April 13, 2014/Palm Sunday
I was 15 when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer. I remember this event vividly, because the day they were married I set my alarm for 4:00 am and I got up and watched the whole wedding. For me, and a lot of people in my generation, this was a fairy tale come true. Sadly it did not have a fairy tale ending. Not only with the ending of their marriage, but with Diana’s death in 1997. Just as I woke up early to watch Diana and Charles marry, I also woke up early to watch her funeral.
Both of these events, happy and sad, began with a procession; a royal procession. It was a thrill to watch the wedding procession. All the news anchors from every news show here in the states, and from around the world, were there offering commentary on every stage of the pomp and circumstance. When Diana’s carriage entered the procession, there were cheers and shouts. Thousands of people lined the parade route, waving Union Jacks. The excitement kept building as the whole entourage made its way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a holiday in the UK, but the wedding was celebrated around the world.
It was a much more somber occasion to watch the procession that made its way to Westminster Abbey for her funeral. Instead of a carriage there was a casket. Instead of cheering and the waving of flags, there were tears and thousands upon thousands of flowers left by onlookers along the way. The sight of Prince William and Prince Harry, accompanied by Prince Charles, Prince Phillip and Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer, was heartbreaking. Just as the world celebrated Charles and Diana’s wedding, the world also mourned her death.
Two processions: one filled with joy and hope; the other filled with loss. We celebrate a joyful, hope-filled procession this morning. Jesus processes into Jerusalem. Let me be clear, I am in no way trying to make a comparison between Jesus of Nazareth and Princess Diana. Diana was as flawed as all humans are. She was a combination of virtues and vice. She did some good things and she also made mistakes and bad decisions. But these two dramatic moments of her life and death were marked by pageantry and processionals.
By our standards of royalty, Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem isn’t quite the spectacle that we would see today. But just as we expect royalty to arrive with ceremony, so too did the people in that time and context. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus riding in on both a donkey and a colt. The disciples laid their cloaks on the animals, and Jesus sat on those cloaks. The people along the way also laid their cloaks on the ground, while others cut branches from the trees to lay before the arriving king.
Surrounding Jesus and the disciples were crowds. They went ahead of him and they followed behind. All of them were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!
What must it have been like for Jesus to process in the midst of such clamoring and commotion? I imagine that he understood that the adoration would soon be replaced by doubt and fear and anger. I find it unlikely that he was caught up in the ceremony and spectacle of the procession as others would have been. He knew how quickly it would turn and become something far different. Some commentators even speculate that Jesus may have orchestrated some of the elements that surround his entry into Jerusalem to fulfill what had been written in scripture, particularly the prophet Zachariah.
Be that as it may, this was a procession imbued not only with excitement and drama, but with promise. Here at last was the Messiah they had been waiting for. The people’s hopes were revived. At last, their salvation from God had come. At last, the Romans would be overthrown, and the oppression and tyranny of their world lifted. Jesus, their triumphant Jesus, was making his way up to Jerusalem. The trip to Jerusalem was quite literally a trip up. It’s at least a 15 mile ascent from Jericho up to the holy city. It isn’t hard to imagine that the excitement of his arrival built with every step taken on that upward way.
It is understandable, then, why the crowds around Jesus were proclaiming him as royalty. Those who had witnessed Jesus’ works around the countryside knew that he held a healing power and commanded an authority that could only come from God. Surely now, as he enters the capital city, this must be his day of triumph. His entrance into Jerusalem affected the entire city. Matthew describes the city as being “in turmoil.” They were shaken, stirred up. The Greek word for stirred is a form of the word for earthquake. The city was shaken! People who didn’t know Jesus were asking, “who is this?’ Was this man a new king? Was he a great prophet? Was this the Messiah?
We know the answer to these questions, don’t we? We know he was and is the Messiah. We know that although he dies, he rises again. Death is defeated. Love triumphs. God wins. Knowing this means that it would be so easy to stop here; to end this sermon with the Hosannas of Palm Sunday. Yet this day is known as both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. Congregations may hear the story of the crowds shouting their hosannas and laying their cloaks and branches before Jesus, or they may hear the story of his crucifixion. Some congregations hear both. Although we hear the story of the palms and processional this day, Palm Sunday is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. From this day forward we move into Holy Week. Even as the cries of Hosanna that welcomed this first procession still ring in our ears, we move closer this week to the second procession that Jesus makes; a procession that is marked with betrayal and denial, with brutality and cruelty. The religious authorities will manipulate and twist the people’s understanding of Jesus. Crowds filled with hope will transform into an ugly, angry mob, calling for his crucifixion and willingly taking his blood on their heads. From this moment on, Jesus moves inexorably toward the cross. So do we.
The cross. As one commentator put it, the question we so often ask is, “what does the cross say about God?” Perhaps another question we should ask is, “What does the cross say about us?” The cross is the worst of humanity. It is the worst of what we do to one another. What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we hate. What we hate, we kill. We cannot go through this week without facing that reality. Our hosannas this morning are wonderful and uplifting, but they lead us to the cross.
In a movie I saw once, one character – the religious character, who was portrayed as pompous and sanctimonious – makes an analogy about how our suffering is like Christ on the cross, therefore we shall ultimately win. The movie’s heroic character responds to the religious person, “Yes, but Christ lost.” When he said that, everyone around me in the theater laughed. Christ losing was the ultimate punchline.
The people who crowded around Jesus as he processed into Jerusalem wanted a triumphant Jesus. They wanted the hero, the one who could not lose. But they could not see that their understanding of triumph was not God’s. I don’t think people have changed that much from that time to now. The world still laughs at the foolishness of the cross, at the nonsensical belief that God could and would be killed. I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, we don’t like that idea either. We know that it is our story, that it is the underpinning of our faith and system of belief; but it is far easier to move from Hosanna to Hallelujah, from joyful procession to empty tomb.
But this week, this holy week, we face the cross. The laughter of the people in that theater is all around us. Even as the days grow longer and lighter, the world is growing darker. The powers and principalities will win. It won’t be a lasting victory, but they will win. Eventually, if only for a second, the light will go out.
As people of faith, no matter how faltering it might be, we are called, compelled into this darkness. The only thing that can guide us will be our hope and our trust that the light of the world will return. Let us cling to that hope. Let us trust that at the end of this week, the darkness will not prevail. The laughter will cease. Let us believe and may this belief lead us through these darkening days. Let us hope that at the end there will be a new beginning. Let us hope that out of death will come new life. Let us hope that when the light returns, and we hold fast to our belief that it will return, we will see and know our triumphant Jesus. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”