Sermon for Palm Sunday 2022
The Liturgy of the Palms
The Liturgy of the Word
As Jesus rides his donkey down the Mount of Olives, riding out to meet his people, there is this moment recorded in Luke’s gospel where Jesus stops for a minute, he looks at the Holy City just across from him, and he cries. He weeps. It is a glorious moment. There is a crowd of people that is following him down the mountain and they are waving palm branches and even throwing their cloaks down on the road, and they are hailing him as a king. They call him Son of David. The successor to the great king. It is a triumphant moment, but before Jesus crosses over the valley and enters the Eastern gate of the Temple, he stops and he weeps. There is a little chapel on the side of the Mount of Olives today called the Dominus Flevit, the Lord Wept, and it is in the shape of a teardrop. It is meant to mark this moment.
And Jesus says to his beloved city in that moment: “If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes. You are going to be crushed by your enemies; your glorious stones will be cast to the ground, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” You did not recognize God’s presence in your midst. Not only were people unable to identify and appreciate the presence of God, but they could no longer recognize the ways of God.
Now some people surely did. There were righteous and holy people in Jerusalem and Jesus even points some of them out, but as a society there was a problem. People had gotten so used to the Temple in all of its external glory and grandeur that they were beginning to lose sight of what it signified: God’s presence in their midst. What happens when we lose sight of God’s presence? What happens when God’s existence is no longer a reality to us? Well, in short order we stop recognizing the ways of God. Right and wrong. Moral and Immoral. If you think Christian cultures have a long history of doing bad things, take a good look at some of the horrors that atheistic cultures or pagan cultures have wrought on the world. We Christians, we may sin and do bad things, but our God calls us out on it. Our own tradition calls us to repentance. We still make mistakes, but at least we recognize that they are, in fact, mistakes. But what happens when we stop recognizing that? What happens when all things become relative or subjective and we lose the ability to recognize truth and goodness and God?
Our enemies will crush us. That is Jesus’s harrowing prediction. Jerusalem will be destroyed because it has lost sight of what has always saved it: God’s presence. The Temple and Jerusalem are so precious to Jesus, because they are a symbol of God’s relationship to his people. The Temple was a reminder that although God is omnipotent and the creator of the universe, that nonetheless he desires to live in relationship with us humans. It is an amazing, wild assertion if you think about it; the idea that the vast, boundless cosmos, cares about any one individual human being, much less all of them. That is a wild, crazy assertion. But here is this building that says God wants to live with people. And when you really think about what a wild claim that is, then it makes sense that if people believed that, that they would be treating the temple with the utmost care and respect. It would be the focal point of their lives. A place where they have communion, relationship with God. But here is what happens when you hold something holy in your hands for too long: you are very liable to forget and lose sight of just how holy it is. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he found in the holiest place on earth, a lot of people treating the temple more or less as a place of business. A market; a place of transactions. And not just everyday transactions, but even semi-divine transactions: I will do this thing for the God, if the God will do this thing for me. I will give this, sacrifice this, say this prayer, if this God will give me some material benefit that I desire. Things like growth, holiness, conversion, transformation, peace, communion, the simple presence of God in your midst…those things don’t matter when God becomes (when people believe in him at all) some kind of vending machine.
This is what Jesus finds when he rides into Jerusalem. Not with everyone certainly, but with a lot of people. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The prophet Jeremiah had witnessed the same thing and Jesus uses Jeremiah’s words: “my house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” His words struck a nerve. Jesus has been saying challenging and difficult things throughout his ministry, but now as he comes to the end of it, both publicly and privately, Jesus says words that come to the heart of the matter: we do not recognize God’s presence when it is right in front of us. We fail to appreciate God’s saving power. God’s life, which is shared with his people, becomes something we turn to, not for daily strength and holiness, but something we turn to when everything else has failed. Like Samuel Johnson’s description of patriotism, it becomes the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Our Lord, who promised paradise to the thief on the cross next to him, no doubt saves scoundrels too. But if we believe that the Jesus who offered such compassion and such hope to a man who was so unworthy of it, if we believe that that Jesus is encountered here in some way, whether it is in moments of silent prayer and reflection, in studying and hearing his words in the scriptures, in the grace that is given to us in the sacraments, most especially the sacrament of his body and blood, his real presence in the bread and the wine, if we believe that Jesus is present here, then shouldn’t that be reflected in our lives? In our priorities?
Have we become so used to the idea of God dwelling among us, that we fail to see, fail to recognize, what a revolutionary belief that really is? I hope we don’t. We have come to the holiest week in the year for Christians. Every year we proclaim in spectacular ways a truth that changes everything. The God of all creation, the God of the universe, comes to meet you. Your salvation, your hope, your life is coming to meet you. You personally. This God is coming to meet you in sacred spaces like temples and churches, this God is coming to meet you in sacred texts and sacred rituals. This God is coming to meet you in bread and wine. This God is coming to meet you in the cross, not only in his cross and suffering, but in your cross and suffering to. This God is coming to meet you in moments of triumph and in moments of defeat; in moments of new life and in moments of death. Most of all this God is coming to meet you in a resurrected body that is going to turn everything you know or that you think you know about life and death upside down. The God of scripture, which is the God of Jesus Christ, this is a God which we encounter. This is a God who comes to meet us. Even though we ignore him. Ignore his house. Ignore his commandments. He still comes to meet us. We will misunderstand him. We will say that he said things he didn’t say. We will crucify him and kill him. And still he comes to meet us again. What a remarkable thing; we should never take it for granted. The Lord still comes to meet us, even when we aren’t looking for him or don’t recognize him. The Lord comes to meet us, even when he is hidden from our eyes.