Date: Palm Sunday – April 9, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:12-19 and Matthew 26:1-27:66
Context: Palm Sunday has a rich and ancient tradition, accumulating a variety of names from the regions where it was observed. It is the last Sunday of Lent, but has also come to be associated specially with Holy Week, which traces the last week of Jesus’ life from his arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover to the Last Supper on Maunday Thursday, his execution on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter morning. To set the tone for the entire week, which encompasses multiple worship services, the entire Passion narrative is often read on Palm Sunday.
Isaiah 50:4-9a – The Lord’s Servant speaks in these verses, describing the Lord as the source of his strength and the strength He gives to others. As opposed to God’s people Israel, his servant is obedient, even through suffering and persecution. He endures these things by the Lord’s power so that He is not ashamed, not disgraced. Instead He professes his steadfast faith in his God who will vindicate him, and by whose power He can endure the transient afflictions of his adversaries. They are verses of boasting – not in the servant’s own power but in the Lord’s power who sustains him.
Psalm 118:19-29 – This is a psalm of confidence in God, assurance in the Lord’s promises. The psalm evokes entrance into Jerusalem or perhaps the Temple courtyards. The speaker is confident of being granted entrance because the Lord is the speaker’s salvation. While peers may scoff and deride, the Lord will grant victory to his faithful follower, and his adversaries will be put to shame as he becomes the foundation stone of God’s work. Surely this is something only God can accomplish – working through means and persons that the world rejects! The psalm ends in rejoicing with the approach of the Lord’s favored one. It is a moment of celebration in God’s faithfulness in his sacrificial servant. This is the Lord’s gift – the perfect and atoning sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. God is to be praised for his faithfulness to his creation, for saving his creation.
Philippians 2:5-11 – Jesus had every right to demand glory and honor from the creation He entered into. But He did not. This is to guide us, his followers, in humility with one another. We do not seek praise and glory, but rather seek to be obedient whether it is recognized and appreciated or not. Jesus was willing to maintain his humility even to the greatest of shames and insults – his public crucifixion. How much more should we be willing to bear any indignities in our lives! Jesus’ obedience resulted in his ultimate glorification, and we too look forward to being glorified in and through our Lord. But our glory and vindication is a secondary matter. The first matter is the glorification and worship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the Biblical story – it is the story of a gracious and loving and all-powerful God who wins his creation back from rebellion and sin, that He might be properly worshiped and glorified.
John 12:12-19; Matthew 26:1-27:66 – Easily the longest reading of the Church year, the Gospel for Palm Sunday carries us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday evening. It encompasses the giddy emotional heights of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the depths of his family and followers’ despair as his dead body is laid in the tomb. It encompasses the faithfulness of his mother and inner circle who gather at the foot of his cross to hear his last words following the betrayal of his own people to death.
It’s appropriate to hear the whole sweep of the Passion narrative before focusing on individual pieces of it through the coming week. People may not make services on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Easter Sunday, but they will hear the whole story on Palm Sunday. It also helps to ensure that people don’t simply skip the harder services mid-week to only hear the happy stories of Palm Sunday and Easter. Easter is necessitated by Good Friday. Resurrection can only be properly appreciated and welcomed after death. By skipping the somber tones of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday, the joy of Easter morning is muted. As Jesus himself once observed, he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).
So it is that Lent is necessary as the proper contextualization of Easter. We follow our Lord and his disciples through the temporary joy of Palm Sunday to the bewilderment of Maunday Thursday and the atrocity of Good Friday. We gather Saturday evening for the bridge service that leads us from the despair of Good Friday to the first proclamation of Easter victory. And Sunday morning we give thanks because the tomb is still empty, pointing the way towards our own, future empty graves.