This sermon was delivered on March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday. I really had fun writing this one, as I posed it to myself a challenge, synthesizing multiple feast days together. Enjoy!
–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian
When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task,2 saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”
4 They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5 Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7 They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![a] 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
Often, I get to come to the pulpit with multiple choices to preach about on a Sunday. The usual choices come often from the lectionary, but today some additional choices are available.
Today is of course, as you have observed, Palm Sunday. The scripture reflects as much. However, given the context and practices of the local church, today could be Passion Sunday, a preview into the events of Good Friday. Third, however, is an outlier, one that doesn’t happen often at all in congruence with the Sunday before Easter–the feast of the Annunciation.
What is the Feast of the Annunciation, you ask? Today is March 25th. What happens exactly 9 months from now? You guessed it: Christmas! Therefore, today is the day that the church also traditionally observes the moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce that she will give birth to a son, the moment of the Immaculate Conception. Mary (it is observed) conceived Jesus on this day.
So how rare is it then that such a confluence should happen. April 1 is rarely Easter. Therefore, rarely does Palm/Passion Sunday arrive on the same day we witness to Jesus’ conception.
What does it all mean though? Is it all a grand coincidence? Possibly. But the Spirit uses coincidence all the time to bring about a greater understanding of things, and today, I believe the Spirit is moving us to come to a greater understanding of the triumphal-yet-ironic day of Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem.
I think most of all, however, on what the crowds yell as he enters the city. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” It is perhaps the most powerful part of this passage in Mark, more than the curious nature of his entry on a donkey. It is a prophetic song of praise–which takes on new meaning when you look at it in each of the 3 choices we are offered to celebrate the day. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, at his birth, at his peak, and in his death.
The Name of the Newborn King
Rarely do we have a chance to look back at the Nativity during the season around Easter, but Mary’s annunciation affords us no better chance than to do just that.
Of course, the closer you look at the Annunciation, the more appropriate it looks to use it to approach Palm Sunday. Gabriel came to Mary completely by surprise, but was welcomed and accepted. Gabriel praises Mary, as she is the most favored lady of God, a blessing to the world in and of herself. Further than that, Gabriel praises who she will give birth to.
Luke 1:32-33 says: “He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
Even more, Gabriel gives him his name: Jesus, translated from Hebrew meaning “He will Save” or “He will Deliver.”
Now, of course Gabriel knew the mighty things Jesus would do–he was charged with giving the news directly from God. But Mary was blessed to be the first one on earth who would bear the good news on her own. She alone was the first who would be able to say with the fullest confidence: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Why is Jesus’s strange birth something to reflect on during the events of Holy Week, though? Specifically Palm Sunday
Because this is, in many ways, was the first time the world at large got to celebrate him, to worship him as he is fit to be worshiped. This parade was a holy affair, as well as a party. We don’t usually party around this time of year–for good reasons, considering Lent is a time of fasting, not partying. But There is always an exception to every rule.
The Feast of the Annunciation is just that: a Feast Day. It’s one of the few times during Lent that the faithful are “allowed” to break their fast. In modern vernacular, it’s a cheat day. You can let go a little. You can celebrate a bit. Color, sight, sound, and life revive us on this day, this last day before the biggest week in all of Christian faith and worship.
It’s also just good to remember the beginning of things as we come to the end of things. It bookends Jesus’s life nicely, reminding us of the joy of a new, exciting thing breaking into the world. Jesus was coming into the world for the first time, and this moment was the first sign of that news. Good news was given to the world for the first time. That’s something worth remembering. That’s worth responding to with a hearty hosanna. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
The Name of the Ascendant King
Which brings us to today, Palm Sunday.
As I said, this is a feast day, and a good one to observe. It’s one last deep breath before the dive into the passion this week. It’s almost as curious as the Annunciation, even.
It doesn’t start with a young woman being told that she’s going to give birth, but it is started with an announcement: We’re taking your donkey because our teacher needs it, and you can’t stop us! Does anyone else find it hilarious that, to fulfill the scriptures, Jesus needed a donkey to ride into town, and to do that his disciples committed Grand Theft Donkey?
In any case, Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem is a grand affair. People lined the road as he trotted up the path, starting from a certain place: the Mount of Olives. Why is that place so important? There was a prophecy that foretold of just such a savior coming from the Mount of Olives to free Jerusalem from its captors.
The prophet Zechariah gives us this account (and a quick trigger warning, this passage does include rape. Remember, the bible isn’t all that family friendly):
Zechariah 14:2-4: I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem for the battle, the city will be captured, the houses will be plundered, and the women will be raped. Half of the city will go forth into exile, but what is left of the people won’t be eliminated form the city. The Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day he will stand upon the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem.
Later on, in Zechariah 9:9-10, another prophecy recounts this: Rejoice greatly, o daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse 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.
The people knew these prophecies well. They expected them, especially at the Passover, their highest festival. They also wanted it desperately. Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, two historians and theologians, tell of a second parade that happened that day. That one was on the other side of town, resplendent in Roman glory. It was the entrance of Pilate into the city, and he was accompanied by a troop of Roman soldiers. Their parade was a symbol of imperial might.
But Jesus’s parade…that was one of humility. It was a people’s parade. It was one with banners made of peasant’s clothing, with palms wafting in the breeze. It was the parade the people wanted, not the one the oppressors demanded. And Jesus? He fit the bill, coming in on a donkey from the Mount of Olives.
So they shouted, and sang “Hosannas” to him. They partied. They feasted. Finally, the one the prophets foretold has come! Or so they thought.
It’s even more peculiar how the passage ends. Jesus arrives at the temple, gives it a good scope…and then leaves. As unexpectedly as he came in, he disappeared. It was as if it was a dream for Jerusalem. Their messiah appeared, like the shimmer of a mirage…and then is gone. The rest of the week, he begins his campaign against the temple, and the priests. And soon, the crowd forgets their parade. All hosannas faded. The blessings they put upon the one who came in the name of the lord were all but forgotten.
The Name of the Crucified King
In the days ahead, we will have a king. But he will not look like one.
Nobody will throw him a grand parade. Oh, they’ll line the streets, but instead of laying palms the ground before him, they will be shouting curses and spitting on a man with a crown made of thorns. No longer will they be saying “Hosanna” or “Blessed be his name.” Now it’s “heretic,” “traitor,” and “false priest,” that issues forth from their lips, and their hardened hearts. Gloria’s were sung for him at his birth. Hosannas at his entry. But no songs were sung at his crucifixion.
This week, we meditate on Jesus and his passion.
As we celebrate today, we take a pause to acknowledge the mountain we must climb to get to Calvary. May we always remember that his name is blessed. May we remember that he saves us, delivers us, and forgives us. May we remember that before we can get to resurrection, we must appreciate how deeply Jesus loves us. May we remember that the name of the crucified king is blessed. His name is Jesus. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.