Rev. Teri Peterson
John 12.12-17, 19.16b-22
13 April 2014, NL4-32, Palm Sunday
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’
Here we are at one of the most dramatic in-and-out stories of the whole Lenten season. First, there’s the victory march, complete with waving palm branches and chanting crowds as Jesus enters Jerusalem. And then there’s the walk of shame, the march of defeat, as Jesus leaves the city carrying a cross.
At the beginning of the week, there must have been an almost electric excitement in the air—finally, Jesus is coming to take the place the people have wanted him to take. Midway through the procession he even hops onto a donkey, the traditional royal procession animal in the Old Testament. Palm branches were a symbol of victory and celebration, so they wave their branches high, ready to follow this king to his rightful place.
Of course, they expect that his rightful place will be the palace, and that he’ll kick off his reign by beating the Roman army to a pulp. They expect that he will break the yoke of oppressive taxes and a social system that let the rich get lots richer while the poor got lots poorer. They expect that he will be a king who is also one of them, just like in the old stories when a king was chosen from among the peasants. They expect that he’ll do miracles like the ones they’ve already seen—producing food for everyone so they would no longer be dependent on Rome, healing the sick, raising the dead, and generally making life awesome.
Sometimes I think we want the 21st century version of the same things. We want Jesus to make life awesome—to put an end to suffering, to heal us, to solve our problems. We want him to take charge and be obvious. We want him to congratulate us on what we’ve done well and miraculously fix what we haven’t. We want him to speak clearly to us as individuals while not saying too much to the society we benefit from, but maybe fixing up those people. We want him to fit our mold of a good political leader, not to do anything we don’t like, and especially not to ask us to give anything up. We want him to lift up the people we like and put aside those we don’t.
And what both we and the Jerusalem crowd get instead is a Jesus who picks up a cross and walks out of the city.
It looks like defeat and despair are the order of the day. Dying by the most painful, most shameful torture ever invented, at the hands of the Roman Empire, was not part of our plan. Just a few minutes ago, we were winning, and now our champion can never be spoken of again.
One minute, we’re proclaiming him king. The next minute, all that’s left of that kingship is a note at the top of a cross.
And that’s as it should be.
Because the nail holding up that note is also the nail that punctures our expectations. Jesus refuses to meet our desires, whether in political or religious matters. He won’t be the king the people want, and he won’t be the nice guy we want. He won’t be the one who uses the power of the world to try to bring about peace. He won’t be the one who caters to our every need and want in worship. He won’t be the one who fits into our neat little boxes. He won’t be the one who tries to make us happy all the time. Jesus’ calling and purpose is so much bigger than that—he is working on loving the whole world. He is busy obeying God the creator of the universe, extending love and justice all the way to kids who crawl under the pews and knock over someone’s coffee, and to people who speak the wrong language, and to people who never get a job, and to people who never set foot inside a church.
The disciples and the crowds thought that their triumphal entry was the high point, but it’s actually the exit that is the victory march. It may be cold and broken, but it is the height and the depth of love. In carrying the cross, Jesus carries away our expectations and puts them to death—and makes room for us to know real love, real justice, real relationship instead.
The truest words Pilate ever spoke were “this is the King of the Jews.” This is what a king looks like—not heralded with waving branches, not meeting our every demand, but slowly, painstakingly, carrying the heavy burden of our willfulness and replacing it with a desire only for God’s will. And God’s will is always for reconciliation, for wholeness, for peace, for justice, for love that is not just a feeling but an every-moment action, even at great personal cost.
As we enter this Holy Week together, I invite you to take your palm cross with you—in the car, in your bag, on the train, in your office, in the kitchen, wherever you are—and let it be a symbol to you of Jesus taking the weight of your will and replacing it with his. Remember that Jesus said his burden was light—much lighter than waiting for him to dot all our I’s and cross all our T’s. And remember too that he said that whoever wishes to follow him must lay aside our own lives, our own wills, and take up the cross and walk in his path—that is the true victory march, and it goes ever onward toward a love so great that even a tomb cannot contain it.
May it be so.