Palm Sunday Sermon

This is today’s sermon, preached at Barrhead United Reformed Church:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.

For the next few minutes I would like you all to hold the Palm cross you were given as you arrived this morning.  Feel it in your hand.  Look at it.

I have to admit that I find Palm Sunday to be one of the strangest days in the Christian calendar.  Preparation for today has occupied my thoughts for a few weeks because I wasn’t very sure how to approach today’s service.

You see today is the day when we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  The crowds are cheering, the hymns of praise rise up to meet him and there is a party atmosphere.  Perhaps, despite all of Jesus’ hints and predictions, everything will be alright in the end.  Perhaps the people will accept Jesus.  Perhaps there will be no need for him to make that final journey to the cross.  And in my experience that is the way we have tended to treat Palm Sunday.  As a child I remember processions through the church waving paper palm leaves and singing joyful songs like the ones we have sung together this morning.
When we read this short section of Luke’s Gospel it really does seem that things are going to work out ok.  Everything happens as it should.  The colt is where it should be and when the owner asks what the disciples are doing their answer that it is for the Lord seems to be enough.  When this strange procession gets to the city it is met by crowds of people who have seen Jesus perform miracles and they greet him as their liberator.  Here at last was the king who would set them free.

And yet we know different.  We don’t come to this Palm Sunday with the same feelings as the disciples.  The disciples must have been ecstatic.  Just a day earlier Jesus was talking about being anointed for burial when Mary covered his head with expensive perfume but here they are entering the capital city, the seat of power and the crowds are cheering and calling Jesus their king.

Of course we bring hope and anticipation to the beginning of Holy Week, this most important week in the Christian year, because we know the story.  We know that things will work out ok in the end but we also know that the journey of this week will not be one of triumph and glory.  Holy Week, the journey to the cross, is one of darkness and despair, of betrayal and denial.  That journey from hope to utter despair and agony back to triumph and glory is one which we must share if we are to have any kind of understanding of the salvation Jesus offers.

The people of Jerusalem, the Jews, were a nation born out of slavery.  They were the descendents of the Hebrew slaves, freed from Egypt by God and led through the desert to the Promised Land by Moses.  The Jews think that Jesus is going to free them from the Romans.  They think that they will be masters of their own destiny once more.  Hosanna! They shout.  He saves!  That’s what Hosanna means.  And they don’t seem to understand that Jesus isn’t that kind of liberator, even when he arrives at the capital city riding on a borrowed donkey.  Jesus isn’t dressed in armour or riding a great black stallion, he isn’t calling the people to arms and he hasn’t even said anything about the Romans.

The people have been dazzled by miracles and wonders.  They believe in Jesus’ power, but haven’t been listening to his message.  They don’t understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  They don’t understand the kind of freedom Jesus has come to offer.  Not even the disciples get it.  They still don’t realise where this journey will end.

How quickly the cries of ‘Blessed is he who comes in God’s name’ turn to ‘crucify him!’.  How quickly the euphoria of the Palm Sunday parade turns to a group of scared men and women hidden away in a locked room eating bread and drinking wine given to them by a man talking about the end of the world.  In just a few short days Judas would become disenchanted with the dream and sell out God’s Son for a few quid.  In just a few short days Peter, the rock on which Jesus would build the church, denies even knowing him, not once but three times.  In just a few short days Jesus would go from triumphant king to crucified criminal.

Palm Sunday is the light before the darkness.  The sunshine before the storm.  We turn our palm branches into crosses because we are the crowd.  We are the ones who welcomed Him with shouts of Hosanna, palm branches waving, and a week later nailed Him to that cross.  And all along Jesus knew that this was the only way.

His death on the cross was the only way He could defeat death forever.  Our choice of the structure and limitations offered by the Pharisees was the only way Jesus could grant us freedom.

Holy Week is so important to our faith.  If we miss out the next seven days we jump straight from this Palm Sunday, this day when we welcome Jesus with songs of joy, and we jump straight to Easter Sunday when we will welcome the risen Christ with glad hearts.  But to miss out the journey in between is to miss the whole point of the story.  Luke’s gospel in particular is the story of a journey, the journey of Jesus towards Jerusalem.  That journey is a story that can’t be read in chunks.   It can’t be taken in bits.  We can’t skip ahead to the destination.

The journey is important.  We must travel it with Christ.  We must go with him from the countryside and meet Mary and Martha and Lazarus, hear about lost sheep, lost coins and lost sons.  We must listen to stories of robbers and kind strangers, of outsiders and insiders.  We must hear Jesus challenge the Pharisees, debate with the crowds and calm the storm.  We must hear Jesus talk about his death over and over again and we must notice how his disciples never hear him.  We must enter the gates of Jerusalem and hear the noise of the crowd as we stand among them and we must hear the Pharisees challenge Jesus even then.  And finally we must journey through the dark days ahead to that upper room where the last supper will confuse and scare the disciples and lead out to the garden of Gethsemane where they would fall asleep through exhaustion and grief and fear.

We must stand in the shoes of Judas as he betrays the man he has spent three years with, we must put on the cloak of Peter as he denies even knowing Jesus three times and we must join with the Pharisees as they condemn Jesus to death.

Without this week, this journey from light into darkness and back into light, our faith means nothing.  There can be no resurrection if there is no crucifixion.  There is no eternal life if God’s son does not die.  There can be no forgiveness if there is no wrong done.

I don’t remember ever hearing about Grace as I grew up in the church.  I don’t know if that was because I wasn’t listening but I think it might be more likely that it wasn’t something that was mentioned much.  Grace is an odd thing.  Grace is love that is undeserved and way out of proportion.

Grace is in the story of the workers who work all day and the others who turn up with an hour to go and still get paid the same.  Grace is in the story of the boy who wishes his father dead and who takes his inheritance and blows the lot but is still welcomed home and loved and accepted and forgiven by the father he wished dead.

Grace doesn’t work for us.  We like people to get what they deserve, what’s coming to them.  We don’t like it when people succeed.  We complain when we don’t get our fair share.  We are the crowd.  Blessed is he who comes in God’s name, just as long as he doesn’t upset things too much; Blessed is he who comes in God’s name just as long as he doesn’t ask too much; Blessed is he who comes in God’s name just as long as he doesn’t let those people in too. Blessed is he who comes in God’s name just as long as we get what we want and not what we need.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is grace.  We are loved way beyond what we deserve.  We are loved way beyond what we can return.  We are loved no matter who we are or what we have done.  Grace is what this Holy Week is all about.  Grace overcomes the darkness of our betrayal, our denial and our crucifixion of God’s own son.

In our hands we hold the leaves that welcomed the king who came in God’s name and in our hands these leaves became the cross on which he died, for us, the crowd who nailed him to it because grace was too dangerous, too difficult and so uncontrollable.

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of God.  Amen.