Date: March 28, 2021
Bible Text: John 12:12-16 | Bart Smith
There are two core truths at the heart of the Christian faith that Palm Sunday illumines. To trust God with the whole of our lives, to follow Jesus, to pattern our lives from his, to be filled and guided with the same Spirit that animated him is both protest and paradox.
Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was, in effect, a protest. The way we rehearse the story makes it seem like the First Century equivalent of a ticker-tape parade, like greeting a war hero on return. A few years back, remarking on the way we normally observe Palm Sunday — with children marking down the center aisle of the sanctuary, palms held high, and everyone else in the congregation waving them during the first hymn — somebody called it the only day of the year that Presbyterians move in worship. In a lot of ways it does have a pageant sort of flavor. It is parade-like, with crowds gathering and cheering and (depending on the gospel version you’re reading) Jesus riding a donkey or a donkey and a colt, the masses cheering him on with the palm fronds, and onlookers throwing their coats down on the road in front of him. “Hosanna!” But if we really drill down to what “hosanna” means, it’s “save us” or “save us now! It’s less of a “hooray!” and more of a “somebody help us, please!” Somebody rescue us!
His procession was a protest in that it was a counter-story to what was happening on the other side of town. New Testament scholars give us some context: on the other side of town, in the west gate into Jerusalem, the Roman governor would leave his coastal palace and enter the city with military pomp and circumstance. He would do this right before the Passover festival, when Jerusalem’s population would swell to its highest levels. With his war horses and soldiers and weapons, he would remind a subjugated people in occupied land of the empire’s power and might. His parade would bully anyone who might be fomenting revolt.
So then here, headed into the east gate, comes this rabbi from a rural village. These crowds, with many people in them presumably having followed him around Galilee, have seen what he does: heals people for nothing, feeds people for nothing, casts out demons for nothing, scandalously welcomes all to the parties he threw. John’s gospel has these crowds say: “This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world.” (6:14-15) They wanted to make him their king. Which, of course, ticks off the powers-at-be. “The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might kill him” (11:55-57) and “when the large crowd of the [Jewish people] learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well…” (12:9-11). The crowd heard he was coming and they, itching for a confrontation as fed up people, hollered: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of Yahweh— the King of Israel!” (12:12-13) This whole crowd is guilty of sedition! Imperial subjects who are supposed to cheer “Hail Caesar” are lauding the son of laborers from Nazareth. What Jesus is doing is controversial. It threatens the status quo. The sequence is different in John, of course, but the other gospels, after this procession, have Jesus flip the tables of the moneychangers in the temple and chase them out with a whip. Jesus is agitating.
But there are also contradictions in the “stunt” he’s pulling as he enters Jerusalem. He rides on a donkey, not a chariot. He is a messiah, God’s anointed ruler, but doesn’t look the part. He defies not only the authorities, but also the expectations of his own people. He comes to rule, not with brute strength, but with self-sacrificing love. He comes bringing peace, but not just the peace that comes with an absence of conflict, but the deeper peace of God’s shalom, a peace with justice and wholeness. He comes announcing the arrival of the “empire of God,” if you will, but the way he teaches “citizenship” in that empire is filled with all sorts of paradoxes: love those who hate you, give to receive, lose to win, lead by serving, live by dying.
So it is that our faith is both protest and paradox. It is a protest against the established order of things. Its insistence on love being the means as well as the end makes it countercultural and counterintuitive. It goes against the grain of any oppressive regime as well as the basic instincts of self-preservation in human nature. Jesus’ way is inconvenient. Jesus’ way is hard. Jesus’ way, though, is far more transformative than any of the quick fixes to age-old problems that we cycle through. It isn’t a tweak to the system, it is total liberation.
Jesus, and the way of life into which he leads us, is paradoxical. Hymn number 274 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal expresses this so lyrically. The notes at the bottom of the page tell the story: “When it was first published the author [Sylvia Dunstan] called this text ‘Christus Paradox’ because so many attributes of Christ stand in tension with each other… She drafted it on a commuter bus after ‘a particularly bad day’ of prison ministry.”
You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peacemaker and sword bringer
of the way you took and gave.
You, the everlasting instant;
you whom we both scorn and crave.
Clothed in light upon the mountain,
stripped of might upon the cross,
shining in eternal glory,
beggared by a soldier’s toss,
you, the everlasting instant;
you who are both gift and cost.
You, who walk each day beside us,
sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow,
have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant;
you who are our pilgrim guide.
Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and victory;
Worthy still your peace and strife.
You, the everlasting instant;
you, who are our death and life.
This story — the Palm/Passion Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter story — and the grander story of our faith, is at its truest an alternative way of living in the world and it is filled with paradox. As a preacher I’ll confess that, on my hardest days, I wish it was more straightforward, something a little easier to “sell,” a “seven tips to a better you” kind of philosophy, simplified, digestible set of propositions. But it’s not, it’s a story in which we find ourselves. It is our compass. It’s large enough, messy enough, for real people and real life, which we know all too well are full of contradictions, and in need of deep change.
There are alternatives out there, for sure, ways of empire that promise an easier path. Ways of empire that ignore injustice, that skate right over the suffering of others, that offer shortcuts rather than demanding much of us. It’s hard, this way, but it’s worth it, because it leads to life — flourishing life, even eternal life. As John has Jesus say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10) Amen.