and Pondering Palms
Easter is fundamentally about God. Good Friday is essentially about
Jesus. Palm Sunday though, on many levels, is about us. At least in
Luke. Which is good news and bad news. Because it is still safe to tell
stories about God and Jesus in church. But even including the first
disciples, it has not been always inspiring to tell stories about us.
Nevertheless I'm about to highlight three ingredients in the
historical story of Palm Sunday for us. And it is historical: two
writers from beyond the Bible tell this tale. The three ingredients are
planning, praising, and pondering. Let me tell you what I mean.
Josephus, the Roman historian, writes this about our story in
his Antiquities: (Once) "there appeared Jesus, a wise man…
a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of the people, who received the
truth with pleasure. And he gained a following… and when Pilate,
because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned
him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to
Our Jerusalem story is real: six writers tell this tale.
But what is this tale?
Well, it is suffused with so much: church and state, rich and poor,
faithful and officious. It's about power and vulnerability, danger,
denial, injustice, lies, and truth. Only John has palms. Only Mark
tells it hour by hour, day by day. All the Gospels begin with a
procession -- for the Magi, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus -- and
all the gospels climax with another procession today. All of them bear
Remember, for a moment, that the true story of our procession really
began over 500 years before Jesus was born. It was rooted in the
prophet Zechariah's writings about a true savior: "Shout aloud, O
daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and
victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of
a donkey." (Zech 9: 9) But that didn't happen. Because 332 years
before Jesus was born, Alexander "the Great" came to
Jerusalem after besieging and conquering Tyre and Gaza. He rode into
his humbled cities on a war horse. And when he approached Jerusalem,
instead of waiting for him to humble them and destroy their walls, the
people there threw open their gates. I wonder what Jungians make of
that? They threw open their gates to save their walls. By Jesus' time,
there was the hope of the prophet, the trauma from the warrior, and the
confusion over humility, so Jesus devised a plan.
We understand this plan especially when we focus on Luke. Now,
remember, I'm just reporting what you can perfectly well read so don't
blame me, but there are no palms in Luke. In fact, there are no leafy
branches either. In fact, Jesus is not called Son of David here in
Luke, "Hosanna" is not said, and, if I may go on, it's even a
little blurry if Jesus' arrival is just four days before his trial.
Twice Luke refers to Jesus' multiple days of teaching in the Temple, in
chapters 19 and 21, and those who take the scriptures seriously see
that Luke is a little different than the other Gospels.
Here is his central difference, though. More than half of
Luke's story is about planning. Half of my sermon, too. More than half
is getting ready. When they are ready, crowds do not cry out and wave
branches or palms as I've just said. In fact, crowds do not do
anything. Who does? Just the disciples. Just the disciples. Inspired by
Second Kings 9:13, they throw their own garments on the road. Inspired
by who-knows-what they actually lift Jesus onto the colt. Remembering
Luke 13, when this journey began, a phrase from Jesus echoes in their
ears: "You will not see me until you say 'Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord.' "
Amidst the crowds, only the disciples are part of the welcome,
perhaps throwing open their doors because their walls have already
crumbled. Others hear them, some multitude, and this multitude has a
few representatives cry out: shut up. Rebuke your disciples. Luke is
different, without question.
After five hundred years of symbolism, twenty-five years of a new
Roman economic plan that had bankrupted most of the peasants, five
years into the reign of Pontius Pilate, and many months after the
beginning of his journey, Jesus rode into Jerusalem from Bethpage and
Bethany with a plan. He rode in from the east, the direction of the
rising sun, to counter Pilate's arrival from the west, where he lived
in Roman luxury. Jesus planned to show the difference. Jesus planned to
Now once this plan was in motion, we're told one essential thing
about the disciples. They rejoiced and praised God. Just before this
procession, they heard a story about how people who burry their talents
will be judged, just after this procession Jesus will start crying, but
right here, right now, they are rejoicing and praising
God on the streets. I wonder what that was like?
Well, we have almost only one phrase to tell us. And it's not
original. It's copied from when Jesus was born with a minor
modification. They praise God by saying "Glory to God in the
Highest and Peace in Heaven!" The angels said "on
earth." The disciples say in heaven. And the multitude who hears
these words demand silence, but Jesus says you can't silence the truth.
Creation itself has a stake in this. Knock yourselves out, God is good,
and peace is coming. I teach those who receive the truth with pleasure.
Well, after the planning and the praising comes something to ponder.
As you can tell, it's important to see all the details of Palm
Sunday, even without the palms. It's important to notice the
differences between the four gospels and the two historians and ask
what these differences mean. It's important to see what Jesus was up to
and what the disciples were up to and then to ponder what we are up
to. Because this story is about us. And so I offer this conclusion.
It's a story about a conversation that took place at Yale Divinity
School about thirty years ago, when a learned professor had just made a
presentation on the feeding of the five thousand. And Yale having more
than one learned participant in presentations, all the New Testament
specialists joined in wondering what had really happened at that meal
way back then, and how many were really there, and if this was a
miracle or a symbol or a sign or a myth. They considered whether fish
were multiplied or shared. They discussed whether women and children
were counted. What did the bread mean? They really pulled it apart.
After a good bit of wise analysis they turned to a theology
professor named Paul Holmer, with whom I studied. After all the
exegetes scrutinized the scriptures and debated their dimensions,
someone turned to Holmer and asked what he thought of this text. And he
said, "Well, I was just thinking that if Jesus could feed all of
those people, maybe he could feed me."
There is a history to this day. But there is a lingering question,
too. If Jesus could come to them, maybe he can come to us. If Jesus had
a plan, integrating the best of prophecy and experience, maybe there is
something we can make of our lives, too. Maybe God's story and our
story are connected. No matter who we are, no matter where we have
been. Maybe I can be a disciple, too. Maybe I can see him. And lift him
on his vehicle of humility and thank God even if the crowd around me
asks me to shut up and listen to him even when I don't understand
exactly where all this is leading. And continue to love him, even on a
cross. And give glory to God and make peace in heaven and on earth. Maybe he could feed me. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the
For four weeks in Lent. members of NHCC read a book together in
preparation for Holy Week: The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John
Dominic Crossan. It takes you much further than this sermon.
The YDS story about Paul Holmer comes from memory as well as now
cited in Martin Copenhaver's portion of This Odd and Wondrous
Copyright © 2010 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.