Palm Sunday B
March 26, 2012
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It’s something I’ve just never understood. Ever since I was a little kid I have wondered why the various Gospel texts on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem are so careful to include both Jesus’ detailed instructions on where to find a colt (and what to do with it once they located it) and then a nearly word-for-word repeat of all that once the disciples do as they are told.
Is this supposed to be a small miracle as Jesus reveals his ability to see into the future or see what is up ahead of them in the village where the colt was tied up? If so, it doesn’t exactly rank up there with walking on water of raising the dead. If you are the Son of God, this is more of a parlor trick than some grand miracle. Or is this some hint that Jesus had actually pre-arranged all this in a very earthly manner, replete with some encoded secret password so the owners will know it’s OK to let some strangers take off with their animal? And if so, is this supposed to show how deliberate Jesus is being about marching toward his own death in Jerusalem? Or is it supposed to show us both that Jesus had pre-arranged all this and that he was purposely playing into Old Testament prophecy for the arrival of the Davidic King in the Holy City?
Take your pick—each has about as much going for it as the next. But in no case do I find a lot of inspiration in this little sub-scene of fetching the colt. And anyway, if Jesus was so intent on playing into long-expected Old Testament prophecies, why does he at the same time so manifestly not play into what the people were expecting? In Luke’s gospel Jesus breaks out into tears at the high point of the entry parade, essentially ruining the moment. And here in Mark’s gospel, Jesus no sooner enters the city and he high-tails it back out seeing as it was getting late. And as I point out in my sermon “The Indignant Re-Entry,” when Jesus comes back into the city the next day, he does so without fanfare but he does come in with fire as he curses a fig tree and cleans out the Temple courts. But why is there way more drama the following day in Mark 11 than on the day we commemorate on Palm/Passion Sunday?
As you can see, I have far more questions about this story than answers! But sometimes questioning the familiar opens up an opportunity to approach it with fresh eyes. The truth of what we call Palm Sunday is that this is not a simple celebration that happened long ago to give latter-day Christians a chance to whoop it up with some palm fronds every year a week before Easter. Instead this is a story fraught with some mystery. Did the disciples wonder what was going on in what Jesus told them to do—and then again when things played out exactly the way Jesus told them it would? Did they suspect Jesus was playing into Old Testament anticipations?
And if they did, what did they make of that? After all, Mark is the one gospel account that makes the most out of the “Messianic Secret.” In Mark the disciples have witnessed Jesus hushing and shushing people for the longest time anytime anyone came remotely close to a public identification of him as the Christ. This had to have been confusing for them. So did what looked like a public identification of himself as the Messiah confuse them still more or make them really, really excited to finally be moving forward toward the political victory they were hoping God’s Messiah would accomplish?
You see, it’s easy when we preach on Palm Sunday and when we sing about it in church to make the whole story look like a clear-eyed, straightforward set of events. It’s too easy to picture the disciples as moving through all this with heads-held-high confidence and swagger, to treat Palm Sunday as a big bright spot in the midst of the Lenten darkness and ahead of the darkness of Holy Week, which this Sunday kicks off each year, of course.
But think about it: the world—indeed, the cosmos, it is not too grand a thing to allege—was teetering on the brink of the most momentous event since the Big Bang. The very Son of God was about to be handed over, betrayed, abused, murdered. There was, in a sense, going to be a death in God within days. The universe was about to turn the corner from endless darkness back toward the Light that just is God (into that Light that the darkness cannot overcome). What all was at stake cannot even be overstated or overestimated. The very hosts of heaven—and maybe of hell for all we know—were quite literally holding their breath to see this play out.
So would we come to a fresher appreciation of this story if we could picture the disciples as being a little confused, too, as maybe biting their fingernails now and then in wonderment as to what all was going on (and in pondering why the whole world just seemed to be so tense)?
Think of a time when you were anticipating something big. And think of a time when just how that big thing was going to go was by no means 100% clear to you or certain. Maybe you were planning to pop the question and ask someone to marry you. Maybe you were facing a major interview, a big exam, or were slated to give a speech that could change your life (if it went well). And now remember the knot in the pit of your stomach that you endured for many days in advance of that event. Remember how tense you felt, how jumpy you were, how now and then someone would catch you staring off into space with a couple fingers held up over your lips as you got totally lost in thought.
You know the feeling.
And now transfer all of that onto the canvas of this story. See that kind of nervous anxiety and wondering in Jesus, in the disciples, in the whole cosmos, for heaven’s sake.
What Palm/Passion Sunday celebrates and observes is not simple, it is not neat, tidy, or straightforward. The air fairly crackles with electricity as the characters in his grand drama sense that something big is up. Maybe if we can pick up on those aspects of this story, we will also pick up on what makes Holy Week so momentous, so amazing, so jaw-droppingly splendid.
And maybe then we can look back at that palm branch in our hands, put a couple fingers to our trembling lips, and just wonder, wonder, wonder what this all must mean.
Although Psalm 118 is seldom listed as anyone’s “favorite psalm” (it’s pretty tough to edge out the likes of Psalm 23 and Psalm 150, after all), nevertheless Psalm 118 is the most oft-quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament. No other passage gets as much play time in the gospels or epistles than Psalm 118. A quote from this same psalm is tucked into Mark 11 as well when in verse 9 the people shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” which appears to be a quote lifted from Psalm 118:24-25. But here’s the funny or ironic thing: the part of Psalm 118 that most of us know about—and that gets quoted the most in the New Testament—comes from a few verses prior to that Hosanna verse where the psalmist talks about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the head of the corner after all. We know that the New Testament writers routinely applied that rejected-stone image to Jesus. So how curious that Mark is careful to have the people quoting Psalm 118 in Mark 11:9. The people are lauding and celebrating Jesus and trying to make him into the kind of hero they want him to be. But by invoking Psalm 118, there is more than a subtle hint here that these same people will be rejecting this same Jesus in pretty short order. What’s more, it will be that rejection—and not the “triumphal entry” reception—that will bring salvation to the world and make Jesus the Cornerstone for a whole new reality.
In John Grisham’s novel, The Firm, an exceptionally gifted young man fresh out of law school lands a dream job with one of the most respected law firms in the country. The partners in this firm greet him royally, wining and dining him, buying a house for him and his young wife, lavishing him with accolades and praise. It was a glorious start to his law career! But within months it becomes clear that most of those partners are criminals with connections to organized crime. The firm itself hired thugs to keep the partners in line and the cozy house they had bought for the young couple turned out to be loaded with hidden microphones that had recorded all their private conversations, lovemaking, and everything.
Given how things turned out, it’s hard to imagine that in later years this man or his wife would nonetheless look back fondly on those early heady days when the firm first hired him! It did not turn out at all well and so there would be nothing good to look back on.
So also with Palm Sunday: there are so many conflicting angles to all this. In fact, even this very story ends on an anticlimactic note. Jesus enters the temple but by then the party had already stopped. There was no royal welcome for Jesus at the house of God and so, after peering around at this and that for a little while, Jesus and the twelve disciples silently slip back out of Jerusalem with no fanfare whatsoever. The next morning Jesus re-enters the city but this time not only does no one greet him joyfully, Jesus himself tears into the place with a full head of steam, driving out moneychangers from the temple and just generally behaving in ways that make a lot of folks hopping mad at him.
The Palm Sunday party was over almost as soon as it began. So is it right to look back fondly on this day? Given what happened in subsequent days, isn’t celebrating Palm Sunday a little like celebrating the anniversary of an abusive marriage that ended in divorce? Even if a person did note the anniversary of a failed marriage, wouldn’t the memory of that bring regret rather than joy, a disappointed frown rather than a fond smile?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Parts of this lection are pretty well known, particularly since in the Passion section of his oratorio Messiah, G.F. Handel lifted up some of these words and set them to music. (I have personally always been struck by the way Handel turned the word “plucked” into a two-syllable word when the soloist sings about the Servant of the Lord being tortured in part when they “pluck-ed off the hair” from his cheeks.) The smiting of his back, the plucking off of the beard, the shame and the spitting: that all gets a lot of attention in Isaiah 50.
But what about the far quieter way it opens? The first few verses talk about God’s Servant being a teacher, someone who could speak just the right words to sustain the weary and who, in turn, always had an open ear to hear their cries and so understand their travails. That sounds like the description of a wonderful person, a helpful person, a compassionate person. This is the kind of teacher and friend we’d all love to have be a part of our lives.
So how does it happen that this very one so quickly becomes the victim of all the brutality that so swiftly follows in this passage? Why would the world want to beat up someone whose main goal is to sustain the weary and listen to the cries of the needy? It doesn’t make sense.
But history is chock full of just this, isn’t it? Those who speak truth to power, those who have an eye for the suffering, those who seek again and again to speak a word that could sustain and even lift up the downtrodden are so often despised, roughed up, and not too very infrequently flat out killed or assassinated. Over and again the evil get away with their misdeeds and injustices even as those who seek peace and justice are done away with. Whether it’s the assassin’s bullet that shatters the face of Martin Luther King, Jr., pierces the body of Mahatma Gandhi, or takes out Abraham Lincoln; whether it’s the Tiananmen Square tanks that threaten to run over non-violent students or the powers that be that sequester away in prison for years and years a Nelson Mandela, those with a gift to speak sustaining words for the weary and listen to the cries of those who need to be heard are indeed turned over to the smiters and the biters and the spitters and the whole shameful lot of those who carry out this world’s worst persecutions.
All things being equal and from an objective vantage point, you just wouldn’t expect it to be this way. But every day’s newspaper shows the repetition and perpetuation of this sick cycle.
Somehow in only make sense, then, that God’s Servant would have to enter into those dark rhythms as perhaps the only way to break through them once and for all. This is the essence of the Gospel’s great mystery, of course, and at the head of Holy Week 2012 we enter into all that once again as we follow Jesus into the Holy City and on through to his trek to Calvarium Place. God knew—as only God could know because the rest of us would have met violence with more violence—that the only way to set things to right again in a world that crucifies its best and brightest was to go straight into all that snarled injustice and unmake it from the inside out.
It’s a profound mystery. As preachers, let’s not cash it out by explaining it all too tidily through this or that atonement theory or schema.
Maybe it’s enough to notice the mystery of Isaiah 50—that the wonderful Servant described in verses 4 and 5 becomes the object of the horrible abuse in verses 6-9. Let’s notice not just that this did happen but that it still happens and that is precisely why that old rugged cross is indeed the one thing to which we need to cling as it alone both understand the way this sick world works and has opened up a path to something far, far better.
In his book, Searching for Home, Craig Barnes claims that many people today sense the incompleteness of life as it is, but they don’t know where to look for anything better. So they keep trying to fill in the holes in their lives by indulging in food, by increasing their consumer spending, by seeking new experiences, by trying a new drug, by changing careers. But, of course, none of it satisfies for long. At one point Barnes observes that you know people have hit bottom when, instead of longing for a time when suffering will be no more, they plod on in life while never allowing their hopes to rise any higher than the furtive wish, “Maybe tomorrow we will suffer a little less.”
That resigned attitude lets suffering have the last word. In despair, our suffering begets only more suffering in the dismal belief that suffering is what we were made for. The Gospel goes another way, seeing suffering as something that can produce hope. But this hope is not the shrunken hope that says we can do no better than try to suffer a little less. Instead Jesus gives the hope of glory that comes when you realize that by loving the unlovely and by bringing life out of death, Jesus can now give peace even in the midst of suffering.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 31 is the prayer of a servant of God for God’s protection and deliverance from his enemies. It’s a prayer that Christians can hardly hear without thinking of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. After all, it’s not just that the Revised Common Lectionary uses it as the psalm for Passion Sunday. Luke also says that Jesus prays verse 5a (“Into your hands I commit my spirit”) as he dies on the cross.
So some Christians may hear at least echoes of Psalm 31 in Jesus’ prayer from the cross. Some scholars even suggest that Jesus prayed the entire psalm as he dangled between heaven and earth on that good and terrible Friday. One can at least imagine that Psalm 31 ran through his mind as he suffered and died, plotted against by those who’d made themselves his enemies and abandoned by virtually everyone else, including his Heavenly Father.
However, a commitment to remaining faithful to Psalm 31 and its original setting discourages preachers and teachers from leaping too quickly across the ages to Golgotha. After all, Jesus is neither the first nor the last servant of God to pray at least the sentiments of this psalm. In fact, those who preach and teach Psalm 31 may benefit from reflecting on and helping hearers to reflect on who else might pray it.
We know enough about the isolating effects of bullying, for example, to imagine that one of its victims might pray something like this. Or consider the victims of spousal or other abuse who sometimes feel isolated from and rejected by their family members and friends. One might also imagine Christians whom others persecute for their faith offering Psalm 31’s prayer.
At the heart of Psalm 31 is the poet’s profession, “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge” (1). It’s imagery that’s echoed by her references to God as a “rock,” “fortress” and “shelter.” In fact, as James Mays writes, we might even say that Psalm 31 is itself a kind of taking refuge in the Lord.
The psalmist begins the section of that taking refuge on which the Lectionary focuses by pleading for God’s “mercy.” That suggests that he recognizes that he doesn’t necessarily deserve the deliverance for which he begs. He’s basically asking God alleviate his misery in a way that’s consistent with God’s gracious, faithful nature.
The pile of words and phrases that the psalmist heaps up to describe her misery is high and grim. The cause of this distress lies not in illness, some other kind of duress or even, as is the case in Psalm 51, the psalmist’s sin. No, it’s other people who are making her life so miserable. She hears “the slander of many.” Terror lies on “every” side of her. People “conspire against” her and “plot to take her life.” The imagery is reminiscent of a city or army that’s surrounded and besieged by an aggressive enemy. Everywhere the psalmist looks, she sees only enemies and threat.
This distress is draining every part of the psalmist’s life. It’s affecting her physically, causing her eyes to weaken with sorrow and her body to weaken with grief. Her distress is weakening the psalmist and even her very bones. However, her duress is also draining the psalmist emotionally. Her whole life is consumed with her misery and groaning. The picture is of a servant of God who can think of little but the suffering that other people are causing her.
Yet this psalmist must not only suffer deeply; he must also suffer alone. His enemies, their torment and his awful plight have isolated him from those he so desperately needs, his family and friends. The NIV Study Bible suggests that such abandonment by friends was a common experience at a time when God seemed to have withdrawn God’s blessing. So, for example, in Psalm 38:11 the poet grieves, “My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away.” It’s abandonment that God’s suffering servants like Job (“My kinsmen have gone away; my friends have forgotten me”) and Jeremiah (“Your brothers, your own family – even they have betrayed you) also experienced.
Such isolation is disturbing because, among other things, few prospects are more sobering than that of having to experience distress all by ourselves. When we suffer, most of us long to have people come and stay alongside of us, comforting, encouraging and praying for us. Yet precisely when the psalmist most needs such a supportive community, people avoid her. They treat her like so much worthless trash (“broken pottery”). Verses 11 and 12 offer preachers and teachers a good opportunity to reflect on their own faithfulness to those who are in misery. They also offer opportunities to challenge ourselves and hearers to stay physically and emotionally close to those who are in distress.
And yet the despair that easily grows out of such misery does not get the last word either in the prayer that is Psalm 31 or the section of it on which the Lectionary focuses. Verse 14 serves as a kind of pivot from despair to hope. With its great “but” it’s as if the psalmist lifts her eyes from her misery and the enemies who surround her to the God who created and cares for her.
Candidly, we live much of our lives in that pivot. Many of God’s children suffer the deep distress of sickness, unemployment, loneliness, despair and other maladies. It’s never easy to lift our eyes and hearts above that misery. Yet we live in hope even in the face of such distress. So the psalmist can profess, “I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”
The image our times being in God’s hands is an especially vivid one that invites Psalm 31’s preachers and teachers’ reflection. As James Mays notes, the psalmist isn’t claiming that the length of her life depends on God. Instead she seems to be affirming that God holds her destiny, the things that shape her life, firmly in the palm of God’s hand. While her enemies have some power over her, while they may have her “in their clutches” as it were, the psalmist insists that they can’t hold her, because she belongs to God. In fact, as the Apostle Paul might add, even the psalmist’s mighty enemies can’t rip her out of God’s loving hands.
Melody Knowles suggests that the psalmist believes that once God realizes his desperate plight, God will act to right the wrong in her life. After all, the poet prays, “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress” (italics added). He can beg God to pay attention to his plight because that’s part of God’s nature. The God to whom he turns is a God of “unfailing love.” His enemies harass the psalmist. His friends have abandoned him. Yet the psalmist can “be strong and take heart.” “The Lord preserves the faithful.”
Jeanette Cooper Hicks tells the story of a young Afghani girl who’d been badly burned when she accidentally triggered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). For five weeks military doctors tended to her ghastly wounds. While her face was horribly scarred, the young woman showed remarkable courage and resilience as she slowly recovered.
When, however, she was released to her family, it simply couldn’t afford to clean and dress her wounds. As it struggled just to survive, the family lacked both the supplies and skills to help her heal. She became a burden, a liability to her family. As a result, they placed her outside her home where she died.