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What’s Not to Love?
April 13, 2014
I overheard a church member say last week, “I love Psalm Sunday.” And what’s not to love? Don’t you love the way we gather on the courtyard before worship? A sense of excitement and expectation fills the air as drums and other instruments beat out a rhythm, children run around handing out palm branches and crosses, a trumpet sound pierces the air signaling the start of our processional into the sanctuary as we sing: “All Glory Laud and Honor to thee, Redeemer, King…Thou art the king of Israel, thou David’s royal Son, who in the Lord’s name cometh, the King and blessed one.” Yes, Palm Sunday is a day of pageantry and promise. What’s not to love?
Obviously, Matthew loved it, too. Matthew describes Palm Sunday as a colorful, dramatic event. In fact, he gets so caught up in the spirit of the occasion that he has Jesus riding on two animals instead of one. “The disciples brought the donkey and the colt and spread their cloaks upon them and Jesus sat on them.” Please don’t spend the rest of my sermon trying to picture just how that was possible. Matthew’s exuberance is balanced by his careful attention to the historical magnitude of the moment. He quotes not just one prophet but two, both Zechariah and Isaiah. He wants to make it clear that the Messiah, the king, the Savior for whom the people have waited so long, is the one who is coming into the city. Tell the daughter of Zion, “Look, you king is coming to you mounted on a donkey.” Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem is an earth-shattering event, and clearly Matthew loves it.
And the crowds who followed Jesus into Jerusalem are beside themselves with excitement. In Matthew’s Gospel, these are the ones who had listened to his teaching, been astounded at his authority, seen his capacity to heal the sick, been amazed when he casts out demons, saying that “never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” The fact that the processional began at the Mount of Olives only heightened the significance of the procession, because that was the traditional location from whence the Messiah was expected to appear. For these reasons and more, it’s not surprising that the crowds gave Jesus a kind of first-century red-carpet treatment cutting branches and spreading them on the road while shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Of course, what they loved about all this was that Jesus entry into Jerusalem signaled for them the fulfillment of their messianic expectations. The one they greeted with their shouts of hosanna was, they believed, Israel’s true Liberator come among them at last–Another Moses to lead them in a new Exodus, a Royal Son to cleanse the Temple of pagan influence, a David-like King to overthrow Rome’s occupation forces and remove the religious collaborators, a Savior to take the throne and restore the nation. Such messianic expectations had whipped the followers of Jesus into a frenzy of excitement. Their deepest hopes and most cherished dreams seemed about to become true. What’s not to love about that?
Well, to be truthful, not everyone loved what they were seeing. For one thing, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey didn’t exactly engender confidence that this Messiah had the power to deliver Israel from her enemies. Not only was the spectacle of the Messiah on a pack animal a cause for concern, but likely rumors or what he had been teaching further called into question his ability to save his people.
“Blessed are the meek,” he had said, “for they shall inherit the earth.” What! Isn’t it obvious that the mighty inherit the earth?
“You have heard it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s not what the expectant crowd in Jerusalem wanted to hear. They wanted the Messiah to overthrow their enemies, not love and pray for them.
“The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve.” No, they envisioned a Messiah who would stand tall and rule over the people, not be a servant to the people.
No wonder Matthew writes, “When he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” As we know, the turmoil that erupted on Palm Sunday spiraled into growing disappointment, anger and finally outright rejection. What’s not to love about Palm Sunday? Just this: A Messiah who doesn’t fulfill our expectations.
And like the crowds who lined the streets of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, we today may long for a Christ of power who will fix our problems, settle our disputes and put an end suffering. If Jesus is God’s Son, why doesn’t he answer every prayer, heal every disease, save every child, set right every wrong? Yet as it turns out, Jesus could not even save himself. Something in us agrees with the soldier at the cross: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross…and we will believe in you.” Let’s face it, a crucified Messiah has always been hard to accept, much less to love.
But let’s shift the focus. The significance of Palm Sunday doesn’t rely on what we love or fail to love, but rather on what God loves and cannot keep from loving. Reflecting on Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week, the theologian Paul Tillich put it: “God made himself small for us in Christ. In doing so, God left us our freedom and our humanity. Jesus shows us God’s heart, so that our hearts could be won.” Jesus came into Jerusalem as he did, and died as he did, because he carries within him the heart of God. That is, he embodies the love of God, a love that is given to us whether we accept it or not. As the Apostle Paul will later write: “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
So friends as we move into Holy Week let the question: What’s not to love about Palm Sunday? become secondary to the more important question: Who is this who brings us God’s love, a love that God will not take from us–no matter what!
“Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”