Scripture Readings: Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29 | Mark 11:1–11
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!”
It’s hard to believe that Palm Sunday is upon us once again. Through the last forty days of Lent, we’ve been on this journey together, preparing our hearts for the message of Holy Week, which we celebrate each year. This is my second Palm Sunday hear at St. Luke’s… and it’s also the second beginning of Holy Week that we’ve marked since the start of this pandemic. And while I hope to celebrate many more Palm Sunday’s together with you, I think we are all hoping that this is our last one with COVID-19 in the mix.
How many times over this past year have we said or thought: “I can’t wait ‘til this is over!”? I’m willing to guess, more than a few… hundred, that is. Despite all of the good things that we have to be thankful for, there’s a real longing for what we have lost: the sense of stability, security… what seems like at times our whole way of life. And so we look ahead for signs of hope: available vaccines, decreasing active case numbers, old routines resuming, stirring up anticipation that some change is on the way. And while there are lots of different ideas about how we should all be move forward … whether we want to get ‘Back to Normal’, or to ‘Build Back even Better’... one thing most of us agree on is that we don’t want this to go on much longer. We’d all like this pandemic to come to an end… and better yet, to end NOW!
This is all completely natural. A very normal response to some incredibly challenging times for our entire planet. But what if, in the midst of our anticipation, we’re also missing something important? What if our minds are so fixated on a certain kind of hope that we’re unable to notice an even greater reason to be excited?
Today, as I mentioned before, Christians around the world mark the beginning of Holy Week: the time when the most significant part of the Gospel story takes shape. It begins today, Palm Sunday, where we join along with the crowds mentioned in our Gospel passage this morning, praising God and cheering as Jesus of Nazareth arrives, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. It is a day full of celebration, anticipation, and excitement… where hopes are raised that finally things are all about to change. Finally, life will be sorted out… it’ll all be set to rights. Finally, God’s kingdom is coming, on earth as in heaven.
Of course, the crowds in Jerusalem that day, were not dealing with a pandemic… (not much social distancing being practiced, by the sounds of it), but they were dealing with many challenges most of us have never had to face: the pains oppression, living under the rule of violent Empires. Though they had once had their own nations, Israel and Judah had lost it all… and now those who remained were living under the cruel kingdoms of the world.
In a lot of ways, that sentence describes much of the history of God’s people. Early on in their story, the Living God had rescued them from Egypt, where they had been living for centuries as the slaves of Pharaoh. Set free to be God’s people, to share in God’s reign of goodness and love, Israel was led to a land of their own, a land full of blessings. But far from ideal, their time in the land was filled with many ups and downs… of moments when they were in sync with God, but more often when they were not. Eventually, their own kingdom is divided into two, and both fall into wickedness, corruption, and unfaithfulness. Though the LORD had warned His people that this path would lead to dark consequences, both kingdoms would find themselves overthrown, and carried away into Exile. Only the Southern Kingdom, the people of Judah, would one day return to their land, yet even then, they were still being ruled by oppressive, powerful nations: Babylon, the Medes and the Persians, the Greeks, and finally, the Romans. Yet through all this time, they were offered the hope that God faithfulness would endure… that He would not abandon them forever, but would one day rescue them again, just as He did when they were powerless slaves in Egypt, long ago. God’s promise of a Messiah, a chosen descendant of King David who would bring God’s good Kingdom at last was something that gave them courage and strength… as they learned to live as God’s people after their whole way of life had been lost… after their sense of security, and stability had been all but destroyed by centuries of living under the threat of various vicious kingdoms.
At the time of our Gospel reading today, in the first century AD, there was a whole range of different ideas about how to best prepare for the arrival of God’s kingdom. Some focussed on a renewed obedience to the Laws of the Covenant. If the Exile and subsequent sufferings were the result of their own unfaithfulness, then some, like the Pharisees, figured the best way to bring about God’s kingdom was to double down on strict adherence to their religious duties. On the other side of the spectrum, were those who embraced the new situation… who endeared themselves to those in power, and sought to gain their favour. Awaiting God’s kingdom for them looked more like pragmatic survival: compromising with the existing kingdoms of the world, and settling for whatever positions and status their masters were willing to offer. The Herodians, and even some of the Temple leaders had taken this route, finding security, and stability from the hands of their overlords.
A third approach was that of pursuing radical revolution: rising up fight against their powerful oppressors! Many would-be Messiah’s had tried this tact… but most ended up in bloodshed. Yet even so, some still thought that the best way forward was through the sword.
And finally, there were also a whole lot of people who were just hungry for change. They had no obvious politics, no agenda or plan to follow. They were just bearing the weight of oppression, and wanting that burden to end. Like their ancestors in Egypt, all those long centuries ago, many in Jesus’s day were simply crying out to God for deliverance, longing for an end to their sufferings, and for a whole new life to begin. And just like He heard His people’s cries for deliverance all those years before, the Living God had come to set them free in ways they could never imagine.
And so we heard today that Jesus entered Jerusalem, the capital city of God’s people, at the time when the week-long celebration of Passover was about to begin. He came along with pilgrims from all over the Near East were arriving to remember together the LORD’s great act of salvation in their past: His rescuing them from oppression in Egypt, and especially the final, terrible plague where all of the firstborn of Egypt died… while a lamb was slain so that Israelite families would be passed-over, and find a whole New Life with God. Jesus had come to what was left of Israel in those days, the survivors of the kingdom of Judah, after years of exile and suffering… the descendants of the people God had saved from slavery in Egypt, and He had shared with them the Good News of God’s Kingdom coming again, but in ways they had not anticipated, and which didn’t fit into their plans.
Jesus came among them as One who was able to bring God’s healing into their lives: miraculously restoring life and wholeness to all those who were suffering, but also pushing the boundaries, and the nerves, of those with influence. Jesus came among them teaching about what it looks like to live in God’s Kingdom here and now, but in ways which all too often exposed hypocritical hearts. Jesus came among them, offering them a whole new way of life, but instead of stability and security, he spoke about loving even our enemies, finding greatness through humility, seeking forgiveness instead of retaliation… picking up crosses and following Him.
The Kingdom Christ is concerned with, the Kingdom of God… one meant to be lived out here on earth, as it is in Heaven, was simply not what they, or even we, would have imagined, but it is God’s response to all our cries of longing, and pain, and hope. “Hosanna!” ‘God Save Now!’ the crowds had called out as Jesus arrived among them. And often our own aching hearts could echo that very same cry today.
But the question is: how will we receive God’s response to our cries through Jesus, His Son? Even if it is not at all what we had anticipated, will we trust that the LORD knows what we need most, beyond what we could ask or imagine?
The rest of Holy Week reveals God’s Kingdom coming about at last: Christ’s humble service and communion shared at the table on Maundy Thursday; prayer in the midst of temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane; faithfulness even while being betrayed, with Judas’ kiss, and Peter’s denial; courage and integrity when falsely accused and unjustly condemned by the Jewish Council and the Gentile Courts; the ultimate act of self-giving love as Christ was raised up on the cruel cross; and God’s ultimate act of New Life breaking through death when He rose again from the grave.
It’s natural to get excited about the ups and downs of our lives. It’s good not to be too detached from the struggles and joys we all face. But let us not forget where our hope as God’s people truly rests: in what Jesus Christ has done for us and for the all the world, bringing God’s Kingdom to life, both forever, and now!
Let us not lose sight of the New Way of Life Christ has opened up for us at the cross: saving us, and setting us free to be His people right here and now. To be shaped by His forgiveness; to be guided by His grace; to be caught up in His mission to share God’s rescuing love with everyone. The end of this pandemic is something that we can all look forward to, but even this pales in comparison to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. So today, may we lift up our hearts, and rejoice in what Jesus has done for us, and through His Spirit at work in us, may we join in His Kingdom work right now! Amen.