A Homily for Palm Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the triumphant king. Amen.
All is not well in Jerusalem.
It’s a city on the brink. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flood the streets. Riots are an ever-present danger. Roman soldiers are on edge, afraid that radicalized zealots might attack at any point.
You can cut the tension with a knife.
Can you feel it in the air?
The world feels like it’s on the very verge of coming undone. And then the demonstration starts, the crowd’s chants rising above the city’s roaring streets:
Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven! Peace in heaven, and hosanna in the highest heaven! Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna! Save us, Son of David!
In the shadow of Rome, on the chaotic frontier of a violent empire, a divisive preacher enters the City of David, riding into town like a Jewish king. It was a political parade rich in religious and royal imagery drawn from the Davidic monarchy and the prophets: Christ was greeted with joyous shouts and cloaks spread on the ground, echoing the anointing of new kings.
These actions call to mind times when the Jewish people rebuilt and rebelled:
The king riding from the Mount of Olives triumphant and victorious, as told by the post-Exilic prophet Zechariah.
One from the tribe of Judah, riding on a donkey, as prophesied by Zechariah, invoking the images of Davidic kings assuming the throne, and foretold by Jacob all the way back in Genesis.
The waving of palms and spreading them upon the ground, another image of kingly coronation, and also a reminder of the Maccabees, the last time the Jews overthrew their foreign overlords.
It was Passover, the city had swollen to many times its usual population, and was full of pilgrims eager for the salvation and liberation foreshadowed in the Exodus. Those traveling up the road into the city join the parade, lifting up their voices with Psalm 118:
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
For the disciples, this was it. Isaiah had said that the Messiah would free the oppressed, right? And how much more oppressed could you possibly get than Judea under the Roman Empire? The confrontation between the world and God must finally be at hand. Finally, the legions would be overthrown. You can almost imagine the pilgrims shouting just a little bit louder when they get to the lines:
All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
This – this moment, right here – was what all of history had been building towards.
Saint Matthew adds an important detail: “the whole city was in turmoil.” And perhaps it was this reason that, as Saint Luke notes, the Jewish leaders were eager to silence the crowds – the last thing they want is to give the Romans a reason to lay waste to the city.
Under imperial oppression, in a time when any hint of insurrection is met with brutal violence, with crosses lining the country roads to remind you where you belong, Jesus is greeted as the Son of David, the heir to a political throne, come to restore Jerusalem to its former glory, a political savior – a clear and present danger to imperial rule.
There were those in the crowd who had been expecting this moment for a century, waiting for the Messiah to lead their militia in open revolt against the Romans. The zealots had their weapons at the ready, knives hidden under their cloaks to stab any passing guard, to kick-start the rebellion.
The scene unfolding before us today is one that could have easily led to violence, the type of protest that all too easily turns into a riot followed by a brutal crackdown and civil war. There were those in the crowd expecting a climactic showdown at the barricades.
Make no mistake: somewhere in Jerusalem, the powerful were starting to get very nervous and the Roman soldiers were sharpening their spears.
In our contemporary celebrations, we miss how connected we are to this story. The Liturgy of the Palms speaks to our political climate and division, to the tension in our own world. It speaks to our own longing and expectation, perhaps a little more clearly this year: Christ our King points beyond our current crisis and to an alternative political reality, a coming time when God reigns on earth, when the sick and wounded are made whole, when the impoverished, the unemployed, and hungry are fed, and the last are first.
The zealots in the crowd that day missed the point: they were waiting for someone to serve as their rebel commander, a general to lead them in glorious battle. They misunderstood Jesus: that Christ’s victory over oppression does not look like we expect it to.
We miss the point: Christ’s work in the world is not about some remote historical event or a far-off palace in the clouds but about a Kingdom erupting into this world here and now. It speaks to the people on the streets of Ferguson and Minneapolis, to the people of Washington, DC, and the fences that now dot their hometown. If we don’t proclaim this truth, the stones themselves will call out, trembling before the truly awe-some majesty of the coming King. Hear, even now, the birds join their voices to the chorus!
And so today, God calls us to cry out with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Today, we join with the crowds welcoming Christ into the city, rejoicing in the arrival of our savior. Today, we cry out with the entire earth, worshiping our Lord.
When it feels like the very cosmos is coming undone, we look to a Kingdom not of this world, and we are called to let that Kingdom shine forth through us.
But the tension is still there, hanging thick in the air. And there is more to come. When generals and kings enter cities in triumph, someone’s blood is shed. And Rome knows exactly what to do with a rebellious Jew.