Palm Sunday 2021

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When we hear the word prophet or prophecy, we are inclined to think of someone who predicts the future, but in reality, this is a common misunderstanding and misuse of the concept of prophecy from the biblical point of view.  A biblical prophet was a spokesperson for God and a prophet did signs and wonders that revealed God’s will to the people.  According to Old Testament scriptures, Moses was the greatest prophet.  The last paragraph in the Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah states:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. Deut 34: 10-12

Moses, is quoted as saying, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” (Deut. 18:15).  Early Christians believed the Messiah was prophet, priest, and king.  A prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, a king like David.  Stephen, the first Christian martyr, relates the history of Israel and reminds the crowd in the sermon that brought about his stoning, “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, “God will raise up a prophet for you from your own people as he raised me up.”

We have little trouble identifying Christ as priest or king.  The earliest images of Christ is the Christus Rex where he wears both the chasuble and crown, but prophet we have a harder time grasping.   Prophets are wild men, like Elijah or John the Baptist who look like they might smell bad and whom you would not be inclined to invite home for dinner.   

In our first gospel reading we heard the story of Palm Sunday.  Like much of scripture we are accustomed to hearing the sanitized version of the story where sweet humble Jesus rides into town on a donkey and everyone comes to greet him singing Hosannah and waving palm branches, and this is not far from the truth, but we have missed the point. 

King David had promised his son Solomon the rite of succession, but as David lay on his deathbed, there was an attempted coup by Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother who prior to David’s death tried to set himself up as king.  David gave orders that Solomon was to be put upon David’s mule and brought to a particular place just outside of Jerusalem, where he was anointed king by the priest Zadok and then rode in a joyful procession.   

The prophet Zechariah spoke to the people who had returned from exile in Babylon about the restoration of Israel and Judah.  He declared:

 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

When a Roman general had been victorious in battle, they threw a giant parade called a triumph.  But not anyone could organize or claim right to a triumph.  It made a political and religious statement, and only the Senate could give permission.  By Jesus’ time, triumphs were typically reserved for the Emperor and his family. 

Jesus makes a very dangerous religious, political, and social statement when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey.  He is making what is called a prophet sign act.  He is acting outside of the social norm in critique of the status quo and claiming to speak for God.   He is claiming that he is the rightful king and heir to the throne of David.  This is sure to upset Herod, whose family gained the throne through battle, not bloodline.  This is sure to upset the Romans, because Jesus is defying the right of the Roman emperor to rule in Jerusalem and is claiming victory over that city.  This is sure to upset the Temple priest and officials because if they do not believe him to be the Messiah this is an act of heresy.  As we participate in the Palm Sunday procession, even if we have to do it sitting in our chairs, we are aligning ourselves with the rebellion.  

This is what liturgy is. Liturgy calls us to anamnesis. That fancy Greek word we translate “remembrance,” but it mean more than just calling something to mind.  It means to remember in such a way that we are united with those participating in the original act.  We are traveling though time, so to speak, and embracing the sights, sounds, and emotions of some significant event in our history and making it a part of who we are.  

Jesus performs another prophetic sign act on Thursday night.  The Gospel of Mark, believed to be our oldest gospel, tells us that Jesus and his disciples had gone to the upper room on the first night of Passover.  The Passover as now celebrated, and very possibly celebrated in Jesus day, involved the drinking of 4 cups of wine and 3 pieces of unleavened bread were set aside in a special pouch.  The first cup is the cup of blessing, the middle piece of bread is broken symbolizing the parting of the sea of reeds.   Half of this piece of bread is hidden at this time.  Later in the celebration, after the meal has been eaten, this half piece of the middle piece of bread is “found” by a child, and it is broken in to small pieces and everyone shares this with the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption.  It is believed that it is at this time that Jesus says “Take, eat, this is my body” and “this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 14: 22, 24).

Jesus used symbols that were already heavily laden in meaning and added to them by associating them with his physical presence.  By the act of eating and drinking the bread and the wine, Jesus made those at the table with him one with him.  If they were one with him, then they too in a spiritual sense participated in his crucifixion and resurrection.  Paul says to the Galatians “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:19b-20) When we participate in the Eucharist, we are at that Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples and we do then participate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus’ next prophet sign act was to associate himself with the Passover Lamb.  The story of the Exodus was the defining religious and cultural moment for most of Jesus’ disciples.  The story of how Moses ordered the children of Israel to sacrifice a spotless lamb, place the blood on the lintel and doorposts of their home, and then to remain inside, protected by the sign of the blood of the lamb while death passed by informed their understanding of redemption and their understanding of God.  Jesus placed himself in this story by allowing himself to become the final sacrificial lamb, protecting all who trust in him from eternal death.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Incarnation of the second person of the Holy Trinity, who came and dwelt among us and offered to us a means of eternal life and salvation to all who put their trust in him.   We worship a powerful God.  Our liturgies are designed to help us remember and, in a sense, participate in these power sign acts that Jesus initiated.  If you think your priests are fussy or grumpy about the way we do liturgy it is because it means something more than just niceties. Do not relegate Jesus to a kind man in children’s stories. It is in his humility and gentleness that Jesus demonstrates just how powerful he really is.  Jesus can ride into town on a donkey and cause emperors to become nervous.  Jesus can allow himself to be crucified to demonstrate just how powerful love can be.  Jesus is our king to whom we owe absolute allegiance.  He is powerful enough to be victorious over powers and principalities, triumphant over all the forces of evil.   Jesus is the bread of life.  He is the one who gives us life and sustains our life.  Jesus is our redeemer.  He is the one who defeated death at its own game and rose victorious to lead us to victory.

This week we are asked to pause and to remember the price of this victory before we celebrate the joy of it.  May you have a meaningful Holy Week.

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