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Christ Upsets Our Expectations: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Hayden Butler

How Palm Sunday reminds us of the upside down nature of the Kingdom.

March 24, 2018

Lectionary Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12; Matthew 21:1-12; Matthew 27:1-54; Philippians 2:5-11

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.

This morning we enter with our Lord into Jerusalem and take another step closer to the Cross this Friday. The whole destiny of our Lenten journey begins today to be fulfilled. It is reasonable that our excitement for Easter might begin to manifest, because soon we will experience again the Resurrection in a foretaste of God’s Kingdom, the home toward which we have journeyed and the Father who bids us to return. Yet at the same time, we must not attempt to approach Easter without going through Holy Week. And that means we must turn now to the Cross. We need to pause because the manner in which we sing our Hosannas to Christ today says much about how we are approaching the death of Christ this Friday.

The Confused Expectations of Palm Sunday

St. Matthew teaches that the sign of Christ entering on the back of a donkey on Palm Sunday means that the King has come to redeem Israel after centuries of eager anticipation. But what is the manner of this redemption? To the Jews at the gate, Christ’s entry means an end to the Roman occupation and a restoration of national Israel to heights not known since before the Babylonian exile. To the Roman occupation force, the entrance means that this comically backward people are at it again, with their debunked traditions and hapless superstitions, for how could an itinerant rabbi on the back of a pack mule move the invincible empire?

Maybe we wasted all this time following this nondescript rabbi from backwater Nazareth.

To the disciples, the entrance means that their loyalty will be rewarded and their futures secured with the spoils and perks of the kingdom that’s about to begin. Hence, even Christ’s closest disciples begin to jockey over prominence at the outskirts of the city. Only Jesus, His mother, and Mary Magdalene seem to know what’s about to happen. Jesus, knowing the intentions of all those around Him, knowing their imperfect motives and ambitions, knowing of their impending betrayals—despite all that is amiss, He humbles himself to ride on anyway, sets His sights and willingly enters the city.

And then we look and see how immediately He upsets our expectations. Christ enters the city and then proceeds not to the Roman governor’s palace, not to the High Priest’s home, but straight to the Temple, the inmost sanctum of Jerusalem, and purges it of the moneychangers and merchants. And then He sits down and teaches, maintains a surprisingly low profile, disappears for a bit, and spends whole chunks of time off with His disciples eating in private and praying by Himself in the gardens. Jesus isn’t going with the program. He’s not doing what He’s supposed to do. He persists in failing as the glorious conqueror we welcomed at the gate. He doesn’t meet our expectations, doesn’t do what we’ve said again and again we needed Him to do. Maybe He doesn’t really care. Maybe He isn’t who we thought He was. Maybe our friends were right.

Palm Sunday is a day of startling contrast and confusion.

Maybe we wasted all this time following this nondescript rabbi from backwater Nazareth. Sure he did some amazing things, but maybe the Pharisees were right, maybe we’ve been duped away from our true religion. Maybe it’s time to get real. But what a waste, so much lost time; how could we have been so blind? Who can we blame for this? And thus we proceed from joyfully waving our palms to abruptly arriving at Christ’s passion. Cheers and pats on the back turn into fists in the air and a mob shouting for judgment and death. This is the whole drama of holy week, and we must live it because it is the drama at work in our hearts even now in this moment.

How Christ Transforms Us

When we cry “Hosanna!” and welcome Christ, we must know that He will go straight to the heart of who we are and clean it out, removing all of our comfortable compromises both small and great. He will not start or stop with our perceived needs our stated agendas, and this is because He knows that they aren’t our real problems. But if we only cry “Hosanna!” on the condition that Jesus casts out from our midst only the things we want him to remove, and if we do not allow him to cleanse the most sacred and interior parts of our souls, those frail places in which we are most afraid of being seen and known, those places of which we are most ashamed, then we will join the mob later this week. For to reject the work that Christ comes to do in favor of the work that we want Him to do ultimately boils down to a cry of “Crucify! Crucify!”

Palm Sunday is a day of startling contrast and confusion. It reveals to us how quickly we turn. It reveals to us the stark conflict of the human heart when actually faced with God. “Come to us!” “Come into my life!” we may cry. But perhaps while praying these words, there is yet that small voice in the corner of our mind saying, “But don’t come to us in a way we don’t like; don’t change too much!” And yet, our Lord humbles Himself to enter Jerusalem, humbles Himself to feed us with His own Body and Blood. Despite our double-heart, our mixed and broken intentions, Jesus calmly enters our chaos with a humility unswayed by the cries of our fleeting affections, our fragile resolutions, and says quietly in the midst of our shouting: “I am here now. I am here to save you from the inside out. I know you, I love you. I am not afraid of your fear or confusion, and I am not going anywhere. Now that I am here, I am with you to the end.”

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Amen.

About the Author

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