The following is my sermon draft for this coming Sunday, which is Palm Sunday. Instead of waiting until after I preach it I thought I would post it here first to perhaps generate some discussion or observations before I preach it at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ in Lebanon, PA, this weekend. The lections are Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Matthew 21:1-17.
It is likely that we know this story. Jesus comes into the holy city of Jerusalem, a city that is believed to be the center of the universe by Jews, and enters on a donkey, and is welcomed into the city as a king with palms waving in the air. We should recall that while Jesus is given a king’s welcome, the folks welcoming him into the city were many who betrayed Jesus in the end. But it would be a little bit of a mistake if we blamed the crowd entirely for Jesus’ death, in fact, if we look into what was happening in this scene of scripture we are given new clues as to just how connected this story of Palm Sunday is connected to the crucifixion of Jesus, which happens just a few days later.
Part of the deal the Jews had with their Passover celebration was that the Roman governor would process into the city and demand a kind of worship to acknowledge the civic religion of the state. So long as the Jews complied with this practice, they could worship freely however they wanted, and so often the conflicts between the Roman Empire and the Jews was evoked as a result of the Jews’ refusal to compromise in worshiping the idols of the empire. It’s likely that the point of the palms was that the date of the Roman procession to demand worship of the Empire and its gods coincided with the pagan holiday of the Festival of the Entry of the Tree, where a palm tree would have been carried through the city.
So Jesus processes into the city, following the Roman politician, probably on purpose, as a parody of the idol-worship of the Empire. What is interesting about the way that the Bible presents this story is that while this story was originally written in Greek, the word “Hosanna” is a foreign word from the Aramaic language, and it means “Save us!” The Jews yelled this foreign word at the procession of the Empire into the city, to give the appearance that they were worshiping the state gods, while they were really insulting the state Gods. Waving the palm branches, they fanned the king with their pagan symbols of worship, condemning the Roman ruler and their military who marched with them, condemning them by making a mockery of the Roman religion.
This reminds me of a famous Ethiopian proverb that goes like this: When the great king passes by, the wise peasant bows deeply, and farts (R. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew, p. 116.). In other words, the treatment of the processional that the Empire required through the city was turned into an insult, without the Romans having any idea. The cheering of the crowd made fun of the Romans and their pagan worship. And the parody continues with Jesus processing like a king, on a donkey, with the sick and the poor following him. It was all a big joke for many of them, and they believed that the joke was on the Empire.
But then the tone of the procession immediately changes as Jesus arrives to the heart of Jewish religious life, the center of the universe, the Temple. Now, the crowd could tolerate mocking the Roman Emperor, but Jesus then gives his final sermon. We should remember that Jesus’ first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, was directed at the poor living in the countryside and its villages. Now Jesus preaches to the rich and those who are the most religious at the center of society, that they have made the temple the opposite of anything godly. Jesus overturns the money-changers’ tables and enters the Temple.
And once he is inside the temple, the poor and the sick entered the temple and were given hope and healed. And then the priests heard the children continue the cry of the word, “Hosanna,” directed at Jesus, but this time the word “Hosanna” was not a mockery, but it was genuine. But for those who held power in the temple, they now realized that Jesus not only made a mockery of the Empire but he now made a mockery of the priests.
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It’s fair to say that Pontius Pilate, the local ruling governor for the Roman Empire saw this happen and understand that Jesus was good for neither the priests nor for Rome, and perhaps began to understand that the Roman Empire was being made a fool of as the peasants bowed in the streets, waved their palms, and secretly passed gas. Jesus, who was no real threat to Rome in a military sense, exposed the hypocrisy of his own leaders, who had sold out to Rome, and made a mockery of the Roman Empire. Jesus had to go.
But the most striking image that I have of Jesus from the whole ordeal is that the people who made a mockery of the Empire were using Jesus to make a political statement, but then the mockery turned on them. And as it happens, Jesus’ mockery of the priests was quite serious. He might have processed in silently and gently on a donkey, but then he violently erupts and rebels against those who had financially benefitted from the temple. And then he goes into the temple and begins a new ministry without the permission or oversight of the priests.
Jesus did not replace the false gods of Rome with the mainstream religion of the Jews; rather, he walked into the empty temple, and out of the absence of God and the absence of life from the temple, Jesus enacts new life. Jesus brings about hope in a place that was believed to be stagnant and dead. Jesus, a madman, overthrew the money changers who prevented real change from happening in the culture, while doing business at the foot of the temple, Jesus blasphemes the practicing religious and businessmen of his time and then walks into the temple and strikes up his funeral ritual for the ways of life of the past. By burying the past, Jesus then brings about a New Creation Now Occurring in the new ritual of the physical sacrifice of himself, at the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus began to prepare those to whom he preached at the beginning of his ministry—the poor, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers, and those who thirst for justice—for the most radical act of his life yet, namely, the coming of the death of God on the cross.
But the hope in all of this is that just as Jesus walks into the tomb of the temple and brings new life and hope out of its darkness and absence, so also does Jesus enter the tomb and bring new life and new hope out of his own death.
And while there is hope for the new life that Christ brings with his crucifixion and resurrection, we have to ask whether there is hope for us. Is it possible for us to take these tombs and broken vessels of our bodies, and of our selves, and the tombs of our cars, and our jobs, and our families, and our communities, and the gravestones and sepulchers of God that is the church as we know it in our time, and sing a new song of New Creation, one that inspires the sick and the lonely and the oppressed? How can we live our lives with such ultimate joy that our children will reverse the cries of mockery from the crowd—Hosanna!—into proclamations of new life and resurrection?
How can we do justice in the world in such a way that turns the social order around, where the last truly are first and the first truly are last, if we might find a way to proclaim that our lives, and our daily routines, and our churches have served the Lord of This Age for long enough, and it is now time to invite the Christ who is God poured out for us all into our hearts, and into our flesh, so that we too may follow Jesus in his walk of crucifixion, and sacrifice, and death? Do we have faith enough to believe that the more we are hated by the world, the more we embody ourselves with Christ in his descent into hell, that we might become part of the New World enacting all around us, working toward the return of Christ?
These are the powerful questions that lay before all of us, and our society, and the church in our present day and age. Now we must choose for ourselves whether we will make a mockery of our challenge, or will we answer the call to build together the Kingdom for Christ to return?
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When we are children, thunderstorms are always special events, because they are at once exhilarating and frightening. In fact, I still like thunderstorms, especially in the calm and silence that often precedes them before they become realized. You have surely participated in the ritual, often done with children, of watching for lightening, and counting—one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand—for the sounds of thunder, to estimate how far away the lighting struck.
My friends, the Good News is that Easter is Coming, and that Christ comes again. Today, this Palm Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus’ reversal of the social order and his giving of himself in the beginning of his last days. In this story we are now beginning to see the flash of lightning of the greatest event in human history about to happen before us. We see the beginnings of a reversal of society that happened nearly 2,000 years ago and is still not fully realized. But even while we have seen the lightning, we know that thunder sometimes requires time, just as the light of the stars require time to arrive to us.
The gloom and darkness, and silence and solitude of the coming days are looming upon us. Holy Week, when we truly experience it, is not an easy or comfortable experience. Living in our modern world with our technology, and our illusions of freedom in our country, and our lies of sophistication in our society make it even more difficult, if not nearly impossible, for us to have any conception of the Great Reversals we are about to traverse through at the end of this Lenten journey. If we are to follow the footsteps of Jesus, the walk of Golgotha, then we must answer the call, for the call has happened, and is happening, whether we choose to answer or not.
Lightning and thunder require time. The time is now upon us to be the thunder of the world, the thunder that shakes the ground and tears the veil of the temple curtain. Our call is now to speak and act into the absence and nothingness of the tombs all around us and reverse the course of history, and genuinely name the breath of emptiness that we all experience in our lives, as an absence that may now breathe new life. We must begin to pronounce the promise, a flash of lightning of which we have only previously known before as a rumor, and speak it genuinely: Easter.