“Hail! O King!”
April 14, 2019 – Palm Sunday – Year C
The quintessential Palm Sunday word, as far as I am concerned, is Hosanna, and a palm branch is an absolutely necessary symbol. Yet, alone among the 4 evangelists, Luke says nothing about Hosannas or branches, palm or otherwise, on this fateful day when Jesus, mounted upon a colt, sets his sights for Jerusalem.
Their absence shocks us. But even more shocking is the absence in Luke of another all-too familiar part of this story – the crowds who wave the branches and shout the Hosannas. For Luke has different points to make as he remembers the events of that day, a point about the relationship between a man and his followers, a point about their faith in him as he steadfastly moves toward his destiny. To hear these points, we need to set aside our preconceptions about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that have been shaped by the other versions of the story.
When Jesus came near to Bethphage and Bethany, to the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent 2 disciples to obtain a colt. He tells them exactly where it is to be found and what its owners will say when the disciples untie it. So far, the story is moving exactly as expected, following the familiar contours of Matthew and Mark.
Yet after reporting the return of the disciples with the colt, Luke’s account begins to take a different direction. Though the other 3 evangelists tell us that Jesus sat himself upon the colt, Luke tells it rather differently. It is the disciples who set Jesus upon the colt after covering it with their garments. And it is the disciples who spread their clothes upon the road for this lowly beast to walk upon. And then it is the disciples, a multitude to be sure, but a multitude specifically comprised of disciples, who announce the coming of this blessed one and shout about the peace that has now come. Throughout this whole scene it is the disciples alone who make things happen. And there is neither palm branch to be seen nor hosanna to be heard. Hence, in this year’s worship service there is no palm parade.
In his book “The Hungering Dark”, Frederick Buechner tells of a visit he made to Rome as a young man. He went to St. Peter’s to see the Pope celebrate the Mass. The church was packed and when the Pope arrived, he was carried in on the shoulders of the Swiss Guard and placed on a golden throne. Buechner writes, “What I remember most clearly …is the Pope himself, Pius XII as he was then. In all the Renaissance of splendour with the Swiss Guard in their scarlet and gold, the Pope himself was vested in plainest white, with only a white skull-cap on his head…..As he passed by me ……he peered into my face and into all the faces around me and behind me with a look so keen and so charged that I could not escape the feeling that he must be looking for someone in particular. He was not a potentate nodding and smiling to acknowledge the multitudes. He was a man whose face seemed gray with waiting, whose eyes seemed huge and exhausted with searching, for someone, for some one who he thought might be there that night or any night, anywhere, but whom he had never found.”
Buechner goes on to say that the one the old Pope was looking for was visible in the faces of all gathered there that night, because they all were looking for the same One he was looking for.
In the first century, kings and conquering generals entered Jerusalem with crowds, hymns and acclamations to show their authority over the city. Although Luke’s telling is more subdued than other gospels, elements of this are in the passage that _____ read. The cries of the crowd of disciples surround Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Their cloaks (not palm branches) pave his way. Their acclamation, “Blessed is the King, who comes in the name of the Lord,” is drawn from one of the Hallel psalms sung during the Passover meal and still used today. Thus, Jesus enters Jerusalem acclaimed by his followers as a king whose reign will bring peace on earth and glory to God. Yet even at the gate, the Pharisees voice their opposition – a signal of what is to come.
We too join the crowds to take a glimpse of the One who comes in the name of God. It is a spiritual pilgrimage we are on. We yearn to be part of the celebration and enactment of Lord’s Supper. And in a few minutes, we will remember Jesus being seated with his closest companions, the specially chosen disciples. We will participate in the greatest pilgrimage of our lives.
Perhaps you have made a pilgrimage to your ancestral homeland. Some of us have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so that we too might walk the roads that Jesus walked. There are folk who make the famous Spanish pilgrimage – the Camino de Santiago. For 780 km. one walks through portions of France, Portugal and Spain. I know that many of you go back to the prairies for homecomings and other significant times. That too can be a pilgrimage.
Jesus, his family and the disciples made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem so that they could celebrate the Passover. The hoards of crowds were unbelievable. Just imagine the jostling and pushing that must have happened as folk strained their necks to see who was entering the gates. Coming from 3 directions the throng merged in the bustling city. Where was this “king who comes in the name of the Lord?” Expecting to see Jesus riding on a mighty steed we can imagine the shock of seeing Jesus on the back of a donkey!
All this excitement and passion is too much for the religious leaders of the day. Perhaps fearing repercussions from the Roman rulers, they tell Jesus to silence his followers. Jesus tells them that even if the disciples were silent, the stones beneath their feet would shout out. This reference to stones recalls a passage in the Book of Habakkuk in which stones cry out and judge those who oppress the poor. The implication is that Jesus’ way is the way of justice, and that it will be given voice no matter who tries to silence it.
Many of you will come to the Good Friday worship service knowing that the Holy Week story begins with Jesus and the disciples entering Jerusalem. You will come on worship on Friday, aware that story of Jesus continues with the re-telling of the passion narrative. You know that to come and celebrate next Sunday, without going through the agony of Good Friday is minimizing the power and glory of Easter. But here we are today, catching glimpses of what is ahead for Jesus. So, we will make our own journey into Jerusalem and gather at Jesus’ table. We will make our pilgrimage to the communion table and we will feast. For today is a day for faithfully remembering Jesus.
As it turns out Luke got it right after all and we need not be so surprised about the way he tells the story. Palm Sunday has no need of palm branches or Hosannas. It only calls for faith – the faith of a handful of followers who believe that Jesus can change the world. It calls for the faith of all of us who have learned just how much he has changed the world. So, as we walk through Holy Week and through the seasons of achievement and heartache in our own lives, may we hold fast to the faith the disciples first enacted. May we give the highest place to our Redeemer, may we offer everything we have in Christ’s service. May we shout the greeting again and again – “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” May it be so. Amen.