Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday. This is going to be a busy weekend for me so I wanted to get this up.
The scripture for this Sunday is Matthew 21: 1 – 11.
First, let me just say that I am deliberately using the word “celebrate” instead of “observing”. Perhaps it is because I see “celebrate” as an action verb and “observe” as somewhat passive. Worship services should be, I think, celebrations much more than observances and I think that we should celebrate Palm Sunday. But why, especially this year, should we celebrate Palm Sunday?
After all, we already know what is going to happen. We know that after the celebrations on Sunday and the actions of Jesus in the Temple during the week, Judas is going to betray Him. The religious and political establishment will arrest Him in the Garden of Gethsemane and convict Him in what is essentially a kangaroo court.
On Friday, Jesus will be crucified and He will die on the Cross. He will be taken down from the Cross and put into a well-guarded tomb so as to prevent anyone from stealing His body. We know that next Sunday, the tomb will be empty and we will celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And we do need to celebrate the Resurrection. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1st Corinthians 15: 13 – 14, 17),
“. . . if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”
We know all that, so why do we celebrate it? I think it is because we recognize today that this week is more than just a prelude to Easter. We see the week and what is to come through the lens of history. So it is that we can see what is to come as a statement to the world that those who seek to maintain their power and their status through the oppression of others, either by force or restrictive laws, will, in the end, lose the battle. That righteousness and justice will, in the end prevail.
Early on in my life, I came to the conclusion that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus but rather the political and religious establishment. In that regard, this Palm Sunday is a lot like that first Palm Sunday. There are those who, in the name of freedom, would take away our freedoms. There are those who wish to establish a similar religious based government, one based on Biblical principles.
It is so remarkable our society today compares with the society then. This week we have heard of the death of the religious right and its loss of political power. While the relationship between the religious right and the political right may be declining, I don’t think that the religious right has died. Nor do I think that they are going to readily give up their thoughts about the direction they think this country is going. But they are as blind as the Pharisees who sought to eliminate Jesus and they have confused their own prejudices with the true meaning of the Gospel.
And I don’t think those on the left (political or otherwise) should cheer so loudly. Those on the left may believe, as Karl Marx wrote, that religion is “. . . the opium of the masses.” But if they do, they need to consider two things.
First, is it really Christianity that you despise and proclaim is restrictive and hateful? Or is it what people have done to Christianity and the church?
Second, are you prepared to offer a better alternative than the true Gospel message? Are you prepared to offer a better belief system that will seek peace and justice in this world?
We live in a world that seems to be dominated by fear. We are constantly reminded that terrorists are planning to strike this country and we must be constantly on our guard. We seek peace through military power. We have allowed the so-called guardians of our freedoms to utilize whatever means are necessary in order to ensure that we have the information that will enable us to strike at the leaders of any opposition. We have willingly let our own personal freedoms being taken away with the hope that when it is all over, we will get them back.
Ours is also a time of economic distress. In this time, the people cry out for salvation. But they want what the people of Jerusalem wanted two thousand years ago. They want a king to lead an army to free them. But they do not want to be a part of that army. The people of today are like the people of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago; they will only accept a solution that does not require much of them and are unwilling to accept a solution that calls for them to take action.
Jesus lived during the time that we have come to call the “Pax Romana”, or the Roman peace. But it was a time of peace under Roman rule and enforced by Roman tyranny. And the people of Jesus’ time were looking for someone who would overthrow that tyranny. It is no wonder that they cheered Jesus as the new king; to them, He was the one who would lead the army that would remove the shackles of tyranny.
Jesus would also be the one who would remove the shackles of religious tyranny, of the restrictions placed on people by the religious establishment who insisted on a strict adherence to religious law. Time and time again, Jesus challenged the religious establishment to follow not the letter of the law but rather the spirit of the law. Jesus offered hope to those whom the establishment would deny hope; he welcomed those whom the establishment would throw out. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven was open to all, no matter what their race, their gender, or their status in society. It is no wonder that the religious authorities of the time conspired with the political authorities.
The people wanted a political king; one who will lead a great army and remove the Roman tyranny and the restrictions placed on their lives by the numerous rules created by the religious establishment. The people of Jerusalem heard Jesus’ message but they did not understand that the Kingdom of Heaven was to come, not be in place on Monday morning. They did not understand that Jesus’ call for freedom came with responsibilities.
Of course, Jesus had no army, only twelve disciples. Even the disciples did not completely understand the message that they had heard for three years. This lack of understanding would lead Judas to betray Jesus. Even on the night that we have come to call the “Last Supper”, the disciples did not understand. “How was it,” they must have thought, “that Jesus is speaking of His own death tonight?”
And with His arrest later that night, the disciples were filled with fear and panic. Peter would deny Christ three times and everyone would hide for fear that now, once their teacher and friend had been arrested and murdered, they would be next.
It would not be until Sunday that the disciples and all who followed Jesus would understand what this all means. But we do understand what it means and that allows us to celebrate Palm Sunday.
But if we are to truly understand what Palm Sunday means, then we have to understand that we cannot go back in time and tell Jesus not to enter Jerusalem. He would only tell us, as he told Peter, to get behind Him. Jesus knew, as we know today, that He must go to the Cross.
We cannot tell the people in the crowds to quite cheering for a political king because they will not listen. We cannot stop the progress of the week because the week must go on or there is no Easter.
But it does mean that there is hope. It does mean that oppression can be stopped; that justice can be brought into this world. People will know that the status quo does not always bring justice nor does the status quo remove oppression. It does mean that we are called to be Christ’s disciples and fight for freedom for all.
We have spent the past five weeks preparing for this day. We have been called to repent, to cast aside our old ways and seek new ways in Christ. We can no longer use the message of the past as a pretext for a new world. We must begin anew.
Armies cannot bring freedom into this world. True freedom comes when people work to remove the causes of oppression and violence. True freedom comes when people stand up to the establishment that seeks to oppress others through guns and laws. Jesus showed us what freedom over sin and death truly was.
Jesus died to set us free and he must enter the city this Sunday. So we celebrate Palm Sunday, not because Jesus brings a kingdom on this earth but because when this week is over, the doors to the Kingdom in Heaven will be open for all. We celebrate this Palm Sunday because, if we believe, we have found freedom and we have found the way to bring freedom into this world.
That is why we celebrate Palm Sunday.