I often go looking to other preachers for inspiration when I’m preparing my sermons. It’s helpful to me to hear how other people see things. Preparing for Palm Sunday was no exception, but something unusual was revealed to me that I hadn’t considered before.
The preachers that addressed this special service spent their time on Jesus’ procession into the city. They described it in various ways. One called it the triumphal entry. That’s a phrase that’s familiar to us. Others used illustrations to reframe the event. One said Jesus coming into Jerusalem was like the basket ball court fanfare just before the players enter for a March Madness game. The preacher described flashing lights and fireworks; loud music, and getting the spectators all hyped up to cheer on their team. Another likened the Gospel story to a political convention when the nominee for the ticket is announced. All the delegates are there with their funny hats, and their state signs bobbing up and down. There’s a balloon drop when the candidate is announced and the party goes on all night. Finally, there was the classic reference to the scene in Jesus Christ Superstar with the song Hosanna heysanna, sanna sanna ho… and before long we’re all tapping our feet to that catchy tune. In all of these sermon illustrations, the focus is on celebration. And joy. And victory.
But what if it’s not? Everybody seems to be having a good time… except for Jesus: who is the whole reason they’re all there in the first place waving palms and shouting Hosanna! Jesus isn’t joining in the festivities though. Something’s going on here, and the celebration is a cover-up for it. The Palm Sunday processional liturgy is a biblical red herring. While we’re paying attention to the obvious thing, something more important is happening out of the corner of our eyes. If we choose to turn to face it, we’ll see it; otherwise we won’t.
This is something we do all the time. Perhaps human beings are simply hard-wired to be this way: we see what we want to see. And we don’t see what we don’t want to see. In this case, we want to celebrate the triumphal entry of the King of the Jews into Jerusalem. We want to make a big show of things. Did any of the people there have a plan for what was going to happen next for their king? No. Not really. Nothing specific. There was no plan except for the one Jesus had… and that plan had nothing to do with fanfare and a ticker tape parades – or palms and cloaks, as the case may be. But Jesus’ plan was not something anyone wanted to see. So they didn’t.
Jesus has no illusions as to why he’s going to Jerusalem and what will happen there. He tells his disciples what will happen several times. He mentions it in Mark in two different chapters. He says it once in Luke, and the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus foretell the passion story three times! Matthew writes, “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” That to me is crystal clear. I don’t like it any more than the apostle Peter did, but if it’s worth Jesus repeating, there must be something more to it, like it or not. It demands our attention.
Peter said to Jesus, on the occasion of one these revelations, that these things cannot happen to Jesus. (That’s when Jesus responded “get behind me satan.”) If the Son of God says something’s going to happen, we can expect that God has a tremendous grace in store for us. Our job is to look beyond the present discomfort to receive that gift. But Peter doesn’t want to see it, and so he fights it.
Sometimes we don’t want to see those things that frighten us. Those things that make us uncomfortable or anxious are not things we want to invest our attention – and that’s reasonable. When we put blinders on ourselves to the people and events that challenge us, we do ourselves no favours by our willful ignorance. While there may be something distasteful vying for our attention, there’s a good chance that there’s also a grace in there waiting to be discovered. We ignore the uncomfortable things and deny ourselves the gift they offer.
With all the crowds cheering Jesus on as he made his way into the city, there was no way for him to share blessings. The crowds weren’t in a receptive place. They were in a celebratory, noise-making, don’t-rain-on-my-parade kind of place. You can’t talk to people who aren’t listening. Even the Pharisees were like, hey Jesus, do you think you could get them to tone it down a little? And Jesus was like no. There’s not going to be any peace at this point. It wasn’t until Jesus got his disciples into a quiet upper room for dinner that Jesus could finally speak a word.
Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his friends. There was something he really, really wanted to say to them; and he had to be really really patient until he could get his moment. Now, finally it’s here, and they are in a receptive mood to listen.
Jesus does this amazing, remarkable, extraordinary thing with the bread and wine they were eating. Something truly powerful and transformative happened at that meal. There was a grace beyond any grace they’d ever experienced. It’s a grace so powerful, that it has continued unbroken for centuries. Did the disciples ever expect something like this in the midst of the triumphal entry into the city? Could Jesus have even broached this grace while everyone was shouting Hosanna!? No way.
But in that moment, knowing he’s got the disciples in a receptive place, Jesus begins to tell the disciples about another thing that will happen – a betrayal. Let’s listen in… Luke, chapter 22, verses 23 and 24: “Then [the disciples] began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” And with that Jesus loses his audience. There’s a pledge to die with Jesus, and a promise of denial, somebody grabs two swords. It’s mayhem. Jesus says enough!
Did Jesus miscalculate? Did he not read his friends well? He had them right where he wanted them – a place where spirit world and material world seamlessly blended. And then he lost them. More accurately, they lost themselves in their own anxiety.
One of the things I often hear about is people who feel trapped in an abusive relationship. The thought of parting ways is so uncomfortable and so challenging, that they refuse to hear that good things can happen for them if they separate. So the grace of peace and serenity go unclaimed.
I also hear from people who suffer from addictions, that they enjoy their lives and friends far too much to consider for a moment that devastating things await them if they continue their current lifestyle. They love the celebration of being high, and don’t want to hear about the difficulties of sobriety, even if it brings them true health and safety. They don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.
Closer to home, it’s becoming ever clearer that the first job of the Take My Hand outreach is to get people to name the problem of suicide for what it is, and not pretend that it’s something else, or that it’s magically gone away. Suicide in our community is a problem, and there’s a grace in it, if only we allow ourselves to turn aside to see it. But we only see what we want to see. We have our work cut out for us.
Our capacity to allow our fears and anxieties overtake our receptivity to God’s spirit of grace is staggering. We are so much more ready to cling to our fears than we are to open ourselves up to grace and love. What really harms us is not our hardwired reflex for fear, but our unwillingness to allow a transformative grace to emerge from those fearful things.
The grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, is perfectly capable to moving through people and events that challenge us. It’s only when we put up a wall to shield ourselves from what we fear that we end up denying ourselves a gift that God has for us.
When was the last time you let yourself get overtaken by your own anxieties that you refused to entertain the notion that God might actually be extending grace? That’s a hard question to answer. Because you never know when or how a challenging person or event might be a vehicle for an amazing, remarkable, and extraordinary thing. You just don’t know until you quiet yourself to let listen for it. Sisters and brothers, trust in God is easier said than done.
At this point in the Passion story of Jesus, the disciples don’t yet know the magnitude of the grace that God has to offer. They have to journey through a time of difficulty and transformation of themselves before they can get to the grace that God offers. They still have to encounter difficult people and frightening events that will challenge them on many levels. We all have to.
Stay with us for the rest of the story of Holy Week. Come back on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30pm to learn more about the gifts that God has for us. God is not done giving to us. We are not done being able to receive these gifts. Quiet the noise of the world and open your hearts in this most difficult of liturgical seasons to where the spirit world and material world in you blend seamlessly. There is still Good News to be had.