Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 (Palm/Passion Sunday)
I think one of the many lessons I’m learning during this whole time of isolation and quarantine is that things never really go the way we expect them to go.
Right now, whenever I look at the news, it seems that things keep getting worse and worse. It started as a two-week ordeal (Give it two weeks and we’ll be back in business!), then it turned into April, and now who knows? Maybe May and June are gone too.
Who knew three weeks ago that we’d all be making masks in our homes? Who knew that going to the grocery store would feel so risky? We’ve learned over these past few weeks that nothing can be taken for granted. Things can change on a dime.
And really, Palm Sunday is about the same thing: everything changes. Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, but the crowd quickly turns from shouts of “Hosannas” to “Crucify!” It’s yet another example of how unpredictable and unexpected events in our lives and history can be.
In Jesus’ time, the people of Jerusalem had been looking for a new king: one that would cast out the Romans and restore the holy city to its former glory. The people were told that Jesus would be their savior. And so they gathered to greet him, they pulled whatever they can find, branches from their yards to throw him some ticker-tape parade. They shout, Hosanna, which means, “Save us!”
But Jesus is not the savior that they’ve been told about, he’s not the one they’ve been promised, and frankly, he’s not even the savior that they want. Here is not a mighty warrior king; instead, he’s someone who places the poor and the outcast at the center, who preaches mercy and love. And when he does get angry, when he does lash out, it’s often directed at the rich and the powerful of his own people.
And so, is it any surprise that they turn on him? Is it any surprise that they would want him gone? The story of today starts with a parade, a celebration, and ends with an execution on the cross.
Now, a lot of people are calling this time we’re living in an apocalypse. It’s apocalyptic. And when they say that we think disaster movies, right? Lurid violence. Upheaval. End times.
And it may surprise you to hear this, but I agree with them that we are indeed living through an apocalypse. But I think of “apocalypse” in the biblical sense. That is, apocalypse means “a revealing” or “unveiling.” It’s pulling back the curtain and exposing the truth. The story of Jesus’ passion is in many ways and apocalypse in that it revealed the ultimate emptiness of power and empire and death.
And so, what is this current apocalypse revealing to us? As this virus confines us in our homes, what are we learning about ourselves and our world? What is unexpected?
Are the rich and the powerful going to save us, as we’re often told? Will capital and markets? Flashy campaigns or promises? Or is it the humble? As Jesus would say, the meek: The ones, three weeks ago, we took for granted. The ones we may not have even seen:
- The grocery store worker and the gas station attendants;
- the delivery and postal workers;
- the janitors and the cleanup crews;
- the nurses and the doctors and technicians in hospitals and urgent care;
- the neighbors who are looking out for each other;
- the teachers who are piecing this school year together;
- the researcher who is working hour after hour on a treatment.
Let this Palm Sunday reveal to us all the unexpected ways that we are dependent on one another. Let it shine a light on the promises and priorities by which we’ve lived. Let it show all the unexpected heroes in our midst. And let us wave our branches and cheer on what is good and true, long after this is over.
Today’s story does not end with the parade, of course. Things quickly get very dark, very bleak. And I’m afraid the same will be true for us. Easter may be a week away, but it’s not going to feel like any Easter we’ve ever experienced.
But resurrection can and will come to us in ways that we never expect. Even in the midst of betrayal and trial, grief, and ultimately death, Jesus continued to do God’s work. And so it is true today.
We continue to journey toward that empty tomb, that Easter promise, even as the path becomes more and more unclear.
And all along the way, we raise our branches, and we cry out—in praise and pleading—”Hosanna! Lord, save us!”