(edited repost: Palm Sunday Sermon)
How is it that we turn palms into crosses? Every year we try our best to take these long strips of palm branch and by some feat of engineering, we turn them into crosses. We sometimes don’t fully understand what exactly we are doing. We take these things which are supposed to be instruments of joyfulness and praise for Jesus, and we turn them into crosses, forgetting that this represents the very thing on which Jesus was crucified. We usually never consider that strange custom that has evolved in the church over the years. The very same things that are supposed to praise God, are turned against Jesus. How does this palm branch turn into a cross?
It is easy to forget, as we wave a little cross, that it is an instrument of death. We see that palm branch, we turn it into an empty cross, and we conveniently pass over the suffering and death in between. The cross was not always empty.
This is the beginning of Holy Week. Today we started with shouts of Hosanna. Next Sunday is Easter - the day of resurrection and shouts of Alleluia. But we are not there yet. Between the shouts of Hosanna and the shouts of Alleluia there is another shout: “Crucify him, Crucify him.” "’Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.”
We have had two sets of readings this morning, each set painting a picture before us. We started off the morning with a parade and shouts of joy. The first picture is the “Palm Sunday” picture. It is all about the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of Hosanna. The second picture we have today is the “Good Friday” picture. It is about the same crowds shouting “Crucify Him” and about how Jesus endures the suffering of the Cross.
What do we learn when we see these two pictures side by side? We learn about love. In the first picture we learn about how the crowds, and we, love Jesus. Let’s call that “Palm Sunday” love. In the second picture we learn about how Jesus loves the crowds – and us. Let’s call that “Good Friday” love. These two kinds of love – Palm Sunday love and Good Friday love, show us the difference between how we love, and how God loves.
(Palm Sunday Love)
First there is the love which the crowds show to Jesus on Palm Sunday. It is exciting, it is loud and it is a big show. They welcome Him into Jerusalem with palm branches and songs and shouts of joy: “Hosanna to the Son of David”. They are welcoming Jesus as their King into the throne of David. But within a few days that same crowd turns on Jesus. When Pilate asks them what they want to do with this Jesus, this King of the Jews, they reply – “Crucify Him”. What is wrong with this picture?
It is not lack of enthusiasm. They were enthusiastic when they shouted “Hosanna to the son of David”. Yet they were just as enthusiastic when they shouted “Crucify Him”. If we think love is about putting on a big show, or just being enthusiastic, we need to think again. The crowd was pretty enthusiastic when things were going well for Jesus. Palm Sunday love is like that. It loves when there is a good time to be had, and it stops loving when there are bad times to be had. This way of loving changes with the weather, or with the circumstances. Status, appearance, health, reputation – all these things matter to Palm Sunday love. Loving a person – any person, including Jesus, means you love them regardless of their circumstances. You can love the person, or you can love the things around the person. The crowds didn’t love the person of Jesus. They loved the show, the power, the miracles, the idea that this man would be their king.
It is a test of our love for any person – including God – whether we love them just for who they are, or we love them because of the stuff around them. Not many people were left loving Jesus when he was being crucified, when everything glamorous and exciting was gone from him. Jesus died alone.
Is love about being “happy”, whatever we think that word means? The Palm Sunday crowd is very happy to have Jesus around. But they are also just as happy to have Him crucified. This is the more difficult part of the problem. Love is not about the crowds being happy. And love is not about me being happy. Too often we think that it is. We think that love is supposed to be there for my sole benefit – that love is there to make me happy. Palm Sunday love is self-serving. It says “I don’t care what happens to you, as long as I am happy – that is what matters.” It says “I will love you as long as I get something out of it.” My happiness is the supreme goal of life. And this kind of love says – “I will love you for as long as it is convenient for me, for as long as I am getting something out of it, as long as you make me happy – I will love you.”
It is a test of our love for God and for each other. Do we still love when we are not “getting something out of it?” Do I love only when it makes me happy? Am I more concerned about my own happiness than the happiness of the person I am supposed to be loving? Love is not self-centered or self-serving.__
(Good Friday Love)
Now let us think about the Good Friday picture. What do we think we are seeing when we get a picture of the crucifixion of Jesus? Do we think we are seeing a man suffering? Yes, but more than that. Do we think we are seeing the fulfillment of prophecy? Yes, and more than that? We are seeing a picture of love. On Palm Sunday we see a picture of our love for God, on Good Friday we see a picture of God’s love for us.
How is Jesus’ love for us, different from our love for Him?
Six centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote some words describing the Messiah that God was going to send. Here are the words Isaiah wrote about the Messiah who would come, and what that Messiah would be like:
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint.
“I have set my face like flint”.
What does that tell us about Jesus’ character? About his love? It tells us about his determination. He has a strength of willpower that says – I will do what I need to do. Jesus shows us that the foundation of love is commitment. He set his face like flint – against everything that will come his way. _We get enthusiastic – but Jesus gets determined. Good Friday love means commitment. It means commitment regardless of the circumstances. Jesus is committed to us when the circumstances change. He loves us when we are shouting “Hosanna” and he loves us when we are shouting “Away with this man.” Jesus loves us when that love is not returned. He loves us regardless of how we treat him. He simply loves us. He is not merely enthusiastic about loving us when things are great; he is committed to loving us when things are darkest, for us and for him. He loves us when we shout “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” That is not only the darkest moment for Jesus. It is also the darkest moment for us – when we cry out in rebellion against God.
How does Jesus react to our treatment of him? How did he react then? “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” How does God react to our treatment of Him? He puts up with it; he endures it – remember Jesus prayed while he was being led away for crucifixion – “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”. What happens when love faces a challenge? That is when love is tested. That is when we see what love is really made of - is it Palm Sunday love, or is it Good Friday love? That is when Jesus is tested. Jesus prays forgiveness.
(Self sacrifice, rather than self service)
Whose happiness is Jesus concerned about as he is being crucified? His own, or someone else’s? Jesus is willing to endure suffering, and insults, and even death, for the sake of someone else’s happiness – yours and mine. He did not turn back from suffering because he loved us. Good Friday love is willing to endure the wrongs of others, to put its own happiness second place, for the sake of someone else. We have nothing that we can give to God. God is not in this for what “He can get out of it”. He is “in it” because He loves us.
Jesus’ attitude and his actions are not changed by other people’s reactions to him. Our love is often changed by other people’s attitudes and reactions. It is part of the “what do I get out of it” syndrome. Jesus’ love for us does not depend on how well we treat him. Look at what happens to him. And look how he reacts.
How do we get this new kind of love? At best, most of us are caught between the two kinds of love – we perhaps admire the Good Friday love, but more often than not we practice the Palm Sunday love. Good Friday love is great to see – in other people. How do we grow in our love and move from one to the other? Not by struggling to be better, or by making new resolutions to be a better person, or through he myriads of self help books that line the shelves of secular and sacred book shops. It is a gift, as everything from God is. It is the highest and best gift of all the gifts of the Spirit – and it is the only gift which will last. For that gift, let us pray.