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Palm Sunday C 2004 Luke 22:39-23:56
The journey to Jerusalem is over. Jesus and his disciples have arrived. As Paul Harvey would say, now for the rest of
the story. We dont need to see Mel Gibsons Passion of the Christ. We reenact it here every Palm Sunday. We have just read
the rest of the story. It is a strange story, ending with a scandal, a scandalous death.
Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday long before Mel Gibson, rides us through a gamut of emotions. Triumphal entry
to the closing of the tomb, with the Cross looming over it all, casting its shadow over it all.
About Palm Sunday, the writer Kate Penfield has said, I dont know how you feel about Palm Sunday, but I am here to tell
you that for me it is always the most confusing day in the church calendar. It has the festive feel of a prelude to Easter
high with its fragrance of spring flowers and stirring sound of trumpets; yet it has the dark and down, old, cold shadow of
Good Friday looming on the horizon, with its smell of death and its sound of silence. In fact, the only way to get from Palm
Sunday to Easter is straight through the darkness in between shortcutting the pain of this week that stretches before us will
only short-circuit the power on the other side. Trying to get from the peak of Palm Sunday to the peak of Easter without descending
into the valley of death will not work.
What do you make of Palm Sunday? Is this day good news or bad news? On the one hand, on the first Palm Sunday all kinds
of people clearly recognized something about who Jesus was and either acclaimed him or abhorred him, depending on who they
were and whether they perceived him as good news or bad news. On the other hand, the very same folk in the very same week
came together and colluded to kill Jesus. You almost have to fasten your seatbelt, so abrupt is the transition from celebration
to crucifixion, from waving palms at Jesus to nailing him on a cross. (1)
When I graduated from West Point some forty years ago, I was initially stationed in Germany in upper Hesse, not far from
the Main River and Bavaria was just across it to the East. Traveling in Bavaria then and much later in Austria, both predominately
Roman Catholic parts of German speaking Europe, I noticed that, when one passes local folk on the street, they are likely
to greet you not with the Guten Tag (good day) that I had learned from a hasty cram course aboard troopship on the way over
across the Atlantic, but instead with Grüss Gott. This means Gods greeting.
My cousin Will Willimon, the Dean of the Duke University Chapel, said this about his similar experience: I suppose that
somewhere in the dim past this greeting sprung from religious ground. People first said Grüss Gott from the conviction and
awareness that all meeting is holy meeting, that God is somehow present even in the casual encounter of neighbors in the street.
But now, I suspect, Grüss Gott is like Godspeed or Adios or a God bless you! muttered in the grocery store to a sneezing stranger.
All of these are once godly phrases that have become ritualized expressions of faith that have become simply expressions of
It has been said of some devout Jews that, when they pray the prayer Lord, have mercy, they say have mercy as quickly
as possible after they have said Lord, because they are afraid that God would appear in terrifying might before God has heard
their petition for mercy. In our culture, of course, people say, Lord, have mercy all the time without fear or even a second
thought. Lord, have mercy, this rent just keeps going up! George finally got a date to the dance? Well, Lord have mercy! Hardly
anyone expects such a phrase to summon either the Lord or mercy. Its just a saying.
The Grüss Gott and the Lord have mercy of Jesus day was Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This phrase
is from Psalm 118 and was originally part of a liturgy recited when the king returned victorious in war. As the king, grateful
to God for success on the field of battle, approached the temple to engage in thankful worship, the priests would say, Blessed
is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord (Ps 118:26).
But by the time of Jesus, this phrase had become the standard greeting for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for a festival.
As the travelers streamed into the city, people would say to them, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. It
was, in effect, Welcome to Jerusalem. Enjoy the festival. Have a nice day.
So when Luke tells us that the crowds heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and went out to meet him shouting, Blessed
is he who comes in the name of the Lord, we can be confident that he was not the only visitor to the city to hear those words.
Pilgrims from Samaria, travelers from the Decapolis, even voyagers from Rome had been greeted with the same words. Perhaps,
even as the crowds were hailing Jesus, a family from Sychar or Ephraim who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover was hearing
the same words, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! It was the conventional greeting. No one really expected
anything to come down the road except yet another festival tourist.
If we want to know what the festival crowd was really expecting when they greeted Jesus that day, a better clue can be
found in the palm branches they waved than in the words they uttered. The palm branches were a national sign and symbol of
a desire for freedom, and the waving of palm branches was something like the display of American flags in the aftermath of
a national crises. It was a symbolic expression of hope that this young Galilean who had stirred up so much attention might
strike a blow for the nation, a blow against Rome and for the homeland.
So the crowd was doing two things: shouting a ceremonial greeting and carrying a symbol. The greeting? Well, thats just
what you say. The palm branches? Now, thats what they wanted, a national savior. Blessed is the one who comes to free us from
The Rolling Stones once sang, You cant always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get
what you need. And so it was that day when Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover. The crowd did not get what it wanted,
but it did get what they needed, indeed what all of us need. But to their dismay and extreme disappointment, as the mob scene
demanding his death a few days later points out, Jesus was no local revolutionary, no national freedom fighter.
Jesus did not arrive flashing a sword astride a war horse, but lowly and riding on a donkey. He did not come in the name
of the nation, but came in the name of the Lord. When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the crowd did not get a conquering hero; it
got a suffering servant. It did not get a politician or a general; it got a savior, albeit a different kind of savior than
the mob thought it wanted. The palm branches, which they waved with such serious intent, turned out to represent a dashed
hope for restored national power and pride. But the words, with which they greeted him as a custom than as a conviction, turned
out to be the truth after all, that God was indeed in the midst of them.
It happens to us, too. When we least expect our prayers to be answered, they are. When we least expect God to be present,
it happens. Like those crowds, we walk week after week through worship, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, beckoning God
to come and be present. Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. But then, just as on that day in Jerusalem, the one we have so blithely
beckoned appears. The one who can truly save us enters our lives. And its not that that wasnt happening all along we just
havent been able to see it all the time.
Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The peace of the Lord be always with you. Lord, have mercy. Come,
Lord Jesus. We say these things all the time, scarcely knowing what we are saying, hardly expecting anything to happen, not
sure we really mean it. And then, when we least expect it, there the one for whom we have hungered and thirsted. Then we can
put down the palm branches of our expectations and shout with all creation, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the
Lord! Blessed is he one who loved us so much he died for us, all of us. (2)
1. Kate Penfield, Doing and Dying in Pulpit Digest,
March/April 1997, p. 45, as quoted in Pulpit Resource, 4 April 2004, electronic edition.
2. The remainder of this sermon is adapted from Will Willimon, Proclaiming the Text, 4 April 2004, Pulpit Resource, electronic