I know that the children love Palm Sunday.They get to process into the sanctuary waving palm fronds. After five Sundays of Lenten services that can become rather dark and gloomy, everybody is probably ready to dance and sing songs of triumphant joy. But, as a preacher, I’ve found Palm Sunday to be problematic (of course I could use the Passion Sunday focus, but doesn’t that displace Good Friday?). Palm Sunday seems like it’s a misreading of the situation. The crowd seems to think that their Messiah has arrived – and if, as some scholars speculate, Pilate and his troops could have been entering the city through another gate – you can see how there might be some who were hoping Jesus would meet force with divinely inspired force. Hail to the one who comes to liberate the people!
But of course the story doesn’t go according to “plan.” The triumphal entry is a momentary blip of excitement (Matthew 21:1-11). Jesus doesn’t raise an army, but instead after a few more days of teaching and rabble rousing (remember that in Matthew’s telling of the story Jesus immediately goes to the Temple and runs out the merchants and bankers) he faces trial and execution. The one hailed as Son of David takes his place among the enemies of the state who are being executed by the powers and principalities – both religious and secular. So, is our victory parade little more than a vain interruption of Jesus’ journey to the cross?
The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday (Matthew 21) is accompanied by a reading from Psalm 118. It is a song of triumph and praise: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!”
How should we hear this call to give thanks to the Lord, whose “steadfast love endures forever?” Can we not hear it as an invitation to put our trust in God, even if things don’t work out quite the way we first expect? Could the key to our interpretation of this celebration of God’s steadfast love be found in the word about a stone that the builders reject? According to the Psalmist, this rejected stone will become the chief cornerstone of the gate that leads to salvation (Psalm 118:22). Indeed, perhaps this is the verse that we need to focus on. Martin Marty suggests that whatever this phrase meant to the original author/audience, for New Testament writers “It pointed to another surprise: that the easy-to-reject Jesus, who did not seem important and did not seem respectable to the authorities of his day, became and remains central in the plan and action of God” [Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, (WJK Books, 2010, p. 150).] In a surprising turn of events, this rejected stone becomes the means by which the steadfast love of God is revealed. Yes, it’s not the triumphal march that represents God’s purpose, it’s the cross. So, perhaps, we should see Palm Sunday as another moment in which God overturns our expectations. It is a reminder that however we might define success that may not be the way Jesus defines it.
So, it’s okay to join in the parade and wave the palm branches while shouting hosanna, but let us not forget that we still must face Friday’s challenges. If we can keep things in perspective, then we can take hold of the promise that God’s “steadfast love endures forever.”