Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage 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.”
A week away from the glory of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus is placed on a colt and a procession leads him into God’s city, into His city. Christ is worshipped as the ruler he is for the first and last time. After three long years of ministry, Jesus is lauded as he deserved. In any other story, in anything but a true story, this would be our end card. The Return of the King after centuries of cruel and unfit kings. This is not just a story, this is the start of Christ’s final week among us.
We are prone to rush through Holy Week, we want to get to Easter as soon as possible – not dwelling on the Passion of Friday, the Betrayal of Maundy Thursday, and definitely not on the silence of Holy Saturday. We want to celebrate the Resurrection, but first, we must face our own sin and in the case of today, celebrate what has yet to come.
We celebrate as those who know what followed Palm Sunday, we celebrate as people who know that God will return to us one day. We do, however, risk celebrating Christ’s arrival into the city in the same way that the disciples had before. We risk celebrating the entrance of God into our world as the entrance of a God we have made in our own image. When we see Christ coming to us, do we see him as establishing a kingdom for the reign of God, or our own reign?
This Lent we have spent time together talking about what we must give up in service to God. We must give up our self-made Messiahs, we must give up our privilege, we must give up our greed. We also saw in the Magnificat what we must take on – we must advocate for the poor, we must oppose the proud, and we must ultimately side with God even when it hurts us to do so. Hopefully, each of us has benefitted from our Lenten studies and practices.
As we enter into Holy Week, and as we look at the Triumphal Entry, we have to ask ourselves whether Lent has done its duty. Have we shed our attachments such that we can see God more clearly, given time and space for God to work within our lives and really change us? The beauty of this season is that it, more than any other time of the church year, calls us to be thoughtful, calls us to reflect, calls us above all to repent.
For those who were gathered along the road that day nearly two millennia ago, God was coming as a conquering king. Their waving of Palm Fronds is reflected in 1 Maccabees, wherein Simon Maccabeus retakes Jerusalem during a war and is greeted with hymns and a large processional. The crowd that greeted him was huge, and they were celebrating a King that had cast off an imperial oppressor and given them freedom once more.
The disciples who greeted Jesus did so with an expectation. “You’ve come here to free us from Rome, and you are going to crush them into dust.” Why would they think anything else? No matter how you pictured a Messiah in the first century – as a righteous king, a righteous priest, or as a divine Judge – the end result was always that those who had done you harm were going to get what they had coming to them. When they laid out those palm fronds, they did so because they expected that Jesus – whether he became their priest, their king, or their avenging angel, was going to Maker Jerusalem what they believed it once had been.
Imagine then how uncomfortable this procession must have seemed upon reflection. When they sat down for their meals that night and they did not hear the sounds of battle. When they laid down to sleep and there was no new Jerusalem inaugurated in Roman blood. Then they probably began to wonder about what the procession had really meant. “Why was he on a donkey? Where was his army? He just had a few dirty peasants… Wasn’t one of them wearing Roman clothes? I think some of them might have even been a Zealot!”
Doubt seeped into them and they were faced with a choice – change what they knew about God, or abandon their belief that Jesus really was acting on behalf of God. It’s a decision that we still face today. When something happens in our life and God does not respond the way we expect, it shakes us to the core for good reason. God is the root and essence of our life – from beginning to end God defines how we live. When God acts in a way counter to what we know about God, it leads us to a place where we must restructure our life or else completely abandon what we thought to be true.
For us, it is usually after some kind of trauma that we are forced to redefine God. When someone we love dies or we get a diagnosis that casts doubt on our future. Or perhaps it’s not so dire, and we are passed over for a promotion we had been earnestly praying for, or something else that we saw as a blessing from God is taken away from us. In these moments we come before God and we ask why? Why did you not do what I thought you would? This is never a bad question to ask, the only thing we can do wrong in these moments is not to listen.
When we ask God to redefine Godself for us, we need to be ready for whatever answer comes our way. For those who gathered outside Jerusalem the answer to what God is like would come a few days later on Calvary. God was not there to kill the Romans and institute a kingdom on Earth but to die under the Romans and establish a rule that would transcend both Heaven and Earth. They would be faced with the crucifixion, and really with the resurrection, and would have to make a choice if the real God was one they were willing to follow.
Was a God who suffered with us as important as a conquering God? Was a God who asked you to die like they did worth worshipping? Sometimes the response we immediately have is to say that we were right all along, that this experience was a test and that the God we imagined will still ride into town one day. If we do this, then we miss the Christ that rode by on a Colt. Likewise, we can say that because God is not what we expected, we cannot serve them, maybe even more – they never existed. A God that is not what I imagined is not worth pursuing.
The third option is to doubt and to be troubled but to continue on in faith. We criticize the disciples for duplicity, but they still returned to serve their resurrected Lord. They were the ones waving Palm fronds and celebrating a conquering King, and in the darkness of Friday, they would indeed abandon their God. They still were willing to hear the clarion call of the Resurrection, they took the steps toward God and accepted the revelation God gave them. “I’m not the God you greeted on the entrance to Jerusalem, I never was. I still am God though, and I am still with you.”
The celebration of Palm Sunday would leave the disciples questioning who God was. A thousand thousand things today do the same for us. What we must always do is listen to the answer we are given after we pose our questions. The results may surprise us, they may make us uncomfortable, but no matter what – they allow us to see what God really is like. It is an ongoing revelation, and only when Christ truly returns in glory can we truly behold God as God truly is.
Then we will raise up our palm fronds, we will welcome a King who has set things right not by killing, but by dying. A King who will rule justly over all people, and who will bless us with knowledge of their true self forever and ever. Amen.