Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday: Where are You in the Crowd?

Come away with me; let us leave our world and travel back together to the first Palm Sunday in the first century.  Stepping out of our time machine, we see the bright sunshine beating down on us, the dusty road, the jostling, joyful, shouting crowds.  And there, coming down the road from Bethany, with the Mount of Olives towering above on His right, Jesus of Nazareth entering the Holy City with His disciples and a crowd of pilgrims following behind.  He is mounted upon a donkey, which plods along with its foal.  Christ sits smiling royally upon the donkey as the procession proceeds along the southern way into the Holy City.  Multitudes from Jerusalem have come out to greet Him, casting their garments on the road on which He will travel, while others cut branches from the palm trees and spread them also along the path.  Everyone is happy, everyone is shouting, and you can pick out from the noise the repeated chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!”  The Pharisees caught up in the tumult are scandalized at this open and controversial declaration of His Messiahship, and plead with Him, “Teacher!  Rebuke your disciples!”  But He responds that prophecy must be fulfilled, and if His disciples were quiet, the very stones would cry out and give voice to their words.
            Then freeze the frame, pause the scene in mid-movement, and step back to observe everything as it would appear if painted on an icon.  And ask yourself:  if you had to play a part in that scene, which part would you play?  Where in that crowd would you want to be found?  Who would you choose to be?
            Would you be among the shouting crowds, one of those enthusiastically hailing Him as the coming Messiah?  Not a good choice, for within a week the crowds who once cried, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” would be crying, “Let him be crucified!  His blood be upon us and upon our children!”  They hailed Him as Messiah only because of what they thought He was about to do for them.  He would fulfil their nationalistic and military agenda; He would raise an army and with supernatural power overthrow the Romans, liberating Israel and exalting them to a place of power on the world stage.  He would replace the hated Pax Romana with a serene and almighty Pax Hebraica, and make the Romans pay.  When it at once became apparent that He would not overthrow Roman rule, and when they saw Him flogged, bleeding, and abused, trotted out by the Romans wearing an anti-Semitic crown of thorns and the purple robe of mockery, they instantly turned on Him.  So the Pharisees were right after all!  Jesus of Nazareth was not a true prophet, much less the hoped for Messiah, but just another deceiver.  Away with him!  Let him be crucified!  No; one should not choose to be part of that happy, triumphant crowd.
            Perhaps one should choose to be one of the apostles.  On that first Palm Sunday they stood close to their Master, basking in reflected glory.  But that also would not be a wise choice.  Within the same week following, they all would prove their unworthiness.  They would quarrel among themselves over the top places they imagined would be available to them in the coming Kingdom and in the new order, even to the point of quarrelling over seats of honour at their final meal together.  Though each one would loudly proclaim his unshakable loyalty to Jesus, when the test came a few hours later, they all forsook Him and fled.  Peter even denied Him repeatedly, caving in before the pointed accusing fingers of a servant girl. When the Lord finally found them after His passion and resurrection, they were huddling behind locked doors for fear of the Jews and of their own imminent arrest.  No; one should not choose a place among the apostles on that day either.
            I suggest that the best choice, the place of ultimate safety that day, was the donkey.  That beast of burden alone did not ultimately prove itself unworthy.  It was not swayed that day by the joyful acclamations, nor later by the screaming words of hate.  It was chosen to do a particular job and to bear a particular burden, and it did it, not expecting praise or reward.  There it was, front and center, unnoticed and invisible, completely reliable and obedient.  That is where I would choose to be, if I had to pick a place and choose a role that day.  The Lord has jobs for us to do, and burdens for us to bear.  They might be heavy burdens or light, involving prominence and praise, or obscurity and invisibility.  What matters is that we accept whatever load He lays upon us and do not complain.  We do not demand applause or reward in this age.  It is enough that when the Lord says to us as was said to the donkey, “The Lord has need of it”, we just come along quietly and do what is asked of us.  It is true that on Palm Sunday now we called to sing, and exult, and wave our palm branches with joy.  It is good to sing our Hosannas in obedience to our tradition.  It is even better to combine this liturgical exuberance with the calm constancy of ongoing reliable obedience.


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