Palm Sunday: A Flash in the Dark
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is like a flashbulb going off in a dark room. Most of us know what that’s like. You are sitting in the middle of a very dark room when suddenly, maybe as a prank, somebody pushes the test button on a camera’s flash. Just before the flash, the room is so dim you can hardly make out what is what. But in the instant of the flash, you can see everything with vivid clarity: the chairs, the curtains, the pile of papers on the end table. For just a moment you see it all. But then, as your eyes reel from this shock of illumination, it all fades and the room seems darker than it was before the flash.
Luke 19 is like that. For one brief shining moment we see the scene with which we’ve been familiar since our Sunday school days: the colt, the cheering crowds, the coats lining the road, and the mysterious man riding the colt into the sacred city. But like a flash in the dark, it doesn’t last. Truth is, and as we will see, things were rather dark just before this entrance into Jerusalem, and well before the story finishes, they grow darker still. But the main thing I want to impress upon you this morning is that unless you are willing to embrace and understand the surrounding darkness, what you see in the moment the flashbulb goes off cannot make proper sense to you.
We need to approach this story with fresh eyes. A good place to start is to notice what Luke does not include. 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.
So let’s take a couple of big steps back from the mental image of this day that most of us probably carried with us into this sanctuary. Let’s try to see what Luke is actually showing us. Too often we make this entrance into Jerusalem rather like the spectacle you can see each year prior to the Academy Awards in Hollywood. As you know, the celebrities who arrive for the awards literally get what is known as “the red-carpet treatment” as yards and yards of gold-edged, deep-red carpeting covers the sidewalks and steps leading into the theater. The walkway is also lined with palm trees as well as with throngs of cheering fans who wave their hands and yell loudly with their voices. That is the kind of royal entrance we envision for Jesus on what we commonly call Palm Sunday.
That’s not what Luke wants you to see, however. Jesus rides a colt, not a stallion or even a grown horse. And if Jesus was an average-size adult, you have to think he looked a tad ridiculous with his feet nearly scraping the ground as the colt lumbered along. If the people were trying to simulate the red-carpet treatment, that hodge-podge of different colored coats made of burlap and whatnot was a sad substitute for the genuine article. And although the disciples were indeed cheering and hailing Jesus as a kind of king, there is something almost a little desperate about it all. Truth is, they look a little like a bunch of kids playing dress-up, trying to convince even themselves that little Billy from next door really is the king over their backyard kingdom of make-believe. So they drape dad’s burgundy bathrobe around Billy’s shoulders, lay down an old red blanket, and have Billy sit on his lawnchair throne. The children are enthusiastic and all, but from the outside looking in, it is clearly an imitation of something, not the thing itself.
Truth is, I think that is what Luke wants us to sense, too. Setting the stage the way I have, I’m not merely trying to be clever by debunking a standard way of envisioning this story. I think this really is what emerges from Luke. But now that we’ve taken a look at what the flashbulb reveals in its intense moment of light, we need to examine the surrounding darkness in order to see how that helps us understand what we see when the light briefly flashes in our eyes.
The first piece of darkness can be seen only if you back up a few verses from where this morning’s reading began. In Luke 19:11-27 Jesus tells a parable of judgment. This is the familiar story of the king who gives three servants varying amounts of money, telling them to get busy and do something with this resource while he is away. Upon returning, the king finds that the first two servants had done some wheeling and dealing and so had earned a nice return on the king’s original investment. But the third servant is the one who gets most of the attention. Because he is the one who was so worried that he might make a bad business deal and so lose even the original sum he just tucked it under his mattress until the king came back. Apparently the king would have been satisfied if the man had done no more than roll the money into a six-month C.D. at the bank. Even a modest amount of earned interest on the principle would have been better than no gain at all. In fact, you could almost conclude that had the man tried and failed, even that would have been more acceptable than the unhappy fact that he had done nothing at all.
So this parable ends on a note of judgment against the timid servant. But the very last verse in Luke 19:27 is far more startling yet. Because the king suddenly refers to some enemies who had resisted his becoming king. That is an odd thing to throw in since up until that moment in the parable, there had been no mention whatsoever of enemies. But at the very end, suddenly these shadowy figures are mentioned, and in the most dire of contexts at that: the king orders that they be killed before his very eyes! Earlier in the parable, when trying to excuse himself for having done nothing with his money, the third servant had stated that this king had the reputation for being a hard and ruthless man. The parable’s concluding verse most certainly backs that up!
Luke 19:28 says, “After he had said this . . . he went to Jerusalem. “Did you hear that?” After he had said this . . .” In other words, this image of a powerful, and rather ruthless king, who is willing to slay enemies, that image is still hanging in the air at the very same moment when Jesus hops onto a colt and heads for Jerusalem. So when we hear the disciples saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” what kind of a king do you suppose they had in mind? Would it not be logical to assume they were still thinking of the powerful figure in the parable who was willing to get tough on all those who resisted his rule and reign?
Because after all, isn’t that precisely the kind of messianic king the people had been looking for all along? Luke is the author who, in the first chapter of Acts, will show us that even as late as the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven (a full forty days after Easter), even then the disciples were still asking the political question about when Jesus was going to kick out the Romans, smash Pilate, Herod, and the Caesar in the teeth, and restore the physical kingdom to Israel alone. If that is how they were thinking even after the cross and resurrection, they surely had something like that in mind on what we call Palm Sunday. The kind of king the disciples caught a glimpse of in the parable is the same kind of powerful political figure they had in mind as they shouted their blessings as Jesus rode that colt.
So that constitutes the darkness prior to Jesus’ entry: the darkness of judgment as well as the further darkness of misunderstanding Jesus’ true nature as a king. For his part, though, Jesus did what he could to avoid this. His chosen mode of transportation, and that sorry substitute for the red-carpet treatment we already noted, was probably a deliberate attempt to undercut precisely those kinds of high-flown political aspirations. After all, had Jesus wanted to play into such visions of glory and power, it would not be difficult to imagine any number of other poses he could have struck other than sitting in a rather gangly fashion on a too-small colt treading upon the flotsam and jetsam of people’s clothing!
But now let’s move to the other side of the flash, to that part of the story where the darkness actually deepens the moment the flashbulb fades. Because before you know it, Jesus is weeping and lamenting. Do you remember that song from the 1950s, “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To”? That song’s title was deliberately ironic, of course, because parties and weeping do not go together. Indeed, nothing can kill a party as quick as tears. On the classic TV program The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary could never quite pull off a successful party. Some disaster always happened. But on one episode Mary finally seemed to have a great party rolling. Everyone showed up, the food didn’t flop, the room was filled with laughter. But then her neighbor Phyllis sat down on the sofa in the middle of the living room and began to bawl her eyes out. Within five minutes, every single guest had fled! Phyllis had insisted everyone just go on with their fun, but her tears spoiled it.
Jesus does the same thing. The party is in high gear when suddenly the man at the center of it all, the guest of honor, the man who would be king, begins to blubber. Worse, he begins to make the kind of prediction that makes your skin crawl. He goes on and on about how Jerusalem would be sacked one day soon, how even children would be slaughtered. Gruesome stuff. I imagine that the people around him quickly retrieved their coats from the road, shook out the dust, and fled back home. It had been a nice party until that Jesus person ruined it.
But notice that before Jesus finishes crying, he makes it clear that this doom-and-gloom stuff concerning Jerusalem would not merely be some unhappy but finally random event. Jesus throws in an ominous hint of judgment. These bad and terrible things would happen because Jerusalem and its people could not tell time. They did not recognize the truth of God’s messiah when he came to them. It seems an odd thing to say at that precise moment.
After all, wasn’t it the case that they just had recognized the time of God’s coming to them? Wasn’t that what all the singing, shouting, and praising had just been about that very moment? The answer is no, but please notice that the reason is not only because within a week that same city would crucify Jesus. Jesus’ point in Luke 19:44 is that even at that very moment, even in the very celebration they had just held for Jesus, they were more wrong than they were right. They had all the wrong ideas about what kind of king Jesus was and how Jesus would accomplish a mission that, in the end, would have nothing to do with politics or power as this world knows it.
So we have a hint of dark judgment and misunderstanding prior to Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem. Then we have dark weeping and lamenting and still more dark words of judgment after he approaches the city. Now that we have seen the darkness and sensed something of what it means, we need to return to that fleeting glimpse of all that we saw the moment the flashbulb went off. What finally is this Sunday about? What does this famous and familiar scene mean for us as we this day begin our Holy Week trek toward Golgotha?
Perhaps it reminds us of that fundamental fact of the gospel: that in a world obsessed with power and money, with prestige and politics, with manipulation and strong-arm tactics, we as Christians should look more like children playing dress-up than just another group of power brokers no different than anyone else. In a world where only the so-called “beautiful people” garner all the attention and grab all the glitz, we follow a very humble Savior who knew that the world does not change from the top down but from the bottom up.
The more we turn Palm Sunday into some pre-Oscar red carpet celebrity gala, the more we forget that following Jesus is supposed to lead us away from the red carpets of this world as we follow a man most don’t want to follow down a path most believe is a dead end going nowhere. Like the servants in the parable who received riches from the king, so we have been given the riches of the gospel. We dare not squander it or bury it under some spiritual mattress. But likewise we dare not try to turn the gospel treasure into something it isn’t and so find ourselves, like the people of Jerusalem, both expecting and also promoting all the wrong things.
Too often we try to begin Holy Week with a bright note of waving palms, knowing that a week from today will also be fair and bright and awash in lilies. In that case, the darkness of this coming Friday seems like the exception, not the rule, to what the whole thing is about. We are surrounded by light and so must deal with just the one dark spot. But this morning I think we’ve seen that Luke reverses that: we are surrounded by darkness with just the one bright spot. If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to be content with a momentary flash that, if anything, only deepens the dark seriousness of Jesus’ mission.
You likely didn’t come in here this morning picturing a Palm Sunday Jesus with red-rimmed eyes, tear-stained cheeks, and a quivering chin. But if that is the Jesus you follow out of here, then you are on the gospel path. Six weeks ago I took ashes and made the sign of the cross on many of your foreheads. Those ashes came from our having burned the palm fronds from last year. This day always leads us back to the ashes of humble repentance. As we blink in reaction to the flashbulb’s searing intensity, it ought not surprise us that we must also wipe tears out of those same eyes, having once again glimpsed the humble Savior who is our only hope in this dark world. Amen.
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