Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 14, 2019
Luke 19:28-40 Commentary
In one of the earlier episodes of the TV series M*A*S*H the doctor known as “Trapper” gets diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Although initially upset about having to deal with a hole in his gut, Trapper soon beams with joy when his bunkmate Hawkeye reminds him that according to Army regulations, Trapper was going home! His ulcer was his ticket out of the misery of the Korean War.
As the episode progresses, they arrange a farewell party for Trapper. But minutes before Trapper shows up for his party, he is informed by the Company Clerk, Radar, that the Army had recently changed its regulations and his ulcer would have to be treated right there in Korea. Trapper goes to the party anyway and allows the hilarity, festivity, and joy of the evening to proceed for a good long while until he’s asked to give a final speech, at which time he tells everyone the truth: he’s not going anywhere after all.
But throughout the party, both Trapper and Radar have a look in their eyes that betrays the truth, if only anyone had looked close enough to notice. Trapper smiles and even laughs during the party at times but it’s a bit muted and the sadness in his eyes tells the reason why: it’s a nice party but it’s not going to end the way he had hoped or the way all the other partygoers were anticipating.
I wonder if someone had looked deep into Jesus’ eyes that day in Jerusalem if they might have seen something similar. As I said in a sermon of mine on Luke 19, Palm Sunday in Luke is bracketed by some dark events: ominous words in Luke 19:26-27 and outright weeping on Jesus’ part in Luke 19:41-44. So as Jesus allowed the Triumphal Entry little parade to continue, did his eyes betray the real truth? Did he smile as he received the “Blessed is the king . . .” accolades but even so displayed a very deep sorrow in his eyes?
In the Revised Common Lectionary you can take your choice between “Liturgy of the Palms” or “Liturgy of the Passion.” This Luke 19 text is assigned for the “Liturgy of the Palms,” and we’ll simply note the irony that Luke 19 does not have a single palm branch in sight. No “Hosannas” in this text either and no children (unless you count Jesus’ reference to the DEATH of children in Jerusalem’s upcoming destruction. A happy reference to children whose praises were “the simplest and the best” or the lips of children who “made sweet hosannas ring” that is not!!)
Here, then, is an opportunity for us pastors royally to tick off all kinds of Children’s Choir directors who distribute palm fronds to accompany the children’s singing “Hosanna Loud Hosanna.” But the point of Luke 19 is not to offend well-meaning choral types or squash everybody’s Palm Sunday frivolity. No, Luke strips away everything that would distract us so that we can have a clear and singular focus on Jesus alone. Look at HIS face, peer deeply into HIS eyes. That’s where the real story is being told.
I like Barry Moser’s Palm Sunday illustration in the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible. There is a darkness and a somberness to Jesus here—and even to his donkey!—that I think matches the mood Luke is depicting.
Jesus knew what he had to do, and proceeding into the Holy City was part of all that. And he knew that if he did his Father’s will in all this, there would be precisely the “peace in heaven and glory in the highest” of which the crowds sang but he also knew where he’d have to go and what he’d have to endure to secure that peace and glory.
In the church it seems that we too often try too hard to let “Palm Sunday” be a bright spot in the Lenten darkness in ways that may not allow us fully to absorb the dynamics here. We need to look deep into those eyes of Jesus on this day. We need to see the sadness just behind the mirth, the deep pity that undergirds the larger celebration.
Because in seeing that on the face of Jesus, we find yet another way to identify with our Lord—or perhaps better said, we find another way in which our Lord is able to identify with us. Because as pastors, but also as ordinary churchgoers, how often haven’t we also had to proceed through a worship service with songs of praise on our lips and wrenching hurt in our hearts? How often don’t we have the experience as pastors of looking out over a congregation during the singing of a hymn and suddenly finding our own voices choking a bit when our eyes fall on Marjorie, whose secret pain the pastor alone knows but that the pastor can see as Marjorie rasps out the lyrics to the hymn even as puddles of tears form in the corners of her eyes.
So often our worship of God—absolutely proper and full of peace and glory—is tinged with the sorrow and the pity of it all. We know Jesus has redeemed us (and the he did so precisely because he didn’t stop to linger over the “Triumphal” Entry parade but proceeded onward to the cross and all that happened through that sacrifice). We’re right to celebrate Jesus as our King but are properly sobered by what it cost our Lord. We’re also properly sobered to feel the pain of this in-between time of the already and the not-yet. What we see on “Palm Sunday” is not a break from it all but a way more deeply to engage life’s sharper edges. But more than that, because the eyes in which we see all that sadness are no less than Jesus’ own eyes, we know that when we also feel that mixture of glory and pain, of joy and sorrow, we are not only understood right well by our Lord, that same Lord has pointed us forward to a day when the promise will come true: he will wipe every tear from every eye.
One way to freshen up this familiar story is to help the congregation notice something about Luke’s text that was also already noted above: it does NOT include most of what we associate with “Palm Sunday.” In fact, if Luke were the only gospel we had to go on, we would not call this day PALM Sunday because he never once mentions any waving of palms. Maybe we’d call it “Coat Sunday” because that is about the only detail Luke does give: people laid their coats down for Jesus to ride upon. If Luke were the only gospel we had to go on, we also would probably never have learned the word “hosanna,” because Luke never has anyone using that word. And if Luke were the only gospel we had, we would never envision little children singing to Jesus because Luke has no children around, either. In fact, you could even wonder, based on Luke’s portrayal of this event, how big the crowd was at all. Twice we are told that the people doing the cheering were only Jesus’ disciples. Is this a real parade or a wannabe one?
Knowing that Easter is coming must not make us impatient to get to next Sunday morning but instead our Easter knowledge allows us to see the cross itself as the source of our salvation. On that cross our God in Christ saved us.
Knowing what is yet to come a week from today allows us to perceive the paradox of the cross. In the cross we see the glorification of Jesus. Jesus is glorified on a cross, which, as Neal Plantinga has often said, is about as odd as being celebrated by a firing squad or getting enthroned on an electric chair. What keeps us from fleeing the cross is precisely our awareness that God in Christ is accomplishing something incredible in and through that death. Today, knowing about Easter allows us to see the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus’ own funeral procession. We don’t need to turn Palm Sunday into something it is not. We don’t need to treat this as pre-Easter but can see in this march toward Golgotha the first steps toward the gospel paradox: the death that brings life, the sacrifice that solves all that has ever been wrong with this world. Jesus must walk this path and we must go with him.
Joy for Christian people is a last feeling, not a first. Christian joy is refined and thoughtful because it has passed through death. Next Sunday we will celebrate Easter and we will do it from the midst of a war-ravaged world. In one sense it is awfully surprising that when the Son of God came to this earth, he died so hideous a death in order to save us. At the same time, however, given the bloody state of affairs we so routinely encounter in this world, it seems also inevitable that God would save us in precisely the way he did.
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