This sermon focuses on two gospel texts. The Palm Processional reading, Matthew 21:1-11, can be found here. The Gospel of the Passion, Matthew 27:11-54, can be found here.
The sun will rise tomorrow—even if it’s cloudy, there is a lighter/darker split to the day. Air will go into our lungs, and then out again—adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide. Triangles will have three sides. Water will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
We have certain expectations of our world. Our expectations are generally based on past experience informing our present reality. For the most part, our expectations of the non-human world are pretty common and relatively similar. Triangles have three sides, the sun rises and sets as the earth spins on its axis.
Our expectations for ourselves become a little more complicated. They resemble something a little more like potential or ambition rather than fact, and they tend to differ a bit for each individual. Perhaps your expectations for yourself are general ones like filing your taxes each year (like last Friday) or completing your homework assignments or attending church, or perhaps they’re more specific like buying a car next year or reading a book this week or signing up to be a volunteer next weekend. Self-expectations tend to be based on ability and self-awareness.
Then there are those expectations for others—that gets really complicated because these can be based on everything from your perception of that person’s identity and ability to their relationship to you and the world. Expecting a friend to call or a political leader to pass or reject a bill, you get the idea. Expectations are everywhere.
And there are expectations at church this week—Holy Week. Today, we begin what is roughly 7.5 hours’ worth of a worship service this week—or 14 hours depending on how many of the services you attend more than once. There is no communion today because we continue with that part of worship on Thursday. We clearly have expectations that this week will be different from other weeks at church, and today—Palm Sunday—we expect certain things as well—that Palms will be here when we arrive, that we will process with them and that we will hear the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem.
In our story, we discover that the crowds that gathered around Jesus as he entered had their own expectations, too. Matthew’s audience would have been very familiar with what Jesus riding on a donkey and colt into the town meant.
Hearing or seeing this, they would have been able to recall their Scriptures. “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth…For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.” That’s from the 9th chapter of Zechariah, right after the part that says “your king comes to you…humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Seeing Jesus riding on these animals, the expectation of what is to come—cutting off the chariot from Ephraim and rising against the empire as a sword—would have naturally followed for this crowd.
Today, we processed with our own Palms as we recalled that story. When I was younger, I loved this part of the church year—waving around the palm, so excited to welcome Jesus. I hope there was some of that excitement and expectation in you this morning as we walked in. Palm Sunday—the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We processed around the church as the crowds did around Jesus—through the church and into the sanctuary. And where do we end up after that ceremony of celebration? Looking ahead and facing the cross.
In just a few days, the tide of the people’s temperament will turn. They will yell, “Crucify him!” and beg for the release of Barabbas over Jesus the Christ. We may debate loudly over who killed Jesus and deserves that judgment, but are we very different from these crowds? I don’t really think so. Take a look at their situation—they change their minds quickly about a public figure based on the influence of their leaders. You can think of tabloids and paparazzi, or, even more seriously, government officials. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t know which politicians voted which way on what bills unless I had that information spoon-fed to me by CNN or MSNBC, and I make choices based on what they say.
Then there are the characters of Barabbas and Christ. One is a known criminal to Rome, which means he may have been physically fighting or wielding the sword as it were against the empire—think Zechariah and expectations again. The other is a quiet person that shows no prospect of overthrowing the oppressive rulers, but will simply die for their sake. How often do we choose those who loudly proclaim to fight on our behalf or wield the power of the sword over those who quietly work for peace or take a hit so that our mistakes don’t affect us? It’s an ongoing human condition based on our expectations.
What are our expectations? The crowds expected Christ to overthrow the government and free them from their oppressive rulers. Outwardly, Christ fails to fulfill the expectations of the people. Yet he goes outside and beyond expectations, even if it can’t be seen at the time, and opens to us a different way of being in and thinking about the world which we are invited to share. Christ doesn’t go to war with the empire at the time to free the Israelite nation—he goes to the cross and wages war with sin and death to free all the nations of the world.
If we are called to follow this example, what are our expectations of ourselves? I’m not talking about taking the blame for something you didn’t do, or passively suffering through something alone, but I am talking about considering whether we settle for just getting by, or whether we expect more from ourselves.
How do we follow through on living in the different realm Jesus has showed us is possible?
How do we offer our prayers, our praise, and our lives in response to all we know we have been given?
Facing the cross, reminded of what is ahead, we can ask these questions. Because we have been freed from the power of sin and death, we can consider how we will respond to this gift of grace through our lives. We may fail, and we may succeed. Jesus has made it possible to try. Amen.