Sermon for Palm Sunday
Palms and Peril
Today is Palm/Passion Sunday. The reading for this day includes the celebration of the Palms –Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being proclaimed as the messiah. It also includes the passion –all of Luke’s story about Jesus arrest and eventual condemnation.
So which story are we supposed to tell? A lot of times I prefer to ignore the passion part of the story. That indeed will come soon enough. Often, I like to simply focus on the grand parade and celebration of Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Should we not take a moment to join the throng of celebrants and well wishers and praise givers as they lift up their brilliant green palm branches and shout Hallelujah, Luke 19:38 (NRSV) “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
The way Luke puts it, it is like we are joining in the celebration of the angels. When Jesus was born the angels sang Luke 2:14 (NRSV) “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Can you hear the similarity? The message of the heavens has touched down upon the Earth and among the people; as Jesus came riding into Jerusalem.
We all know the story so well. He used a donkey as a sign of peace, counter to Pilate who would have come into Jerusalem riding a horse of war as a sign of imperial power.
New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that as Passover approached, Jesus came to Jerusalem intentionally “to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the temple. … In other words, against governor Pilate and his high-priest Caiaphas.”
Crossan explains: Jesus intended his very public entry into Jerusalem on the donkey as not only criticism of Roman power but a lampoon of it.
Pilate would have traveled from his home base in Caesarea, bringing with him a large contingent of troops. He would have paraded into the city in advance of the Passover on a powerful black warhorse bedecked with colors, banners, insignia and armor; in order to display all the imperil might of Rome.
Jesus arrives on a donkey.
In Matthew’s gospel we hear the fulfillment of Zechariah’s words: “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
And why? To “cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations …” (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Where is the real power in life to be found? In Jesus, peace, and reconciliation with God comes to us this day! That is real power and real hope. Which parade would you rather cheer on? Pilate’s parade or Jesus’ parade?
Who wouldn’t want to be in the crowd and lifting up their praises to God? In Jesus God is doing a new thing for the people of his affections. That day everyone could see that God was present for them and speaking to them, and even today still speaking to us. Salvation is at hand.
Who would not want to hear this message? Isn’t it obvious why we might choose to celebrate the palms and set the passion aside for another day?
And yet there were some who did not want to receive God’s word and blessing of peace and life. We might say they were lovers of Pilate’s parade, more than Jesus parade. The pharisees are mentioned, and there are other voices yet to be heard, yet to put the very work of God on trial. It seems likely that the palms can not be lifted up without peril. Palms and passion aren’t so easy to separate.
When the fervor of the general crowd goes to sleep other voices have their say. Night falls later in the week and Jesus is arrested. Then there is the assembly of Jewish leadership, the roman governor Pilate, and King Herod, and beyond what I read today the crowd again is heard except this later time they are crying out crucify him, crucify him. The inner workings of what Came against Jesus for coming into Jerusalem deserves consideration.
First Jesus is accused of blasphemy. The Jewish leaders said Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. While a sin worthy of death to them, this wasn’t a good enough reason for Pilate, and so they accused Jesus of sedition against Rome and having declared himself a King as opposed to Caesar. Now that was grounds for Pilate to execute Jesus, but they were all false charges and Pilate didn’t find good reason within them for the death penalty.
Then Pilate heard that Jesus had stirred up the people from Judea and Galilee. This was King Herod’s jurisdiction, and so Pilate chose to defer the question to Herod. If he was a trouble maker in Herod’s land, then let Herod judge his wrong doings. Let Jesus crimes, if any, be judged by the person upon whose land they occurred. This was a political gesture as much as a way for Pilate to avoid the whole matter.
Before, Pilate and Herod had not been on really good terms. In Luke 13:1 there is a comment about Pontius Pilate mingling the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices. Such an act would have been troublesome to Herod –killing people under his authority. Besides this there are other sources outside of the Bible that indicate other issues between the two, but now Pilate is giving a nod to Herod as having influence in the politics happening in Jerusalem. This is not to be under appreciated.
So, Jesus is sent to Herod. We have to remember who this Herod was. This is not Herod the Great, but his son. This is the Herod that enjoyed the company of Jesus cousin John the Baptist; that was up until the time he had him imprisoned and then chopped John’s head off as a party favor. When Jesus came before him Herod was pleased. Herod seem to think that Jesus was going to be as entertaining as John was, but as Herod questioned Jesus, Jesus offered Herod nothing except silence.
One commentator offers this opinion: It should be noticed carefully that Herod was the only man to whom Christ refused to speak. … It is a sober thought that although Christ knew the man was dying in his sin, the Savior never even tried to save him. When Herod ordered the execution of John the Baptist, he slammed the door on his own chances of forgiveness. Thereafter, the Spirit of God ceased to strive with him. Ivor Powell Commentaries – Ivor Powell Commentaries – Luke’s Thrilling Gospel. In those moments of silence, one may wonder was Herod judging Jesus or was Jesus judging Herod.
Regardless a political understanding was accomplished between Herod and Pilate and the in the next scene the crowd is found not to be praising Jesus but calling for his death and the political leaders get to wash their hands of the matter as the crowd assumes the responsibility for Jesus’ execution. How much were the cards in the deck stacked against Jesus by the political forces around him? The Jewish leadership was placated, Pilate could look guiltless of innocent blood, and Herod gained influence with the ruling party for persuading the whole matter as they wished, and Jesus was eliminated by the processes of the day.
On Palm Sunday Jesus stepped into a quagmire of deadly politics and set off a fuse that led to his crucifixion.
But still there are the palms and there is the praise, and most of all there is the truth about who Jesus really is and the life he gives to all who truly believe –God’s truth that conquers even death.
Perhaps one can never have the Palms without the peril. Palms and passion go together. Can the person of Christ really be announced without causing opposition? Can God’s kingdom be identified without the hatred within the world being activated?
Someone once said, You can walk into any room in this country and say, “I believe in God,” and the majority of people in that room will respond positively.
But if you then add, “And I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was his one and only Son, and the only way to God,” you will quickly find yourself in the minority.
Jesus provokes a reaction in people. He did then, and he does now, and yet if Jesus is wrong, then he should simply be dismissed and forgotten. If he’s right, then he deserves to be worshiped and obeyed.
The question becomes whether or not in the face of the world we have the faith and courage to lift up our palms and declare Jesus for who is? Do we really dare to join in the song of the angels: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Will it be the palms or the peril? It is likely that we can not have one without the other. Jesus knew this and yet he still rode into Jerusalem on that day.
May we live with like courage and strength to make God’s king and kingdom known within our world. Amen.