(a sermon for March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday; sixth in a series, based on on Mark 11:1-11 and 15:6-20)
The story goes that the circus had come to town, and there was this little boy who really, really wanted to be there. The only problem was this was happening on a Sunday and the boy’s mother, who was very much of the old school and had always insisted upon the proper observance of the Lord’s Day, was reluctant to let him go. But the boy was relentless in his pleading, and finally she gave in; allowing him, just this once, to “break the Sabbath” and go see this circus. Well; after the show was over and the young boy returned home, his mother asked what he’d thought of the show. His eyes were as wide as saucers; a combination of the wonders he’d witnessed and the abundance of doughboys and cotton candy he’d consumed! And with visions of daring young men on the flying trapeze, elephants and clowns still dancing in his head, the boy replied, “Mama, if you ever get to go the circus, just once, you’ll never want to go to church again!”
I wonder why it is, every year around Palm Sunday, I always think about that story! Probably because this is one of the three or four most celebrative days we have in the church; and while it’s not exactly a circus, I think you’ll agree that this morning there’s certainly been a parade atmosphere around here: I mean, we shout our “hosannas,” we sing songs of triumph, and we wave palm branches as our kids march up and down these aisles and around the pews; all of it to rejoice in the fact that on that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem he did so with the respect and honor and love of all the people. And it’s great, no doubt; it’s what the late Peter Gomes used to refer to as “that festival frenzy of the palms, the marvelous chaos which we organize each year – a festive dress rehearsal for an Easter triumph.” Because don’t forget, next Sunday we go from “Hosannas” to “Hallelujahs,” and that’s going to be even better… so spread the word and invite your friends; the celebration continues next week!
Of course, first there’s what happens in between Palm Sunday and Easter; there’s still this matter of the cross.
That’s the problem, if you will, with Palm Sunday: it’s called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” for a reason, just as there’s a reason that all four of the gospel writers chose to record this particular event in their account of Jesus’ life and ministry. It’s because this “Palm Sunday Parade” was not merely celebratory; it was revelatory as it just seemed to embody all the hopes and dreams of God’s people, all amidst the growing crescendo of hosannas and ancient words of prophecy: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” And it’s tempting – very tempting (!) – simply to treat our re-creation of it all “as though it were an Easter before Easter.” But, as Fred Craddock wisely observed, “as we sometimes have early warm weather called ‘false spring,’ so it is possible to observe a ‘false Easter.’” Because, you see, not only was this “triumphal entry” we remember today the focal point of a joyous celebration (and, might I add, a supreme act of protest) it was also, as it turned out, a funeral procession. To quote Peter Gomes once again, that is “the solemn side of [this] day, and it is almost unbearable in its anguish and pathos. Here [is where] we confront the dark side of the human experience, and when [very soon] we are forced to cry ‘Crucify, crucify’ along with the biblical mob, it is painfully close.”
On Sunday, you see, the people met Jesus with palm branches; on Friday, they slapped him his face and struck his head with a rod. On Sunday, they extoled him praises as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord;” on Friday, they heaped insults upon him and mocked him as “King of the Jews.” (15:18) On Sunday, they raced to be among the first to lay their clothing along his pathway, a fitting “red carpet” for approaching royalty; on Friday, they stripped him of his own clothes, “clothed him in a purple cloak, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, put it on him.” On Sunday, he was welcomed into Jerusalem as a King, a Savior, the Messiah; by Friday, he’d been thrown out of the city as a criminal, having first suffered through a hasty trial, jeered and condemned by the crowd, mocked and tormented by the Roman soldiers and abandoned and even denied by those closest to him! On Sunday, he was mounted on the back of a donkey (or “a colt that has never been ridden,” as Mark’s version of the story tells it) and despite the humility of such an entry, Jesus is accorded every mark of honor; but five days later on a Friday morning, he was hung on the wood of the cross, his flesh torn by whips, his hands and feet pierced by the nails, his side cut open by the spear; crucified there with “two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (15:27) and left there in the hot, midday sun to die a truly “excruciating” death.
That’s the problem with Palm Sunday, you see; however joyous are our songs for this festive morning, however much we would just like to slide into the hallelujahs of Easter morning and avoid everything in-between, inevitably and inescapably Sunday leads to Friday… the shouts of hosanna will become the cries to crucify…and we will see Jesus there on the cross, suffering and bleeding and dying, calling out so plaintively in such agony and pain, “’Eloi, Elio, lema sabactani? which means,“My God, God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) There’s no avoiding it… come this Friday that’s inexplicably called “good,” Jesus, our teacher, our healer, our Savior and our friend… will die.
And you and I; we were there. Even some 2,000 years later, we’re still there; even knowing as we do how this story is going to end, you and I are still there at that place of the skull called “Golgotha,” and we’re asking perhaps the most “frequently asked question” in all of human history: Why? Why, God? Why Jesus? Why your Son? And why the cross?
What’s interesting, you know, is that the disciples really should have already known and understood what was going on; after all, look through the gospel story and you’ll be reminded that Jesus had told them three times (!) of his approaching death in Jerusalem! But of course they couldn’t even begin to comprehend what Jesus was talking about – they didn’t want to think that anything like that could ever happen to Jesus – and it was only after the resurrection that they began to remember and understand what had taken place there on the cross. In some ways, it’s the same for you and I who have already been to the empty tomb, who’ve been there “in the garden” with Mary and have encountered the risen Christ. Yes, the central truth of our Christian faith is that we are “Easter People,” to be sure, but we live in a Good Friday world; truly, if it is true that “we were there,” at least in spirit, “when they crucified our Lord,” then it follows that we are the reason for Good Friday! So, before we can rejoice in how in Christ we are made alive forevermore, doesn’t it seem as though we should understand why he died so that could happen? Why, God? Why the cross?
I’ll be honest; over the years as I’ve tried to wrap my mind and heart around that all-important question, I’ve discovered that I’ve never felt like I’ve had the words adequate to even begin to answer that question – maybe it’s better expressed by poets and singers and dancers – but I do know this: the answer to “why the cross” basically comes down, simply and beautifully but oh, so deeply, to… LOVE.
Some years ago in a prior congregation, about this time of year the church staff and I were invited for a noontime luncheon at the home of a very elderly lady of our congregation. This was my first year there, and I was told that this was an annual affair put on by this lady as a way of thanking us all for what we did for the church. And I have to tell you, it was as fancy a meal as I’ve ever been served: the fine china was out; the place settings were beautiful; the sandwiches were cut just so and there were fancy desserts. And at the end of it all, there was coffee and tea, served in these dainty little cups and saucers way too big for my big glaumy, clumsy hands! (It’s not what you think happened!)
But I managed somehow, and reached over for the little pitcher to pour out some cream my coffee… and what came out… were chunks… chunks of spoiled, curdled cream, just plopping into the teacup. And the thing was, nobody noticed; or at least, if they noticed, nobody said anything about it. And as much as I’m not liking the curdled cream, I’m also very sensitive to the fact that our hostess is smiling so broadly and who has done everything she possibly can to make this as special and as perfect a luncheon as she can for us all; I mean, she’d been planning this event for weeks, all because she wanted to do something so nice to honor us. So… long story short… I just quietly stirred it a little bit and drank the coffee… a very little bit at a time.!
It wasn’t until a couple of days later that our hostess came over to the church office to ask me in no uncertain terms what in the world was the matter with me; how I could ever drink coffee with spoiled cream in it, and why in heaven’s name did I not tell her about it at the time? She was actually a bit angry with me! “Is that what you people do in Maine,” I remember her asking, “drink sour milk all the time?”
All good questions, I’ll admit; and I also have to confess that I didn’t have much of an answer for her… just that I didn’t want to embarrass this lovely woman when she’d gone to so much trouble, or hurt her feelings in any way or form by making a deal out of this spoiled cream incident. Looking back on it now I probably should have – gently and lovingly – pointed out the error and honor her effort in the process; in the end, we probably all would have had a good laugh and I’d have gotten better coffee! But at the time, I felt on the horns of a dilemma and all I could think about was how correcting this woman in front of all these people could have ruined everything about this beautiful luncheon that she’d prepared; so instead I just opted to drink that awful tasting coffee instead!
A small faux-pas, to be sure, albeit one the rest of the folks on the staff never let me forget! But it did get me to thinking a bit about the mind of God. Max Lucado, in his book He Chose the Nails, writes that on an infinitely greater scale God faces with humankind much the same kind of challenge. “How can [God] be both just and kind? How can [God] dispense truth and mercy? How can he redeem the sinner without endorsing the sinner? Can a holy God overlook our mistakes? Can a kind God punish our mistakes?” Two equally unappealing solutions, writes Lucado. But from God’s perspective, there is a third solution; and it’s the cross.
It was for Jesus – son of God, son of humanity – to take the mistake, the sin, the brokenness of our very lives as his very own, and to himself pay the price for that sinfulness so that we don’t have to suffer for it ourselves. In Jesus, God was willing to hurt because we hurt and needed healing; In Jesus, God was willing to suffer because the idea of our suffering was unacceptable to him; in Jesus, for the sake of our sin God was willing to face the judgement of death – even death on a cross – because the thought of our being apart from him now or ever was and is unbearable. And so, beloved in cross of Jesus Christ, God emptied himself so that we could be close to him today, tomorrow and forever.
That’s why the cross… and it is, as the song we’re about to sing proclaims, a wondrous cross.
Beloved, next Sunday we will come together at the empty tomb to shout our hallelujahs. But first, let us be sure to pause at the foot of the cross; to ponder this divine sacrifice and the wonders of redeeming love; and most especially, to remember that which we’ll be singing together in a moment, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
May this be true for us on this Holy Week and always.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry