It had begun in the wilderness. It would end in the city. It had begun in a place where all definitions were set aside. There he had confronted his temptations. There he had wrestled with the implications of his call. It would end in the city where men and councils created their own order and established their own definitions. The beginning was marked by a voice from heaven that said, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." The end would be announced by an angry crowd shouting, "Give us Barabbas, crucify Jesus!"
And crucify him they did. With such a gruesome, painful and unjustified ending one might suspect that the people of the city did not recognize him. But that is not true. They recognized him sure enough when he rode into their city. They called him, "Son of David, Prophet of Galilee." They waved palm branches, shouted Hosanna and called him blessed. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."
And he did come in the name of the Lord. All the signs were there. He acted out the prophecy of old to be sure that his true identity would not be missed. The prophet Isaiah had listed the things that characterized the presence of God's anointed. The blind would receive sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers would be cleansed and the dead would be raised -- and don't forget the poor -- the poor would have good news preached to them. And from the very beginning these were the things that marked his ministry. So it was no surprise that they recognized him. What is surprising is how quickly and easily the shouts of Hosanna changed to cries of crucify him. What is surprising is how something that started off so well ended up so badly.
Reading the Palm Sunday story is like seeing a movie that did not end the way you think it should have ended. I read recently about a person who as a child used to go back to see movies that ended badly over and over again. She believed that for these movies there was an alternative ending, a different final reel that the projectionist could show and make the story come out right. Perhaps we feel that way about the Palm Sunday story. But there is no other ending. Every year we come back to it and we read it again, but it still comes out the same way. He came into the city as a fulfillment of the prophecy of old. He did what the promised messiah was supposed to have done. They welcomed him. They recognized him as one who came in the name of the Lord. He disturbed them and they rejected him. They arrested him, tried him, and crucified him. It will not come out differently. It is a perfect example of the shallow and fickle loyalties of people. It is not clear why their welcome changed so abruptly to shouts of crucify him. It is not clear what the story really means.
For a long time it was hard for me to find much meaning in the Palm Sunday story. It has always been easier to find meaning in the events of Maunday Thursday, Good Friday, and certainly much easier to find significance in Easter. But what is really the point of Palm Sunday? Is it simply a fact that every year it is retold and rehearsed -- full of sound and fury and palm branches, but not signifying very much? Or does it mean something? Are there lessons to be learned from it?
So often such stories in the Bible do not really reveal their secrets. They stand before us mute, and we must sit in their presence and wait for them to reveal their lessons to us. When we sit before this moment in time do we simply hear it as a particular and peculiar moment in history OR is it an event that happens again and again? Is there something archetypal about the story? I understand that Good Friday was an actual day -- the day on which Jesus was crucified, but I also see Good Friday as a way of thinking about all the tragic, senseless, unjust experiences that come in life, that defy understanding, and make the love of God look like a mockery. In every life that endures for awhile there are Good Friday days where all good hopes seem to die and there appears to be no justice. In the midst of our Good Fridays we wait, and hope and long for Easter. Is the same true of Palm Sunday? Are there Palm Sundays in every life?
I believe there are. I believe that we often have as much difficulty welcoming those moments in our life as did the crowds of long ago who first welcomed Jesus and then turned on him. What is Palm Sunday? Palm Sunday is an intrusive moment. Jesus has quit preaching and gone to meddling. We tell ourselves that whatever the gospel means, it must mean that God wants to help us with our agenda. It must mean that God deals with us like an over indulgent and too permissive parent who wants his child to get ahead and be happy. It must mean that God is at my service and Jesus has come to help me be more successful, more fulfilled, more whatever it is that I want. Palm Sunday began to go bad when it became clear that Jesus was a threat to the way things were organized in the city of Jerusalem. Jesus was most welcome when it was believed that he would help you with illness, raise brother from the dead, cure cousin's blindness, make the demons go away; but he does not stop there. He wants to redirect life. On Palm Sunday it becomes clear that when God enters our lives he not only blesses, heals, teaches and leads, he also confronts and disturbs. Palm Sunday is the moment when it becomes clear that God is concerned with more than our spiritual and physical health. He is concerned with our moral health and has claims on the power centers of our lives. You see we have little trouble with Jesus in the suburbs or even with Jesus in the hospital. But Palm Sunday reminds us that God is not satisfied with being Lord of our spiritual lives or our inner lives, that is easy enough...but on Palm Sunday Jesus goes down town... and enters the law offices, the financial districts, the brokerage houses...and the halls of government...and that is where the trouble really got started.
Palm Sunday happens when we discover and hear that God has not entered our lives to help us do our work, but that he has come to call us back to do his work. Palm Sunday happens when something takes place that disturbs the normal commerce of our daily lives. It happens when the spirit of God challenges the way our faith has entered into partnership with our pocketbook and our religion into the service of our national interest. Jesus was welcomed because it was expected that he would be of service to the city and of service to the national ambitions of the Jews, but instead he called the city to repentance. Whenever our lives are disturbed in that way, Palm Sunday happens, and until something has happened that challenges the way we think of life and of ourselves, we have probably not met one real Jesus.
It is always disturbing when God enters our lives. We can respond to that disturbance with hostility and rejection or we can welcome him as liberator and life giver as one who comes in the name of the Lord. Over and over again in the Bible the initial response of people to the intrusion of God is a response of fear. But over and over we hear God's gracious words. "Be not afraid." The only reason we need to fear in the presence of God is if we are more committed to keeping things the way they are than we are open to welcoming him into our lives.
The great question of the Palm Sunday event is the question that was asked long ago. Who is this? It is an unpleasant intrusion into an otherwise ordered life. Is it some neurotic manifestation? Should it be dealt with by drugs or psychotherapy? Or is it God who has gone and disturbed the normal commerce and definitions of our too well ordered lives. Sometime ago, I spent one afternoon with an old friend in another city. He is a successful physician. But that which has always been so well ordered has suddenly begun to feel disordered. He told me that he had always been completely in control of everything that happened, but now he felt out of control. That which he had believed about life, about himself and his family is no longer tenable. "Am I losing my mind?" he asked. Then he said, "Perhaps there is something else here, perhaps all of this has something to do with God in my life, or with the absence of God. Something is happening to me that I do not understand and that seems beyond my control. Could it be Palm Sunday?" "Be not afraid, it is I. Hosanna... blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."
But that is not all that I see in this event. It is not just an example of what God's intrusion into the power centers of our lives will look like, but also an example of what our lives are supposed to look like. We see in Jesus the ultimate example of the fully human life. And that is what we have been called to be: a pilgrim people. Pilgrims are people who are passing through, citizens of another kingdom who travel from one holy place to another unencumbered by lesser loyalties and ties. The pilgrim is called to travel light in the world, and so it was with Jesus. He amassed no fortune. He left no will. The poor man had nothing to leave. As the pilgrim moves deeper into the journey, his conception of what is essential changes. The trails of pilgrims are strewn with excess baggage. The further Jesus went, the lighter was his load.
The admonition that we find in Philippians is what it boils down to for us. "Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant...and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." That is part of what Palm Sunday means. It is a demonstration of what our true humanity looks like; free enough from lesser loyalties to be God's representatives even in the midst of the city, to speak the name of God and to come in the name of God without embarrassment. Ours is not an agenda of accommodation. It is an agenda of transformation.
The whole reason for Lent has been to get somewhere. Like pilgrims telling the Canterbury tales, we have brought out our best stories. Up to today they have been happy ending stories. Jesus in the wilderness is victorious over the power of Satan. At the well he changes a woman's life by his willingness to allow her to minister to him. A man born blind is made well and whole. And last Sunday's drama ended beside a tomb as Lazarus responds to the command of Jesus to come out. But today there is not a happy ending, and we are reminded that if we are to find our way through the dangerous and difficult events of passion week to the far side -- to Easter and to new life -- then we must be pilgrims. We must be liberated from lesser loyalties. We must be emptied of our pride, of our ambition, of our fears, and follow Jesus as he leads us deeper and deeper into the city.