Below is a podcast of the sermon I preached on Sunday, April 9, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.
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When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed 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!" When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!" So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"
So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.
And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him."
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"
Palms and Passion
Now, before I start, I recognize that the title of this message, well, I know it’s a little odd. I mean, yesterday, when I looked at it again, it sort of sounds like some kind of exotic perfume or maybe something you could buy at Bath and Body Works. You know, “If you want him to notice you after a long day at work, try a little “Palms and Passion.” But I’ll tell you right up front, it has nothing to do with cologne.
Instead the title has to do with where we choose to focus on this particular Sunday. Let me explain. I think we all know that, during the year, some days have a special religious focus, you know, like Christmas and Pentecost and of course, everybody’s favorite, Stewardship Sunday. In fact, in the next week, we’ll be moving through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before we get to Easter. And that same sort of thing is happening today.
But this particular Sunday is actually unique, because it can have two focuses. You see, today can either be Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, and of course, when I say “passion”, I’m not talking about anything that involves heavy breathing, but rather the suffering and death of Jesus. Now that’s our choice.
And if we’re focusing on palms, according to the lectionary, we should read the passage I gave you from Matthew 21 and talk about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. But if we’re getting into the passion, we’ve got all that stuff from Matthew 27, scripture that sort of moves Jesus from the last supper to the cross. You see, we can focus on either one this morning, and I’ll tell you, that’s really what I’ve always done. And since in every church I’ve worked, we’ve always had a service on Good Friday, the day we remember the crucifixion, on the Sunday before Easter, palms have always been my theme du jour. In other words, I’ve always done what most churches do and separated the two focuses.
And even though that fits well with what the church calendar tells us to do and kids sure look cute carrying in palms, I think there’s a problem when we separate the palms from the passion. Let me tell you what I mean.
If we focus only on the palms, what’s called the triumphant entry, you know, with all the people laying their cloaks on the street before Jesus as they shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, I’ll tell you, if that’s what we do, it’s not a stretch to see Jesus as this crowd-pleasing king, you know, a popular celebrity who’s sort of playing to the crowds like a candidate at a political rally. And it’s not hard at all to come to the conclusion that maybe that’s why he came, you know, to bring all this excitement and enthusiasm and energy to folks who were tired of living in a grey world. And you know, if that’s who Jesus was and if that’s why he came, then maybe we can best show our faith by doing the same thing ourselves. In other words, maybe we should be out there like the crowds, cutting branches from the trees and throwing our jackets on the street and shouting “Hosannas,” because on Palm Sunday, maybe that’s how we’re suppose to show our faith, right? Well, maybe.
But then think about how that changes, if we use this Sunday to talk about the passion, you know, the condemnation and the suffering and the cross. Well, as the coachmen said to Dorothy, Toto and the rest, that’s a horse of a different color, isn’t it? Sure it is, because now we’ll focus on Jesus as the one who was rejected and condemned and crucified, which means he must have come to suffer and to die; therefore, we can best show our faith in him by being really, and I mean, really sad, maybe even angry that they would do such horrible things to Jesus. My gosh, this is day for solemn meditation and reflection, certainly not an appropriate time to say “hosanna”, not if this is Passion Sunday, and the focus is on suffering and death. But that’s what you’ve got when you separate the themes: on one hand a day for excitement and enthusiasm, because that’s what Jesus came to bring and on the other hand, a time for sadness and anger, because it was Jesus nailed on the cross.
And I’ll tell you, even though these two views, these two different perspectives are certainly in the Biblical story, something very interesting happens when we consider the palms and the passion together. As a matter of fact, when we take these two parts of Jesus’s story and sort of bring them into contact, I think we get a much clearer understanding of who Jesus actually was and is and of why he came and of how we might respond. And I’ll tell you, when we look at the stories, man, this is actually really easy to do. Let me explain.
When we consider the palms and the passion together, I think we can get a clearer understanding of who Jesus was for those folks in the story and who is for us right now. I mean, instead of seeing him as either a first century celebrity or a total outcast, when we allow these two stories to inform one another, now we can recognize him as a king who suffers and dies for his people. And like I said, we can see this in both stories. I mean without question, he was viewed as a king as he rode into Jerusalem. In fact, I’ll tell you, that’s the meaning of all this business about “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”, something we can see in the story of his entry into Jerusalem. You see, Matthew was quoting the Prophet Zechariah, the one who would describe the work of this king with these words: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” [Zechariah 9:10] You see, as written by Matthew, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king, and even though those who cheered him on would later say about him, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” the words “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”, man, they sure sound royal to me. And even in the passion part of the story, the sign that they nailed to the cross read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
I’ll tell you, according to both stories, we’re shown that Jesus is a king, but not the kind we’d expect, because rather than entering the city on a white stallion, Jesus was humble, something rulers rarely are, riding on a donkey. And even though they thought they were being cute and clever by writing his charges on the sign the way they did, we know they were right. I mean, under that ironic sign, that was absolutely correct, hung the King of the Jews who suffered and died for his people. You see, when we bring the palms and passion together, we can understand who Jesus was and is; he’s the king who suffers and dies for his people.
And along with that, I think we can also get a much clearer understanding of why Jesus came. You see, when we look at just the entry by itself, we might get the idea that Jesus came to win over the crowds, you know, to get folks all fired up and excited, but that’s really not what Jesus encouraged when he entered Jerusalem. I mean, think about what happened; although the crowds were shouting and throwing stuff, something you might do for a king, Jesus wasn’t waving. He wasn’t pumping his fist. He wasn’t even acknowledging what they were saying. Instead he was silent, not unlike what Isaiah said about the one he called the suffering servant. He wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” [Isaiah 53:6-8] You see, according to Matthew, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he didn’t say a word. And I’ll tell you, those crowds who were shouting “hosanna,” they weren’t won over by him at all, because in less than a week, they were standing in the court of the Pilate, the Roman governor, shouting, “Let him be crucified!” No, Jesus didn’t come to get on the good side of the crowds.
Instead he came to do something else. You see, Jesus came to save them, something that they were really seeking but didn’t know it, when they shouted “hosanna”, because that’s really what the word means in Hebrew, “save us.” And I’ll tell you, that’s exactly what he did on that cross. He won’t save himself, you know, like they told him to do, but rather he’ll save those who drove the nails and who hurled the insults. And I think we can see this by what happened when Jesus died. According to Matthew, “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God's Son!’” [Matthew 27:50-54] You see, Jesus didn’t come to win over the crowds; man, he came to save them. And that’s something else we can understand when we bring the palms and passion together.
And finally, that really leads us to how we might respond, you know, how we might respond to this different kind of king who came to save his people. And I think we can do this; we can respond in two ways. For example, first, we can respond by simply thanking and praising God for entering our time and space and becoming the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, in other words, the king. You see, we can thank him that the separation between God and us was ripped apart when Jesus died on the cross. And we can thank him that, at that moment, everything changed, the whole universe was shaken, and the possibility of a new kind of life was a reality. And we can thank him that we’ll never have to say “hosanna” ever again, because our salvation has been accomplished. I’m telling you, first, we can respond by thanking God.
And second, as we’re offering our thanks and praise, we can make a conscious decision simply to do what we’ve been called to do, and the only way to do it is to know it. And the only way to know it is to read about it in this book. Now, I’m not going to blow any smoke, there’s a lot of stuff here in the Bible, and I don’t think there’s any way to know it other than to read and to study it. Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and minds and hearts so that we can see and understand and feel, but give me a break, we shouldn’t blame God for our Biblical ignorance if we choose not to read it, anymore than I should blame God for me not winning the lottery if I’m not willing to buy a ticket. If we’re serious about doing what God’s called us to do, it’s right here in The Bible, which actually means in Greek, “the book.” And that’s another way we can respond. When we move the palms and passion together, I think we get a clearer understanding of how we might respond.
And I’ll tell you, that’s what we did this morning. Instead of separating the significance of Palm Sunday and the Passion, we let the two stories sort of inform one another. And as a result, I hope we all got a clearer understanding of who Jesus was and is and why he came and how we might respond. And this was possible by bringing together the palms and the passion.