The Palms Win
I like to follow the historic church year, but this Sunday we depart from it. Lutherans are the only liturgical church to focus on the entry into Jerusalem and not the Passion history today. Historically, that Gospel we read was read before the procession. So why does the insert have the Passion reading and not the Palm Sunday one? Blame it on Lutheran Worship. Wishing to be like other liturgical churches it switched readings. That was a mistake. Ask any Catholic, Lutheran or Episcopal friend what Sunday today is and they will say, "Palm Sunday." The Palms win.
Palm Sunday wins because it's a memorable introduction to Holy Week. Since the 300s Christians have had palm processions. Some details of the procession changed over the centuries but the palms remained. Historically this has been a Sunday for kids and those outside the church. From the first Palm Sunday on, kids have enjoyed waving their palms. And since the procession traditionally took place outside of the church, for once those who weren't members got to see the Church gathered for worship as they marched around the outside of their church waving palms.
Palm Sunday is a memorable introduction to something phenomenal. It draws attention to the coming week. The news tonight will report today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Since the 300s, it has been called the Great Week because of the great things that happened in Christ's life. The Holy Spirit indicates this is a special week in Christ's life by devoting 31% of the Gospels to it. Christ walked this earth for about 1,716 weeks. Yet the Holy Spirit devotes 31% of the Gospels to just one of them. Something phenomenal must have happened this week.
Palm Sunday memorably introduces us to a phenomenally Great Week, and to a paradoxical week. This is the one time that Jesus accepts the public proclaiming Him Messiah. Till now Jesus has shied away from being a popular Messiah. But on Palm Sunday He lets them shout it from the rooftops. Jesus lets them rejoice in their Messiah although He is really not the Messiah they think. He's not a Roman killing, rebellion leading Messiah; He is a sin-bearing Lamb and Suffering Shepherd.
Palm Sunday introduces our kids and the public in a memorable way to the paradox in this coming week. Our kids can't see the paradox in Christ's life, but they sure can see it in what we do today. This is the only Sunday they get to march into church waving leafs. The same goes for the public; they can't appreciate the paradox in Christ's life either, but if we paraded around outside the church, they would be confronted with a paradox: "I thought Christians were just stodgy, prudes. What's this weird procession about?"
Of course you see a greater paradox in Palm Sunday. God almighty, the One whom angels aren't clean enough to touch, the One who has clouds for chariots, comes into Jerusalem on the back of a smelly donkey, feet dragging on the ground because the donkey is just a colt. The King of glory humbles Himself on this Sunday. Didn't you feel a bit humbled carrying palms into church? Isn't this sort of behavior beneath us? Fine for kids, but not adults. The chief priests and the Scribes agree. They thought the whole thing disgusting, undignified, humiliating. How unthinkable! Giving a victory palm procession to a Carpenter from Nazareth! How absurd to hail a Rabbi from Galilee as Messiah, King and Savior. This paradox only makes "sense" to kids and those humbled by the holy Carpenter turned Rabbi from Nazareth.
Palm Sunday is a memorable introduction to a phenomenal, paradoxical, and a supernatural week. The events of this week aren't natural. Jesus institutes a meal where He gives His Body and Blood for Food. God the Son goes to a cross to be punished by God the Father for the sins of men against God. God shouts to God: "My God why have you forsaken me!" God who is Life dies. And the death of God in Christ makes peace between God and sinful men. That's supernatural, and Palm Sunday memorably introduces it. We know from Scripture that the Palm Sunday crowd chanted from Psalm 118. Those living in Jerusalem came out to meet the arriving pilgrims. The two groups would chant responsively Psalm 118: 25-28. Verse 27 says, "Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar."
On Palm Sunday the festival sacrifice, Christ Himself, arrives. And they won't only bind Him to the altar of the cross, they'll nail Him. But they wouldn't even have had to bind Him; The Good Shepherd willingly lays down His life for sheep who love to wonder. And here's the supernatural part that can't be seen with the naked eye. The part we wouldn't know about unless Scripture revealed it to us; the part we still don't understand. On the altar of the cross, but in the realms of heaven, Christ offered up His blood as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Hebrews 9 describes it this way: "Through His own blood, Christ entered the holy place. He did not enter a holy place made with hands...but into heaven itself." How wonderful, yet mysterious. Christ pays for, covers up, washes away the sins of the world by offering His blood in the throne room of God. On Palm Sunday we celebrate Him standing at the door.
The palms win. They're a memorable symbol of the coming phenomenal, paradoxical, supernatural week. They'll always be in our church on this Sunday, and it's a good idea to have them in your home during the rest of the year. A palm is not only a fitting introduction to this great week but it's a fitting reproduction of what to remember during the next 52 weeks.
The palms you get today are, I should say will be, a fitting reproduction of your sin. If you put your palm last year behind a picture or cross of Christ, did you notice it during the year? I did. It started out fresh, yellow-green and full of life. But then it started to dry up around the edges and began to fade in color. By fall, it was brown and by the beginning of Lent it was dead, withered, and brittle, fit to be burned to ashes for Ash Wednesday. My palm reproduced before by eyes that I was a sinner heading for dust and ashes. No matter how hard I tried to be a good, green, living Christian this year, I was dying relentlessly in my sinfulness. There was no way I could completely stop my sinning or slow my dying anymore than I could stop my palm from withering.
If the only thing my palm reproduced was my sin, it would be a disgusting thing to have daily before my eyes. But it also reproduced my Savior. He's the fresh Root that sprang from Jesse's race; He's the Branch we behold growing at Christmas. He's the fragrant Rose of Sharon; the verdant Vine that produces much fruit. But the green Christ withers as our palms do. He comes into Jerusalem fresh, green, and living, but goes out wilted, brown, and dying. What happens to our palms during the year is a reproduction of what happened to our Jesus during Holy Week. God's hot wrath blew on Him rather than on us. He died thirsty and withered so we might live watered and blessed.
The palm you're given today can reproduce for you your sins, your Savior, and your salvation. Revelation 7 shows us the saints in heaven clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. For that reason martyrs in the early church were given palm branches as they walked to the arena to die for their faith. For that reason, Lutherans use to bury their dead with a palm branch placed in their folded hands. Let the palm you carry out today symbolize the eternal victory of both Christ and you. But what about the fact that my palm branch is going to wither, fade, brown, and crumble? What sort of symbol of salvation is that? It's the perfect symbol for those living under the cross of affliction right up until the time they're called home to glory.
A palm that wilts from yellow-green to brown is a symbol of our salvation because our salvation is like no other. We're given victory over sin, death and the devil by Christ; however, we don't look like we're winning. Our sins, the fallen world and Satan himself get the better of us most of the time. Each week we start on Sunday as fresh, forgiven palms, but we crawl back here at weeks end wilted brown and broken. Our palms are a reminder that as Christ went so do we. He looked like He lost every single battle, but He won the war. Our Savior went to the cross and defeated sin, death, and the devil all the while looking like He was losing. So, in this world, though I may look like my palm does, I know I'm being saved and winning in Christ.
So my palm reminds me my victory is not visible to these eyes. All these eyes see is my palm getting browner and deader. All these eyes see is a sinner falling prey to sin, death and the devil. All these eyes see is ordinary water; a man forgiving my sins; and bread and wine on this altar. But something more grand and glorious is going on here than my eyes can see. Scripture tells me this is not just ordinary water but life-giving, saving water. Scripture tells me that it's not just a man forgiving my sins but Christ Himself. And Scripture tells me it's not just bread and wine here, but the Body and Blood of Christ for me to eat and drink for forgiveness.
So although I can only see a withered palm most of the year, my palm reminds me of the day when Christ descended into the valley of the shadow of death so that I might fear no evil. My palm reminds me of the day that Christ had badness and wrath leading Him into Jerusalem so I might have goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. My palm reminds me that although I see only a brown palm for most of this life, I have a green one in the house of the Lord forever. That's why the palms win. And that's why when I die, put a palm branch in my hand. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (3-20-05); John 12: 12-19