The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, Year C.
At the Liturgy of the Palms
After telling a parable to the crowd at Jericho, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethpage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, 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, saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”Luke19:28-40
When the hour for the Passover meal came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.”
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, `And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”
He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They kept heaping many other insults on him.
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”
Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.Luke 22:14-23:56
So. Many. Words. Most of the time when we think of Palm Sunday, our minds are drawn to the jovial cheering, the waving of Palm branches, and the expectation of the Easter Celebration to come. Most of us have a collective amnesia about the full extent of Palm Sunday, especially about how many and long the readings from Scripture are. It is incredible how much we cover in one day, at this point we have now listened to over three thousand words from Scripture. That’s roughly the same as enduring two of my sermons, and enjoying three of Scott’s!
More than the length of the readings, we are always surprised by the sudden shift in mood. For visitors on Palm Sunday, it can be a jarring and disconcerting experience how we go from cheering and waving our palm branches to shouting, “Crucify Him!” Even those of us who have been to many Palm Sunday services are startled awake by the dramatic shift in tone. Yet every year, no matter how many times we’ve done it, it comes as a surprise.
Perhaps like marathon runners, once we cross the finish line into Easter celebrations, we forget the pain that brought us to our destination. Perhaps because shouting “Crucify Him!” is unpleasant we put it out of our minds, choosing to remember only singing “Hosannah” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”. Perhaps because we like the crowd all those centuries ago prefer a savior that fits our expectations and status quo is why we remember the palm branches but forget the tree.
With so many words, and a story so familiar to us all, it is easy to get lost, to forget. What more is there to say, when we have heard so much already? There is one question that needs to be addressed, something that the readings as they stand do not explain: why the sudden tone shift? Why does the crowd go from cheering, waving palm branches, and celebrating Jesus as a king to calling for His crucifixion?
If Holy Week were a musical, which with the existence of Jesus Christ Superstar I guess it technically already is, Palm Sunday would be the overture. Within the liturgy and the readings are the introduction and broad themes of all Holy Week in one setting. Being an overture, Palm Sunday introduces us to the setting, gives us a sense of the plot, and leaves us on a cliffhanger, alluding to the final number. What’s missing of course are all the sub-plots, intrigue, and details that add so much richness to the experience. You get the broad strokes yes, but would miss the whole picture if you don’t see the whole show. In the case of Palm Sunday, the tone shift is so dramatic because we go from Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem at the beginning, then quickly jump to Maundy Thursday and of course the Passion that is the center of Good Friday. Essentially, we get a whole week’s worth of plot in the span of thirty minutes, so there is a lot that isn’t covered about Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.
So what does Jesus do in Jerusalem before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday? Whether or not this leads to any insight into why the crowd who celebrated Him on Sunday crucified Him on Friday I’ll leave for you to decide. To summarize, an accounting of Jesus’ activities in Jerusalem that week would look something like this:
Jesus starts with prophesizing the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), then He trashes the Temple by flipping tables, whipping the money-changers, and condemning the authorities for selling out to Rome (Luke 19:45-48). He engages in theological debate with the Chief Priests & Scribes, making them look like fools and denounces their authority (Luke 20:1-19, 27-47). Outwits the authorities and alienates the Zealot nationalists by simultaneously arguing that Caesar has no real authority from God, but you should still pay your taxes (Luke 20:20-26). Jesus goes on to flip all conventional prosperity wisdom on its head, and by extension criticize rich donors, by exalting a widow giving two mites as a greater gift than all their rich donations (Luke 21:1-4). All before finally hammering home Jerusalem’s immanent destruction, and God’s judgement of all its people (Luke 21:4-38).
All in all, one could say an extremely productive week, especially for making enemies out of just about everyone in town. None of Jesus’ actions excuse the crowd for turning against Him, after all He was right about everything, and to the last remained the only person truly innocent of Sin. Yet, considering the rest of the picture, how the world is, and how we do not like to be confronted by unpleasant truths, I can certainly understand how quickly and easily we turn against Him. In its own way, the jarring and sudden turn we take as the crowd on Palm Sunday is a lesson unto itself; a microcosm of how we, when confronted by the real Jesus, and the real, challenging, truth of God’s Kingdom that He confronts us with, sends us from cheering Jesus, to condemning Jesus. How often do we blow our trumpets in the street, and call for change, only to condemn and revile it when it comes? We would be wise to remember the prophecies of Joel and Amos, who warn those who wish for the coming Kingdom of God with all its terrible and true justice may be surprised to find themselves among the condemned unjust (Joel 2 & Amos 5). If the Lord were to be in our midst today, I fear that we too would shout “Crucify!”
Thankfully for all our sakes’, today there are but a few words left, and that being an overture, the story is not fully told on Palm Sunday. This is the invitation to participate in the story of salvation, how even in a sinful and spiteful world, God’s love prevails. This week, as we walk with Jesus from the cheering crowds to the cross, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, that God came into this world not to condemn it, but to save us. Amen.