Palm Sunday

I remember when I was a young boy. After school my brother and I sometimes fought in the house, much to the dismay of our mother. If we were too unruly, she’d cry out in exasperation: “You just wait until your father gets home!” 


It was not punishment she was after. It’s not that she wanted our dad to bring the hammer down. Rather, it was the strength and stability of his presence that she wanted. When he came through the front door, peace and order were restored. 


It was a chaotic time in Jerusalem during the days of Jesus. There were warring political parties and divisive religious factions. There was suffering under the oppression of an occupying power, which brutalized the civilian population. The people understandably hated and resented the Romans, who’d been ruthlessly waging a war of aggression, longer than Russia has been against Ukraine. There was a deep desire for liberation. 


Some reasoned that this could only be achieved by force. Counterviolence is the only language that violence can understand. Others concluded that this could only be attained by compromise. Though far from ideal, the current political arrangements benefited them. They were fearful of offending the occupying power and wanted security above all. 


Jesus knows what awaits him in this city in turmoil. But he cannot enter it otherwise than the way he does today. He is the rightful heir to the throne of his father David. He is the one to whom the prophets pointed. He is Israel’s Messiah, whom God promised to her. 


All the details in the account provide incontrovertible evidence that a sovereign ruler has come to town. It’s the time of his visitation. In the ancient world and even today, whenever a ruler entered a territory, he requisitioned whatever supplies he and his retinue needed. So too Jesus requisitions an animal from a nearby village, sending his disciples ahead to fetch and bring it back to him, so that they can prepare for his entry. 


But it’s not just any animal. It’s a colt. This has prophetic significance. The image of Jesus on a colt recall the words of the prophet Zechariah. 


“Rejoice greatly, O Daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). 


The garments on the animal and on the road also recall the royal accession of Jehu, when the prophet Elisha anointed him king of Israel (2 Kings 9:13). Indeed, the entire event recalls the procession of king Solomon to Gihon (1 Kings 1:38-39). 


Just as all the people hailed these two kings with shouts and acclamations then, so now the “whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). 


Praise is the jubilant response of awe and gratitude from those who have witnessed God’s saving power at work. Remember Mary of Bethany last time? She lavished praise on Jesus in the form of the expensive perfume that she poured over his feet. For she’d witnessed God’s saving power at work in the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead. 


In this connection, we noted that in our private devotion (not to mention in our public worship), we should meditate on the deeds of power that God has performed on our behalf, as they are recorded for us in Scripture. 


We should also recall those times when God has intervened in our past to rescue us from those impossible situations that threatened to overwhelm us. “I thank you that you have answered me and set me free,” as we heard earlier in our liturgy (118:21). 


The whole multitude of the disciples bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord. The words that follow are found only in Luke’s account of the triumphal entry: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Do these words sound familiar? They should, because they echo the words with which the whole multitude of angels heralded Jesus at his birth. 


Luke’s inclusion of these words is intentional.  On the lips of people this time, they suggest a provisional confirmation of God’s will, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to assume his throne as king over the people of God would be the climax of all that he said and did among them. Jesus’ reign as king would finally bring heaven’s peace on earth and glory to God. Could this really be happening? 


Imagine heaven’s peace! Our word “peace” they would have heard as “shalom.” It’s a Hebrew word that Jewish people use to this day. 


To be sure, they use it only as a greeting that they exchange with one another on the street. But on this day in Jerusalem, the day we know as Palm Sunday, that word means so much more. It means not only an absence of conflict, a cessation of hostilities. It means also justice, prosperity, wholeness and salvation. 


And on this day, it has cosmic significance. It envisions a state of affairs in which relationships between God and man and all creation are brought into harmony. 


It’s this cosmic significance that really lies behind Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees, when they tried to get him to silence the disciples when they hailed him as a king. It’s not mere hyperbole when he says that if they keep quiet, the stones would shout out. When God installs his Messiah on his holy hill, all nature will be transformed. “The mountains and hills will burst into song. And all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Indeed, the very stones will shout out! 


This will happen when the earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14).


What is glory? Tom Boogart, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary, points out that even though “glory” is one of those words that fills the pages of the Bible, people today have a hard time understanding what it means and therefore tend to ignore it. 


“Glory refers to the inexhaustible, life-giving power of God.” He goes on to write that “a glory-filled earth is saturated with goodness and abundance. Created as God intended, all the creatures of the earth from the flowers to the trees, from the fish to the birds, from the animals to human beings enjoy this abundance together, knowing no scarcity, no want, no hunger, no thirst, and therefore no anxiety.”


Isn’t “abundance” what we expect a king to provide? Is not this the substance of all the campaign promises that we hear from candidates each election season? And here is the one, appointed by God, to fulfill these expectations in ways we cannot even begin to imagine! 


Let us be clear. The reception of this king brings life and peace. We should not miss the dramatic tension of this moment! 


But we’ve already been prepared for the outcome. We’ve already heard Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem earlier in Lent: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).


Jesus does accomplish his aim. He does enter into the city. But it is not to receive the throne, but to continue his lament over her fate, because she did not recognize the time of God’s visitation. 


Jerusalem will indeed reject her king. His authority will be challenged. Later one of his own disciples will betray him. And finally the Jewish and the Roman authorities will arrest him, try him, and condemn him to a violent death on a cross. 


How this apparent failure turns into the greatest triumph—not only for Jesus but also for God’s people and for all creation—will be the theme next Sunday. 


But today we are challenged to search our own hearts and ask: Do we receive Jesus as king?


In his provocative book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, Alan Noble convincingly shows how hard it is for us in the modern West to make any sense at all of this question. 


Since the seventeenth century, when we first began to theorize about individual liberties and rights, we’ve come to think of ourselves as naturally sovereign. If the Jewish mobs at the trial of Jesus shouted “we have no king but Caesar!” today we would shout: “we have no king but ourselves!” 


The default assumption today is that “no one else has the right to define me, to choose my journey in life, or to assure me that I am okay. [I am lord and master of myself.”]  


Doesn’t this sound natural to our ears? Of course it does. We are Americans in the twenty-first century. Yet Noble points out that the freedom of sovereign individualism comes at a high price. Once I am no longer subject to a king to who has taken the responsibility to preserve and establish and justify my existence in his kingdom, I become responsible only to myself. “With no God to judge or justify me, I have to be my own judge and redeemer.”


This is an extremely heavy burden to bear. Noble points out that this burden manifests itself today as a “desperate need to justify our lives through identity crafting and expression.” We might otherwise put it as “building our own kingdom.” 


But because everyone else is also working to craft and express their own identities, because everyone else is building their own kingdom, society becomes an arena of vicious competition between individuals vying for attention, meaning and validation, like what we see on Twitter and Instagram and reality TV. 


Some of us respond to this competition by submitting to the “tyranny of self-improvement.” We are always optimizing, always making healthier choices, always consulting with gurus and thought leaders to learn how to be and do and work better. “Becoming your best self” is the aim. 


Others of us respond to this competition by accepting the fact that “we will never be able to compete successfully and therefore turn to the allure of despair, killing time with immersive entertainment until death comes or circumstances change.”  


Neither of these responses is healthy long term. They leave us feeling either exhausted or depressed. To cope with our exhaustion and emptiness, we self-medicate. And in our hedonistic society, there’s an endless array of options. 


In his fascinating history of the modern phenomenon of depression, Weariness of the Self, author Alain Ehrenberg shows that this sovereign individualism has not liberated us. He writes: 


“The individual, free from [authority], creating herself by herself and aspiring to the superhuman…is not our reality. Rather, instead of possessing the strength of the masters, she turns out to be fragile, lacking in being, weary of her sovereignty and full of complaints.” 


But what if at the root of our ills is a faulty understanding of who we are as human beings? What if we are not meant to belong to ourselves, but to God? What if, to borrow the language of Alan Noble, we aren’t made to “bear the responsibility of self-belonging,” but to surrender that responsibility to God? 


Most of you have been staying after the service to watch the video series on the New Testament we have been showing. In a recent presentation, Professor David Brakke claimed that Paul and the people in New Testament times did not share our understanding of human beings. It was inconceivable to them that a person belongs to himself. For Paul, you belong either to your ambitions and passions or to Christ. Put otherwise, as a human being you necessarily serve a master. For Paul, it really comes down to one of two options: either sin or Christ. 


The early church fathers were fascinated by the colt in our lesson. They asked how it was possible for anyone to mount an uncastrated young male horse on which no one has ever ridden before. They could only conclude that the one who sat on it on Palm Sunday has the power to bring untamed forces under his sovereign control. That includes our obsession to be our own lord and master. That self-directed man, who belongs only to himself, is nailed to the cross with Jesus, and is crucified there with him. That self-willed woman, who belongs only to herself, is nailed to the cross with Jesus, and is crucified there with him. That is the good news of Good Friday, which awaits us later this Holy Week. 


Can we receive and acclaim Jesus as our king in a world where his legitimacy is rejected in favor of the sovereign individual? 


To return again to the early church fathers, we note with them the stubbornness of the colt. However long the opposition to Christ’s reign continues, it cannot have the last word. Christ’s mount is stubborn and will outlast it. He can and will because he is Lord and Master of all. 


This is the message of our epistle lesson. It tells us that Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is king, to the glory of God the Father. Amen. 

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