Palm Sunday Sermon

April 2, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

And so we’ve arrived at Palm Sunday again, and to the start of another Holy Week.

There are many ways to read this story, this last week of Jesus’ life. Layers upon layers of meaning; multiple lenses of interpretation. We can look at it from a political point of view. (How was Jesus engaging with the “power brokers” of Jewish society?) We can look at it from a theological point of view. (How does this week tie into the whole arc of God’s salvation story?) We can look at it from a psychological point of view. (What was happening for Jesus internally as he made the choices he made?)

But this year, I’d like to look at Jesus’ behavior as a paradigm for us and the consequences of living a faith-oriented life of obedience.

But first, it’s worth stopping to ask that glaring question that begs to be asked: Why this whole trajectory of death? Why didn’t Jesus, instead, choose the triumphant path the crowds expected of him? Why not take on the Roman authorities – with all the power of God behind him – and restore Israel to its former autonomy? Why not take on the religious authorities – with all the power of God behind him – and restore Israel to true, religious fidelity?

It’s a logical solution to the problem. Fix the systems, Jesus! Isn’t that we do? Or at least aspire to do?

In all our political energy, in all our rejoicing when political adversaries are shamed or brought low – isn’t our desire to fix the system? to allow for the democratic process to procure a good, safe, and just society? Isn’t that responsible citizenry?

And in the church – in all our worship and activities and strategizing – isn’t our intention to bring people to faith and to the knowledge of God and the hope of God, that the church would be a place of health and integrity as we think God desires it to be? Yes. Emphatically, yes!

It’s responsible and faithful to do what we can to fix things, (or to quote the prophet Isaiah), “to make the paths straight.”

And yet, in this case – in this most pivotal moment – that’s not what Jesus did. At least not on the surface.

Instead, he tore things apart. He tore apart the marketplace that had taken over the approach to the temple – both physically and spiritually. He tore apart the reputation and authority of the scribes and pharisees. And then he walked away. Not ran away. He didn’t flee the scene to save his life. But after he tore apart the systems – revealed them for the shams they’d become – he then waited. (There was still Thursday to come, and the Last Supper. We’ll focus on that in a few days.) But, publicly, he’d made his mark – his surging wave of violent, prophetic action – and then he let that wave rebound back and destroy him.

It’s not logical.

But if you think about it, nor is there a logical outcome if he had done it “our way.” What if he had overcome the Romans, even with a divine army of angels behind him; what if he had reinstituted a form of worship in the temple that was totally righteous – what next? How long would this revival survive as a solution? A year? Five years? A generation? Two? How long before that force of human nature and society continued its inevitable cycle of: passion, renewal, institutionalization, legalism, dullness, frustration, cynicism, decline?

So Jesus stepped out of that cycle entirely and did the totally unexpected. He gave himself over to the powers, allowing himself to be destroyed by them: the religious authorities, the political authorities, Judas – his own disillusioned disciple, and presumably to the spiritual forces of evil. He revealed the corruption for what it was – filled with righteous indignation – then gave himself over entirely, without resistance of any kind.

And the clearest motivation we can see for what he did, was simply this: He was acting in obedience to what he understood God calling him.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.”

There it is.

It’s beyond the scope of this sermon (and honestly, beyond the scope of my wisdom), to explain with fullness God’s intention for the crucifixion. Yet it is sufficient for me – to observe and believe – that this moment was and is, the pivot-point of the entire human narrative, even if there is much I do not yet understand.

But what particularly draws my attention this morning, and what I want us to consider, is how this pivotal moment for Jesus was entirely rooted in obedience:

  • It was obedience that made him orchestrate and participate in the spectacle of Palm Sunday, this public sign that his arrival in Jerusalem was as the long-awaited Messiah.
  • It was obedience in the temple that made him drive out the vendors and money-changers and – in their place – to heal the blind and lame, this public sign overturning the commerce of religion for the substance of religion.
  • It was obedience that made him eviscerate the reputation of the religious leaders, this public exposé of the corruption of the religious hierarchy.
  • It was obedience that let Judas slip away, rather than wooing him back.
  • It was obedience that could say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

With each step, by each action, on each day, Jesus journeyed closer to Golgotha – closer to that moment when – in obedience – he would give himself over entirely to powerlessness, laying down his life, and in so doing, giving himself wholly to God and God’s intent.

It was, perhaps, a pure spirit of sacrifice – defined not so much by clear, theological, rationale and determination, but rather, a complete handing over, a laying down, a letting go:

Father God, I have done my best in everything I have done; I have loved this world with my whole heart; I have lived out your Kingdom with all the integrity I have within me; and now – I’ve burnt my bridges and the last thing is this: I offer myself to you – my fate, my life, my body – to do with as you will. I let go, completely.

For at its heart, that is what sacrifice is – absolute surrender to God.

As I live this life, so often in companionship with you and the many deathbeds which summon me, I observe firsthand what we all know to be true: Our end is certain; it is the grave. The day will come for each of us when we, like Christ, must lay our life down. And everything we’ve done in this life – be it in faithfulness or rebellion – will in its way prove itself to be one step closer towards a Golgotha of our own, a sacrifice, a complete surrender of our lives – body and soul – to God.

The question is: Will we, like Christ, in this life – while we still have volition – have the courage and the character to choose obedience when the call comes?

Now obviously, faith and obedience is a daily choice. Will we choose love or selfishness? Compassion or criticism? Hope or despair?

But I suspect for most of us – at least once in our life – there will be a Holy Week, a Passion, of our own. There will come a time when we are called to great obedience: an obedience that defies the powers, an obedience that may cost us much, an obedience that is a final surrender to God.

Some have already been there.

I think of those who have journeyed through addiction and recovery and all the forces you had to confront: the power of drugs or alcohol in your psyche and your body; the power of friends who need you to remain an addict with them; the power of fear that you will never escape. What courage it takes to face it all – in total vulnerability – laying bare the only life you’ve believed to be yours, a sacrifice to God, to do with as God will.

Or perhaps on the other side, you were the parent – the sibling, the friend – who intervened on an addict’s behalf, facing all those same forces, and more: your loved one’s resistance, your own propensity to enable their addiction, as you have for years. But when the call came to garner your courage and faith, you faced it all, sacrificing whatever tenuous stability you’d come to depend on.

For others, this sacrificial call to obedience may be in the workplace. For years you’ve sought to work within the system, to heal from within. But the day may come to lay bare the corruption – publicly and flagrantly – knowing full well that all the forces will turn against you to destroy your career and reputation.

But for many, I suspect, this obedience – this sacrifice – will be asked of you late in life, as it was for Jesus. It will come as life is reaching its end – an end for which all of life has been preparing you. And it will happen within the realm of your family.

Our families are so complex. They are our most intimate place of belonging and the place where we have wounded and been wounded most. There are powers at work in our families that are deeply entrenched: secrets that must be protected at all costs, roles that cannot change, myth-telling that must be rehearsed, sins that cannot be forgiven.

But your last big act of obedience and faith and sacrifice can be to face these powers – which are powers indeed – and expose the truth, in love: to lay bare your own sins, without justification or defensiveness, but simply in sorrow for what they have wrought; to forgive the unforgivable, whether that person is alive or not; to let the secrets out of the closet – those unnamed phantoms that have shaped and distorted your family for generations; to set children free from the roles they’ve been assigned their whole lives, willing to see them afresh for the glory they are, and to bless them.

The end is coming, more quickly than we think, when God will say, “The time has come. Lay down your life.” But before that end, this one last thing may be asked of us: to confront the powers within our families. And in our love, to set them free.

And in so doing, we follow our Christ, obedient to the end – to the cross and to the grave – and, thanks be to God, to the resurrection that awaits us.