Nine years ago, Palm Sunday fell on April 1. On that Sunday, our appointed reading was the same reading we heard in church this morning.
Palm Sunday falling on April Fools’ Day, seemed to provide an obvious opening for the preacher. So, nine years ago, I began my Palm Sunday sermon saying,
Today is April Fool’s Day or All Fools’ Day. According to Wikepiedia April Fool’s Day “is a notable day celebrated in many countries…The day is marked by the commission of hoaxes and other practical jokes of varying sophistication on friends and neighbors, or sending them on fools’ errands, the aim of which is to embarrass the gullible. In some countries, April Fools’ jokes are only made before midday. It is also widely celebrated on the Internet.”
The origins of this custom are not really known.
My April Fools’ Day Palm Sunday sermon went on:
April Fool’s Day was not a custom in Jesus’ day. However, Jesus’ followers could be forgiven for having felt as though on this day over 2,000 years ago, they were the victims of a cruel hoax. The day started out with such promise, such a sense of expectation. But by the end of the week, the journey Jesus made into Jerusalem had come to a destination quite different than his followers had anticipated.
This is the beginning of Holy Week. The journey of Holy Week begins with a parade.
Everybody wants to join the happy procession on Palm Sunday. Jesus is coming. He is the long awaited messiah, the one who Luke the Gospel writer says has done “deeds of power.” (Luke 19:37) So the crowds gather and shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in haven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)
It is such a moving scene. Finally, God is showing up and God is going to set the Hebrew people free, fulfilling the prophecies so long foretold. The aspirations and longings of God’s people are at last going to be realized. Of course everyone wants to join the celebration.
This is what we all want. We all want God to do great “deeds of power.” We want God to organize life to operate smoothly. We want the sun to shine all the time. We want our bank accounts to be full. We want healthy bodies that are perhaps twenty pounds lighter than they are right now. We want everyone to get along and agree with us. We want to get good marks in school, be praised at work and never have to hit any bumps in the road.
But, what happens when our expectations are not fulfilled? What happens when the crowds cry “Crucify him”? How do we respond when we feel let down and betrayed? What do we do when our bodies start to deteriorate, when there doesn’t seem to be enough money in the bank, and everybody seems to have turned against us? How do we respond when we are wronged by another and find ourselves the victims of injustice? What do we do when things just do not turn out the way we had hoped they might?
These are the questions at the heart of the spiritual life. None of us wants to hear it, but spiritual life grows most deeply in the soil of adversity. When we are struggling we have the opportunity to develop the muscles of faith. It is the uncertain parts of our journey that provide the most fruitful opportunities to find the inner stability that is the mark of God’s presence.
Holy Week is a roller coaster ride, starting with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, winding its way through dark days of betrayal and desertion and then being transported into the glorious celebration of the resurrection on Easter morning. This is not a trip where you get to choose the parts you like and skip the parts you are not so keen about. We grow if we are grow only if we are willing to take the whole trip. There are no short cuts. We cannot do an end run around any part of the story.
Even at the moment of glorious celebration on Palm Sunday, in Luke’s account, Jesus looks ahead with cold realism to the reality that awaits him. Luke says, as Jesus “came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!’” (Luke 19:41, 42) The people of Jerusalem are going to fail to see the extraordinary opportunity that lies before them. They are going to miss “the things that make for peace” because they refuse to surrender their expectations. They are unwilling to let go of their demands about how life ought to unfold.
We think peace will come when we finally get to the end of our long to-do list. We think peace will come when we get the details of our lives organized in such a way that everything runs smoothly and we no longer face any struggles. We think peace will come when we get our way. We think that, when the world conforms to our agenda, then we will be able to relax.
The crowds who welcomed Jesus had an agenda. They believed they knew how the story was supposed to go. They believed the messiah was coming to declare their victory. He was supposed to bring healing to the land, make everything operate smoothly, remove all the potholes from the road and give them the lives of ease and pleasure they believed they deserved. When it became clear Jesus had no intention of fulfilling their vision of, the crowd’s adulation turned quickly to violence.
They want life to turn out their way and they are not willing to surrender their vision.
But the journey of the spiritual life does not lie along the path of me getting my way. The journey Jesus takes into Jerusalem, winds along a road I do not want to take. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Jesus did not look forward to the cross with joy and anticipation. He understood the horror of the ordeal that awaited him on Good Friday. And, like any of us faced with a reality not of our choosing, Jesus wanted to find another way. But, he also understood that the way of life lay along the path of surrender and so Jesus prayed at the same time, “yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
The journey of Holy Week confronts us with the reality that resurrection comes through letting go. There is no way to Easter that does not pass through Good Friday. I discover true life, when I don’t get my way, when life is not turning out as I wish it would. I find life when I descend from the throne and signify my descent by joining the crowd singing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38) no matter what he brings, no matter how frustrated or sick, or tired I may be with my life. Jesus came to be “the king” in God’s way, not my way. I do not get to decide what the kingship of Jesus is supposed to look like.
The journey Jesus is on goes into Jerusalem. And the journey into Jerusalem ends only at the cross. The cross puts an end to all my great plans, all my visions for how life ought to turn out. The cross requires that I let go of everything, surrender my rights, my privileges, my illusion of control. The challenge of following Jesus is utterly uncompromising. The way of resurrection is the way of death. I am challenged to die to all my attachments, to all my schemes, plans, and demands.
I accept the challenge of the cross in the confidence that death is not an end. Death is an open door. As I follow Jesus through the journey of Holy Week, I learn that there is nothing to fear. By his death and resurrection, Jesus has set me free. He has made it possible to live in the freedom the Spirit, to find the meaning and fullness of life within my innermost being, rather than in any of the circumstances of my life. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free. This is the glorious liberty of cross and resurrection. This is the calling of our lives to go forth into all the world living in the love and the power of God’s Spirit.
The reason the people of Jerusalem missed “the things that make for peace” is that they were looking for those “things” in all the wrong places. They thought that “the things that make for peace” lay outside themselves. They thought they could get there by establishing their kingdom here on earth. But “the things that make for peace” are only found in Jesus’ kingdom. And Jesus kingdom dwells within the hearts of those who surrender to the power of love. It is known by those who are willing to die, to allow their hearts to be broken open and transformed.
This is the purpose of things not going the way I want them to go. Every time I experience pain, frustration, or unhappiness, I have the opportunity to allow my heart to be broken open. And, as my heart breaks open, I find within myself “the things that make for peace.” It is in the opened heart that “the things that make for peace” reside. There is within each of us, a place that knows, a place that is strong, a place that cannot be shaken. There is within each of us a place that can rest in God’s presence, no matter what hoaxes life may play on us. No matter what practical jokes we may fall prey to, it is possible to rest in Christ, to trust in the living presence of God’s Spirit who has conquered death and in whom a new and transforming life is born.