Growing up, every year the Sunday before Easter, we celebrated the pageantry of Palm Sunday. We waved our palms, some years to a reenactment of the event and others to a long procession of the choir. And despite, a noticeable lack of candy, it would have been hard to distinguish the celebratory feeling from that of Easter.
Hence the problem: Palm Sunday is not Easter! It is a gritty celebration of motive and positioning where people are giving praise, but on the other hand, they were plotting Christ’s demise:
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:39-40
Obviously, Jesus was no fool; he also knew the atmosphere of what he was entering. In reality, as some commentators write, the version found in the Gospel of Luke, the one we encounter this year, points to a triumphal entry which was more like a modern staged protest then a parade of some kind. In fact, if we take the full text (which many lectionaries cut off), the story continues:
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Luke 19:41-44
In Luke, this scene continues with the only openly aggressive action that Jesus takes in the Bible, the cleansing of the temple. Nevertheless, that is still not the end, with the following teachings being a litany of some of the harshest most directed teachings about power and corruption, which is held in contrast to faithfulness.
Palm Sunday, and the pageantry that comes with it, has to be couched within the larger story, and ultimately even though there is a celebration, that celebration is merely a mask pointing to much darker story about our nature to one-day praise god, and then next to reject God.
As our final Sunday of preparation for Easter and setting us up for Holy Week, Palm Sunday reminds us of our humanity and faults, which we really don’t like to see. We play a role within this life that we can create perfection, and that we will always know and accept God, but often when God is so clearly working ahead of us, we turn to reject God in lieu of our own comfort. This is how we justify celebrating him one day, only to turn around and reject him the next.
As a pastor, I often see this in people and churches, especially when we get to “raw” places (the places where we feel the most vulnerable) in life. It is hard to put our trust in God that he has a bigger plan for us and that all things actually do come together. It is hard for many to trust God is working because God is working for us in a much larger way than we can see, because as people, bound by our humanity, we can only see the moment. Hence the reason the story does not end at Palm Sunday, nor is it even the penultimate expression of the passion story. It is the transitory walk from the Lenten observation to the Passion leading to Easter.
Unfortunately, while we are supposed to be Easter people, I will talk about that more next week, Christians in modern-day America often act like “Palm Sunday Christians” quick to give praise and devotion but with a good amount of doubt or certainty about God that may or may not be true. The result of this convenient faith modeled in Palm Sunday is a Christian Church that is often seen as either selfish, mean, or hypocritical. This view contributes to a Christian attrition rate that is bigger and deeper than any time in history, and it is not just main-line churches: statistically, even with the perceived growth of the “Mega-Churches” or the “Evangelicals,” on average we are not growing, and have been on a decline since the late nineties.
I posit from working with various congregations that this is because most churches are just as quick to reject ways in which God might be calling and where God is calling us to be the next, than to ask how and where we can engage. Moreover, while we are willing to see the God we want to see, we often reject a God that might call us to do a new thing, to step out, to live into the freedom and life he wants for us.
Just think about it either in your own life or in the life of the church, how many times has someone given you an opportunity, and you quickly thought of a million reasons why not. When you had times when you clearly saw God at work, and you never shared it. Conversely, even when you denied Christ in order to justify your own actions or to alleviate your own fears.
This is why the story about Palm Sunday is so important to help up prepare our hearts for the ultimate gift that we celebrate over the next week. So we remember the Passion, teachings and ultimate gift, which happens on the cross and remember that our God is not one of convenience, but demands our full devotion and acceptance. We must take this time to recognize the invitation to faithfulness Christ gives to us and explore our hearts asking the question: Are we truly committed to Christ, or do we just like the idea?
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen