Palm Sunday is the last stop for most of us on the way to Good Friday. If this were your first time around the story, you would have no idea what lies just a few short days in the future. The tone is exultant, the mood is jubilant. Israel’s Messiah has arrived to take charge, the new king to rule and make things right is here!
Of course, most of us are not on this journey for the first time ever. Therefore we are a little prepared for the tumultuous days that lie ahead. The challenge can be seeing how these days actually string together, rather than their being disconnected and bewildering. How do we get from the triumph of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, willingly being seen as a new king (he organises a donkey’s colt to ride which connects him with the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9), to dying as a cursed man a few days later. People lay their coats down for him on the way in, and they spit at him on the way out. He enters the city as a king, and leaves as a criminal. The crowd that chants ‘Hosanna’ changes its tune to ‘Crucify him’ in double quick time. The reversal is staggering.
If, like me, you’re leading worship this Sunday, I think you need to give people a chance to prepare for this turn around, lest they lose their grip on the story we’re a part of. I think Palm Sunday to Good Friday is the equivalent of Peter is Mark 8:29 finally getting it right about Jesus’ identity, ‘You are the Messiah,’ but then in verse 33 being told, ‘Get behind me Satan!’ Peter goes from getting it really right to getting it really wrong really quick. Its much the same between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
But the speed at which the crowd gets it wrong also raises questions about how right they ever really had it. What was Jesus saying about himself as a king when he rode in on a donkey? Did the crowds pick up that this was not going to be a violent takeover? Did they expect Jesus to clear the Roman’s out after he had cleared the temple?
Jesus disappoints the crowd. He starts well, with the crowds and the singing and then storming the temple and clearing out the crooks who were running the place and screwing over the people. But then he fails to press on and become and king and Messiah they wanted. So things get ugly.
For me, this Sunday needs to have space for confession around the changeableness of we humans. There is this bizarre situation that develops where Jesus understands he will die, and that his death will be the way to salvation for his people. His followers reject that idea because they believe he is the Messiah and dying isn’t part of their plan, while his opponents reject his claim to being the Messiah and want to kill him for it, and in the end, everyone conspires to kill the one true Messiah! It makes my head hurt, and my heart ache.
What does Palm Sunday tell us about ourselves? It tells us that we love God when we think he’s doing what we want him to do, and that we find being enthusiastic and committed very easy when things are tracking well. It also tells us that when God’s plan departs from what we want, we can become fearful and violent, lashing out at anyone, even the one who came to save us.
This Sunday we need to sing ‘Hosanna’ because this is our king. But we need to sing it in a minor key, because we end up discovering that we don’t really like the way this king rules (by dying), and one way or another, in our anger and our grief, we end up playing our part in his death.
A prayer of confession might sounds something like this:
O Jesus our king, riding into the capital city
For the great show down with the powers of evil and corruption
You are known as a man of peace but you might want to think about that
For those you are up against are merciless and cruel
And the only place you’ll end up by turning the other cheek
Is high on a criminal’s cross.
O Jesus our king, riding into our hopes for redemption
Where is your sword and where is your army?
This ragtag rabble of rascals and rednecks from the sticks
Aren’t going to fill any of your enemies with fear
Just say the word, and we’ll throw down our palm branches
And take up our spears, hidden away all these years.
Cast off the disguise of peace maker and we will rally to you in a heartbeat
O Jesus our king, beware my friend.
There are rumours that some who are close to you cannot be trusted
That some want to force the fight you seem eager to lose
And this talk of taking up your cross
Its making the troops nervous
Give us victory, fire us up, we’re ready to fight and kill and die
We are like a storm cloud ready to burst
A wave ready to swell up and then break
Just tell us which way we should surge
Make it soon, or there’s no telling what we’ll do.
O Jesus our king, you mock us
You refuse to claim the throne we offer
You’ve taken hold of our hearts,
But you have rejected our fists
And anyone can tell you that’s no way to rule
So we’ve no use for you, you peacemaking poet from up north
For the villains we face come with razor sharp swords
Take your stories and die, they’re no good to us
It’s going to take more to save us than your foolish love.
O Jesus our king, all the clamour and noise
For you to reign on high
For you to be cursed and die
Have all faded and gone,
Like seed that springs up in the shallow soil
But you were still like sleep
In the midst of the storm
You were the point of persistent peace
While we all wanted war
Now our rage is all spent