Sunday, March 20, 2005

Sermon: Palm Sunday (Palmarum)

20 March 2005 at Faith Lutheran Church, Harahan, LA

Text: Matthew 21:1-9 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus, our King. Amen.

We Americans, living in a republic, are not used to dealing with kings. In a monarchy, when the king or queen dies, it is a monumental event for two reasons: first of all, because a death has occurred – the body is carried in a procession, lays in state, and is buried amid military pomp. And secondly, a new king or queen is enthroned, the government changes hands, and the country rallies around the new monarch. Maybe it’s a little bit like when a president dies and the vice president takes over. But in monarchies, the situation is more intense, more earth-shattering.

On Palm Sunday we are hailing our King – King Jesus. We gather around his royal entourage bearing palms. We say “God Save the King! Hosanna!” The word Hosanna literally means “save.” But of course, in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ, “hosanna” not only applies to our wish that God would save and preserve our King, but more importantly, that our King is also our Savior. When we sing: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord,” we are singing both “God save the King” and “the King is God who saves us!”

When we wave our palms, dear Christians, we’re not simply engaging in a historical re-enactment. We’re not dressing up in gray uniforms and shooting blank rounds of black powder at people dressed in blue uniforms who are pretending to be Yankees soldiers. We’re not simply putting on a pageant, role-playing in a sort-of chancel drama so that the children have something fun to do. Rather, listen to our liturgy. Right before we sing the Sanctus, the “Holy Holy Holy” that includes the line from today’s Gospel: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest,” our liturgy tells us what we’re really doing. We’re joining in the ongoing heavenly royal greeting of the Lord of the universe. “With angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying…” Today, in this place, we are privileged to truly and physically join all the ranks of heaven, the angels, the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, the saints of every time and place. This includes saints the church has never, and will never officially recognize.

This includes those departed saints in all of our lives: my sainted mother, your sainted husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. This includes your sainted pastors who baptized you as a baby, and who taught you about Jesus when you were just a little boy or girl. This includes your sainted teachers, your neighbors, your bosses, your workers, your friends. This includes the countless anonymous saints who did the Lord’s work in your life – perhaps by praying for you when you never even knew it. They are all around the Lord’s throne, singing his praises unto eternity. They are the “host arrayed in white” in the beautiful funeral hymn: “They stand with palms and sing their psalms, before the throne of light. They now serve God both day and night, they sing their songs in endless light. Their anthems ring when they all sing with angels shining bright.”

These are not mere pious words from a sentimental Norwegian hymn. These aren’t simply the words we say in the liturgy. This is reality. For immediately after our gospel text, St. Matthew tells of those who are disgruntled at Jesus’s royal reception. They tell Jesus: “Can’t you control your followers? Shut them up!” This is one of the parts of the play Jesus Christ Superstar that is done well. Caiaphas, the grumpy high priest who hatches the scheme to murder Jesus, sings: “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot. This common crowd is much too loud.” To which Jesus replies: “If every tongue were still the noise would still continue – the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing!” This is not a bad paraphrase of the text. For all the universe hails her King, and if a petty tyrant along the way is able to silence one saint, there will be more to take his place. And even more so, that saint will not be silent in eternity. Evil may well snuff out the life of Terri Schiavo – the mentally-disabled Christian woman in Florida who is being starved to death by a court order. But Mrs. Schiavo’s tongue is only temporarily stilled – no matter what happens in court and in congress. Her voice will blend with our voices in praise – and no-one can stop it. Evil may even see to it that she is executed unjustly – suffering thirst and agony just like her Lord Jesus – but Satan will no more succeed in keeping her in the tomb than he did with our Lord.

And we also learn later on in the text that among those chanting “hail the King” were children. This is why we sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” – mentioning the children who sing “Hosanna!” along with the angels, the saints, the rocks and stones, and all of us. For reason tells us that to be one of Jesus’s subjects, to be part of God’s kingdom, one must have a certain level of intelligence, the ability to “make a decision” for Jesus, or “accept him” in an intellectual way. Or, worse yet, reason tells us we must achieve a certain level of holiness, or be perfect, or to have “achieved victory” over sin in our lives. Satan loves to tell all of these lies to us – for it fills us with doubt of our worthiness to sing “Hosanna! Blessed is He!” It fills us with doubt about whether or not the blood of King Jesus avails for us. And when people objected to the children singing praise to King Jesus, Jesus rebukes them with a quote from Scripture: “Have you never read: ‘out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise’?”

Do not be deceived, dear brothers and sisters. When we raise our palms, we are not only hailing our King, we’re joining the entire church of all time, we’re joining together with young and old: even the unborn and those aged saints at death’s door. We join with the disabled, the despised, the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned. We join with those who bear the cross and who have born the cross, forgiven sinners all. We join with baptized children, and even with all creation in singing “Long Live the King. Hosanna!”

But the other part of the saying is: “The King is dead.” For in worldly monarchies, a king must die for a new king to hear the wishes for a long life. But our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world. It works a little differently. For when we say “the King is dead, long live the King,” we mean that the very King who dies is the King who reigns forever!” For in our Gospel lesson, Jesus is not merely on a joyride to Bethphage, wanting to go on a donkey ride to the Mount of Olives. Rather, he is approaching Jerusalem for one reason – to die. And even in his dying days, our Lord calls the shots. He arranges for his own transportation – which was prophesied in Zechariah. He is still commanding his disciples – just as would any king. And when his entourage entered the Royal City, the followers of Jesus hailed him as King – spreading garments and branches along the Royal Highway, and hailing the Son of David with the royal greetings we continue to sing today almost two millennia later.

But again, this King, though a mighty conqueror, does not enter Jerusalem at the head of a mighty military column. No, he rides a donkey. Satan must have thought this a pathetic and silly sight. But it was to get even sillier and more pathetic – a King wearing robes in mockery, crowned with thorns, greeted with blows and spit in the face. A King who is flogged, and enthroned on a cruel cross – with a royal proclamation above his head. And what a great moment of victory for the devil when he could say “The King is dead!” But this was not to be Satan’s victory, but Jesus’s victory. For in dying, he conquered death. On the cross, he crushed the serpent’s head. And his resurrection was the vindication of that victory – that assures resurrection to all the saints who today sing imperfectly “Hosanna! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!” For even those whose mouths have been stilled by disease or age, those whose voices are inhibited by their youth, and even those whose tongues are momentarily silent by death itself – continue to sing with rocks and stones, with saints and angels, just as we sing here.

Dear brothers and sisters – drink it in! Every Sunday we have the opportunity to blend our sorry, imperfect voices in a swelling praise with all of our Lord’s saints. Every Sunday as we sing the Sanctus, we join the angels in the victory song over sin, Satan, and the grave! As we prepare to receive the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord, we can indeed approach our Lord’s throne – no longer a bloody cross, but now a bloody altar, which contains the very flesh and blood of the one sacrifice that pleads the cause of us “poor miserable sinners” for all eternity! Drink it in! Rejoice! Dear saints, no matter that you are oppressed, belittled, or mocked. No matter that sin still assails you, that Satan still stalks you. No matter that doubts plague you, and evil wounds you. Remember the saints in the hymn: “On earth their work was not thought wise, but see them now in heaven’s eyes. Before God’s throne of precious stone they shout their vict’ry cries.” And we shout those victory cries with them today!

But it gets even better. For we not only sing with the saints, we eat with them. For our Lord, who eats with sinners, still does. He is not only the host of the feast, but he is the host that we eat. He not only invites us to sit at his table, he invites us to partake of himself. The very same physical Jesus who is adored by the saints and angels unto eternity, is miraculously present with us, at this altar, where we again participate in the knock-out blow over death and the devil. We kneel before our King, receive him as his subjects (while he receives us as royal brothers and sisters), and we rise to go back into the world to continue the fight. As we leave today, it is our Lord himself who pronounces his blessing upon us. He equips us to fight the good fight, to struggle against evil – being, like the saints of old, forgiven sinners.

And as we gear up this last, most holy week in anticipation of our Lord’s resurrection, don’t be afraid to display your palm in your home as a symbol of victory over evil! Not your victory, but our Lord’s victory. It is an affront to the devil, for this palm symbolizes the baptismal water that cleansed you, and the Blood of our Lord that washes our robes white as snow. It is a token that reminds you of who you are, who your King is, what he has done, does, and will do for you. It is a symbol of the very real throne-room of God, into which we are privileged to peek every Sunday.

The King is dead – long live the King! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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