This Sunday’s sermon is a bit different, as it is broken into two related but distinct parts that address the two different foci of this day, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his procession toward death just days later.
A Royal Procession
a reflection on Matthew 21:1-11
Palm Sunday just doesn’t feel right without a procession: palm branches waved by a joyful congregation, children leading the way into the church, and a familiar hymn marking the day and the way as we remember Jesus’ journey from the countryside into the city. This strange reenactment of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is quite likely the closest any of us will ever get to a royal procession.
Our observance is always marked with this grand and glorious language of kingship, seemingly celebrating the arrival of a new king, but this is quite unlike any other royal procession. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem takes every element of a royal procession and turns it upside down. Every symbol that is supposed to make the ruler have proper status and position is shifted entirely. The royal carriage or white horse is replaced with a simple donkey and colt. The royal guards and advance crew that precede every king are replaced with a couple disciples dispatched to borrow the donkey and colt from an unsuspecting owner. The beautiful fabrics that would celebrate the arrival of most royalty are nowhere to be found, so some cloaks and tree branches have to do. And even the crowd that gathered wasn’t prepared to welcome a king, so they too offer their cloaks and start cutting branches off the trees beside the road to prepare the way for this strange man from the countryside to enter the city.
As much as we might try to make the story of Palm Sunday seem like so many other royal processions, as much as we might try to put Jesus into the role of a traditional and mighty king, everything about this day and this man insists that we look at it differently. This Jesus is no ordinary king. He entered Jerusalem prepared to do battle not by wielding a mighty army and strong weapons but by offering a proclamation of new life. He didn’t offer a quick fix through great displays of power but through the transformational wonder of justice and peace. And he invited everyone who dared to step into this new and different kingdom, where pain and war are no more, where iniquity is pardoned, where liberation is real and all things are made new.
Did the crowd know all this? Did they take it seriously? Had they heard Jesus’ words for what they were—a real and direct challenge to the patterns of the status quo, true “fighting words” against the powers of religion and politics of the day, the proclamation of a different kind of king who sought not power for himself or privilege for a few but new life for all? Did they really understand that their cries of “Hosanna!” were for one who would confront their realities and drive them to a new and different way?
Better yet, do we know all this? Are we prepared to set aside our preference for ourselves and show others the way to new life? Are we prepared to give up something of what we have so that others also might live in hope? Are we prepared to put down the weapons of war and take up the path of peace? Are we prepared to join this kind of royal procession and turn the world upside down? May God give us the strength to commit ourselves to this new and different path, not just on this Palm Sunday but each and every day as we walk this holy road with Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Not Just Any Other King
a reflection on Matthew 27:11-54
There’s something truly incredible about this story. It is of course the story that stands at the center of the Christian gospel message, that a man lived, died, and rose again to show us the depth and breadth of God’s love. But when you get down to it, you have to admit that there is something peculiar about it all. Even setting aside the reasonable questions about why this is necessary and why God might choose to do this at all, it’s very much fair to wonder why would God use a man from a small town in the backwaters of the Roman empire to bring about salvation for the whole world. Even more strangely, why would God work in and through a man who was condemned and executed by one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world? It’s nothing short of scandalous that God would choose to make this story the one that matters for us—but we are ultimately confronted with two millennia of witnesses who have made this exact claim, who have been convinced by Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and continuing presence that this man embodied the fullness of the sign that was so mockingly hung on the cross: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
And ultimately all these have proclaimed that this title means that he was not just any other king—by extension, these claim, as King of the Jews, Jesus brought a new and different way of life into the world, inaugurating a different kind of kingdom that fit his humble roots, living out the fullness of his teaching of justice, peace, and new life, showing his care and concern for all people and especially the poor and outcast, insisting that there is a different and better way of life and living for all people, even us, and ultimately triumphing over any and all evil that might try to get in his way.
Just as the story of the royal processional on that first Palm Sunday insists that we look at Jesus differently, the death of Jesus demands that we take a new and careful look at our world and Jesus’ place in it. It insists that we set aside our attempts to make Jesus look just like us, to fit him perfectly into the boxes we try to make for him, to explain his presence and his meaning with simple and seemingly timeless words and metaphors, to limit his gift of grace, mercy, and peace to those whom we might like to have share it, to demand that everyone agree on one way of understanding what he brings to our lives and our world. The execution of Jesus of Nazareth at the hands of the religious and political authorities of first-century Palestine insists that God is working beyond all our human assumptions to do something new and different and radical in our world, to shatter our expectations of glorious salvation through power, privilege, and prestige, to overturn the systems that promote injustice and hurt, to be present with us in the midst of our darkest hours just as God was present in the horrific and unjust death of Jesus. And the crucifixion of Christ insists that our relationship with God is different now, that we are forever changed as individuals and as a community because God has experienced the fullness of human life, including death itself, and overcome it all, that we will ultimately be judged by none other than our redeemer himself, and that nothing in life or in death, in heaven or on earth, can separate us from the fullness of God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So as we make this journey of Holy Week, as we relive again this story of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Living Lord, may Jesus be more than any other king to us—may we welcome his reign of peace and justice and new life as it takes hold around us in the most unexpected ways and we join in making it real each and every day until he comes again to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.