palm sunday lamentation

When we imagine the first Palm Sunday, and when we re-enact it in our worship

there is a celebratory waving of palm branches,

            there are joyful cries of hosanna,

there are children dancing with ribbons,

Palm Sunday is all of these things. It is joy, it is celebration – it is, in the broadest sense of the word, laughter. God has come to his people. Jesus is the king who brings the reign of God to our world. Joy makes sense.

When we read the narrative of that first Palm Sunday from Luke chapter 19, we find an apt and beautiful conclusion in verse 40. That verse gives a great sense of completion to the story. In verse 40, Jesus says to the religious leaders who object to this procession of disciples – Jesus says to the religious leaders: “I tell you if my disciples were silent, the stones themselves would shout out blessing and glory.”

With these words, Palm Sunday is defined by an irrepressible need for celebration. Jesus makes the point that there simply is a profound need for praise and joy in his presence. The need for celebration is so great in fact, that if the disciples don’t answer that need then the creation itself will answer it. The stones will cry out.

In the English languages, stones go hand in hand with silence. Think of that expression – a stony silence. Stones are mute. Stones are silent. Stones are hard and closed and quiet. But the need for celebration in Jesus’ presence is so deep and so wide and so real, that if his disciples are silent – then the silent, hard, mute stones will cry out. Nothing will prevent joy and worship from coming to expression. It’s an apt and amazing conclusion for the Palm Sunday narrative.

But as you’ve probably begun to suspect I’m going to say, this version of the Palm Sunday narrative isn’t really complete. As much as we might like it to be the case, the fullness of Palm Sunday is not captured by the waving of palms or the singing of stones. This morning we acknowledge that Palm Sunday is in fact a day of tremendous ambiguity. As I’ve put in the sermon title, Palm Sunday is a day of laughter and lament. Perhaps this won’t surprise us. Our own lives are marked by just this kind of ambiguity. We live, each one of us, between laughter and lament.

With friends we laugh – we laugh at ourselves and at the little ironies of life.

But with friends we also lament – we lament lost opportunities and broken relationships.

When we are alone we laugh – we laugh at ourselves and our foibles.

But in quiet moments alone we also lament – we lament our weaknesses and failures.

As a public, we often laugh together at the wonderful absurdity of the human.

But as a public we also often lament the injustices and violence of our world.

This is the mixed nature – this is the ambiguity of our lives – lives lived between moments of laughter and moments of lament. And if that’s the mixed nature, the ambiguity, of our own lives – then perhaps it won’t surprise us that the narrative of God with us, the narrative of God among us, is marked by a similar ambiguity – by laughter and lament. Almost in the same moment.

Palm Sunday is a day of profound ambiguity.

In verse 40 we read that great conclusion: “I tell you if my disciples were silent, the stones themselves would shout out.” And then in verse 41 we read: “As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it.

Jesus, the wandering rabbi,

Jesus, whose teaching has astonished and delighted and angered,

Jesus, whose hands and words have brought healing.

This first century Jewish man on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, stands looking on the city and he cries. The sounds of the cheering crowd – the sounds of his shouting disciples – the sounds of celebration still resonate in the air. Yet in this same moment Jesus is overcome with emotion. He sobs. He puts his hands to his face. Tears flow down his cheeks – leaving streaks on his dusty face.

Through his sobs and his tears, Jesus speaks of Jerusalem.

of the city he loves.

of the city that lies at the heart of Israel’s life and faith and history.

He declares, mournfully; “Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

Jesus’ words in verses 41 through 44 of Luke chapter 19 are a lament for the city of Jerusalem. Some have called Jesus’ words here an oracle of woe, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets – and no doubt there are elements of an oracle of woe here. But Jesus’ words here are more lamentation than prophetic judgment. His words are more anguished love and anguished concern than they are anguished condemnation.

Laughter and lamentation.

Joy and sadness.

Delight at the presence of God. Despair at the reality of judgment.

Palm Sunday is a day of profound ambiguity.

The lament of Jesus is twofold. He says to the city: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

To understand this first part of Jesus’ lament, we should know what lies in the background. We should know that in Jesus’ day the people of Israel and of Jerusalem find themselves in an almost desperate situation. They face an existential and a military threat. The Roman Empire rules them from a distance through brutal and petty men – there is cruel Pontius Pilate, Roman governor in the region of Judea – there is feckless Herod Antipas, tetrarch in Galilee. The people of God, the people of Israel, are not free – they are firmly under the military thumb of Rome. Even more, with the spread and imposition of Greek and Roman religious traditions, the religious traditions of the Jewish people are under attack. The question is: How will Jerusalem going to respond to this situation, to this ongoing oppression?

As an aside we should also know that when Jesus speaks of Jerusalem he doesn’t mean all the inhabitants of the city. Rather, when Jesus speaks of Jerusalem he speaks of the religious leaders – of those in positions of power and responsibility. More specifically, when he speaks of Jerusalem he speaks of leaders associated with the temple.

Against the backdrop of this existential and military threat, Jesus sees two options for the cultural and religious leaders of Jerusalem and Israel. Two choices as to how they will respond to the threat that Rome represents. On the one hand, Jerusalem could respond with resistance and revolution, with violence against the Roman oppressors. Or, on the other hand, they could respond by embracing the way of peace embodied in Jesus.

For Jesus, the religious and cultural authorities have a choice. They can seek the wellbeing of God’s people by rebellion and violence against Rome, or they can seek the wellbeing of God’s people by turning to embrace the new form of life embodied in Jesus words and actions.

Jesus weeps, he sobs: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.” It turns out that the religious and political leaders were incapable of embracing the way of peace. It turns out that they were too invested in the structures of authority and holiness and tradition to embrace the way of Jesus. Jesus sobs – Jesus cries – Jesus puts his face in his hands – because he is convinced that their refusal of his way, their refusal of God’s way, will mean the destruction of city and temple. It will mean the death of families and children.

In these difficult few verses, Jesus speaks of very real destruction – he speaks of the kind of destruction that Jerusalem would face some 40 years later, when the Roman army came to crush a rebellion in Samaria and Judea and Galilee. Jesus speaks of the kind of destruction that would come when, after a long siege, the Roman army finally breached the walls of Jerusalem in the year 70 and destroyed the city and its temple – sending its people into exile again.

Jesus weeps: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

Laughter and Lamentation.

Delight at the presence of God. Despair at the reality of judgment.

Palm Sunday is a day of profound ambiguity.

The second aspect of Jesus’ lament cannot be thought apart from the first. In verse 44 Jesus says of Jerusalem: “You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

God’s people have been visited. In Jesus, God visits Jews and Samaritans, men and women, slave and free, those on the margins and those at the centre of power, those who have it all together and those who can barely get out of bed in the morning. In Jesus, God visits his people – the human family has been visited. But Jerusalem – the power brokers, the religious authorities, the temple establishment – didn’t recognize the moment of God’s visitation.

Jesus, tell your disciples to be quiet.

Jesus, tell your disciples to shut up.

“You did not recognize the time of your visitation.” With these words Jesus makes it clear that the religious leaders’ refusal of the way of peace isn’t just a refusal of abstract moral values – it’s not that they’ve merely refused the principles of pacifism or of non-violent resistance.

The temple authorities, and those aligned with them, have refused a person. They have rejected a person. To reject Jesus and the way of life he embodies, is to reject the peace of God. To reject Jesus and the kingdom he embodies, is to reject God’s visitation.

We might try to summarize everything going on in this passage. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem there is a grand coming together – it is a nexus of circumstances and desires – it is a crossroads of hope and fear. Each of us will find ourselves somewhere in this picture.

First there is a small group of disciples following their master – a little community of Israel that is slowly learning – one step forward one step back, no doubt – but nevertheless learning to follow Jesus. On this particular day these disciples celebrate the peace and visitation of God. They laugh.

There is another group – fellow Israelites who stand back on the sidelines –not sure what to make of it all – they are perhaps enamoured with Jesus, but they are also unsure of who he is or what he means – they are conflicted in heart and mind – not sure what to believe.

There is another group – the religious powerbrokers and their hangers-on – who see Jesus as a threat – as someone who undermines their faith and authority, and who is a distraction from what really matters for the people of God. He leads the people astray, and they want him out of the way.

There are, finally, the Romans, quick to crush any sign of rebellion – ears to the ground for any claim to authority and kingship that is an affront to their power. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” The king? What king is this? What rebellion is he leading?

At the centre of this grand coming together is Jesus. At this nexus of circumstances and desires, is Jesus. At this crossroads of hope and fear, is Jesus.

He proclaims himself the way of peace.

He proclaims himself the visitation of God.

And at this nexus of circumstances and desires, at this crossroads of hope and fear – Jesus will be rejected. He will be crushed. He will die.

Palm Sunday laughter.

Palm Sunday lamentation.

Palm Sunday ambiguity.

 

Amen.

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