Guest Minister: The Rev. George Yando
Luke 19: 28-40
Philippians 2: 5-10
Luke 23: 1-49
“A Terrifying Tale”
This is the day the church recalls Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the day crowds welcomed Jesus by waving palm branches and shouting his praises as he entered the city, riding on the back of a donkey. The waving of palm branches is usually interpreted in the Bible as a sign of welcome, a show of hospitality. But I once read somewhere that in some cultures, people wave branches to ward off approaching evil. The branches are like an extension of the arm, an attempt to protect and distance oneself from the approach of danger. Is that what all those palm branches waved at the arrival of Jesus were all about?
It’s not likely, especially when you consider the words of greeting that were shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” In the culture of Israel, palms were a sign of royalty, the waving of which would indeed be a sign of welcome rather than an attempt to defend against some impending danger and terror. But if that had been the case, and the branches were being lifted upas a sign of imminent terror, then we ought to be waving palm branches every time we open the Bible. You see, terror is no stranger in the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is frequently a terrifying book.
On most Sunday mornings, when we gather to worship in the comfortably familiar surroundings of our church, in the midst of such setting, surrounded by friends that are equally familiar and in whose presence we are agreeably comfortable, the Bible can seem less terrifying than it often is. But on a Sunday like this one, it’s hard to escape, and indeed, impossible to ignore the terror of this text, to evade the underlying, dark, sinister implications behind the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, a week that ended with the execution of an innocent man.
In truth, we ought to be shocked. Shocked as for example when we read in the Old Testament of how God asked Abraham to kill his only son and burn his body on an altar. Because here, once again, this time in the New Testament, God is preparing another only son for sacrifice, this time on a cross. You have to wonder: How could a loving God do such a thing? And how dare we speak of such a horrifying reality in church?
The first Scripture passage we shared this morning reads like a wonderful, “good news” kind of story. A happy story. A parade. Moreover, the symbolism Jesus staged in his arrival could not have be missed by the people of his day. His reputation had preceded him to Jerusalem, and now with his arrival, to the shouts of followers recalling the promises about the coming of the Messiah, hopes were high that finally, at last, after centuries of waiting and praying and enduring occupation and oppression, deliverance from their enemies might finally have arrived.
Hopes were indeed high. Like a fairy tale, whose expected ending ought to be, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Who could have guessed the ending God had in mind? Who could have imagined how the coming week would play out? Who – in their darkest dreams – could have foreseen what awaited Jesus?
But you know, people who follow God and people who obey God usually do so without the least idea of how things are going to turn out in the end. Biblical scholars and theologians have long argued about whether or not Jesus knew for certain what was in store for him as he entered Jerusalem.
As Jesus rode into town on the back of the donkey, the question of whether or not he actually knew that his Palm Sunday parade was moving toward the imminent end of his life, is a matter of some debate. But regardless of what — and how much — Jesus knew of the fate that awaited him, I take Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a kind of parable: a parable of how it often feels to follow this God. Granted, our faith is such that we may believe and trust that things will ultimately turn out according to God’s will. But if we know anything about the God of the Bible, we know that God’s will may be radically different from our own. Consequently there may well be good reason for fear along the way.
The reason why this story holds such terror for me is found in the way in which it exposes my weaknesses. It reminds me of just how helpless, and frail, and not in charge I really am. While there are clearly things I can do to improve my life, and equally, things I can do to cheapen it, my eventual fate is ultimately out of my hands. I can’t control God’s disposition toward me, and that is unsettling to say the least. You see, if God could condemn his own Son to death, for reasons that are God’s own, in order to satisfy a sense of justice I can’t begin to comprehend, then what hope is there for me?
This Sunday, as we follow along behind Jesus, as he rode on the back of a donkey toward a fate he may or may not have fully known, can we not feel a measure of terror at the prospect of being met by a sovereign God who is so radically different from us? Here is a God whose mind we cannot read, whose decisions we cannot predict. Are we really prepared to follow this God?
Now granted, we do know the outcome of the story, even if Jesus’ disciples didn’t. And because we do know how the story ended, we may be tempted to overlook the unpredictable, unknown and unknowable nature of this God whom we meet in this story, rather than risk an outright encounter with such a God. Rather than meditate upon the horror of a God who would actually ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son, we quickly remind ourselves of how Isaac was saved from his father’s knife right at the last minute, and how a ram was provided in the thicket to be offered up in sacrifice in stead. Rather than speak of the terrifying end which awaits Jesus on Friday afternoon at Golgotha, we’re tempted to jump from the triumphal entry story, to the triumph of the raising of Jesus on Easter. Even my standing here, talking about these terrors in a reasonable tone of voice can lead us to believe that these biblical terrors of which we speak are actually less terrifying than they first appear.
But what are we to do in response to the thousands of funerals for those Egyptian babies killed by God’s angel of death as it passed over and spared the Hebrew people in captivity? What are we to do with the heaped bloody bodies of the Amalekites, slaughtered by the hand of Saul at God’s command? What are we to do after the arbitrary judgements of a God who slams the door in the face of some procrastinating bridesmaids when they slip out to buy oil for their lamps and miss the arrival of the bridegroom? What are we to do with a God who leads a good innocent man like Jesus toward his appointment with bloody destiny on Golgotha? What are we to do with these texts that remind us of just how helpless, and frail and not in control we really are?
In a strange sense, there is some consolation just knowing that these texts are, in fact, in the Bible. It seems to me that a religion is no good if it will only speak on bright sunny days, but has nothing to say for the late-night sweats and the 3:00 a.m. nightmares. A faith that speaks only to orderly, placid lives is not much of a faith at all.
The terror that lurks behind this story of Palm Sunday, if not a comfortable one, is at least familiar and recognisable to us. We see our own faces in the faces of that crowd, those who first adoringly welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, only to turn against him in a frenzy of bloodlust and violence by week’s end.
After all, we know the way we recognise our saviours, our heroes, our idols, falling down before them in the belief that they will give us everything our hearts desire and then turning against them in angry resentment when they fail to deliver. Somehow it’s redemptive to see that, to see that so honestly depicted in the Bible, to see that present in the Bible just as it is in life. If the Bible were only about the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, it would not be our book. But the Bible is our book. It is a book about God, yes, but also a book about us — the people we are rather than the people we wish in our fantasies we were. And because the Bible is genuinely about us, it is often a terrifying book.
More than just accurately describing our terrors, the Bible depicts a God who embraces us as we are, in spite of our oftentimes misbegotten cruelty. God did not bring Jesus to Jerusalem so that he could just stand over the city wringing his hands at the sight of mixed human motives, our evil, our sin. Rather, God beckoned Jesus into Jerusalem, through Jerusalem, all the way up to Calvary. God does not simply name and judge our terrors; God is present in them, working out our redemption in ways we are simply not equipped even to see much less accomplish ourselves.
I remember an incident that happened long ago in our family when our daughter Beth was about 5 or 6 years old. She had caught a sliver of wood in the heel of her hand while out playing. Not surprisingly she refused to let us get anywhere near it. So we agreed to wait a day or so and keep an eye on it. Again, not surprisingly, the wound began to swell and show signs of becoming infected. Finally, after much persuasion, she allowed that something would have to be done about it. And so, equipped with a bowl, in which Epsom salts were dissolved in water that was much too hot to suit her, and armed with a sterilised sewing needle that was likewise much too sharp to suit, amid chorus of wails, a flood of tears and a flurry of hugs and kisses, the deed was done and the sliver removed.
Those of you with children or with experience with them know the lesson that was learned that day. Beth eventually had to face the fact that her parents were obliged to inflict further pain upon her before the hurt would get better.
I would invite you to take that experience also as a parable for this Palm Sunday. The Saviour who rode in among us on Palm Sunday intruded into our lives in much the same way that a surgeon’s scalpel cuts into our bodies. If we are to be healed of what ails us, our healing will not be painless. The terrible events behind this coming week ask each of us: Are we prepared to follow this God through allthe events of our lives, or just the ones that are painless, just the ones that meet with our approval?
You see, God does not mean simply to improve us but radically to save us and change us, even though we must be brought through death — the death of our old selves — for that to happen. But such is our fate, just as it was for Jesus. Through the events of this coming week, the demon death stalks Jesus every step of the way. His very acts marked him for death. For me this suggests that the gospel itself is a terrifying story, a terrifying tale for all of us who wish to avoid discomfort, pain, unsettlement, dislocation, suffering and death. It is a terrifying story because it makes the bold claim: God wills this. It is God’s will that Jesus should suffer and die. And Jesus does not begrudgingly give up life unto the forces of evil. He offers it willingly. He wades into the bloody darkness alone, in quiet confidence that he will not be alone forever.
Of all the times we gather for worship throughout the year here, few occasions are more memorable for me than Palm Sunday. As we listened to the reading of this long, violent, dramatic story this morning, we sensed the mood shift, the tension build. We know how today’s story ends. We know, because this is the way it always ends — in betrayal, violence and death. And as if to seal this terrible knowledge, there’s that point in the story when Jesus stands before his accusers and is made to face the crowd.
The same crowd who yelled, “Hosanna!” a few days before now yells “Crucify him!” The voices arise from out of the crowd, but they are our voices; these violent voices are really our own.
The good news, however, is that Jesus did not flinch from the terror of that murderous mob. He did not side-step it or miraculously escape, and so become hermetically sealed off from human pain and terror. Rather, he came among us. He passed through those waving palm branches and then marched with us and through us, up to death, to the place of the Skull. He willingly embraced the terror, all of the terrible, horrifying, painful ambiguity of human existence and said, “Brothers and Sisters, I love you still.” Thanks be to God!