Palm/Passion Sunday Liturgy of the Palms Matt 21:1-11, Ps 118:19-29, Palm Sunday Isa 52:13—53:12, Ps 22:1-11, Phil 2:5-11, Matt 27:1-54
I am, God willing, likely to witness the coronation of the next King of Great Britain. Not in person, obviously, because London is insane on the best of days and I’m not too interested in standing on the Royal Mile all day. But, by grace, I will be able to see the next King crowned. It will be a glorious and beautiful day, with much joy and cheering as the golden carriages pass by and the hymns are sung and the prayers are offered for the right and proper reign of the king and the good of all my people. A coronation is a special time for the British and many others who look to that throne for unity and stability and guidance. It marks the changing of the times, its a renewal of our identity, and a reminder that God governs not only the people of Britain, but truly is the Lord of all to whom all, both high and low, must bend the knee and give account.
Authority amongst us mere mortals is most often a dialogue between those who are appointed to rule, and those over whom they are to rule. In the coronation of the monarch of the British people that dialogue is formed in a long tradition. Elsewhere in the wold there are different customs by which the one who is appointed to govern receives that authority and is accepted by those over whom they will govern. And in those appointed to govern we place our hope.
We hope that they will bring about a better future for us and our neighbors. We hope for peace and prosperity, that our communities will be better off and that the powers of vice and evil will be fought off. We hope that the person coming forth to be our leader will accomplish for us more than we could have accomplished for ourselves.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is greeted by this same hope. The people gather to welcome the one who they hoped would be their king, the one promised by God. This preacher and wonder worker had vindicated his authority over evil, sickness, and sin through many signs and miracles and so the people, upon seeing him boldly choose to sit on a donkey, as the prophets of has foretold, were overjoyed to welcome him with their shouts of Hosanna! and Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
The coronation of the next King of Great Britain will take months to organize, but this procession of the next King of Israel happened in a day. The people were ready and eager for the one who would come and save them.
But what kind of coronation awaits this would-be king, who had worked wonders restoring the sick to health, the possessed to liberty, and the ignorant to truth?
The crown waiting for this king is the crown of thorns. And the robe which will cover him is the scarlet of his own blood. The Romans will bow down to him – to mock him – and the anointing on his head will be their spit, and at the last he will be set upon the throne of a cross. Though the people had once shouted “hosanna” they will later scream “crucify”, and the hope for different future will be snuffed out as the machinations of politics and religion conspire to crush this would-be ruler, with his could-be kingdom.
But really though, how could this have ended any other way?
Jesus had gone about blessing the despised and welcoming outcasts. He touched the unclean and showed that those who were thought of as righteous really were full of pride and envy. The kingdom which he announced is not one founded upon the rules and laws we would come up with. No, it is a kingdom governed by God’s own laws of love. And there were, and indeed are, many people sitting behind desks or upon thrones who preside over little kingdoms of their own who have no room for such excesses. Too costly. Too hard. Too different.
The one who comes seeking to overturn the way things are is not a ruler. That person is a rebel and a renegade. They must be stopped unless their madness ruin all those things in which we’ve placed our hope.
In general, our usual ways of choosing those in whom we place the authority to make decisions is in a competition of who can most expediently bring about the future we desire. And in general if that person fails to bring that future about we quickly move on because the evidence suggests that this person was not competent or capable of giving us what we wanted.
In this regard, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is entirely justified.
He could not sway the people over to his side. He could not organize them to oppose the Romans or Herod. Turned out that when push came to shove, the future he was offering was not the one we wanted after all.
Jesus of Nazareth dies because he wasn’t the King they really wanted. When he entered Jerusalem it looked like maybe he was the one. That ‘yes’ turned into a ‘no’ just a week later. Hosanna, and then crucify.
We human beings think we have a good grasp on reality and upon our own needs and desires. We proceed with our decisions believing that our desires are justified, and that more or less any means of bringing them about is acceptable. That the future for which we hope, is the future which should be. In this way we hold to ourselves the right to the knowledge of good and evil. The Sanhedrin bribe Judas to betray his friend and call it good. The crowds release a murderer to ensure Jesus is killed and call it good. Pilate listens to the voice of the crowd and calls it good. A conspiracy of ‘good’ decisions leads to the condemnation of the Son of God. Pursuing our idea of the good killed the savior of all creation, the one who loves you and me.
The occasion for which the people had gathered in Israel was the festival of the Passover, which remembers when God saved the people from slavery. Those who desired to be saved were commanded to slaughter and eat a lamb so that they would be spared from death and walk into new life. This is the festival at which Jesus makes is grand appearance in Jerusalem, the one which in many ways remembers the beginning of the Jewish people, their liberation from oppression which begins their long journey of witnessing to the goodness of God. For what reason, then, would someone so pure and unblemished at Jesus of Nazareth come into the city?
The people heralded him as king, but he had come as an offering. And offering like the Passover lamb, to save people from death and to bring them into a new life. Yet the nature of this offering is concealed. With religion, you usually know when something religious is happening. People wear special clothes and say special words and do special actions. In this way religion is a kind of theater that enacts for us and in us transcendent and metaphysical things. But the sacrifice Jesus is to offer is beyond the religious observance of the Jewish people. It is a sacrifice for the whole world, and so the whole world must participate not by observing a kind of religious theater, but rather from the bottom of their hearts, they must kill this pure lamb of God who has come to the City of God.
There can be no other ending for the life of Jesus of Nazareth, because insofar as we remain enslaved to the evil of this world, we will never accept the reign of God. It isn’t what we truly desire, not really. But Jesus of Nazareth has offered himself, as king, yes, but also as a sacrifice to liberate us from the cruel reign of sin in our hearts and in our world. The prophet looked forward to this, when he said ‘he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed’.
The Son of God comes into the Royal City to take up his throne. But the throne prepared for him is the cross. He comes not to reign, but to die. He takes upon himself the evil of our best designs and deepest desires, and he carries that evil to the grave with him.
But what will become of the kingdom he promised? Is this too a dead hope?
No. For soon he will rise from the dead, vindicating his reign and rule over all creation. We who refused him, will not refuse us but will come to us again. This is the good news we will celebrate on Easter Sunday, that the righteous king we need, has put to death all our sin, and meets us on the other side of the grave to lead us into that promised rest which God has always intended for us.