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PALM SUNDAY

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!

Shout, O Daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your King is coming to you,

Righteous and having salvation,

Lowly and riding on a donkey,

On a colt, the foal of a donkey.

(Zechariah 9:9)


Psalm 22:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11;  Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-13, Luke
19:28-48, John 12:12-19

~~~

PALM SUNDAY LITANY

L    Today we recall the events of the first Holy Week so many
     years ago.

P    We remember how it started with Jesus entering the Holy
     City.

L    As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called
     the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to
     them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it
     you will find a colt tied there which no one has ever
     ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you,
     'Why are you untying it?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it.'"

P    Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as Jesus
     had told them.  As they were untying the colt, its owners
     asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?"  They replied,
     "The Lord needs it."

L    They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and
     put Jesus on it.  As he went along, people spread their
     cloaks on the road.  When he came near the place where the
     road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of
     disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for
     all the miracles they had seen, saying:

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

L    Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher,
     rebuke your disciples!"

P    "I tell you," Jesus replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones
     will cry out."

~~~

Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal
Equinox (March 20/21) every year -- in the West.  In the East, the
calculation is a bit more complex: following the ruling of the Council of
Nicea, the Orthodox celebrate Pascha the Sunday after the octave (8th day
after) of the Jewish Passover.

The Sunday before the Easter weekend is called Palm Sunday. It is the
beginning of Holy Week, the week that has Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in
it. Lent, and especially Holy Week, is the season in the Church year in
which Christians give the most solemn, sacred thoughts to the fundamentals
of their religion.

The original Palm Sunday was the most powerful 'ticker-tape parade' in
history. Up to a quarter of a million pilgrims visited Jerusalem at Passover
each year, so a lot of people were milling around in the city at this time.

Preparing for this year's Palm Sunday preaching I thought I'd try to find
out the largest 'ticker-tape parades' in history...

The World Wide Web search engine Google turned up some interesting stats -
and problems...

Like, how do you estimate the size of a parade? The only way the American
authorities know is the amount of ticker-tape collected. Results:

An estimated 2.2 million people turned out for the 1969 parade to honor the
Mets. But, to put that in perspective, here are the largest U.S. ticker-tape
parades ever:

5.  1969 Mets parade--1254 tons of paper/ ticker-tape
4.  Iranian hostages' return, January 30, 1981--1262 tons.
3. Douglas MacArthur's return, April 20, 1951--3249 tons.
2. John Glenn, March 1, 1962--3474 tons.
1.  V-J Day, August 14, 1945--5438 tons.

(What about the return of the astronauts from their 1st voyage around the
Moon in Apollo 8 in December 1968, not to mention the return of the Apollo
11 crew who first walked on the Moon's surface? They must have ranked high.)

And what of religious parades? Is a large gathering in one place a parade?
If so:

The largest audience Billy Graham ever spoke to at one time was a million,
250 thousand in Seoul, Korea (1973 Yoido Plaza). And the second largest was
in Rio de Janeiro at the stadium. There were 250,000 inside and about
100,000 outside.

Largest crowd at a papal event: a 1995 World Youth Day in the Philippines
attended by more than 4 million people.

The Palm Sunday procession has to be understood against the backdrop of
history, and particularly the history of the Jews. Traditionally 'history'
is about what powerful people do to/with/against other people, especially in
war. Occasionally powerful rulers have tried to conquer the entire known
world. The Hebrew people's homeland was regularly 'between the hammer and
the anvil', and they longed for the time when they could be free of
armies-of-occupation. (Why can't modern Israelis understand how the
Palestinians feel on this?) The original 'Palm Sunday parade' was all about
the fervent aspirations of a nation for a messiah-king, who might lead his
people to throw off the yoke of Rome. But in reality, the unconquered
territory Christ the King was and is most concerned about is the human
heart...

As this special day comes around each year, we are amazed afresh at Jesus'
courage, his single-minded devotion to God's will for him. 'All the way to
Calvary he went for me. He died to set me free.' But here I want to
underline three other aspects of Palm Sunday:

1. PALM SUNDAY IS ABOUT LIFE'S MIX OF JOY AND SADNESS

The little town of Spearfish, South Dakota, nestled in the foot of the Black
Hills holds a singular distinction. According to the Guinness Book of World
Records, Spearfish holds the record for the largest temperature drop ever
recorded.

Jerusalem is in our record books (the New Testament) for having the largest
drop in mood ever recorded - between 'Palm Sunday' and 'Good Friday',
celebration and sacrifice, joy and tragedy.

For two thousand years, the prophets had promised the children of Israel
that the Messiah would come to save them. Yahweh had established a covenant
with Abraham: he would be the father of a great nation. But except for a
short period other nations ruled Israel and Judah. The Hebrew prophets
preached a message of hope - a savior/messiah will come to save them from
oppression, to return them to the days of power and glory like those when
David and Solomon ruled.

Now here is the "Christ", "the Anointed One," "the King," "the Messiah."
What else were a simple, uninformed, and enslaved people to think except
that the Lord had come to use his great power to drive the Romans out and
become the ruler of the New Kingdom of Israel? What else could all those
parables about the heavenly kingdom be but a promise of the kind of life
they would expect when the Messiah was king? After all, the Old Testament
and the Jewish tradition had only a vague idea of a life after death, so for
them there could be no other idea of a kingdom for the Messiah than an
earthly one. Even the disciples themselves didn't really begin to understand
the concept of a 'kingdom within' and a life after death until after Jesus'
resurrection.

When the multitude saw the Lord approaching Jerusalem, they took branches of
palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out 'Hosanna! Blessed is He
who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!' (text). "Hosanna"
means "save, we pray thee!".

And five days later - the King is dead.

"Sometimes they strew his way,
His sweet praises sing,
Resounding all the day,
Hosannas to their king.
Then, 'Crucify!' is all their breath,
And for his death they thirst and cry."

The same people who shouted "Hosanna" on Sunday shouted "Crucify him," just
five days later. They cheered one day and jeered the next.

(The same people? It's not difficult to 'rent a crowd' in poor countries).

In Mark's bleak passion story no one will stay with Jesus. He goes to
Gethsemane to pray, and he has to come out three times and tell the
disciples to wake up, when he needs the comfort of his friends. But they
desert him by sleeping, and later by running away....

In Mark's Gospel, when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Judas betrays
Jesus with a kiss. What a way to betray a friend who has lived and preached
love with you for three years!

In Mark's Gospel, there is this strange figure of a young man running
through the scene, in white, fleeing without his garment. The ancient Coptic
Church said that was Lazarus. Most commentators believe it was John Mark
adding this signature-story to his Gospel. 'Clad in white': the sign of the
newly baptized.

And then Mark moves us to the scene of the trial. And Jesus' faithfulness is
juxtaposed against Peter's unfaithfulness. It's not enough that Peter
betrays Jesus once, but no: he has to do it three times! And each time he
digs himself into a hole, further.

And then, what seems like the ultimate betrayal in Mark, Jesus' last words
recorded in the Gospel of Mark, are a quote from Psalm 22:

"My God, My God, why have YOU forsaken me?"

And Jesus is left alone, it seems, to bear the agony of the world.

This is the way the Master trod: shall not his servant tread it still?


2. ON THE ORIGINAL PALM SUNDAY THERE WAS A MIX OF POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS
AGENDAS

The backdrop to Palm Sunday was the excitement throughout the land after the
raising from the dead of Jesus' friend Lazarus  - a miracle that
foreshadowed his glorious resurrection the following Sunday.

There is a line in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar where Judas sings
something like, "Listen to the crowd. There must be at least fifty thousand.
Keep them shouting. You'll get the power and the glory, and we will win
ourselves a home."

In a sudden shift in the music, Jesus responds, "Neither you, Judas, nor the
Romans, nor one of the fifty thousand, understand what glory is, understand
what power is, understand at all."

The Pharisees, the scribes and the elders, were using the excitement stirred
up by Jesus to their own ends. The Romans, in turn, had their own vision of
world domination. (Perhaps Judas was a secret 'insurrectionist' and had
groups of armed rebels hiding in Jerusalem ready to strike). For the
Pharisees the claim of Jesus being 'the King of the Jews' was blasphemy. For
the Romans it was treason. Jesus was the pawn in the struggle-for-dominance
between these groups.

If modern sociology has taught us anything, it has affirmed  (as Robert
Merton put it) that just about all institutions are inherently degenerative.
Political, religious, it doesn't matter. When people get to exercise power
over others, their perceptions are (mostly) warped and their ethics tainted.

In the slave states before the American Civil War pulpits were commonly used
to defend the institution of slavery. It was against the law
to teach slaves to read, especially the Bible because it was so
revolutionary. It was Christians who made that illegal!

After  'September 11' most of us in the West are more convinced we should
close our borders to most Islamic refugees. Ask an average Australian, for
example, what they think about letting in more Muslims, and they'll reply,
if they're honest: 'Islam is an intolerant religion. Just about all Islamic
countries are undemocratic. If it wasn't for oil they'd all be poor. A
majority of them are still cheering for Osama bin Laden. A significant
minority are committed to frundamentalism and terrorism. And you want me to
say we should invite these people to share the good life we've worked so
hard to produce?'

The Christian answer is 'yes', for three main reasons. First, we are
commanded in our Scriptures to be hospitable. Second, the best way to get
rid of terrorism is to remove poverty and the human wretchedness that goes
with it. Third, we'll be asked at the Great Judgment (Matthew 25) about what
we did when others were homeless...

You see, we want Jesus to be on our side, but we've discovered something for
which we weren't quite prepared. Jesus didn't just come to be on our side.
He came to be on the side of everyone -- even on the side of our enemies!

Will Campbell is (was?) a Baptist minister who drives people 'up the wall'.
He doesn't have a church. He just preaches and pastors whenever he feels
called. He's from Mississippi, but he was an outcast in the 60s because of
his belief in integration and his association with "outside agitators."

One of those agitators, a young Episcopal minister named Jonathan Daniels
was killed with a shotgun blast by Tom Coleman of Hayneville, Alabama, in
1966. An all-white jury found Coleman innocent and Will Campbell shocked and
alienated his civil rights friends by standing beside Coleman.

"Jonathan can never have died in vain," he said, "because he loved his
killer -- by his own words. And since he loved his murderer, his death is
its own meaning. And what it means is that Tom Coleman, this man who pulled
the trigger, is forgiven. If Jonathan forgives, then it is not for me to
condemn him."

Jesus accepted the rejection of all so that he might show mercy on all. He
was clothed with the purple robe of mockery and crowned with the thorns of
shame, so that by suffering the rejection of all, we might at last be united
by his forgiveness.

3. PALM SUNDAY IS ABOUT THE MIX OF PRIDE AND HUMILITY

For at least fifteen centuries the Catholic Church has prescribed that the
words of St. Paul from Philippians 2:8-10 be read on Palm  Sunday. That is
the hymn  'par excellence' celebrating our Lord's 'kenosis', self-emptying,
humbly becoming human, a servant, and dying for us - even death on a
cross...

There's one character in the story we haven't highlighted yet. The Creator
of the world -- your Creator and mine -- is riding on a burro, a beast of
burden. God on a donkey! What lowliness! What utter self-abasement! He looks
to be anything but God! It's only peasants who ride pack mules...

One of my favorite sermons is W E Sangster's 'He Honours an Ass'
(Westminster Sermons, London: Epworth, 1961, pp. 57ff).

'There is nothing dignified about a donkey. You can look at him from any
angle you like and you will fail to find any 'presence'. He hasn't got it.
He is an awkward, obstinate, and, some have thought, stupid beast. Indeed,
the nature of the donkey has passed into a proverb, and nobody supposes, if
they are called an 'ass' that it's a term of endearment or a mark of
wisdom...

'As I have been looking again into that curious processional scene, I feel
somehow that the donkey didn't let it down at all. So far from dragging the
lowly pomp down to _his_ level, he seems rather to have been drawn up to
_its_... The scene is not ludicrous, but royal...

'In his well-known poem on the donkey, G. K. Chesterton makes the donkey
reply to those who sneer at him:

"Fools! for I also had my hour

One far fierce hour and sweet;

There was a shout about my ears

And palms before my feet."

'I see a parable in that. Whatever Christ touched he dignified, and no
matter how despised a person or creature may be, Christ has a use for that
one, and he gives them dignity by that use...'

Sangster goes on to illustrate: Christ still uses ordinary people, the
ill-educated, the disfigured, the 'ill-born', the one-talented, and even
obscure people...

He concludes:

'A young woman... spoke critically to me once about the people in my church.
She thought they were all thoroughly stale and old-fashioned. "Look at old
Mr. Aslett," she said, "What does he know about life?"

'I did what she told me. I thought on old Mr. Aslett. He was a simple man in
some ways, but I remembered the time when his three children were smitten
with scarlet fever together, and two of them died in one day. I remembered
his faith in that midnight hour. I remembered why he was still a _poor_ man;
because he would not compromise his conscience on a certain point, and
missed making a large sum of money. I remembered how often the old man
cheered me in my work by his simple and loving testimony to Jesus.

'He looked like a poor old ass to the smart young thing, turning in
monotonous circles (like the donkey who drives the well at Carisbrooke
Castle)..  but if only she knew it he was drawing living water from the
wells of the Spirit of God.

'So may we! All's well! It's Palm Sunday and one message of Palm Sunday is
this: that the Lord who gave dignity and prominence to a despised beast will
give place and honour even to such unimportant people as we are. The world
may not know our name, but we dare believe that it is written in the Lamb's
Book of Life.'

Soli Deo Gloria!

~~~

RESPONDING TO THE WORD

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

L   Lord Jesus - your arrival in Jerusalem was welcomed with a
     show of palms and a shout of praise.  Yet soon you were
     abandoned.  Even your closest friends left your side.

P   Jesus, we confess that we too make a joyful noise at your
     coming, but that we often turn our backs on you when the
     going gets rough.

L   O Lord, we often serve you with our lips instead of with our
     whole lives.

P   We intend to follow you wherever you go, but we often do
     not.  Instead, like Peter, we deny you.  We try to fit in
     with the crowd.  We avoid risking ourselves for your sake
     and for the sake of the gospel.

L    Forgive us God for our timid and faltering faith.

P    Forgive us Lord for our part in nailing you to the cross to
     suffer and die.

     ................ silent confession...............

L    Lord have mercy.

P    Christ have mercy.

L    Lord have mercy.

~~~

DISCUSS

1. People all over the world love parades... Why? Share some stories of
memorable parades you've participated in...

2. Talk about this: "God is the One who brings something out of nothing;
life out of death; the new out of the old."  Thus, we can stare into the
face of life's most awful moments and dreadful realities and say, with
clear-eyed realism and wide-eyed hope, that "tragedy, while it is always
real, is never ultimate" (John Claypool).

3. Share some stories of the 'Mr. Asletts' you know...

4. 'Life has always been like a rose: it has thorns.' Why is this the way
the Master trod? Why do we tread it still?

5. Be honest now: as you read the Old Testament prophets, and their
predictions of a deliverer, what kind of Messiah would you expect?

6. Why does power corrupt? Why are institutions 'degenerative'? (James
Carroll, author of  Constantine's Sword: The Church and The Jews, speaks of
'The fusion of a religion opposed to power with power itself.)

7. 'Were you there (in those crowds on Palm Sunday, and at the
crucifixion)?' Another one: who killed Jesus?

8. Have you got any idea why Israelis can't understand the rage they
encourage from the Palestinians by stealing their lands and occupying their
territory?

9. Discuss this in the light of the Easter-event, and world events today:
During the struggles in South Africa to break the shackles of apartheid,
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of saying, 'Hold on to your hope. I've read
to the end of the book. We win.'

10. 'The real message of Holy Week is one of courage.' Encourage one another
in specific ways...

Rowland Croucher, 18th March, 2002

 
rowland @ johnmarkministries . org
Email Jan and Rowland