Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Phil. 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49
Pr. Scott Kramer
The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully… “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”
If it weren’t Palm Sunday you might think it’s Christmas. Remember what the angels sang on the eve of Jesus’ birth? Something similar: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Like the events before and after Christmas, the events of Holy Week seem to offer scant evidence of peace!
I’ve been working in the yard already this spring and one of the tasks includes cutting back foliage from the previous year. One of the plants I admire looks to me like a bouquet of palm branches. It’s a Northwest native, in fact, but it’s not a palm, it’s a fern. It’s a sword fern.
Here is a plant that resembles a palm branch–an instrument of praise–and hope for peace. On the other hand, it is a sword fern, and a sword is a weapon, an instrument of violence and death.
In the story of Palm Sunday—Passion Sunday—God’s Word holds before us a mirror, showing us our divided nature: On the one hand, our impulse to praise and our deep yearning for peace; on the other hand, our devotion to violence and the sword.
In the story of Jesus’ suffering we might catch a glimpse of ourselves. In Luke 23, v.2, the religious leaders come before Pontius Pilate, with this incredible statement: We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.
In their desire to destroy Jesus, they were willing to say anything! In anxious times, especially, our priorities too can become confused. Last year, for example, a respected national survey asked U.S. citizens to prioritize between their love of country, their family, and their faith. The majority of the individuals interviewed ranked their priorities in this order: first, their allegiance to their family; second, to America; and third, to God and their faith.
Peace-loving people who are confused about their identity can easily be led to violence. Jesus’ own people shout, Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” At the same time, (v.13) we find the strange spectacle of people who represent power, brutality, and injustice defending Jesus!
The headlines in our own time are of angry mobs eager to follow leaders who encourage and incite violence. When we are confused about who we are we tend to make poor choices in choosing whom to follow. Our hearts are divided.
In a final twist to the story of Jesus’ suffering it is a man of violence who praises God. Not the mob but the Roman centurion, a powerful man who had built a career on brutality, who confesses, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And too late, the mob realizes its mistake, and they return home (v.48), “beating their breasts.”
When we are confused about who we are and whom we serve we may eventually realize our mistake…only when it’s too late. Move-maker Michael Moore’s new film carries the provocative title, “Where to Invade Next.” The director observes that nations around the world have received from America ideas and practices that have improved their societies. With good humor Moore travels to Europe and other nations to see if there’s anything that we might learn from the experience of other countries that we might use to heal the hurts of our own nation.
One of the nations he visits is Germany, a country that realized too late in the 20th Century what had happened to them as a people. But since WWII Germany has constructed monuments and memorials to the victims of the Holocaust. They have created street signs in ordinary places memorializing the sites of discrimination and murder. Embedded in sidewalks are plaques with the names of Jews in front of what used to be their homes before they were exterminated. Maybe most significantly, though, the German children are taught from an early age in their schools the horrifying reality of their past, and are invited to take responsibility for the dark side of who they are as a nation. It is an ongoing process, never finished, of national repentance.
The film’s director notes that we as a nation have nothing comparable. We have plenty of war memorials recognizing the sacrifice of soldiers, which is as it should be–but we have no national memorial dedicated to the African slaves who built this nation. We have no national memorial to the memory of Native peoples who were exterminated and whose land we stole. We as a nation have never fully come to terms with our dark side.
It’s been said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. And where we are confused about who we are as a people and unable to recognize our dark side–like the people of Nazi Germany, like the people of Jesus’ day–we may one day discover too late the deadly path we’ve chosen.
And yet, with or without our confession, we are recipients of God’s amazing grace: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. Jesus knows the hearts of all human beings, and the deep truth of who we are: Our hearts are divided between peace and violence, love and hate, courage and fear. We don’t know what we’re doing.
The door to resurrection is always open to us. God’s forgiveness does not depend on whether we ask for it. But resurrection joy in this life does depend on our willingness to recognize ourselves in the drama of Jesus’ suffering, to see within ourselves the stark contrast between Palm Sunday praise, on the one hand, and the Passion Story’s angry mob, on the other.
The path to resurrection always passes through the cross. That is where we are heading this week. May God’s people–we who often don’t know what we’re doing–find in Jesus’ example the faith and courage to take up our cross…and follow him.