March 29, 2015/Palm Sunday
From the first day of my senior year in high school, the melody to Pomp and Circumstance was on continuous replay in my head. It was a tune I knew well. I’d heard it played at other graduations. I had played it in the school orchestra. I had watched while other graduates processed to its dignified and stately cadence. But I knew that this year Pomp and Circumstance would be played for me – and approximately 300 of my fellow classmates.
Whatever the merits of the piece may or may not be, I have a hard time imagining a graduation ceremony without it. To me, Pomp and Circumstance is a big song for what really is a big deal. Whether it is graduation from high school, college, graduate school, or trucking school, graduation is a big deal. It is an accomplishment. It is an achievement. It signals the end, not just of a course of study, but of a significant time in the graduate’s life. And in the same breath, it proclaims the new life that is about to begin. Graduation is a big deal, so why shouldn’t graduates process into their moment with pomp and pageantry? It is only fitting, and it is what we should expect from an occasion like that. A procession to graduation is both pomp and circumstance.
Pomp and circumstance, pageantry and royal procession is also what we expect of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. If pomp and circumstance wasn’t the actual reality, it is hard to tell that from the way many churches observe this particular day. Palm Sunday lends itself to the dramatic, and many churches answer that call to drama with glee. There are great processionals into the sanctuary; children, youth, choirs, young, old, walk in waving their palms. The music of processional is grand and booming. It is a moment of great excitement and expectation. Lent has been a somber business, but on this day we get to celebrate a little. Sure, Easter will be the bigger celebration, but maybe the pomp of Palm Sunday is a bit of a rehearsal for what will come the following week.
Thinking about Palm Sunday in those terms, as a day of grand procession, may make our observance today somewhat of a letdown. We do have palms, but they weren’t brought in as part of a royal parade. We have glorious music, but we have that every week. In truth, there isn’t a lot different about today’s worship from last week’s – or the week before that, or the week before that. I’m not pointing this out to make any of us feel bad. That is not my intention at all. Actually, I think we’re probably closer to the procession that we read about in Mark’s gospel, than if we had invested great pomp into today’s service.
I’m not convinced that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, especially in Mark’s telling, was all that grand. In my bible it is titled as “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry,” but how triumphal was it really? If we are really being honest, Mark’s telling is rather anti-climactic. Jesus and the disciples were approaching Jerusalem, and they were at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of the disciples ahead of him into the village. He told them that the minute they entered the village they would find an unridden colt tied there. They were to untie that colt and bring it back to Jesus. Jesus warned them that if anyone should ask why they were taking the colt, they were to respond, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”
The disciples did what Jesus told them to do. They were questioned just as Jesus told them they might be. They responded the way they were instructed to, and they brought the colt back to Jesus. They threw their cloaks across the back of the colt, and Jesus rode it into Jerusalem. It is true that people did gather to welcome him into the city. They cut leafy branches and spread their own cloaks on the ground before him.
People followed behind him and walked ahead of him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This sounds royal and pomp-full enough, but Jesus doesn’t do anything that you might expect once the parade is through. He makes no speeches. He doesn’t do any miracles. Instead he goes to the temple, looks around at everything, realizes it is late, and goes back to Bethany. He doesn’t even stay in the city. He returns the way he came. Anticlimactic.
Mark puts a great deal more emphasis on the telling of how the disciples managed to get the colt of than he does on Jesus’ actual entry. The procession seems almost like an afterthought. And while the procession itself had a certain amount of drama and pomp, that ended as quickly as it began. One aspect of Mark’s version that I had not picked up on before was the fact that the colt was unridden. You don’t have to know much about horses or donkeys or colts – and I don’t – to know that a colt that is unridden will not be prepared for a rider. This was an animal that had not felt the weight of a human being before, but Jesus was very specific about the unridden part. When I really think about that, it is hard not think in rodeo terms. Wouldn’t the colt have bucked at this new thing happening to it? Wouldn’t it have resisted someone sitting on top of it? Does the fact that Jesus rode it mean that he worked a miracle with it much like the ones he worked with humans? It would seem that there was a certain amount of clairvoyance involved with the story already. Jesus seemed to predict exactly what would happen when the disciples went into the village. Perhaps Mark’s emphasis on the retelling of it was to point out that Jesus knew exactly what would happen? Honestly, I’m not sure I have an answer or an explanation for any of this. But I do think there is a deeper point being made.
The people who heralded Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem that day would not have been surprised by the idea of someone royal or important riding into the city on the back of a steed, whatever that steed would have been. The spectacle of a ruler processing into the center of his kingdom on horseback would not have been unfamiliar to the people who watched Jesus. Yet the emphasis on this unridden colt seems to be a metaphor for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. On the surface it would seem that Jesus was following in the tradition of the royalty who had gone before him. However, he was doing a new thing. In a moment of tremendous expectation, he was doing the unexpected.
I imagine –really I know – that the people who had been following Jesus all that time – the disciples and the others alike – had a great many expectations of him. But Jesus was never going to be bound to their expectations. That was the point. This was not a great king in the traditional sense riding into his city, ready to usurp and oust the oppressors who were in power. This was a humble man riding into a city in the most humble of ways. The crowds shouting “Hosanna” and laying down cloaks and branches before him did not change that. This was a humble man who was doing a new thing, an unexpected thing. Had the disciples and anyone else who had walked with him all that time been paying attention, they would have known that with Jesus they should expect the unexpected.
With all of the drama of today, we who know the rest of the story know that the real drama is yet to come: the terrible, brutal drama of Good Friday and the amazing and terrifying drama of Easter Sunday. That is the real drama of this story. We know that. But I fear that we know that to our detriment. Have we lost our ability to see how unexpected Jesus’ new thing was? Have we become complacent, maybe even smug, in our knowledge and assurance of what is about to happen? Have we forgotten that in this week above all weeks, we should expect the unexpected?
Although it wasn’t my intention at the time, my choice in sermon titles for today has become my theme for this coming week. Expect the unexpected. Yet expecting the unexpected is perhaps the hardest thing I have to do in these coming days. Because I do know what’s on the horizon. I do know what’s coming. I do know the heartbreak of Good Friday, and the ache and darkness of Holy Saturday. I do know the stunning awe that comes with the sunrise on Easter Sunday, and I most definitely know the joy of proclaiming, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” Our challenge is to get past what we know, or what we think we know, and experience anew what this week brings. Our challenge is to expect the unexpected from a story that we have heard countless times before. We must open our hearts and our minds to expect the unexpected.
A song that I find completely unexpected is one recorded by singer and songwriter, Emmylou Harris; Jerusalem Tomorrow. The song tells the story of a con artist. This guy traveled from town to dusty town performing miracles and wonders for people who wanted desperately to believe. He could “tell a tale and make it spin.” He hired a kid to fake blindness, so that the narrator could make him see again. As he puts it, it wasn’t such a bad way to make a living. But his livelihood was becoming as dry as the dust under his feet. The people had stopped listening to him, and believing in his abilities. They had found the real thing. The narrator meets this man, this humble, unassuming man. The man invites the narrator to follow, promising him a reward on down the line. So our narrator agrees to follow this man, if only to see what all the fuss is about. He’ll follow and it looks like they’ll be going to Jerusalem tomorrow.
Emmylou speaks this song rather than sings it, and her voice drips with the cynicism of someone who thinks he’d seen it all. He knew the tricks of the miracle trade. There was nothing that could surprise him, nothing he didn’t expect. But as you listen, you realize he has no idea what will happen in Jerusalem tomorrow.
Perhaps our worship today seems a bit anticlimactic, just as Mark’s telling of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem seems to be. But in what seems to be an unassuming kind of story, there is something new happening. There is something unexpected on the way. The good news for us this day is found in the paradox that in this old, old story there is something new for us to hear, to feel, to experience, to witness. No matter how long we have lived, how many times we have heard the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Easter, there is still the new thing, there is still the unexpected. So let’s give thanks that God’s new thing in Jesus cannot be dimmed by our cynicism. Let us give thanks that we are still called to expect the unexpected, and that we will feel once again the grief and the joy and the overwhelming amazement at what will happen in Jerusalem tomorrow. Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”