Palm Sunday: Mixed messages

Whenever I think of Palm Sunday, I often wonder how I should really feel – because, in all of the Christian Holy Days, it’s the one that sends the most mixed messages. And as we follow Jesus’ story in Luke 19:28-48, my stomach should continue to feel unsettled at Jesus’ response to public praise.

At this point in the story, Jesus has achieved rockstar status. He’s built his media platform. He’s got millions of followers – real ones, not just instagram or twitter followers. He’s got groupies. He’s even got haters.

So we do our best to model this in our worship today. In most traditions, worshipers enter the sanctuary with palm fronds to raise during worship in the same manner as the millions who did so as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem.

We often sing a song with the word “Hosanna” to align ourselves with the crowd as Jesus would be riding on a colt. It aligns with the story – and we might hear (as I did this morning) about the rocks crying out about the glory of God.

I find all of this ironic. When we look deeper at the symbolism, we see that Jesus intended the mixed messages to mix up our souls, to give dissonance that would cause us to question.

First of all, Jesus is riding in on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Luke mentions this five times in the passage – so you’d think that the repetition would be significant, right? The people who heard “Hosanna” (meaning “save us now”) sung in their presence didn’t ride colts – they rode war horses, stallions.

This is like a modern day equivalent of Jesus riding into a cosmopolitan church on an old John Deere tractor wearing shit-kickers, bib-overalls, and a sporting a dip of chewing tobacco (and not ironically like some hipster – Jesus did come from a podunk village north of cosmopolitan Jerusalem)

Second, this is during Passover, when the city is PACKED with people. One historian says 2.7 million people descended from all over to visit – that’s like the entire city of Chicago descending on Jerusalem. And this city is occupied by Roman soldiers, who have already crucified an entire village of people at a time for threatening the power of the Roman Empire.

Third, the crowd of millions is chanting “SAVE US!” It wasn’t just because the Pharisees were jealous of Jesus that they shushed him – it’s because this was ripe for revolt. The Pharisees would later try to show Jesus was leading a revolt against Rome by asking him the famed question, “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” This is a power play through a political question – and a set up in a public sphere to expose Jesus as aligning with zealots to get him arrested.

Many like to focus on Jesus’ “triumphal entry” as the place where we enter into worship. And then, even then, it is poignant to look at Jesus’ response to this production unfolding around him. Remember, there are millions of people worshiping Jesus at this moment, singing Hosanna, and saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But he doesn’t receive their worship as genuine.

He weeps.


Because even by taking on an identity of a lowly servant, complete with shit-kickers and bib-overalls, Jesus intends to help the millions know the character of his revolution: humble, others-focused, self-sacrificial love.

He knows they don’t get it. He knows they view power differently than him.

The establishment is still anchored in looking at the ways of doing religion, and has thus anchored everyone else in responding in kind. It views power as platform, as followers, as likes, and tries to use public spheres to see who aligns with who in order to win allies to the cause.

Perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think they have.

Jesus then prophesies the future for Jerusalem – that in 70 AD, Roman Soldiers would destroy the temple under and kill 1.1 million Jews, and enslave 97,000, according to Josephus. He writes,

“The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded that of the slayers. The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.”

This is why Jesus wept. It’s why he says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes…because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

And get this – as a calculated response, motivated by righteous anger, Jesus turns over the tables and drives out those who intertwine consumerism with worship.

This is why I feel mixed messages at Palm Sunday. We repeat history every year we mix consumerism with worship when we sing songs to the glowing screen and smoke machine and stoke the social media platforms to drive click traffic.

Because when consumerism mixes with worship, we won’t know what will bring us peace.

In their powerful book, Renovation of the Church, Kent Carlson and Mike Leuken write of their own megachurch journey and when they had their epiphany on recognizing the time of God’s coming among them.

“Attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ…In order to help people follow Christ more fully, we would have to work against the very methods we were using to attract people to our church. As person after person shared at this retreat, we slowly began to realize that, to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus, consumerism was not a force to be harnessed but rather an antibiblical value system that had to be prophetically challenged.”

We’re often charged with the euphoria of Hosanna. American Evangelicalism has moved in the last 40 years to become fully intertwined with consumerism. But it’s sobering to remember that the screams of Hosanna prompted Jesus to see the future screams of death of thousands of thousands and weep.

On one hand, I’m left to wonder what would happen if Jesus were to show up in church on Sunday.  How would he respond to the mixed messages of our church today?

On the other hand, I can’t think of a better posture to enter Holy Week. Is my worship genuine? As I enter into Holy Week, will I find myself among the few faithful women who remain by Jesus’ side at the end?

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March 2015

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