This is the text of the message I preached on Palm Sunday, 9th April 2017 at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
Palm Sunday is one of those days of which I have specific memories from childhood. I couldn’t tell you what happened on the third Sunday in August in any given year, or even the second Sunday in April for that matter, but while actual years are uncertain I can recall Palm Sundays from years long past. I mean there was that year, several in fact, when we(e) Sunday school kids paraded into church waving huge palm fronds and singing Carl Tuttle’s “Hosanna”. There was the year when “Jesus” actually rode in to church on a mountain bike covered in tinsel, and the year previously when a real donkey had been sourced. (When said, donkey left behind what donkeys sometimes do, right in front of the pulpit, the mountain bike was substituted in seemed a better option the following year.) I remember the cool vicar we had in one church where we high-fived each other in passing the peace because it was “palm” Sunday. (Don’t laugh, I nearly made you do it today.) I remember the huge palms we had available to us the three years my family lived in Darwin, and how the front of the church looked like a Pacific Islander hut. I remember processing in to the cathedral one year with a couple of hundred of us, waving the palms we’d collected in the forecourt as we walked the length of the nave, back down the sides to the great doors, and then up the nave again to find a seat. I remember the palm crosses we had in Hobart, and how those were kept by us as bookmarks in our Bibles and then returned to church the following year on Shrove Tuesday when they were incinerated and used for the ashes of the next day’s Ash Wednesday. I remember several years hearing the “Hosanna, Hey-sanna, -sanna, -sanna, Ho” from Jesus Christ Superstar as our call to worship. And I remember last year when there were no palms at all but clay crosses made by a potter in our congregation: I’ve been wearing mine all Lent this year and have it on now. (Thanks Mark from Yankalilla!)
But what I don’t remember, really, is any of the sermons from Palm Sunday. Perhaps, like me, you know the story so well that you don’t remember ever being told it, or any specific occasion upon which it is told. What the other lectionary readings are never really mattered since you know the minister would preach from Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, or Luke 19:28-40 depending upon which year of the cycle we were in. (And in case you have forgotten we are in the Year of Matthew in 2017.)
My lectionary tells me that for this Sunday, this year, there is no Old Testament or New Testament reading set. None. They are blank spaces in my chart for today. Just a Psalm, and a Gospel. Looking further into the lectionary I see that the same Psalm is offered each year, actually a choice of two, and one is not a song of celebration at all. Amidst all the branch waving, coat flinging, song and dance and donkey poo of Jesus’ heralding by the crowd there is a note of distress and depression. Some are sad when everyone else is celebrating. Well spotted, I say to the choosers of the lectionary: always someone will be sad whenever a party is passing through, and oftentimes, indeed always I would suggest, there are sad feelings within the party itself.
I’m not convinced that Palm Sunday was a completely joyful day for Jesus.
One interpretation of the events of Palm Sunday, offered by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan among others, is that Jesus on his donkey is deliberately making a fool of Pilate. The whole event is parody. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a mirror of and a direct challenge to Pilate’s own entry into the city on the same day as an act of protest at the Roman imperial procession. Jesus is possibly simmering with anger, perhaps frustrated by the noisy crowds who haven’t got as clue of what he is up to as he calculatingly affirms the alternative way of the Reign of God. The contrast between the two processions is plain: one, a procession of peasants lead by Jesus on a donkey coming from the East and Bethany via the Mount of Olives, and the other a procession of soldiers lead by Pilate coming from the West and the provincial capital at Caesarea Maritima on the coast. More than competing parades the two processions indicated competing theologies. Beginning with Augustus and now in the person of Tiberius the Roman emperor was hailed as “the Son of God”, “lord”, “saviour”, and bringer of “peace on Earth”, terms unwarranted according to Jewish theology and terms later taken by the Christians to refer to the man entering the capital from the mountains. With Jesus being hailed with “Hosanna” as blessed and Davidic there is a distinct and deliberate political feel to this event: Jesus’ parade is anti-military, anti-war, and decidedly anti-imperial. It is not a party, not at all.
I don’t remember hearing that message in my childhood, not at all.
But that’s okay, Borg and Crossan might not be “right” in their interpretation, and even if they are not “wrong” there are other ways of looking at what is going on
Jesus acts deliberately on this day, the Bible assures us of that. In Matthew’s account, which we heard today, Jesus appears to rides two animals, a donkey and a colt and we are told that the disciples put their cloaks on “them” and Jesus sat on “them”, which is to say both animals. Matthew, and so does John, quotes Zechariah 9:9 as the reason why the donkeys must be present, but in Matthew Jesus explains it to the disciples before the ride and in John Jesus speaks to the crowds after he arrives. In John Jesus responds to the worship by riding a donkey, in Matthew Jesus orchestrates the worship by arriving unannounced on two donkeys. Either way, he’s up to something.
I think the clue is found in the Zechariah passage itself where the king of Zion triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on…the foal of a donkey has a few things going on. He is obviously a victor, both in the tradition of the Jewish Scriptural tradition and the Roman Imperial tradition, but he is also humble. He’s riding a foal, not a stallion. Perhaps the parody of Pilate is not so nasty in its intent, perhaps Jesus is humble and is showing a better way. Yes, he is king, yes, he is returning to his capital, but he doesn’t need to make a big show of it, he knows who is he and his people flock to him because he is their king, not because he is loud and covered in brass and flags. Real kings, like real men, don’t need to show off; real kings are confident and calm. Let Pilate have his monkeys, the unruffled Jesus does what he wants to do, and he is so attractive because of it.
This also is missing from my memory of child and youthhood pageant, the chillaxed Jesus cruising in to town. But I like it.
Open the gate for the righteous to enter so that he might to give thanks to God, demands the Psalmist in Psalm 118:19-20. We read of one man’s public, celebratory thanksgiving for salvation in Psalm 118:21 found in God’s seeing the hidden potential in him and for giving him a second chance to shine in Psalm 118:22. This leads into delight in recognising God’s handiwork at work in Psalm 118:23, which leads into the day of rejoicing in Psalm 118:24.
The first words spoken by Elizabeth Tudor after she was told that she’d inherited the queenship of England are said to have been Psalm 118:23. For a Protestant, bastard, girl under house-arrest and the ever-present threat of execution for treason (or a simple, quiet murder) to inherit a kingdom from her Roman Catholic, and rather bitter half-sister, the new Queen Elizabeth knew that divine forces were at play. The same is true of us: let us rejoice and be glad in this day is a fitting response. Look at how the psalmist goes on, crying out “Hosanna” which means “God save me and look here my salvation comes” all at once. The hosanna in Psalm 118:25 is the beseeching cry of a woman who knows she has already been chosen for salvation and is waiting with bated breath for God to complete the marvellous work in her.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD says Psalm 118:26, “baruch habar b’shem Adonai” as Jews still yell to each other in worship, and “baruch b’shem” when they’re passing the peace. The crowds called this to Jesus as he rode past them, indicating that their hosannas were directed towards him. The one who comes in the name of the LORD is the same one who brings salvation and success, and the one who calls forth the light. These words are loaded with meaning for Jewish worshippers. In the story of Jesus these are not the cries of an overexcited mob who have lost their minds, the people know what they are saying and that is why the Sanhedrin are so disturbed by it. Tell this uneducated rabble to stop using worship language, they tell Jesus later. Jesus responds that they may be uneducated but they know worship when they see it, and it is so obvious that even if they (like you) missed it the geology of Zion itself would cry out. As Hillsong pastor Darlene Zschech has said “no way! If Jesus is here I refuse to be out-shouted by a rock!”
The Psalm, when placed beside the gospel, gives us two versions of the events of this day in the life of Jesus:
Version one is that Jesus himself is demanding that the gates be opened to him, so that he may enter and worship the God who has been so amazingly faithful to him. Let’s not forget how amazing the Father was to the Son; Jesus had a lot to say thank you for. Even as he set a model for us in receiving baptism, Jesus also shows us that no-one is above the duty to worship God in thanksgiving and wonder. So, gates, open wide and let Jesus himself cry Hosanna! to the God who will save and is right now saving him. This might be a less well known version, but when you consider that in Matthew Jesus gets off the donkeys and walks straight into the temple I believe he had worship on his mind. (That he then throws the noisy farmers’ market stallholders out is even more evidence, he’s here to pray and not to eat jam donuts at 30c each or three for $1, or buy perfumed candles and bric-a-brac.)
Version two is the better known one, that the crowds recognise in Jesus the one who brings the salvation of God. We bless you, the one who comes to us in person with the authority of God, (coming in the Name, Ha’Shem), to do the work of God amongst us. Open wide those gates so that when the saviour comes he will not be held up for one second.
So, whether you believe Jesus rode one animal or two, that he came as parody of Pilate or as humble yet confidently beloved worshipper of God, that he was enjoying the moment of the joy of the crowd or silently meditating on the full ontological meaning of the prophetic sign he was enacting, the public entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is significant. This year amidst our palm branches and our memories of the pageants of decades past, of donkeys, mountain bikes, sword-grass and pottery crosses, High-Church, Low-Church, and perhaps even no-church Palm Sundays of remembrance, that our key duty is to worship God in thanksgiving and awe at what the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem really meant for him and for the world. One man came to give all that he had in worship of God, and all that he had was taken from him before a week had passed.