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A Palm Sunday Kind of Love
April 5, 2020
One of my favorite stories is about a college student who decided to celebrate his graduation by taking a train trip across Europe. Yes, this is a true story and yes, it obviously took place back in those long, long, long-ago days when travel was actually permitted.
Late one night, the student was in a sleeper car traveling across Germany and had long since been lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train on the tracks. But he woke up in the middle of the night when he slowly became aware that the train was no longer moving.
As his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark room, he saw a flashing red light next to a sign that said, “Achtung!” in big black letters following by further words in German that he didn’t understand. He knew “Achtung!” meant “Warning!” And that in itself was enough to cause him to panic.
He fearfully assumed that there must have been some sort of emergency and he’d slept through the alarm. Would he get trapped in his cabin by a fire? Had the train derailed, somehow leaving his car upright? Were they being robbed? His imagination ran wild.
As soon as he was convinced that his train car wasn’t on fire, he rushed out of his cabin and jumped to the ground outside. Surprisingly, nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary at all. So he approached the conductor and asked what was going on.
It turned out that the train had stopped merely to empty the toilet tanks.
Now I know that it’s a bit of a jump from that image to the story of the first Palm Sunday, but wasn’t that event based a similarly radical misunderstanding? Think about the Palm Sunday situation for a minute. The stakes couldn’t possibly be any higher. Jerusalem is an occupied city, under the authoritarian control of the most fearsome army the world had ever known.
And yet the city is packed to the rafters with people commemorating the Passover. Passover, of course, is the annual celebration of the time that God freed the Jewish people from slavery to yet another oppressive foreign government.
Pilgrims are stuffed into every nook and cranny of the holy city, all of them repeating the stories of God’s miraculous rescues of his people in the past. Nationalistic feelings were all but boiling over, barely held in check by the fear of Roman power. Yet the ritual of liberation was recited in every home, while each family prayed that God would miraculously return and rescue his people once again.
The Romans, of course, were well aware of all that and every soldier on every street corner was on the highest of alerts, ready for the slightest sign of brewing insurrection. Tension was crackling in the air, quite literally everywhere. That was the setting when Jesus came riding into town at the head of a parade rife with ancient symbolism. Borrowing an image from the prophet Zechariah, Jesus chose a donkey to ride into Jerusalem, symbolic both of his claim to be king and of his intent to enter the city in peace. The crowds immediately recognized the Messianic claim of his entrance, although they clearly missed the part about his coming in peace.
So they instantly greeted him with shouts of “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us, please!” And they waved palm branches, which were a long-standing symbol of Jewish nationalism. The crowds were saying in effect, “Praise God! The revolt against the Romans is about to begin and we’re behind you all the way, Jesus!”
The Romans understood all that, too, and they were ready to crush even the slightest hint of rebellion. Under those circumstances, Jesus’ dramatic entrance was like waving a lit match over a barrel of dynamite. The tiniest miscalculation and everything would have blown sky high.
Just a word or two from Jesus and the long-simmering bloodbath would have begun. And, filled with fire and faith, the crowds had little doubt that God would give them the victory. So they were poised to strike at Jesus’ command. But that command never came.
Instead, there in the center of that pressure cooker of nationalistic feelings, Jesus remained so totally calm and relaxed that he was able to gently reassure a naturally-skittish donkey, while guiding it through crowds in which tension surged like a tsunami. I take that as clear evidence of both Jesus’ reassuring touch with his mount, as well as his own placid state of mind in spite of the painful death that he knew lay ahead of him that week.
Jesus knew that he was disappointing those crowds. He also knew that later that week, he would be arrested and that another crowd — perhaps including some of those same people — would be screaming for his death. And yet, Jesus didn’t let his foreknowledge ruffle his calm demeanor at all. He simply accepted the somewhat misguided praise of the crowd and enjoyed the parade.
Jesus knew that the people would misunderstand him and that they could be very fickle in their loyalty, yet he loved them anyway, just the way they were. The Triumphal Entry was a massive celebration that abundantly demonstrated that neither the crowds nor the disciples understood what he was about to do for them and yet Jesus loved them all so much that he willingly accepted the price of the cross and their rejection in order to fulfill their wish that he save them.
Now to be fair to those crowds, you should know that the Jewish people had been anticipating the arrival of the Messiah for some 700 to 800 years and over the course of time, they had developed a belief that when the Messiah came, all wrongs would be righted. Everyone who had ever done anything to hurt a Jewish person would get his or her comeuppance and God’s Chosen People would receive all the rewards that were their due. So Fred Craddock says:
“Every beautiful story they knew began, not with [the words] ‘Once upon a time,’ but with the words ‘When the Messiah comes...’
“[…] To every cripple with a twisted body folded beneath him, [they would say]: ‘I’m sorry, friend, but when the Messiah comes…’
“To every beggar clutching his rags with one hand and with the other reaching up for aims, [they would say]: ‘I have no money, friend, but when the Messiah comes...’
“To every prisoner staring after that one little ray of light through the narrow window [they would say]: ‘I’m sorry, friend but when the Messiah comes…’”
These stories had been drilled into the consciousness of generations of faithful Jews, so it’s no surprise that they struggled to recognize Jesus as the Messiah when he proved to be something different than their expectations.
The truth is that, as an oppressed people, they ached for justice, not mercy. They wanted the tables to be turned on their persecutors; they didn’t want to pray for them or turn the other cheek so they could be struck a second time. Therefore, in the minds of the crowd, Jesus had to be yet another disappointing Messianic pretender. And the fact that God would allow him to be arrested and executed only served as confirmation that Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah.
Jesus’ rejection by the people and by the religious leaders led to his arrest only five days after his peaceful entrance into Jerusalem. And that arrest meant that Jesus was almost instantly subjected to torture and execution, since Rome was known for putting a swift and violent end to anyone whose actions could even hint at revolution. The lesson, of course, was that if you even think of rebelling against the Roman government, you will be crushed.
Sadly, the allegations made against Jesus didn’t have to be even close to being true before they were acted upon with an overwhelming brutality. The mere accusation was enough to condemn Jesus. In fact, Pilate would judge Jesus to be innocent and yet he still consented to let Jesus be crucified anyway.
So what can learn from the misunderstanding of the crowd and the tragic miscarriage of justice that followed?
Meg Queior writes, “[…] Have you ever given God an earful about what’s wrong with the world? We look at the world, and we think we understand how things could be worked out better than they are. The crowds that rushed to welcome Jesus with holy ‘hurrahs’ as he entered Jerusalem did it. And we do it, too. We aim God’s energies here and there: if only God would raise up the right people in the right places; if only God would get rid of the opposition.
“But we are kidding ourselves. And this morning’s scripture lesson lifts that reality up with striking clarity. […] We are prone to overlook or deny our complicity in what’s wrong with the world. Sin loves to stay hidden. So we underestimate not just the problem, but the depth of God’s love in providing an answer. We approach God for a helping hand, for encouragement, a guiding principle. God wants to remake us from the inside out. We ask for help here and now. God hears, but wants to weave eternity into what would otherwise be a temporary fix.
“The Christian message has been and always will be that Christ on the cross has something to do with me, with each one of us, not just with the rest of the world, not just with what’s wrong out there. We ask God for Palm Sunday help; God gives us Good Friday.
“[…] For all of our vast, mind-boggling technological advance, we still don’t know how to fix what’s wrong with the world. For all of our stunning achievements in communications and the information age, we still have a hard time talking to one another. We have the opportunity to see and understand ourselves as a global community — an opportunity unlike any we have had in human history
“[… But] having discovered more and more about the intricate, miraculous, biological interconnectedness of life on this planet, we fight harder for our share of the pie. We draw our geographical boundaries and political boundaries and economic boundaries and ethnic boundaries and religious boundaries with a fury.
“[… Yet] In all mercy and compassion, God has taken our palm branches and gives them back to us in the form of a cross, throwing the full weight of the Divine Self into the human mix. Thanks be to God.”
And so this week as we travel from the palms to the passion, I ask you to remind yourself of the love that Jesus demonstrated — a love that isn’t limited by the false expectations or even the betrayals of others, but remains a love that gives its best in all circumstances. And a love that calls on us to do the same. Amen.
by Jim McCrea