I don’t usually give a message on Palm/Passion Sunday. My preaching professor in seminary, the late Dr. Charles Rice, always said that the combined events of celebrating the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with palms and Hosannas and of remembering the Passion of Jesus Christ by concluding with the telling of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion was enough. The text preaches itself, he said. We don’t need to add more words. Over the years, I’ve found his words to ring true, and because of the vividness of the readings, and the juxtaposition of the crowds yelling, “Hosanna, God save us!” at the start of the worship service and then yelling, “Crucify, Crucify him!” by the end, I’ve found Palm/Passion Sunday to be one of the most meaningful worship services of the year. And so I’m not really giving a lengthy sermon today either, I promise! Just a little contextualizing, I think. The events of Palm Sunday and of the Passion of Jesus are as compelling as ever, but I want to help focus our attention just a bit.
Have any of you seen the TV show How I Met Your Mother? Really, the content of the show doesn’t matter - but I wanted to talk about a technique they use in one episode. In one episode, it begins with the whole gang at a restaurant, out to brunch, pausing for a photo that looks perfect - everyone is dressed up, everyone is smiling, and it seems to capture a happy moment. But then in the rest of the episode, we find out everything that has led up to that moment of the photo, and everything that happens afterwards, and let’s just say, it isn’t all so happy and lovely as the freeze-frame photo will look.
I’ve had that episode in my mind - that “freeze frame” image in my mind as I’ve read Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday. Imagine that the photo, the freeze frame of Palm Sunday is Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, crowds spreading their cloaks on the ground, or spreading branches out before him, a sign of honor, or shouting the greeting that is also a plea: Hosanna - God save us - blessed is the one who comes in God’s name - familiar lines of scripture that also signified that this crowd at least saw Jesus as a king, a savior, a messiah - an anointed one who would fix things, maybe work for the overthrow of Rome. It makes a vibrant, exciting image, and it has always left me feeling like I wanted to be part of that parade, part of that crowd, welcoming Jesus, crying, “Hosanna!”
But if we “zoom out” on the freeze frame photo of Palm Sunday, we find a more complicated story. The beginning several verses of our text from Matthew show Jesus and the disciples finalizing details for entering Jerusalem. Matthew’s account seems to involve a complicated arrangement of both a colt and a donkey, and Jesus inexplicably riding on both, because Matthew, God bless him, didn’t really understand the repetitive nature of Hebrew poetry, the scripture he is trying so hard to show Jesus fulfilling. But however he gets there, eventually Jesus is on a donkey - or two - headed into Jerusalem. It isn’t in Jerusalem, though, that the crowds are cheering him. It’s on the road heading into the city that Jesus and the disciples are accompanied by a crowd. Who are these people? We don’t really know. Were they Jesus followers already? Had they been listening to his teaching and preaching? Had they been healed by Jesus? Where are they coming from? Did some come from Jerusalem to meet and escort him in, or are these all out-of-towners? Whoever they are, it is this crowd who seems excited about Jesus, anxious for his saving power to be at work in their lives, even if we might wonder if they had the same idea as Jesus about what it meant to be saved.
But once Jesus gets into Jerusalem, the joyous parade changes in tone. In verse 10 we read that “the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” The word “turmoil” there has some interesting definitions. Turmoil means shaken to and fro like a poised spear, shaken to the foundation. It is a word that describes earthquakes. It is concussion-causing agitation or disturbance. It’s a word used with accusation, spite, extortion, and blackmail. (1) The Jerusalem crowd is in turmoil - shaken to their core - when Jesus comes into town. They know him to be a prophet, and they don’t seem excited to greet him. When the parade hits Jerusalem, everything is different.
That’s where our text for today ends. But of course, that’s not where the story ends. Next comes verse 12. The Jerusalem crowds are shaken, and they should be, because in verse 12, a newly-arrived-to-town Jesus heads straight to the temple, and drives out all of those who are buying and selling in the temple, implying that those partaking in the long-established temple are nothing better than robbers in a house of prayer. Some - those with little standing in society - come to Jesus - the blind and lame come for healing, and children in the temple are still honoring Jesus with Hosannas. But those who “counted” in temple life - the chief priests and scribes - are less excited. Jesus “cleansing the temple” - as these events are called - happens on Palm Sunday too. It’s not part of the perfect parade picture - but it’s still the same day.
Palm Sunday sets up the contrasts - between who is with Jesus on the road, and who encounters Jesus in the city; between those on the margins of society who embrace Jesus, and those in the center of things who feel like they’ve been through an earthquake when they’re in his presence; between those who have little access to power structures, and those who are wielding great power at the expense of others. And Palm Sunday starts this sequence of events that just increases in intensity. After the cleansing of the temple, Jesus spends the next day teaching in parables and continuing to fight with the religious leaders. These parables are “lighter” parables about seed and forgiveness and the lost and found. They’re about preparedness, judgment, and people who miss Jesus’s message, miss what God is trying to say. Palm Sunday is the day that the pressure cooker of Holy Week starts to increase the temperature. Jesus is confrontational with everyone, even a fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit! Always confronting.
This Palm Sunday, this Holy Week, can we look beyond the freeze frame photo of the Palm parade? As always, our best strategy is to stick as close to Jesus as possible - on the margins, instead of at the center, in the places where power is shared insead of gathered up. Stick close to Jesus. In Holy Week, from Verse Twelve on, we see that sticking with Jesus is no easy task. Judas, Peter, the rest of the twelve, the religious leaders, others who are condemned by the same system of oppression that condemns Jesus - so many find it difficult to continue following Jesus when the palms stop waving. We might find it difficult too. And sometimes Jesus is confronting us - calling us out, calling us to accountability, calling us to repentance. Even so - stick close. Search the stories for those who stay with Jesus. Search for those who find their way back again. Search out the ways God keeps calling us. After the parade, then what? We’ve shouted our hosannas. Where will Jesus us find us next?
Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.,