Palms and Passion
Based on Psalm 118, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 19:28-40
Have you ever had a time in your life when you went from euphoric to devastated (or vice versa) in a short period of time? Happened to me last October when in one morning I received a call very early from my sister that my father had died due to complications from his dementia and then just 4 hours later Lucinda received a call that she had won Pharmacy’s lifetime achievement award. Talk about emotional whiplash! Our minds and hearts are just not equipped to fully integrate those wide swings without some time to live into each feeling. It was disorienting and difficult to know quite how to live into all the feelings – I was really overwhelmed.
Jesus must have been going through something similar as he prepared to enter Jerusalem for the last time. He had set his face towards Jerusalem and a showdown with the Temple leadership. He knew that in order to free the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” from all oppressors (foreign and domestic) he had to speak truth to power. He had been teaching about the kingdom of God and performing miracles, trying to get people across Palestine to understand that the kingdom of God was indeed within their sight and hearing. Instead of seeing these acts of God in that way, the leadership perceived them as usurping their power, prestige and livelihood. Powerful people do not often want to hear the truth from the marginalized; they tend to lash out and silence the source of those truths.
Jesus this week will go from today’s euphoric celebration to confrontation, betrayal, abject fear, abandonment, denigration, conviction, torture, and death, to finally be resurrected as the Christ in victory over the worldly powers. Our scriptures today remind us of the steadfast love of God and of the humility and obedience of Jesus – all of which make this week somewhat easier to navigate. Let us go now to God in wonder and thanksgiving…
Psalm 118 is considered a song of victory – a celebratory song of salvation coming through the mighty works of God. It opens and closes with, “O give thanks to the LORD, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever!…” Verses 22 thorough 24 sing, “…The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it….” As Christians we understand that the cornerstone here is Jesus who was rejected by those who were within the Temple leadership (by and large); who became the foundation for the Church which God was going to build. Nothing but God’s intervention can make something good come from the rollercoaster week that Jesus will endure.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains the wonderful teaching about the absolute humility of Jesus as he faithfully lived into his life and ministry. Paul implores the disciples to, “…Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross….” He had to be humble in order to be exalted. He had to die to live forever. He had to be emptied so that he could be filled with the glory of God. Jesus had to give up all the worldly acclaim and adoration of the joyful entry into Jerusalem in order to show us the way to the kingdom. Jesus knew that the waving palms were a gesture devoid of meaning in God’s greater plan for all of humanity.
The reading from the Gospel of Luke comes on the heels of the parable of the “Ten pounds” where a nobleman goes away to become a king and leaves money with servants to invest in his absence. Upon returning as king, he rewards those servants who have been faithful and punishes those without faith or who have rejected him entirely. Jesus tells this parable to those gathered to help them understand that God’s kingdom was not coming shortly (a common misconception in Jesus’ time). Jesus then moves to enter Jerusalem on the back of a colt never before ridden, covered in cloaks to the cheers of “…the whole multitude of the disciples…” who are shouting a verse from Psalm 118 blessing the greatness of God who has fulfilled God’s promise of a Messiah. Jesus knows that most of the “multitude” do not really believe in him and that they will be shouting for his death and the release of the prisoner Jesus Barabbas before the week is over.
Jesus’ week is one of palms and passion, of joy and abject terror and abandonment, of obedience and promises fulfilled. Even though we are led to believe that Jesus knew what God’s plan was for him – and what that entailed, he must have been feeling emotional whiplash at the speed of the turn of events. While the multitudes cry out in praise to God of the coming of the Messiah, the Temple leaders are worried and seek to have Jesus keep a lid on the celebration lest the Romans find out. The Temple leadership is also worried that such a crowd is under the impression that God has fulfilled God’s plan and delivered to Israel the long-anticipated Messiah. What will this mean to them and to the judgement upon them for their behaviors? Jerusalem is divided in her loyalties and it appears that there will be a reckoning in the very near future.
We are entering our sixth week of Lent together. We have once again walked the path from ashes to palms; from the recognition that we are dust and to dust we shall return to the joy of God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus. Today we shout “Hosanna” with the multitude and all of creation…but would we also have been among those who were manipulated into shouting to Pilate to crucify Jesus and release a criminal instead on Friday? I wonder…I wonder. Our Lenten journey needs to have taken us downward and inward. Down from our lofty views of ourselves to a humble, servant attitude. Into that place where the image of God resides that will allow us to love God with all that we have and all that we are and our neighbor as ourselves. Paul says it in the verses right before ours today when teaching the believers to, “…be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others….”
This is the path that Jesus walked; this is the mindset that he had. This is the journey to humble discipleship that we are to embody as followers of the Christ. The Hosannas are not for us they are for God. The goal of name recognition above all names is reserved for Jesus the Christ, not for us. This is because his sacrifice for us was beyond what any of us would likely do given a similar set of circumstances. Unless we truly understand that the reward that really matters is the reward of our true King – the Christ. If we do like the servants of the king in the parable and invest what God has so richly given us in building up the kingdom here on earth, then we will be richly rewarded when the king returns. Delayed gratification is not high on our list, however, especially in our current age where we want rewards now – whether we have earned them or not.
The King of our lives, to whom we have pledged our allegiance, knows that it is hard for us to be humble and to give up our dreams of building our own kingdoms here on earth. Jesus knows that the shouts of praise today will lead to the shouts for his death on Friday. Palms will lead to passion because they have to in order for Jesus to do what only he could do. He had to die as a person despised by the masses and revered by those few who came to know his divinity. He had to be scorned and reviled and yet be filled with God’s faithful and steadfast love, God’s “hesed”. He had to sink to the lowest levels of human rank, crucified on a cross as a common criminal, in order to be lifted up and exalted beyond any human ever born of woman. Paul entreats the ancient believers to empty themselves and take on the mind of Christ so that they too might know the full joy of the resurrection which redeemed them into right relationship with God. I wonder…are we willing to follow the call of Christ on our lives to give up the palms for the passion? May God’s steadfast love give us the strength and obedience to do just that. Amen!