Rev. Stephen Baldwin
NT: Matthew 21.1-11
Poor ol’ Palm Sunday. It’s like the boring salad at a fancy dinner. Everybody just wants it to be over so they can get to the good part. The steak dinner. Easter Sunday. Today, I want to take up for poor ol’ Palm Sunday and make a case for why it’s such an important day.
First, we need to understand what it was. Palm Sunday was a spectacle. A spectacle that Jesus created to convey a very particular message.
We understand the concept of spectacle today, because we are surrounded by it. Public figures use public theater to create images that shape our imaginations. You name it, it’s become a spectacle–church, sports, politics, everything. Ribbon cuttings, ceremonial first pitches, Easter egg hunts. My favorite spectacle is professional wrasslin’, of course.
This weekend is filled with major American spectacles. Palm Sunday. The Final Four. Opening Day for baseball. And of course, Wrestlemania. I took Kerry to her first ever pro rasslin’ match last fall. She’s not big into the rasslin’ itself, but she loved the spectacle–the lights, the drama, the music, the fans, it’s a huge spectacle.
In the big final match of the night, just as the good guy and bad guy were battling each other for the championship, the bad guy kicked the good guy in the mouth. Kerry gasped, as she saw something go flying through the air, out of the good guy’s mouth into the crowd.
“Oooohh!” she said to me. “Did you see that? He just kicked his tooth right out of his mouth! Can you believe that?”
Spectacle. It was all for effect. The good guy didn’t really get kicked in the mouth, and it was gum flying out of his mouth that he’d saved for that very moment to make the bad guy look really bad. The crowd went wild. The good guy came back and won. Spectacle. Used to full effect.
Palm Sunday is a spectacle, used to full effect by Jesus. Picture it. Pilate enters Jerusalem from the west. Jesus enters from the east. Pilate is flanked by chariots and soldiers. Jesus is flanked by fishermen and farmers. The city cheers Pilate. The city asks who Jesus is. Pilate rides a horse. Jesus rides a donkey. Pilate control the city crowds. Jesus is followed by the country crowds.
Two worlds collided. Spectacle. Pilate was everything you would expect in a powerful leader. Jesus was the opposite. Pilate was a portrait of strength. Jesus was the opposite. Spectacle.
Why did Jesus want it that way? Because he was making a point. He was a new kind of messiah. He ruled by grace, not by fear. He ruled by mercy, not might. He ruled by peace, not war. He was showing a new kind of strength and turning the world’s picture of strength on its head.
This is why Palm Sunday is so important. The spectacle shows the difference between God and the world. The world is ruled by might, not mercy. By war, not peace. By fear, not grace. Jesus chose this spectacle to lay out the differences as plain as day for anyone watching.
There was a buzzword for the way the world worked in Jesus’ day. Pax Romana. Which means Roman peace. The Romans required you to be at peace with them, or they nailed you to a cross. That’s no peace at all. That’s the power of self-preservation.
In contrast to Pax Romana, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. Forgiveness of sins. Food for the hungry. Sight for the blind. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The dead shall rise. The blind shall see. The prisoner will be set free.
And this is the importance of Palm Sunday…Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to change everything. He showed power by giving his up, dying that we might live. He was saying, “Look at us! Can you see the difference? Can you tell the difference between me and Pilate? Can you see how Roman peace and the kingdom of God are polar opposites?”
Spectacle. Meant to show the people what their minds could not envision on their own.
And how did this spectacle go over with the people of Jerusalem? Verse 10 says the whole city was in turmoil. LIterally, in Greek, that means the whole city was shaking. As if an earthquake struck.
Palm Sunday is not simply the salad before the main course. Palm Sunday is the arrival of the messiah. Just like he rolled into town two thousand years ago proclaiming a new kind of power, he rides into our lives today proclaiming a different kind of power than the world recognizes.
He opens our eyes to the differences like he opened the eyes of the blind man two weeks ago, and it ought to leave us shaking. Because the differences between the world’s values and the kingdom’s values are monumental.
We face one simple choice as we see this spectacle unfold, for it still unfolds today right before our very eyes. Will we be like Jerusalem, unsure who Jesus is? Or will we be like the crowds from the countryside who cry hosanna? Will you follow Jesus or Pilate? Will you be guided by grace or fear? The donkey or the chariots?
The spectacle makes the choice easy. Hosanna! Save us now. We shout hosanna! Save us now, Jesus! Hosanna! Amen.