What's Tony Thinking

What Kind of Day is Palm Sunday?


Here’s my sermon from today, March 24, Palm Sunday. You have a choice of the written version below or of the video at to the church’s You Tube channel using this link.

Some churches do Palm/ Passion Sunday these days, combining the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with a reading of the entire Passion story from one of the Gospels. At Community Church in San Miguel, it was simply Palm Sunday — no reading of the Passion narrative. Still, Palm Sunday is a hard day to quite characterize or sum up as Jesus comes to a crowd cheering, “Hail the King of Israel” today, but which by Friday will be shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

A post-publication p.s. to these introductory words: In this sermon I have a longish quote, or several quotes, from Fleming Rutledge. It’s a judgment call to include long and wordy quotes like these in a sermon. I may not have made the right call. But, as least in the written version such citations are probably easier to process, as you can re-read.

Why have I highlighted these words from Fleming (and done so on more than one occasion)? I think she gets at the key issue facing the church today, whether Jesus is Lord and Savior and what these words mean. As I see it the liberal church has backed off this historic confession while the conservative church is letting a political agenda, not the Jesus of Scripture, define the terms “Lord” and “Savior.” 

In lamenting the liberal church’s weak Christology, the reduction of Jesus to a teacher and example only, what’s at stake is not just “correct” theology. It is the power of the gospel. When we reduce Christian faith to moralism, we drain it of power and place the emphasis primarily, if not solely, on ourselves and what we are to do. The first emphasis of the gospel, that which makes it news, is what God has done in Jesus Christ. “Grace,” is shorthand for “God is the active agent of the salvation story.” Or as Jim Sanders taught us at Union Seminary, “theologize before you moralize.” End of preamble. 


What Kind of Day Is Palm Sunday?

John 12: 9 – 19

What kind of day is this day? What kind of day is Palm Sunday? Is it a day of triumph? Of joy? Or is it a day of sorrow? 

Other days we know pretty clearly what they are, what the feeling tone is and is expected to be.

Christmas? Joy. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.” Good Friday? A heavy, a solemn day. “Ah holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” “Go to dark Gethsemane.”

Ash Wednesday? “Ashes,” pretty much says it all. Ashes are a symbol for mourning, for penitance. Easter Sunday? Pull out all the stops, triumph. “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!”

But what kind of day is this one? What kind of day is Palm Sunday?

I recall watching a TV show or movie with one of my grandsons when he was maybe 6 years old. After we’d been watching for a while, he said, “Grandpa, which ones are the good guys?” He was accustomed to it being clear who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. As on this day, things were a little uncertain, not entirely clear.

The truth is that Palm Sunday is hard to peg. It’s a confusing day. It begins with the waving of festive palms, which was the way, the ritual long ago, for receiving a returning king. So it’s festive. Hosanna! And yet the shadow of the cross looms over the day. A crowd that hails him as King on Sunday will be Friday shout, “Crucify him.”

The hymn we’ve just sung — Lorelei told me it was “word heavy,” and she is right — catches the ambiguity, the confusion of this day. “A Cheering, Chanting, Dizzy Crowd.”

One thing we can say for sure about this day is that there were crowds. It was Passover, the single greatest festival of the year. 200,000 people crowded into Jerusalem. The remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt of God’s enslaved people, freed by God’s mighty act on their behalf, parting the Red Sea waters. 

So any subsequent Passover — and this one now under Roman rule — meant that there were inevitably political overtones and tensions. Each Passover Pilate, the Roman governor, would travel from his seaside villa to Jerusalem with a show of force, mounted on a chariot, accompanied by marching Roman legions, towing prisoners in chains. The message was clear. Don’t get any ideas.   

A city packed with religious pilgrims, crowds. You certainly get a feel for that here in San Miguel, like nowhere else I’ve ever been. I can tell you for sure, that’s not something you get in Seattle, Washington, where we live. Well, that’s not quite true, we had a parade with big crowds when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl. But not Holy Week. You could live in Seattle and never know it was Holy Week. Not possible in San Miguel. Here you feel the electricity. The intoxication of it all, of the crowds, the color, the energy.

As John tells it, the surging crowds were like the sea’s waves, moving simultaneously in two directions. Jesus was accompanied by Passover crowds on their way into Jerusalem, while other crowds, already in the city, came out to meet him. 

The word went out. “He’s coming. Let’s go see him.” “Who’s coming? The one who raised a man from the dead. He brought that man Lazurus out of his tomb. He fed five thousand people all the bread they wanted. They even say he turned water into wine.”

So they cried out, “Hosanna,” which means “Save,” Hosanna, “Save us.” They acclaimed him as the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Shouts rang out: “Blessed is the King of Israel.” 

And why not? He had raised the dead. Fed the hungry. Given sight to the blind. And yes, for those whose interest might be more in spirits than the spiritual, he had turned water into wine. What’s not to like? Finally, he’s come. Our king. The one we have waited for. The one who will actually fix all that’s wrong, put things to right, get rid of the hated Romans and their brutal thugs.  

“But look . . . look at what he’s doing now. He’s getting on a donkey. That’s weird. He should be on a stallion, a war horse. Or at least in a chariot drawn with a team of horses.” 

It was a sign, one of several he would give as the week to come unfolded. A sign that he was not quite who the crowd thought he would be. Not who the crowd wanted him to be. 

Maybe that’s the reason Palm Sunday is confusing. It’s confusing because of Jesus. Who is this Jesus? Is he the Messiah we want? Or is he the Messiah we need? 

Does he fit our expectations and agendas? Or shake them up? 

Last week I quoted from a friend’s recent book on the season of Epiphany. That friend, Fleming Rutledge, is an Episcopalian. But she is a little critical of her crowd, which is also my crowd, so-called “mainline Christians.” (From a marketing standpoint, a term that is surely a disaster.) 

She describes the purpose of her book and of the seasons of the church’s year this way: ”Above all, the church year leads us to Jesus Christ. This will be the central focus of the pages that follow. The progression of the seasons, when all is said and done, is designed so that the members of Christ’s body may participate even now in his eternal life by rejoicing in his living presence, following him in our various vocations, en-acting his teachings in our ministries, knowing him as our Savior, and above all glorifying him as Lord.”

So far so good. The focus is Jesus. We expect that from a Christian author writing about Epiphany. Nothing, so far, to make you sit up straight and pay attention. Nothing, that is, until she puts her purpose in the book into the context of what she terms “the crisis of the church today.” After saying that her purpose, and the purpose of the church year, is that we might know “Jesus as our Savior and above all glorify him as Lord,” she continues . . .

“In our time, however, many of the very same mainline churches who show a new interest in the church seasons have grown weak in proclaiming Christ.” She continues, “It does not give me any pleasure to note this. Jesus of Nazareth is revered as a teacher and moral exemplar, not infrequently side by side with various other religious figures, but the apostolic message about the unique identity and destiny of the Messiah (Christos) has become attenuated.”

I quoted this last week. She’s saying that these days many of the mainline churches tend to boil Jesus down to a teacher who has some interesting ideas you might consider — alongside that of other interesting teachers — and as a model for good behavior. But the power of God, the power to raise the dead and give sight to the blind? I fear that if all we got to offer is good advice and telling people to be nice or better, it’s no wonder such churches are in decline.

But she doesn’t stop there. Listen: “As for the so-called evangelical, conservative, or right-wing churches, they have often allowed Jesus to become a repository of various grievances, so that the invocation of his name at political rallies has become commonplace. When something or someone less than God in Jesus Christ is evoked in worship, the central focus of the apostolic message is obscured, if not negated outright.” Give her this much, she’s an equal opportunity offender, skewering both sides. She’s saying that many “evangelical and conservative churches,” have defined Jesus in terms of a partisan political agenda, one that doesn’t really square with the Jesus of Scripture. 

If she’s right, and I think she’s on the mark, the point — my point — is that we today are not so different from the crowds that greeted Jesus on the Palm Sunday long ago. Does Jesus check the list of boxes that we want Jesus to check? Wonder-worker who will dazzle with his miracles and cures? A wise religious teacher who will confirm our moral values and political prejudices? A political messiah who will call down the wrath of God on our enemies?  

Maybe, just maybe, Jesus does not come as a the messiah we want . . . but he comes as the messiah we need. He knows that our problems go deeper than electing the right candidate, or getting the lastest hot book and new ideas to consider, or finding the celebrity influencer who has the best or newest life-hacks for perpetual health and wealth, beauty or  longevity.

Jesus came to deal with our deeper stuff, our real, stuff. Often enough our glib view of ourselves is that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us or that we have any real problems, any distance between us and God.

“I’m okay, you’re okay.” “All God really wants is for us to be happy and nice to other people.” “Just trust your heart,” we say or are told. “The heart,” says the prophet Jeremiah, “is deceitul in all things.” We don’t want to hear that. 

I’m doing a class on Wednesdays. This week I quoted a philosopher, Alain de Botton, and from his “Eight Rules for Living.” You can find it on-line. Kind of fun. Here’s Rule # 1 — related in a light-hearted, friendly tone — “We’re all idiots.” Kind of like, “Hey, get over yourself. Don’t kid yourself, you got stuff, we all got stuff.” We’re all idiots — sort of a secular version of saying, we’re all sinners in need of grace.

I learned later in the week that those in my class considered “we’re all idiots” the only useful take-away from the entire session. Call it a low anthropology. 

Scripture’s more sober view of we humans is that we cannot come near God, in our sin and self-deception, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. So the cross. The atoning sacrifice of God by God, the outpouring of God’s grace for the ungodly. Divine mercy for idiots. The blood of Jesus for the sin of the world. Jesus does not save us from God on the cross; the cross reveals the God who saves us.

Jesus wants, and will bring, a different victory, the balm in Gilead for the sinsick soul, the victory that takes place inside each of us. When we ourselves are raised from the dead and forgiveness is preached in his name.

And when this is done, when Jesus says from the cross, “It is finished,” what then? Why then we can, perhaps for the first time ever, lay down our burdens and anxieties, all the voices that in us constantly murmuring, “you are not enough,” or “no one could ever really love you,” “why aren’t you more, done more?” We can lay down the striving, the anxiety, and rest. Rest in the Lord, rest in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. 

A friend who works in prison ministry said the other day. “You know in the mainlines these days, you don’t hear much about atonement. You don’t hear about the atoning blood of Christ. Man, if they were to sing that hymn, ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood,’ in my UCC church people would go running.”

“But it’s not the way in the prison, not with the men there. They get that they aren’t fine just the way they are. They know they need a Savior. “I’m okay, you’re okay” doesn’t really cut it there. Though some do like what they call the Christian version: “I’m not okay, you’re not okay; but that’s okay”

“Yes,” he said, “they want, they know they need, a Savior who will wash away the stain of sin from their souls. And they know they have one. They love singing those hymns about how they’ve been cleansed by the blood of Christ. They get that forgiveness costs something. And they get that God has done something for them that they can’t do for themselves. They are counting on God, trusting in Jesus to save them. They are resting in the Lord and his promises. Honestly,” he said, “it’s refreshing, but kind of weird . . . to find so much joy . . . in prison.

Palm Sunday. What kind of day is this? It’s a day when the messiah, the Christ who comes, may not be the one we want, but he is the one we need. When our king’s throne is a cross. When the blood God sheds is not that of the conquered enemy, but his own, shed for the sins of the world and the forgiveness of us all.  









Categories: Uncategorized