Decisions, Decisions: Palms or Passion?

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Dr. Jim Somerville

4/2/2023

Matthew 21:1-11

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A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the children’s Bible I had as a boy there was a picture of Palm Sunday. There was Jesus, riding on a donkey, and there were crowds of people around him, including children, who were waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”  What I remember most clearly about that picture is that, while everyone else looked happy, Jesus did not look happy.  Even as a boy I wasn’t thinking about how cute the donkey was or how colorful the costumes were.  I was thinking, “Why does Jesus look so sad?”

Will you pray with me?

Lord, help us give our attention to the story of what happened on this Sunday so long ago, so that we might know you better, and know ourselves better, and know what you want for us even now.  We ask it in your name.  Amen.

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A couple of weeks ago I got an email message from Janet Chase, who works in our communication office.  You may not know it, but Janet is the one who formats the weekly worship bulletin and who does her very best to make sure that all the “I’s” are dotted and all the “T’s” are crossed.  It is an enormously painstaking task and she does it exceptionally well.  But she knows I’m picky.  So she wrote to me asking a question about the bulletin she was working on for last Sunday’s worship service.  It was in that place where we announce the lectionary readings for the following week so that people can read ahead and be ready for worship.  But when she looked at the readings for today she saw that there were two different options: one was called “The Liturgy of the Palms” and the other was called “The Liturgy of the Passion.”  “Which one do you want me to put in the bulletin,” she asked: “Palms or Passion?”

Decisions, Decisions.

Janet may not have known that the choice between Palms and Passion is a fairly recent one.  Years ago Christians set aside the Sunday before Easter to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  They called it Palm Sunday: they sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”; children came down the aisle waving palm branches; there might have even been a donkey involved.  But they didn’t talk about the Passion of the Christ—his suffering and dying—no, they saved that story for Good Friday, when there would be one of those special services at church, maybe “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” where everyone would come and sit at the foot of the cross for three hours and let the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice sink in.  But in the last twenty or thirty years church leaders have noticed that not all the people who come on Palm Sunday come back on Good Friday.  Many of them skip blissfully from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—from “Hosanna!” to “Hallelujah!”—without any heart-wrenching stops along the way.  And so church leaders began to recommend reading the full story of Jesus’ suffering and death on the Sunday before Easter, so that when Easter came around, and we celebrated the Resurrection, people would know why we were celebrating.

We don’t do that here.  We don’t read the passion narrative on Palm Sunday, partly because it’s so long (this year’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is 128 verses).  Instead we trust people to come back on Maundy Thursday (at 6:30 pm), when we combine the story of the Last Supper with all the events that followed on Good Friday so that on this Sunday we can focus entirely on Jesus’ triumphal entry.  To answer Janet’s question, we choose the Liturgy of the Palms. 

I told her that, and that’s what she put in the bulletin, but if you read ahead you may have discovered that the Liturgy of the Palms is fairly thin.  We don’t have four readings for this Sunday, as we usually do; we only have two: one from Psalm 118 and one from Matthew 21.  I added the Old Testament lesson from Zechariah 9, where the prophet says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  When you read that and today’s psalm, with that wonderful line, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” it doesn’t seem appropriate to read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.  This is a day for rejoicing, for shouting and celebrating!  And yet even in the Palm Sunday story there is a hint of what’s coming in the week ahead.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus, and his disciples, and a large crowd of followers are coming up the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, a distance of eighteen miles with an elevation gain of some three thousand feet.  It’s steep, and difficult, and it may have been why Jesus sent two of his disciples to fetch a donkey for the last mile of the journey.  But Matthew says it was to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, the one I just read, about Zion’s king coming to her “humble and riding on a donkey.”  If that’s true, then Jesus may be doing this deliberately; at his Father’s direction he may be presenting himself as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah in order to give the people a choice: will they accept him or reject him? 

In his comments on this passage Brian Maas says you don’t need to be particularly astute to recognize that it’s Palm Sunday in church; as soon as you see children waving palm branches you know.  In the same way you wouldn’t have needed to be a particularly pious resident of Jerusalem to realize that when someone rides into town on a donkey while everyone else is waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” something big is about to happen.  He says these people would have been very familiar with Psalm 118, the one that we read as our Call to Worship.  It is a psalm filled with gratitude to God, who has not only saved his people in the past but who is also about to save them now.  Ten times in today’s reading the word LORD is used, and if you count the word God and the related pronouns, it’s nearly two dozen times. 

“It is the Lord who is acting,” Maas writes, “and the grateful people who are responding. Something indeed is about to happen.  This is the background to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; those who are present read the signs of the palm branches and the donkey and colt and know that God is up to something. The ‘Hosanna!’ shouts aren’t just spontaneous utterances; they’re quotes from the psalm (Save us, we beseech you!). God is up to something in their very presence; something for which the faithful have prayed for centuries. For the crowds, this isn’t just about Jesus. The God of the cosmos is up to something among the chosen people, and they want to be part of it. This is a production of the Lord, a production in which the man Jesus has a starring role, but a production with implications far beyond him—cosmic implications.”[i] 

In verse 9 of today’s Gospel lesson Matthew writes, “The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”  That sounds like a celebration.  But in verse 10 he adds, “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil,” and that doesn’t sound good at all.  The word in Greek is seio, from which we get seismic: the same word we use to measure the activity of an earthquake.  “The whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil,” Matthew writes, rocking and reeling with confusion as the inhabitants of the city raced to and fro asking,

“Who is this?” 

It reminds me of that moment, earlier in this same Gospel, when the Magi ask Herod, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” and Matthew tells us that Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  It’s a word that is used for waves tossing to and fro on the sea.  Because Herod thought he was the king of the Jews, he thought he was in charge, that he was in control.  And now here were these wise men telling him that someone else was about to take his place.  Do you remember what he did?  He called together his own wise men to find out where the Messiah was to be born, and then he sent the Magi to Bethlehem to search diligently for the child, saying, “When you find him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  But do you think Herod actually wanted to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews?  No, he did not.  He wanted to eliminate any threat to his sovereignty.  And do you think those people who were in turmoil in Jerusalem, running to and fro and asking who Jesus was were eager to bow down and worship him?  Probably not.  They may have been among the religious and political leaders of Israel.  When they asked his followers who he was his followers said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” as if to say, “Not the King of the Jews; just a prophet.  And not from anywhere important; just from Nazareth in Galilee.  No threat, really, to the religious and political establishment.”

Or is he?

Last week I went to a meeting at St. Paul’s Baptist Church where 1,500 followers of Jesus had gathered to confront our city council members on the issues of affordable housing and gun control.  They didn’t use our slogan, but they talked like people who were trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  They believed that if Jesus were king then everybody in our city would have a decent place to live.  And they believed that if Jesus were king then no one in our city would have to worry about being shot and killed.  They sat four city council members on the stage and asked them those questions directly: “What are you doing about affordable housing?  What are you doing about gun control?  You could feel the tension in the atmosphere, the power dynamics shifting this way and that way as the people who had elected our city council members called for accountability.  The whole room was in turmoil.  That’s what seems to be happening in today’s Gospel lesson.  The religious and political authorities of Jerusalem are being confronted by the One who comes in the name of the Lord and you get the feeling that if he is not careful things could get ugly.

Before the week was over they had.

I like the way Brian Maas suggests that it’s not just Jesus, but God who is up to something in this story.  Because I’ve struggled in the past with the idea that Jesus is presenting himself as the Messiah all Israel has been waiting for.  That doesn’t sound like him.  But what if it’s God who wants to present his son to his people as their long-awaited Messiah?  What if he’s the one who told him to ride into town on a donkey?  What if the people couldn’t miss the implications and began throwing their coats down on the road and stripping palm branches off the trees not because Jesus was so impressive in his own right but because God was getting ready to do something big, getting ready to save his people from their sins.  “This is a production of the Lord,” Maas writes, “a production in which the man Jesus has a starring role, but a production with implications far beyond him.”  Maybe that’s why Jesus looked sad in that picture in my Children’s Bible; maybe it’s because he knew that before the week was up he would be praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”  So, which is it?  Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday?  I think you know.  I think you know that it is not either/or but both/and.

Last Monday morning I typed up some of these thoughts for the worship planning team and sent them ahead in an email, knowing we would be sitting down later that afternoon to plan this service.  What I didn’t know is that, just about the time I hit the “send” button on that email Jim Flamming, my predecessor here at First Baptist, was taking his last breath on this earth.  I got the news from Lynn Turner later that morning and she and I drove over to wait with Dr. Flamming’s family until the people from the funeral home could get there.  I asked her how she was feeling and she said, “I’m sad!”  Dr. Flamming was the one who called Lynn to serve as our youth minister all those years ago.  He was the one who believed in her and encouraged her to embrace her role as a woman in ministry.  He was the one who first gave her an opportunity to preach from the pulpit of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  “I’m sad!” she said again, “But you know, it’s like you said in your email to the worship planning team.  We can’t really choose between the palms and the passion, because it’s both.  Dr. Flamming lived a wonderful life, he had a successful ministry, his funeral will be a great celebration, and yet…I’m sad.” 

I was here for his funeral yesterday and it was a celebration.  I got to add my accolades to all the others that were shared.  Jim Flamming was a great man and a great pastor.  And yet there were many in that crowd who looked like Jesus on Palm Sunday: sad while everyone around them was celebrating.  It occurred to me then that that’s just how life is.  We don’t get to choose between palms and passion.  We don’t get to choose between suffering and celebration.  The cup of life is both bitter and sweet.  You can’t drink from only one side.  You have to put it to your lips and drain it dry.  Jesus knew that.  In the Garden of Gethsemane he asked one last time if God would take that cup away from him, and then, in an act of selfless obedience, he put it to his lips, and drained it dry.

Thanks be to God.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Bryan Maas, Lectionary Reflections for Palm Sunday in the Christian Century, March 27, 2023. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/lectionary/april-2-palm-sunday-psalm-1181-2-19-29-matthew-211-11