Palm Sunday - 2018
Today is Palm Sunday--the Sunday before Easter, the day when we celebrate the beginning of Holy Week with the waving of palms, singing of songs, and other assorted awesomeness.
This is the Sunday--before the Sunday. The moment before the moment.
Did you know that the moment before the moment is the most important moment?
When I say the moment before the moment, I mean the moment before the great moment--the moment of decision, the moment of destiny, the moment that always seems to get all the attention
But it's the moment before the moment that's actually the most important---moment.
Think about it.
Remember the first time you went on the high dive at the pool? You climbed up that ladder that seemed like it went to heaven. Then you stood there at the end of that diving board, barely able to walk. But you did--you stepped forward and then stood there at the end of it looking down. And then you took a breath.
That moment--the moment before the moment was the most important moment. Because at that moment you made your decision to either step off the board, or climb back down.
Or when you first started riding your bike and you stood at the top of a hill--the first hill that you had ever biked down in your life. And you swayed there unsteadily, wavering before your feet pumped the pedals down and you began to descend.
That moment--the moment before the moment was the most important moment.
When you took that first solo trip in a car when you first started driving... That moment when you sat there behind the wheel just for a second before you let off of the brake. That moment--the moment before the moment was the most important moment.
That first kiss. Remember it? Your stomach was in knots, you didn't even know what you were saying, how you sounded--and all of the things that went through your head then... so many thoughts about the way things felt, sounded, smelled--doubts, fears, wonder, desire.
That moment--the moment before the moment was the most important moment.
I have my own moments.
The day I was married--I remember waking up at the crack of dawn and trying to sneak past my parents so they wouldn't know that I was running off to get married. I felt like my heart was going to push through my chest.
When my children were born--there was that moment when you just knew that once it happened everything was going to be different.
The first sermon I preached here at this church--the night before I stood in the Sanctuary in the dark and just listened to myself breathe and I prayed.
Those moments--those were the moments before the moment, too.
In those moments is an eternity of decision--and how you respond makes all of the difference.
Because at the moment before the moment is when you choose to step forward or step backward--to step off the board or climb down the ladder. You can either say later, "I had my moment and I took it." or "I missed my moment... It was right there and I missed it."
That moment when Dr. King delivered those words---that was the moment before the moment. He chose not to waver, he chose not to shrink back--even though it cost him his life.
The story of Palm Sunday in the Gospels is a story about the moment before the moment.
Let's read the version of the story that is found in the Gospel of Mark:
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
The story tells us here that the people who met Jesus as he came into Jerusalem with his disciples hailed him as a liberating hero. It's pretty clear that Jesus orchestrated his arrival in a particular way. The people celebrate his arrival by waving palms, which were a symbol of national pride and triumph dating back to a time when Israel won its freedom during the Maccabean revolt.
The cries of the disciples are taken up, and the crowd really begins to get into it. "Hoshi-anna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hoshi-anna, O You that dwells in the Highest Heaven!"
Nearly 200 years earlier Psalm 118 (a song of victory) was written or expanded after the victories of Judas Maccabaeus over the Syrian king Antiochus. Antiochus briefly conquered Palestine in 167 B.C. and essentially made it illegal to be Jewish. No one could possess a copy of the Torah, or circumcise infants upon pain of death. Antiochus defiled the temple, even going so far as to offer swine flesh on the altar as he sought to force the Jews to adopt Greek life and religion. The temple was surrounded by brothels under the rule of Antiochus, and all manner of revelry took place in and around what had once been the center of Jewish life and faith.
Judas Maccabaeus, a leader of Jewish rebels, drove out Antiochus after a series battles and eventually was able to re-purify the temple. Psalm 118 took on new meaning as it was sung--honoring Judas' great victories, and celebrating God's favor of God's people.
Under the thumb of the Roman Empire, many Jews were beginning to feel as though their identity as a people was beginning to be eroded. The pro-consulate, Pontius Pilate had placed images of Caesar in and around the Temple--which had caused an uproar. He had also used money that had been collected for the Temple tax to build aqueducts. The economy was in a shambles. Taxes were high. Inflation was out of control. The religious leaders of the day had taken refuge in collusion with the Empire, taking advantage of the very people they were called to lead.
It was a good time for a revolution. An excellent time for some nationalistic pride. It was a good time be singing Psalm 118.
This was like a bunch of people in our time and space at a downtown parade--all waving American flags and singing God Bless America.
For Jesus, it was the moment before the moment because this connected him to prophesy that was being fulfilled as he rode through the Eastern Gates of Jerusalem.
In Isaiah 50:4-9 we have these words:
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
5 The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears;
I have not been rebellious,
I have not turned away.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
7 Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
9 It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment;
the moths will eat them up.
The Suffering Servant in Isaiah is offering hope to the exiled people of Israel in Babylon, but the prophecy extends to Jesus, the Suffering Servant for the whole world. Jesus brings hope to all of us who are exiled by sin and death. And like the Servant in Isaiah, Jesus knows what will happen. They will reject him, humiliate him, beat him... He will have to absorb their hate even while he is loving them--to the end.
So he sets his face like flint. He takes a breath, gets on the donkey and rides into the city. He knows that when he does, that things will be set in motion that can't be undone.
It's the moment before the moment, and Jesus doesn't waver.
For the Crowd, it was the moment before the moment, too.
As I mentioned earlier, in the Isaiah passage the Suffering Servant is speaking to exiles, people who have been living for too long in Babylon. They have forgotten what it was like to be truly free. And they have gotten comfortable with the way things are and are afraid of a future that is uncertain.
So they reject the Suffering Servant and beat him for bringing them the message.
The crowd welcoming Jesus is in the midst of such a moment. The Messiah they want isn't the Messiah they got. When they realize this, they turn on him. They are enslaved by sin and death in addition to the Romans, but they choose slavery over freedom, and not only reject God's Servant, they execute him.
It was the moment before the moment for them...and they missed it.
Brothers and Sisters... Palm Sunday isn't about a party--it's about triumph. The kids were cute, the music was awesome, but this wasn't about any of that. The reasons why this story has been so huge for Christians throughout the centuries, even those earliest Christians who were the closest to the story is because it is a liturgical remembrance.
We remember that Christ is entering the gates of our lives... The Messiah is riding through our streets... He is here now, among us, challenging us with this moment.
We remember that this is the moment before the moment.
You have a choice to make.
Jesus is here. Which way will you step? Will you follow him?
For some of you--this isn't the first time that you've had this moment before the moment with Jesus. You've had them before. Maybe you chose not to step forward all of those other times. You turned back. You climbed down the ladder.
And you missed the moment.
You missed the moment to begin living your best life--right here and right now. You missed your moment to begin the adventure of following Jesus, an adventure that I know from experience is more fulfilling than any other.
Next week we will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The night before Reverend King was killed, he delivered his final sermon, which was strangely prophetic. "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life," Dr. King preached. "Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I have looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land."
Dr. King had a premonition that his life might be required of him if he continued to press on with his work. But at the moment before the moment--he did not waver. He rode on.
Your moment may not require such a grave sacrifice, but it might be a moment when you are being asked to die to yourself and begin following Jesus---for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.
How many of these moments do you think you might get?
How much longer are you going to walk around feeling as though you could have had so much more, you could have been so much happier, so much more fulfilled, you could have been the person that God always dreamed for you to be...
If you had only made the right choice at the moment before the moment.
Today is your moment.
Step out from the Crowd and follow Jesus.