04/14/2019: The Palm Wavers

The Palm Wavers

Luke 19: 28-40
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
April 14, 2019

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, they shouted out. And according to Luke’s gospel the people spread their cloaks on the road as a kind of carpet for him. The gospel of John says that they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!
All of that sounds so…religious! And harmless! Certainly no reason for the authorities to get upset! Or was it?

I

What is not mentioned in any of the gospel accounts of Palm Sunday is this: many of those palm wavers had something other than religion on their minds as they waved those palms and spread their cloaks before Jesus riding into the city. The history they had in mind was about a famous Jewish family called the Maccabees, and it was a story seared into the memory in every Jewish child.

The Maccabees emerged at a time when a cruel and brutal Greek king named Antiochus Epiphanes ruled the land. (His name means “God Manifest,” but his enemies nicknamed him “Antiochus Epimanes,” which means “Antiochus the Mad.”) This king had forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death, and he had set up in the Jewish temple an altar to Zeus and offered pigs as a sacrifice. You can imagine what that did to the religious sensibilities of faithful Jewish people! The book of Daniel in our Bible refers to it as the abomination that makes desolate.

Antiochus Epiphanes was determined to force the Jewish people to embrace Greek religion. Some of you have Bibles that include what we call The Apocrypha, a series of books written before the New Testament. In one of those books, called II Maccabees, you can read a first-hand description of what Antiochus Epiphanes did to the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Here is a sample of what they endured: Raging like a wild animal….He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.

This was an outrage, and a priest named Mattathias rounded up his five sons and all the weapons he could find. A guerilla campaign was launched against the soldiers of Antiochus. One of the sons of Mattathias was named Judas Maccabeus, nicknamed “the hammer,” and he led the revolt that eventually won Jerusalem and the temple back for the Jews. The temple was cleansed and rededicated. The Hebrew word “Hanukkah” comes from a verb meaning “to dedicate.”

Every Jewish child knew that story by heart! It was embedded in the mind of every single Jewish patriot who cut palm branches and waved them as they went out to meet Jesus, because they hoped that this Jesus would be another Judas Maccabeus. What were those palm wavers saying? They were saying, “You look like just the man to be our Savior! Welcome, warrior king! Welcome, conquering hero! Hosanna! which means “Save now!”

II

So, the palm wavers had something else on their minds! With all the palm waving and shouting, Pilate and his Roman soldiers had good reason to be nervous. But in all the excitement of that entry into Jerusalem, everyone seemed to miss one important symbol. Jesus deliberately chose a particularly unusual mode of transportation for his entry into Jerusalem. His plan was to ride into Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a humble donkey.

The palm wavers were right about one thing: it was a triumphal entry. But it was a triumph they did not fully understand. Their only understanding of triumph was the kind of triumph won by military victory. But Jesus came into Jerusalem, not to conquer Rome, but to conquer a greater enemy. Military victories would bring empire after empire. Rome would fall. Other political empires would take its place. The Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the British Empire, the Third Reich, the American Empire, and on and on the empires rule—some good and wise, others cruel and brutal. But that is not the kind of empire Jesus chose to establish.

I have often thought that those who fold their palm frond into a cross on Palm Sunday have it just right. The palm frond, once a sign of military victory, was made into a cross, and that cross has become a sign of a greater victory, won not by a sword, but by sacrificial love. That cross stands as the central symbol of every church.

A few years ago, while we were visiting our son in China, he took us to visit the island of Macao, which is across the bay from Hong Kong. Macao today is famous for its gambling casinos, but on top of a hill in the center of Macao is a church known as St. Paul’s. It was built in 1602, but in 1835 there was a terrible hurricane that hit Macao. It left the whole island in ruins. The church caught fire during the storm and burned to the ground except for the front façade. At the top of the façade was a large iron cross, blackened by the fire, but still standing above the destroyed island.

The British consulate was located in Hong Kong, and after the storm the British ambassador visited the island to assess the wreckage. He observed the disaster in which there was hardly a building left standing. It was a complete wreck. He also saw what was left of the Church of St. Paul’s—just the front, the façade, with the giant iron cross on top, overlooking the wreckage of the city. He returned to Hong Kong, and thinking of that charred cross overlooking the disastrous island, he wrote these words:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time.

III

God knows there are plenty of wrecks of time we contend with, both personally and nationally. But when we determine to follow the Way of Jesus, we are declaring that our ultimate hope lies not in nationalism or consumerism or militarism, but in the Way that leads through Gethsemane and Golgotha, and ultimately leads to an empty tomb that we will celebrate one week from today.

To be a palm waver on this Palm Sunday is to recognize that our ultimate loyalty, our greatest allegiance, is demonstrated by this One who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. Hosanna! they shouted…save now! And save he does, for when we faithfully follow him we can say with the old apostle:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, or rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.