“And the Hosannas Stopped…”
Mt. 21:1-11 & Mt. 26:14-25;
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church; April 9, 2017
On Palm Sunday, a few years back, there was a boy who was too sick to go to church. So, he stayed home with a babysitter. When the family returned home, they were all carrying palm branches. The curious boy, wanting to know why they were given palm branches asked what happened at church. “People held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by” his parents answered. “Wouldn’t you know it” the boy fumed, “the one Sunday I don’t come and Jesus actually shows up!”
I would suggest that Palm Sunday is among the most emotional Sundays in the year. It is a Sunday when Jesus actually shows up. In all his glory and in all his splendor, Jesus shows up and we celebrate! We shout Hosanna! Hosanna! Praise God! For He is here. Jesus has made himself known and has ridden into the hearts and lives of all who gather. And with palm branches in our hands and joy in our hearts, we shout Hosanna, for indeed Jesus the Prince of Peace, Jesus the King of Glory has arrived and we rejoice. As the choir sang, so beautifully, “Let the King Come In”. How wonderful; how powerful; how deep and rich a time in our faith this truly is!
But I must say, on such a day of beauty and joy, I am troubled…and the part that troubles me so very deeply about Palm Sunday is the flow of the themes between this Sunday and the next. If your calendar is like mine, next Sunday is Easter and most people move from this morning’s deep and rich welcome of Jesus on a Palm Sunday morning until we meet at next week’s gathering to celebrate the resurrection of Easter. We go from Palm Sunday directly to Easter Sunday and we dismiss the existence of all the deep, dark and ugly parts of our humanity where God meets us. Oh sure we will put on a service on Maundy Thursday, yet few will come. We will offer an opportunity to gather for Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, how many will actually attend? Many will even receive Good Friday as a holiday from work, but it is used as a day to attend to chores that have been building up rather than exploring the deep, dark depths of life which have been eating away at us.
Getting back to our first text, I wonder how quickly those who turned out to greet the Messiah began to feel disappointment. They heard that their new King was coming to town. It was to be the end of the tyranny of Rome and the hope for the future. This was ‘SUPPOSED’ to have been the day! It was the day when the hopes and fears of all the years were met through the one riding into town. They prepared a King’s welcome ~ as best as a Mediterranean peasant could: throwing cloaks on the ground; tearing palm branches and waving them at their majestic new King who would overthrow Rome. The Messiah who would finally give them the peace and liberation that the prophets spoke of. Yet they stopped, didn’t they? When did the shouts of Hosanna stop? Were the crowds disappointed when they saw a skinny, dust-covered man arrive? Knowing that the Emperor would be a menacing brute carrying a sword and wearing studded battle armour? Is that when the shouts of Hosannas stopped? Did they stop when the people saw Jesus ride in on the back of a donkey, rather than on a war horse which the Emperor would ride? Is that when the Hosannas stopped? Did they stop when this so-called ‘royal-entry’ of their new King seemed like a twisted joke being played upon these ~ already oppressed people? Is that when the shouts of Hosanna stopped? At some point they stopped and those shouts of Hosanna shifted further revealing the dark depths of our humanity. And that is where the second reading comes in. Which one would you have selected to reveal the ugliness of our humanity? This morning’s reading reveals Judas’ betrayal. Judas, one of those closest to Jesus takes a bribe ~ 30 pieces of silver ~ and reveals one of the ugly parts of our humanity. Slowly, one by one they all begin to turn against Him. Simon-Peter denies Jesus three times ~ “surely, I do not know this man” And slowly those welcoming shouts of welcoming Hosanna turn into the angry shouts of hatred, shouting “crucify him”, “crucify him”.
Our two Gospel lections draw for us a startling contrast ~ and reveal a part of our humanity we don’t much like to talk about. The great Christian Reformer from the 16th Century, Martin Luther refers to this dichotomy as being the two theologies that have competed for our allegiance down through the ages. One is the “Theology of Glory”. In my experience, we are quite proficient at this one. The theology of glory looks for God in the good, the beautiful, the strong, and the powerful. The second is the “Theology of the Cross” - which looks for God in exactly those places where we most feel God's absence: in pain, in humiliation, in suffering, in weakness, in foolishness and in death.
A Theology of Glory is concerned with health and happiness and prosperity. A Theology of Glory centers on what God can do for us; on how being a person of faith can make us more popular and powerful and successful. A Theology of Glory is all about us; all about our power and our control. It is about our winning in life and our living large; it is about what works to make our life better. If you are ever around younger children, you know very well the theology of glory that they embody. For me, I see this when Jaida and I unite our two families together for a meal, I see this in grace at the dinner table ~ especially when it is Jaida’s four year old daughter’s turn to offer the grace. She thanks God for the trees and the flowers, for the birds and the butterflies, for her home and her food, and the list goes on. Dinner is usually luke-warm by the time her prayer of gratitude has concluded, yet our hearts are warmed by the glory of what God is doing in the world and in our lives. And, to be sure, it is beautiful ~ it is wonderful, to be mindful of God’s provision of all the many things we so often take for granted. There is nothing wrong with holding a theology of glory.
Luther lifts up the dilemma. He raises concerns of when we are overly focused on a theology of glory over and above the theology of the cross. A Theology of the Cross, on the other hand, is concerned with God, with who God is, with what God wills with what God has done for us on the cross and with what God calls us to do in response. An exclusive focus on a theology of Glory centers on making the difficulties of our days okay, it focusses on making everything all right, it somehow turns the evil and hurt we experience into a moral good, in the long run, in the overall scheme of things. It must have God, and us, in control, and good must - always - win. On the other hand, a Theology of the Cross is concerned with what looks like failure, with what appears to be disaster, with what seems to be the utter and complete absence of God in our most desperate and trying moments. This perspective of God brings us to the stark realization of our mortality and imperfectability, of our need for help that comes from outside ourselves. A Theology of the Cross calls a thing what it is, Luther said: “death is death, sin is sin, horror is horror, suffering is suffering, evil is evil”. There is no window dressing that can make them anything else.
Now certainly, there is an age and maturity factor working against a four year old for her to ever conceptualize a theology of the cross. And, as we spoke about stages of faith development a few weeks ago, certainly the stage young Emily is at is one where we want her to be assured of a God’s benevolence. Yet for us, it is a vitally important part of our faith to incorporate the meaning of the cross into our faith. When Jesus goes to the cross, he takes on the deepest, darkest parts of our humanity and loves us into the mystery of Easter. What we see revealed is nothing less than the unconditional love that is unique and priceless and found in God’s gracious and unending love for you.
This coming Holy Week, we will meet an angry God reflected in Jesus who will literally turn over the tables ~ smashing them at the marketplace and condemning the practices of selling animals to be sacrificed. Have we turned Christ’s church into a marketplace? Is there equal access for all? One of the key factors contributing to the schism of the 16th Century Reformation was the church’s practice of selling ‘indulgences’ ~ the church’s promise of salvation to parishioners who could afford it. Where are we holding God’s grace back? Who is not welcomed? Included?
Later in the week, we will meet a God reflected in Jesus who will invite his friends into an Upper Room. Knowing each and every one of them will betray and desert him, he invites them to dine as friends. As a servant would, and for this reason I wear this stole every Sunday. It is a symbolic reminder of the towel Jesus wore around his neck for foot washing. Like a servant, Jesus washes their feet and serves them as his treasured guests. Do we live a life of humble servanthood? Who will you serve this week? Who will I serve this week? As followers of Jesus, we are called to be humble servants in the way we live our lives.
And still later in the week, we will see God reflected in Jesus die an agonizing death. A humiliating death designed by the Romans to maintain order and instill fear. There is no dignity in this public execution that occurs over hours. Yet, Jesus willingly goes to the cross, and each violent blow of the hammer is received by Jesus and will soon be transformed in the mystery of life that lies beyond death. Who do we crucify in our world today? Is it the earth and the way we pollute God’s paradise? Is it the people in war-torn and third world countries, as our United Church releases yet another appeal to help, in this case, our brothers and sisters in parts of Africa through the “Extreme Hunger Appeal”?
And yet, we know, and in fact we stake our lives upon this mystery of our faith: that upo the stark, cold, rugged cross we are being saved. In the stark, cold, rugged cross we are met by the mystery of God’s power. Indeed, the height and depth of God’s power is not just found in the glory of butterflies and birds, God’s deepest power is found in those in-between parts of life: in our serving, in our caring, in our crying, and in our deaths. For…somehow God’s mystery is revealed in these places. Yes, the shouts of Hosanna will be silenced. Yet something much greater is to come. For God will meet us in the dark depths of our humanity and offer us the grace and mystery of new life.