Many, many thanks to Emily for her help with this one!
Sermon Series: Crown of Thorns, Crown of Glory #6
Hope Among the Thorns
I had an interesting experience this week – a friend of mine who did not grow up in a church community asked me to tell her about Palm Sunday. She had been invited to attend a worship service, and did not know what to expect. As I started to explain a little bit about why Palm Sunday is a special day for us, I realized that I have a good perspective from which to tell the story – I know how it ends. Not just what happens when Jesus enters Jerusalem, but what also occurs on Thursday night, Friday during the day, and the final surprise on Easter Sunday of the empty tomb. The natural place to begin any explanation of Palm Sunday is with the parade – that is how we mark this day in our church. The children process with Palms, and we sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” and feel celebratory. It was not until the last 20 years or so that churches have made a shift to include the telling of the Passion story on this Sunday as well. As more and more people were not able to attend worship on Thursday night or Friday at noon, the churches realized that we need to share the whole story of what happened that week on a single Sunday, so that we can truly celebrate on Easter.
And it all starts with a parade. A parade that is thrown by Jesus and the disciples. The Disciples think they are doing something to honor Jesus. They retrieve the colt from the place where Jesus said it would be, and they take it to him. They prepare for the pageantry to enable Jesus to ride into town like the majesty and royalty that he is, in their opinion. Think of the parades you remember…I remember being in college and watching the Homecoming parade from the front porch of my dorm. What an event! You can feel the excitement in the air during a parade. That gorgeous fall afternoon, the crowds were just as excited as the marchers. We cheered on the band and applauded when people we knew came by. The same thing happens here during the annual Christmas Parade. Not only are those riding on floats having fun, but those lining the route are also integral to the event. We add to the atmosphere with our chatter and cheering. We dance with the band and run out to catch candy that is tossed through the air, or handed out to small waiting hands. A parade without anyone along the route to witness it would be boring. A parade without anyone to enjoy the music and the ticker-tape, without anyone to comment on which float they like, or without anyone to enjoy the creations and the candy would be a huge let down.
Parades have a long history of being held to honor celebrities and royalty. But before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, complete with gianormous balloons, Broadway performers and marching bands…. Before the Rose Festival parade with floats covered with flowers and elements of nature… before the parades and processions of modern time that mark military victories, welcome presidents and dignitaries, or celebrate winning sports teams – before those parades, there was a different kind of parade. In the time of Jesus, parades were used as a military tactic. The procession of people was a way to show military might and strength, a way to show who was in charge, how many soldiers he had to support him, and to honor the leader of an empire.
So it would make sense that Jesus’ followers throw him a grand parade. In their minds, he is coming to overthrow the military and political government. It makes sense that he would come in glory, and they want to see that. The crowd is involved, as all good crowds are. They come out and see Jesus riding by on a colt. They throw their cloaks down on the parade route – perhaps to cushion the ride? As he approaches, the people who were gathered harvested leafy branches from the trees of the field and wave them in honor of Jesus. As he comes closer, they cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming of the kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” They cry out loudly and excitedly. They are welcoming their king – the one for whom they are waiting!
But if you look closely, you see that this is not a normal parade. Today is not the day we will talk about the crown of glory as a contrast to the crown of thorns we have been wearing during this Lenten season – that exchange happens later. This parade is not the grand military procession we sometimes imagine it was. In this parade, Jesus flips the whole notion of a military parade upside down onto its head. By entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, he rides through the worst parts of town. The parts of town where the down and out live, where there is more rubbish in the streets than palms. He rides through the tenements and past hovels, not through areas of fancy houses and monuments. His colt is just a baby, and so Jesus is not elevated above the crowd looking down on them, which he would be on a full grown horse. Instead, his feet drag the ground and he looks the people in the eye as he rides past. This parade was planned and organized, and expected to be similar to the military parade a leader may participate in. However, there are no armies proceeding and following Jesus. There are no tanks or Humvees demonstrating his might and power. He is not wearing the uniform of a military leader with spit-shined boots and a chest full of ribbons. Jesus rides into town unarmed with twelve dusty disciples as his only escorts. He is not coming as one who will overtake with violence, but rather as one who will experience it first hand when it is done to him.
What happens when the parade ends? When the colt is returned home, when the palm fronds are swept up by the street sweepers and the cloaks are returned to their owners or trampled into the dust? What are we to do then? We are called to keep following Jesus past the end of the route. For this is the week when the crown of thorns grows heavy. There is a cost to following Jesus down the road after the parade. The cost of knowing that he participates in our place. That in these experiences of this week, we can know that he has known more than we will ever have to endure. Jesus enters Jerusalem and the status quo flips. We have spent the Lenten season examining the thorns that make up the crown, and the first thorny branch woven into the crown is the one that pricks us when we realize the cost of following. When we realize that we contribute to the pain as our Hosannas turn into cries demanding death. And yet we must follow.
We follow him to the Upper Room, where the one who we serve serves others. We watch as Christ breaks bread and offers the cup one last time. He bends down low and washes the feet of those who are present. In that act, we begin to feel the thorns of grief and loss intertwining into our crown. We feel his impending absence as the tenebrae candles are extinguished and the night grows dark. We know that the one who serves us will die for us. And we continue to follow.
We follow him to the garden. We watch through the bushes and from behind trees as he prays to God, asking to be relieved of this burden. We watch as he cries out to God, and as he is betrayed by one of his own with a kiss. The thorns of betrayal pierce our skin, as we watch the ultimate betrayal in front of our own eyes.
From the garden we follow him to the city. It is there that he will be questioned by the high priest and the council. They do not know what they are doing, they do not know why. As we listen to the trial, we wonder what we might be tried for, what we might be held accountable for at a future date. We examine the thorns that were already present in our lives. The crown grows heavier.
It is when we follow him to the courtyard that the thorns of rejection are added to the crown we wear. Jesus is mocked and beaten, and we refuse to save him. Instead we call for his death and the salvation of a common criminal. We reject the one who loved us.
With heavy hearts, we follow to the hill. The hill where he is hung on a cross and crucified. The crown is complete. And as he is on the cross, when the sky grows dark and the temple curtain is torn, the crown is lifted from our head and placed on his. And it is finished.
We followed him to the end. The body is placed in a cave and the stone rolled in front. He gave his life for us, and now, now the crown of thorns become the crown of glory. The glory we find in an empty tomb on Easter morning. The glory of knowing that the parade was only the beginning, and that glory is not found where we thought it would be found, but in a man who died and was risen. The hope we find in the thorns is not a thorn, but in the knowledge that Jesus will overcome them all, and bring us out on the other side.
On Palm Sunday, we are called to celebrate our only hope. As is says in Psalm 118, “God is good and God’s love endures forever.” This week, when the celebration abruptly turns to anguish, when the echoes of “All Glory Laud and Honor” are drowned out by the notes of “Were You There” we can find our certainty and our hope in the one in whose death we participate. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find our hope for life here, and for eternal life. We celebrate today to remind ourselves of the words that will offer us comfort throughout this Holy Week — Christ is our only hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Julie Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
April 1, 2012