Archive for April 2nd, 2010

March 28, 2010

I don’t know if you noticed in the bulletin today, but this Sunday has a double-edged title. On the one hand, it is known as Palm Sunday, but it is also known as Passion Sunday, as it marks the beginning of Holy Week, and the beginning of the end for Jesus. I have always found this contrast, this juxtaposition of triumphant joy and complete agony interesting, and wondered why it happened this way. Alas, the answer seems to be purely pragmatic. At one time, this was strictly Palm Sunday, and marked Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with only a hint at what was to follow. For the entire next week, the church calendar was filled with the story of the Passion, culminating with the death on the cross. In some churches, even now, there are special services on every day. While this is not part of the custom in our denomination, we can see it in other churches right here in Québec City. On Monday, our Anglican friends down the road will re-enact the footwashing of the disciples by Jesus. On Friday, they will be taking part in the Walk with the Cross to which we are also invited. On Saturday, they will hold the Easter Vigil, which is one of the highest and most solemn ceremonies in their church year. Many churches hold a sunrise service on Easter Sunday, at which time the story is told of the discovery of the empty tomb. Some churches make a ceremony out of hiding the alleluias on the Sunday right before Lent, and bringing them out in triumph on Easter Sunday. Now, in the 21st century, people seem to be too busy to take part in this many services, so Palm Sunday was kind of combined with the week of the Passion.
And it is this combination which causes problems for some people. How should we feel today? Palm Sunday is a day for celebration, a day of joy, as we see in our hymns. Passion Sunday, on the other hand, is a forerunner to Jesus’ death on the cross. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of a baby with joy. On Good Friday, we commemorate that baby’s death with the deepest sorrow, and on Easter Sunday, we rejoice in the resurrection. But what do we do on Palm Sunday? Jesus is riding into Jerusalem in triumph, to the loud hosannas of the crowds of people. If that is not grounds for celebration, for rejoicing, then nothing is. But I know, and you know, that these same people will turn their backs on him in just a couple of days. These same people will be calling out loud for him to be crucified. So how can we celebrate? How can we rejoice? At just one week away from the most important day in the year, just one week away from Easter, we have to decide how we feel about Palm Sunday.
Let’s have a look at what happened on that day some 2000 years ago. Let’s see if we can figure out what emotion makes the most sense today. To start almost at the beginning, we will look at the disciples, Jesus’ followers, who had been waiting for what seemed like a long, long time for this day to come. After three years of wandering from place to place, they were about to be vindicated; they felt sure that Jesus’ moment of triumph had arrived, and that his kingdom on earth would be established.
And there were the crowds – the crowds who had come up to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the feast of the Passover. This was probably the greatest day of celebration in their religious year, the day when they remembered being delivered from the oppression of Pharaoh. But they were now celebrating it again under the cloud of oppression, as they were oppressed by the hated and feared Romans. So they waited. They waited for someone who would rescue them, someone who would free them, as Moses had freed their ancestors. They knew what and whom they wanted; and, when Jesus arrived, they recognized him as the Messiah, as the promised one.
But how DID they recognize him? His disciples, those who had been with him for three years, had an advantage. But how did the ordinary people figure out that this wandering teacher and healer was the one they had been waiting for? After all, he seemed to be just one of thousands of other Jews, traveling to Jerusalem for the high holy day. There was nothing special about him. But wait, there was one thing which WAS different. Unlike the other travelers, Jesus called for a donkey, a donkey colt that had never been ridden, to carry him into the city. So what? This means nothing to us, in 2010.
Well, to understand this, we need a bit of a history lesson. First of all, no Jew would have ridden into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Even wealthy people who came to the city in a cart or on a horse would have walked the last part of the journey, out of respect for the holy city and with a sense of reverence towards God. But Jesus, who had just spent three years walking all over the country, called for a donkey to carry him on the last little bit of his pilgrimage, the two miles from Bethany to Jerusalem. This seems to make no sense. But that is because we, unlike most devout Jews of that time, have not studied their holy book, their Torah, so we do not know of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. In the book of Genesis, we read: The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him, and the obedience of the peoples is his. He will tether his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choicest branch. (Gen. 49: 10 – 11) To many Jews, this was a prophecy which they understood as a reference to the Messiah. So there is that. A prophecy is being fulfilled before their very eyes. But there is more. Jesus said: Go into the village ahead of you and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Again, this means little to us in 2010, but remember that this was still a time of animal sacrifice, and according to the book of Numbers, animals which were going to be used for sacrifice – for sacred purposes – were meant to be unused, undefiled from previous tasks. (Num 19: 2) A donkey which had not been ridden was one which was unused, which had done no other tasks, and we know that the man who was going to ride it into Jerusalem was, indeed, going to be sacrificed.
Now it is starting to make sense. Now we are beginning to figure it out. Jesus, at last, is revealing himself. He is finally laying claim to the title of Messiah, the one sent from God, the one who is going to do a sacred mission. While we, in 2010, may have missed it, the down-trodden Jews did not. And what do they do? How do they respond? Many people spread their cloaks on the road and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting: Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!
This spreading of cloaks and branches in the path of a triumphant warrior or king was not an uncommon custom. We find references to it in the Old Testament and in other ancient writings. When Jehu was anointed king of Israel, the people spread their cloaks on the bare steps so that his feet would not touch them, (2 Kings 9: 13), and the people who were doing this for Jesus would have known of this story.
Now, let’s have a look at the word Hosanna. In ancient times, before Jesus was born, it had a very different meaning. It came from two Hebrew words – yaw-shah, which meant save or deliver, and naw, meaning pray. So Hosanna would have meant something like save us, we pray. But by the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the original meaning had changed. It was now used as a shout of praise directed towards a powerful person – in this case, the most powerful person of all, the Son of God himself.
The people who greet Jesus shout, Hosanna! To us, in 2010, this is still a joyful word, a word of triumph.
The irony of this is that, although the people didn’t know it, Jesus was a king. The irony of it is that he did come to save them – and us – from oppression – but not the oppression of Rome. No, Jesus came to save us from the oppression of sin, from the oppression of Satan. He came to set people free from a lifetime of separation from God. He came to set them – and us – free to live a life of purpose and hope, a life grounded in the assurance of eternal life with him.
Yes, Jesus came. But he did not come as an earthly king, riding into Jerusalem on a white charger. Instead, he came on a donkey, and a donkey that did not even belong to him. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came in poverty. And not only that, he came prepared to give up even what he had! He came to give up his life so that we, his people, might be freed from sin, and receive eternal peace with God.
The crowds were looking for a saviour, an earthly saviour. And today, people are also looking for a saviour. The joy is that we have one! The flip side of having a saviour, however, is that he expects things of us, too. We can cry Hosanna with the crowd, but that is not enough. In order to accept Jesus as our saviour, we have to let him into our lives. And if we do that, my friends, our lives will change forever.
By admitting that we need Jesus, we are freeing ourselves from all kinds of stresses, all kinds of worries. Some people think that they can manage just fine on their own, thank you very much. What an opportunity they are missing! An opportunity to be transformed by Jesus’ love into what God wants them to be.
The crowds in Jerusalem seemed to be accepting Jesus, but we know that just a few days later, they turned their backs on him. How many of us do just that, I wonder? We gather together on Sunday mornings, and praise God, and pray, and give our tithes and offerings. And for the rest of the week, even knowing that we have Jesus loving us, we just don’t think about it. Every week, we carry our own burdens, just as the crowds carried their cloaks and the palms. Every week, we have the opportunity to lay down our burdens and to be lifted up by love. There is a hymn which contains the words: They’ll know we are Christians by our love. And love is what it is all about.
Because Jesus was born into Bethlehem, because he rode into Jerusalem, because he was crucified on Good Friday, and – most importantly – because he rose again three days later, it IS all about love. And, it is all about joy.
Well, I guess that we have figured it out. With the crowds, we will shout hosanna today, both in its original meaning of save us, we pray, and in its more meaning of triumphant joy. With the crowds, we will lay down palms for Jesus to ride over. And even better, we will lay down our burdens for Jesus to take from us. Even knowing that Good Friday looms ever closer, we live in the hope of Easter which is to follow. We live in hope of the resurrection. This is what we, as Christian people do. We acknowledge Good Friday, but we look forward to Easter. Let’s wave our palms with the crowds, but, unlike the crowds, let’s continue to praise Jesus. Let’s continue to live as a saved people, a people loved by God. Thanks be to God.


April 2010
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