Weekly Preaching: Palm/Passion Sunday 2019

April 9th, 2019

Palm Sunday? Passion Sunday? I don’t get the big dichotomy. On Sunday Jesus entered the city, clearly to confront and submit to death itself. Forces of evil were already arrayed against him. Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their stellar The Last Week, explain how, with Passover due, Pilate with his Roman legion are marching into Jerusalem from Caesarea to the west, arms clattering, swords glinting in the sun, the thunder of hooves and chariots meant to intimidate, to quell any thought of an uprising with the huge crowds visiting the Holy City. Simultaneously, from the east, as clear a counterpoint as you could imagine, Jesus enters, not on a war stallion, unarmed, not to intimidate but to unmask the powers, to conquer evil and hate with mercy and love.

What makes no sense theologically is the sunny, optimistic version of Palm Sunday with chipper children cheering for Jesus, their hero. “Hosanna, heysanna!” from Jesus Christ Superstar captures the mood dramatically. And for me, I love the fact that "Hosanna!" isn't a cheer. It's a prayer, meaning something like "Lord, help, please," or "Help us now." What was the tone of the Hosannas on Palm Sunday, as habituated as the people were by the Romans to stay quiet?

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Some details in Luke’s peculiar version of the story (Luke 19:28-40) are worth touching upon. No palms! And no Hosannas in Luke’s wording. David Lyle Jeffrey notes the serenity of the animal... that anyone who’s spent much time with them would notice. Never ridden, yet calm, even amid the flapping of palms and all the racket?

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And why did Jesus ride? Not to spark the great “Ride On, King Jesus!” but to make a symbolic point. He’d walked all over the countryside! He rode clearly to say I’m the one you read about in Zechariah 9:9. He didn’t holler “I’m the king!” He didn’t have to after this. Jesus is no a-political sweetie. He eagerly embraces the most political of titles, flaunting it in the face of big King Herod and huge King the Emperor Tiberius. He’s a different kind of king, one who threatens the political status quo. Jesus mustered immense courage, entering the city he had wept over for killing the prophets (13:31-35), exposing himself, unarmed, to the powers feeling very threatened by his entry. In Luke, the people get it: Instead of “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cry “Blessed is the King who comes…” Wow.

I am inclined to connect this day to a book I just read about the Vikings. Growing up, I knew of Eric the Red and Leif Erickson. Tom Shippey tells the stories of more with fabulous names: Ragnar Hairy Breeches, Thorkell the Tall, Svein Forkbeard, Aethelred the Unready, Halfdan Longleg, Ivar the Boneless, Ketil Flatnose, Magus Barelegs, the Sigurds (the Stout, the Dragon Slayer, and Snake in the Eye), and the Haralds (Bluetooth, Finehair, Harefoot). The Vikings were inferior in manpower; they did have cool ships and loved surprise attacks. But Shippey says their real secret was their "contempt for death, their refusal to give in, ever. The only thing that could make you a loser was giving up...  They were not able to take death and defeat seriously, constantly making jokes and wisecracks in the teeth of bloodshed and peril. Even when being crushed: to them, what was best was to spoil your enemy’s victory, to make a joke out of death, to die laughing." I wonder if there is a kind of hidden laughter in Jesus riding a mere donkey, unarmed, never giving up, ready to die defiantly and with some mysterious hidden hope and joy.

I might talk about geography in my sermon. Once upon a time, I led people on the “Palm Sunday walk,” starting in Bethany, down the hill then back up to Bethpage, then descending the slope of the Mt. of Olives into the Kidron Valley, then up into Jerusalem proper. You can’t do it any more because of the wall, designed to keep peace, but only harassing citizens in Bethany who now have a 30 or more minute drive to get to the city to work.

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The confusion that reigned on the first Palm Sunday is worth exploring. People were wrapped up in their fantasies about Jesus, about God, and about what deliverance would look like. The Epistle reading, Philippians 2:5-11 (a perfect Palm or Palm/Passion text, toward which I leaned in my sermon 3 years ago) clarifies what Jesus was demonstrating by entering the city on a donkey. The translation is fascinating: We typically hear “Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” but the Greek will allow for an even more insightful rendering — “Because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself…” Jesus’ humility, his lowness, his vulnerability... this is not temporary charade, no play acting whereas God’s "real" nature is sheer, unadulterated power and might. This is God: the humble one, the infant in a cow stall, the abject, beaten, silent one, the nailed one.

If you do the full Passion story and plan to preach on it in its entirety, I’d highly commend Donald Senior’s short and thoughtful The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke

I will never again ponder the passion narrative with recalling Robert Jenson’s wise conclusion to his exploration of various theories of the atonement:

“The Gospels tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back... The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling actions and our reconciliation, as events in his life and ours. Therefore what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and about ourselves.” 

The question for the preacher is, Can I trust the story? Or do I feel some compulsion to dress it up and improve upon it?

What can we say April 14? Palm/Passion Sunday originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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