Message for Palm Sunday, Year A (4/2/2023)
It may feel disjointed to combine the fanfare of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with allusions to his execution only a few short days later. On Palm Sunday, we hear, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” But, that seems to clash with “I am the scorn of all my enemies, a disgrace to my neighbors, a dismay to my acquaintances.” On Palm Sunday, we hear, “The crowds that went ahead of [Jesus] and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” But, that doesn’t seem to match, “I have heard the whispering of the crowd; fear is all around; they put their heads together against me; they plot to take my life.” On this day more than most, we’re faced with striking contradictions: “celebration and praise converge with loss and grief,” as one interpreter puts it. Jesus, the king foretold, has arrived. But, he will end up on a cross, not a throne.
We’re not especially well trained to hold opposing realities in tension with each other, or to allow conflicting feelings to mingle; either/or appeals to us more than both/and. Palm Sunday is supposed to be a happy day, right? And, Good Friday is supposed to be sad. But, to borrow the words of another interpreter, we can’t “plan our emotions like we schedule our meetings for the week,” no matter how much we might like to. In Holy Week, as in the rest of life, excitement mixes with fear, joy with confusion, hope with uncertainty. The truth is that Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna” can’t finally be separated from Good Friday’s “Crucify him.” The king’s so-called triumphal entry is the prelude to his passion and death.
Let me pause for a moment to ask: Is it unreasonable to expect just one day in Holy Week when we can push the reality of suffering to the background? Today can’t we just smile and wave our palm fronds and sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” and leave the heartache for later in the week?
Although if we’re honest, death is difficult to face on any day, isn’t it? I’ll never forget the way Kate Bowler describes her experience some years ago navigating churches on Good Friday in Houston, “the megachurch capital of the country,” as she calls it. “Most were not holding services,” she writes, “but I was encouraged to come back on Sunday, when Jesus was risen.” To the credit of Lakewood Church, the congregation led by Joel and Victoria Osteen where Kate Bowler finally found a Good Friday service, “Jesus stayed dead for about three songs in the opening worship set.” “Isn’t it great we serve a risen Lord?” Victoria Osteen greeted the crowd as she walked on stage. Bowler was met with “Happy Good Friday” so many times that day that she was convinced it was the “hap-happiest Good Friday service [she] had ever attended.”
We can chuckle at the absurdity, but we still have to ask: On this first day of Holy Week, what are we to make of a king who defies our expectations for royalty by submitting to humiliation and violence? This contradiction is at the center of our faith, so it can’t very well be ignored. On Palm Sunday we’re caught between praise and perplexity, between “Hosanna” and “Crucify him.”
Could it be, however, that Jesus’ crown and cross are not, in fact, a contradiction? A closer look at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem reveals that this parade is no standard display of political power. Jesus has arranged the procession in order to fulfill an oracle of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” While Jesus certainly claims his authority over against the Roman and Judean establishment, his entry parodies what Jerusalem would expect from an imperial procession: no war horses, but only a lowly pair of donkeys; no legion of soldiers and prisoners of war in tow, but only peasants rejoicing and laying garments and branches on the road; no formal reception by the local elite, but only apprehension.
That is to say, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a deliberate spectacle, a satire of earthly kingship based on a royal image lodged in Israel’s prophetic memory. And as such, it makes a mockery of conventional authority. Jesus’ reign will not be one of tyranny, but of justice and peace; the true king comes not to lord his power over others, but to set an example of humble service.
So, maybe Palm Sunday and Good Friday are two sides of the same coin after all. The gentle king refuses to engage with earthly powers on their terms; he declines to deal in death, but only in love. And, that commitment will cost him his life. As it turns out, then, the triumphal entry is but the home stretch, the final leg of the way that Jesus always walks – a way marked by humility and mercy and healing and new life. And, since the way of Jesus defies the ways of the world, it leads inevitably to the cross.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. We all know what’s coming next Sunday morning. But, lest we jump ahead too soon, let me invite you to simply sit with today’s mystery, that the will of God is on full display in the humble procession of a crucified king. So, wave your palm fronds once again, friends, stand together, and sing, “[Hosanna!] No story so divine! Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend!”
 Veronice Miles, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, 152.
 Karoline Lewis, “Hosanna and Heartache,” www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/hosanna-and-heartache.
 Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, 129-31.
 Zechariah 9:9.
 See Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 414-15.
 Matthew 20:25-28.
 Sundays and Seasons Day Resources, members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources#resources.
 Samuel Crossman, “My Song Is Love Unknown,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship Assembly Edition, #343.
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