[I will be posting my Holy Week sermons over the next day or two. Here is the first one.]
(A sermon based on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm Sunday 2013)
That first Holy Week occurred almost 2000 years ago. Yet here we are, as we are year after year after year, recalling it, celebrating it, and standing in awe of it. It’s one thing, of course, to have an historical observance, to mark an event as having happened, and to think nothing else of it. But we don’t do that with truly significant events. Take American Independence Day, for example. Yes, we remember and celebrate that initial throwing off of the colonial yoke by our forebears, but that is not all that we do. We also celebrate the continuing working out of what our independence means. Independence Day matters mainly because of its continuing influence. Along that same line I pose the question this week, “When does Holy Week linger in our lives?” When does it continue to have the influence that it was meant to have? Today we observe that Holy Week lingers in our lives when we praise.
When we praise the Lord, Let us praise him because of what he has done. Praise is our response to what the Lord has done. Luke tells us that “as (Jesus) was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully…” (v. 37ab). On the one hand, the kind of welcome that Jesus was receiving from his disciples was not unusual. Many pilgrims came to Jerusalem for Passover and they would have sung the pilgrim psalms as they did here. Moreover, disciples would naturally hail the arrival of their rabbi; Jesus was likely not the only one praised on that day. On the other hand, it is significant that Jesus’ disciples “praised God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (v. 37c). They had seen him perform miracles, they had seen him heal people, they had seen him raise people from the dead, and they had seen him change many lives. They had seen an awful lot for which to praise him.
So too should we praise him for what he has done. We live on the other side of Easter and so we know the whole story. We know that Jesus is to be praised for showing us who God is, for showing us what it is to be fully obedient to the Father, for providing a way for us of direct access to God, for paying the penalty for our sins, and for making a way for us to have eternal life. Yet when you get right down to it, praise becomes a very personal thing. We praise God for all that Jesus has done for us. These were disciples praising Jesus; they had seen, they had heard, they had felt what he had done. We praise him because of what we have seen, heard, and felt.
Being disciples, though, let us praise the Lord from the perspective of real disciples. By “real disciples” I mean disciples who respond to God’s revelation in Jesus with simple faith and trusting obedience rather than being disciples who settle for a too limited perspective. While we can’t read the minds of the disciples who were praising Jesus as he approached Jerusalem, the Gospels make it clear that their understanding of Jesus’ kingship was incomplete until after the resurrection. So when they made the one little change in a line from the psalm they sang, changing “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” they were at the same time saying more than they should have and less than they should have. They were saying more than they should have in that they were probably praising him as the kind of king they wanted; namely, one who would fully establish the kingdom of God right away and rule in power from then on. They were saying less than they should have in that Jesus’ kingship was of a different character than they expected.
We praise the Lord well when we praise him for who he is really is and not who we want him to be. Yes, Jesus was approaching Jerusalem as the king, just like the disciples proclaimed. But he was not coming as a king who would fight his way to victory. He was not coming as a king who would immediately establish his kingdom by force and rule in ways that could be missed by no one. No, was going to establish a kingdom that would be planted like a small seed and that would grow bit by bit, day by day, life by life, until it reaches it fruition. Perhaps more important than anything else is the fact that he came as a king of peace. “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” the disciples proclaimed. It’s interesting that when Jesus was born the angels praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among people” (Luke 2:14, following NRSV alternative reading). The angels spoke of glory to God in heaven and so did the disciples. But the disciples, now saying more than they knew but getting it right, spoke of glory to God in heaven and peace in heaven. What we are to understand, I believe, is that ultimate peace between God and people has been assured in heaven by what Jesus has done. But the working out of that peace on earth would take a long time. It is still taking a long time.
Jesus came as the Prince of Peace, not as the King of War. He came riding on an animal that symbolized both sacredness and peace. How interested are we in peace? Have we entered the peace with God that comes with salvation? Are we becoming active peacemakers in our personal relationships? Are we praying for our enemies and for those who despitefully use us? Are we asking for the turning of our hearts and the hearts of others so that we can enter into real relationships of peace?
We praise him well when we praise him with our lives. The biblical witness is consistent: to be valid, words of praise must be matched by lives of praise. A life of praise is a life lived in service to God. This truth is underscored by Luke’s placing of the parable of the pounds right before the triumphal entry [The approach I am taking to the parable is that put forth by, among others, Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), pp. 220-223 and Stephen I. Wright, “Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary, the Third Readings, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 440ff. For a contrary view, see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 292ff]. In the parable Jesus told of a nobleman who went to a distant land to take royal power unto himself. When he left he gave some of his slaves some money with which to trade. He told them, “Do business with these until I come back” (19:13b). When he came back one had doubled his money, another had made half again as much, and one had done nothing but hide it away. Those who did well were rewarded by being given more responsibility while the one who had done nothing—who had not even tried (it would have been better even to take the safe way out and just put it in the bank, the king said)—had what he had been given taken away. Now, this parable is much too nuanced and detailed to go into here. I just want to point out that it speaks to the way disciples are called to live our lives in the interim period between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming. He’s given us gifts with which to work to help bring about peace between people and God and people and people. That’s our calling. That’s our joy.
Holy Week lingers in our lives, then, when we praise. Let us praise God for what Jesus has done in our lives and in the lives of so many others. Let us praise God as real disciples, praising him for who Jesus really is and praising him with our lives. Thus will Holy Week linger.