Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Luke 19: 28 – 40 (Good As New)
What happens on Palm Sunday – and what relevance does it have for us?
Let’s go back a step to the Psalm. Psalms are the first hymn book of the Jewish people.
The psalm from which we’ve heard today – Psalm 118 – was a hymn which was particularly used at the Passover. Scholars say that this psalm was used for a dramatic ceremony at Passover:
This was a Psalm Jesus would have known, a celebration and a liturgy with which he would have joined in many times – maybe even every one of his 30 or so years . Jesus and all his followers would have known that at Passover this is how the people of God celebrated the promise that the love of God, which endures forever, is present with his people in his temple in Jerusalem, and was coming to save his people.
It’s no good looking through today’s gospel reading for mention of palms – you won’t find them in Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Luke has the followers of Jesus placing their cloaks on the path before him – the palms are in John’s gospel – with another little mention of ‘branches’ in Mark.
The same crowd crying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ on Palm Sunday will be baying ‘crucify him’ on Good Friday.
Palm Sunday looks like victory…Good Friday looks like defeat…but the real victory is still to come on Easter Sunday. It is a little baffling. Just 4 months ago we remembered the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ – and now we’ve fast-forwarded more than 30 years and arrived at the pinnacle of the whole point of Jesus’ existence: his death.
Jesus’ followers arrive at the city of Jerusalem celebrating in joyful expectation of what Jesus has come to do – and they must have been utterly amazed by all that happens next.
The crowd with Jesus on Palm Sunday want to sing for joy about the coming of the Lord’s servant, Jesus, and they naturally use the words of a psalm
‘Hosannah, LORD, hosannah!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’; In other words – Here comes the Lord’s servant, here comes the one through whom we have seen God acting, here comes the one who shows us that God is good.
They have seen God in action in Jesus, and they praise God with singing and shouting and psalms of joy – and probably with the waving of palm branches & strewing of clothing and palms.
The psalm speaks of the blessing of the one who walks in God’s way…and the followers of Jesus prepare the way for him to enter into the city as the one who walks in the way of the Lord.
But the events of the week to come will really surprise these enthusiasts for Jesus. The followers of Jesus on the day of his entry into Jerusalem were praising God for all that they had seen him do in Jesus – all his teaching and healing…yet they were not to know that the best was yet to come.
We sit here in the knowledge of what Jesus was to face – we sit knowing this is Holy Week, we sit facing the cross, reminding us of the horrors and cruelties to come on Good Friday.
It was not what the crowd were expecting. Jesus wasn’t in Jerusalem to accept the plaudits of the crowd, but to submit himself to the worst that human injustice and malice could do to him and yet to bear death on the cross out of love for the world.
‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’ – but he will not be spared suffering and death, but will be brought through them to new life.
Jesus enters the city.
On a donkey – as the prophet Zechariah says the humble king will enter the city;
From the mount of Olives – the place where the Messiah – the chosen saviour – was expected to descend from;
With the people shouting ‘hosanna!’ as they do in the psalm to celebrate the presence of God;
And (if you read the other three gospels instead of Luke) waving palm branches as they head for the temple.
The message is not subtle “God is here, God’s Messiah is coming, God is going to save us”.
This is it!
Jesus’ followers have seen him in action – preaching, teaching, healing, forgiving, performing miracles, long enough – they know this is God’s One and only.
I wonder what the followers of Jesus – not just his closest disciples but maybe quite a large crowd – thought would happen next? We don’t know what they expected – maybe they were happy just to wait, expectantly, for God to act.
We cannot know how it must have felt that first Palm Sunday, we are blessed with the knowledge of how the story continues, we have come to understand that following Jesus can bring unexpected challenge. It is demanding, the Way of Jesus which we walk is costly: it requires self-surrender, service of others, refusing to meet violence with violence. It is not an easy way: it is not only bedecked with cheerful spring flowers and fluffy Easter bunnies. It is lined with images of suffering, not something that we like to focus on.
The Way is hard and costly – but it is the way to ultimate triumph, as we realise that the cost of Holy Week ends in the glory of Easter Sunday and the power of God to bring Jesus through suffering and death to resurrection.
Following Jesus is not the way of avoiding suffering and difficulty, but the way of getting through it – The Way is one both of challenge and of comfort.
And of course this is not entirely new and unexpected – we read in the psalms ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, for you are with me’.
May we walk The Way through Holy Week with Jesus and know that we are never alone, and that God through the risen Christ will lead us home. Be that in the way we might have come to expect or otherwise.
My prayer for all of us is that we may experience the familiar in new ways and be changed by our encounters throughout the week ahead.