it. Over this coming week, please do make the most of the opportunities available to come and offer your worship to Christ, the one who loves us and died for us.