The Preaching of the Palms
What Sunday is it today? It's Palm Sunday. But you probably noticed that the bulletin insert has Palm Sunday subtitled with "Sunday of the Passion." And you noted that the Gospel I read was not the one on the insert. I did that to keep with a 16th century Lutheran custom. In one of their few departures from the historic Church Year calendar, Lutherans on this Sunday did not read or focus on the Passion history but on the Palm Sunday account. That is until 1982 when the blue hymnal was published, and then we went with the rest of Christendom focusing on the Passion. Not me. I've always stayed with the Palms. You know why? Because no one can resist the palms. The news tonight will report today as Palm Sunday. Ask your Catholic or Episcopal friends what today is and not one will say "Sunday of the Passion." All will say, "Palm Sunday." The preaching of the palms is too loud to ignore.
But what do the palms say? The palms preach about our sinfulness. You were not given palms just so you could carry them into the church in procession. You were given them so you could take them home. You are to take them home and put them up behind crosses, crucifixes, and pictures of Jesus that you have hanging about your home. In years past you would have seen one in my office, but it didn't survive the move.
Those palms behind your Christian artwork will preach loud and long to you of your sinfulness. They start out green and full of life, but you know what's going to happen to them. The Texas heat and sun, even in air conditioned homes, is going to take their toll on them. They're going to go from green to yellow to brown as they wither and decay. They're going to show the death that is in them because they have been cut off from the tree that gave them life.
Let those palms preach to you of the sin and death that is in you by nature because you were born cut off from Christ the Vine of life. Even if fighting and sinning doesn't go on in your home visibly as it does in ours, let these palms remind you that sin, and therefore death, is at work in your home too. Let these palms be like the picture of Doriann Gray. Doriann Gray himself didn't show the effects of sin in his body, but every evil thought, word, or deed made a mark on the portrait of him till it became absolutely hideous. Though we can't see what our daily sinning really does to us, our palms can preach the truth to us as they wither and decay.
This preaching by the palms historically went on all the way to the following year's Transfiguration Sunday. Then the dried, very dead palms were brought back to church and burned to ashes. On the next Wednesday, which would be Ash Wednesday, the people came and were marked with the ashes from their palms. The palms that preached all through the year of sins now brought those sins home to their owners.
Of course, if palms only preach of my sins, I wouldn't want them in my home. That is too much Law. However, they don't only preach of my sins; they preach also of our Lord's Passionate suffering for sins. They remind us of the events in the Gospel reading. Now it is true that Jesus is being welcomed as a conquering king. Waving palm branches before a victorious king was an ancient practice. Jehu was welcomed in a similar way in 2 Kings 9. In 141 BC Maccabees made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem accompanied by palms. Palm were put on Jewish coins when the Jews revolted against Rome in 66-70 AD and again in 132-135 AD.
But you see something else going on here, don't you? In fact, you probably felt it as I did when we processed in waving our palm branches. Didn't you feel just a slight bit silly? Ever since the 300's Christians have been processing into their churches with palms on this Sunday. Originally, however, they began outside the building and walked around the entire building waving their palms and singing their hymn. One of our churches in the inner city of Detroit still does that to this day. They do this to proclaim their king Jesus is coming to save them, but how do think it looks to those outside of the Church? It's a relatively small group of people. They hardly sing loud or well outside. They look weak and feeble compared to the parades the world puts on for their heros.
Germans even made a louder statement of humility. They made a wooden donkey, called a Palmesel, and placed a statue of Jesus on it, and walked behind it. But you don't really see the humbling nature of this symbolism till you remember that Matthew tells you that there were two donkeys. The foal that Jesus rode and the mother that followed behind it. The mother donkey is a symbol of the Church. We humble ourselves today to march in procession behind our Jesus because we know that while He comes as a conquering king, He conquers by suffering not just passionately but passively.
During Jesus' earthly ministry, He saved us by actively keeping all the Commandments that we break. During this last Great Week, Jesus saves us by passively submitting to the punishment, to the torture, to the mockery, to the wrath of God we so keenly deserve. But this was lost on the crowds and even on the disciples according to our Gospel reading. The crowds could welcome a Jesus who had just done the Godly, powerful sign of raising Lazarus from death. So what if He came riding in on a lowly donkey colt with His feet dragging the ground. Surely, He would show His power again in Jerusalem. And He did, but not against the oppressing Romans. Nope, He rode into Jerusalem and threw out His own countrymen who were desecrating His temple.
That was the last active thing they saw Jesus do. He didn't resist when arrested. He didn't defend Himself when accused. He didn't struggle when whipped, spitted on, beaten, or crucified. He didn't show Himself to be God in the flesh. He showed himself to be a frail, palm that withered passively under mistreatment and torture. The palms by our crosses and pictures preach to us of this. While they remind us of our sins, they also remind us of the fact that Jesus the God-Man passively withered till He cried, "I thirst." Though He was God's Green Tree He allowed Himself to be nailed to a dead one till He shriveled up and died. He meekly, humbly, and passively allowed Himself to be burned by the wrath of God so that God's wrath against us sinners could be satisfied.
All the world was willing to welcome a conquering king, but whom God sent on this day of the palms was a Lamb to suffer passively, a Lamb to quietly carry away the sins of the world. John wants you to notice this. John is the only Gospel writer to tell give you a time reference "on the next day." And this is the last chronological reference John gives you in Holy Week. John is highlighting that today is the 10th of Nissan. On this day, according to Exodus 12:3, the Passover lamb was to be selected. God is sending the True Passover Lamb whom He Himself has selected to shed His blood for the sins of the world so that the wrath of God would Passover us.
In our liturgy we remember this every Sunday. Right before the Words of Institution we say exactly what the Palm Sunday crowds did: "Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." Then right after He has come we pray to Him singing, "O Christ the Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy on us." Do you see that as God the Son on Palm Sunday came humbly riding on a donkey hidden to all but the eyes of faith, so He comes today among us hidden in Bread and Wine?
However, there is a difference. We aren't welcoming our Lord Jesus into our midst as the suffering Lamb. No, we are welcoming Him as the Lamb who has finished suffering and so has won our salvation. We are welcoming the Lamb who has conquered and won and so comes to distribute His forgiveness, life and salvation to sinners. The palms don't just preach to us about Jesus' humble suffering and death for sinners; they also preach to us about His victory over suffering, death and sin. Palm branches have always been recognized as a symbol of joy and victory. Leviticus 23:40 specifically mentions using palm branches for this purpose. As we watch our palms fade passively from green to yellow to brown, we are reminded that though Jesus passively underwent suffering and dying, He nevertheless won.
He overcame sin by becoming sin. He overcame death by dying. He overcame Satan by being bruised by Satan. Now you cannot make sense out of this till you remember that it is only because He is God in flesh and blood that He could overcome by suffering. You and I are sin, but we don't overcome by being sinners. You and I cannot overcome death by dying or overcome Satan by being bruised by him. Jesus did because Jesus had no sins, no death in Him, and nothing of Satan in Him. St. John declares that Jesus is the spotless Passover Lamb of God, that His flesh is life, and that Satan could find nothing in Him. But St. John goes on to declare that Jesus carried our sins on Him, that He fell into the ground and died like a seed does, and that Satan was allowed to have his hour with Him.
However, once Jesus had suffered for our sins, once Jesus had died our death, once Satan had been allowed to bruise Him as we deserve to be, neither sin, death, or the devil could have any power over Him. And in Him, as you most certainly are by your Baptisms, sin, death, and the devil have no power over you either. You too have won over these three dreaded enemies. Even though you still can find sin in yourself, even though you will most certainly die, and even though Satan continually rages against you, you nevertheless have been given victory over these through Jesus.
Let palm branches remind you of this, maybe not the ones by your crucifixes and pictures because they will only wither and turn brown, but ones you see growing. John too wishes you to notice this. John's is the only Gospel to specifically mention palm branches on Palm Sunday. Matthew, Mark and Luke do not. Do you know the only other time in the New Testament that you read about palms? In heaven. In Revelation 7:9, St. John tells us: "After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb clothed in white robes and palm branches were in their hands."
Two customs came from what John saw in heaven. When Christians in the early church were being led out to die for the Faith, they were given green, leafy palm branches to symbolize that they were really winning although it appeared they were losing. Second, Lutherans use to put in the hands of their dead, as they lay in the casket, a palm branch. A green, living palm branch was placed in their hand to symbolize that their dead in Christ stood right now in heaven with all the other saints palm branch in hand.
The palms preach loudly of our sins, of Christ's passive suffering for sinners, and of our victory in Christ over sin, death and the devil. May they preach to us all year. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (4-16-00) John 12:12-19