Texts: Zechariah 9:9, Matthew 11:1-11
If passers-by were to peek in and listen to our worship expressions this morning, they might ask: “What’s all the shouting for?”
Worship on Palm Sunday brings us to the concluding days of Lent and to the dawning of another Holy Week, leading to Easter. After 5 Sundays in Lent with their contemplative themes and solemn, quiet feel, it’s as if today we were ready to burst with shouts of “Hosanna!” (not an Easter “Alleluia” quite yet) but “Hosanna!” (which means “Save us!”) We are ready for Easter! Bring it on! Holding their breath during Lent, the extroverts among us are exhaling a bit as they get to shout: “Blessed is the One who comes!”
After all, the world around us is already exploding with Easter sights and sounds. Song birds are returning, other animals and wildlife are being born, the azaleas and flowers have bloomed and the pine trees have already dressed the earth in its beautiful yellow-green clothing of pollen. The sounds of sneezes tell us spring has sprung! Nature didn’t consult the lectionary and is already shouting: Easter! The time of new life! As a child I remember one Easter with snow on the ground – with its resulting and disappointing indoor Easter egg hunt, so Nature’s early Easter this year isn’t so bad.
Today with Nature’s beauty, its palm branches in our hands, we are shouting as we re-enact a significant moment in the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels.
And the entire Christian Year, based on these gospel stories, is full of shouts. Through its annual cycle of seasons we re-live the life of Christ and our life of faith – and as we do, we find that the Christian Year is punctuated with shouts:
(Since a sermon is best when congregations are engaged, let’s see if some of you can offer the appropriate shout that corresponds with various seasons of the Christian Year.) [Worshipers are invited to respond…]
In Advent we hear John the Baptist shouting: Prepare the way!
The birth of Jesus is announced with the angels shouting: “Glory to God in the Highest!”
The Season of Epiphany includes the Baptism of Jesus and the Transfiguration of Jesus, both of which include God’s voice shouting:
“This is my beloved Son!
As we have done today, Lent culminates with Palm Sunday as the people shout: “Hosanna!”
Later there would be shouts of “Crucify!”
In response, Jesus shouts to God: “Why have you forsaken me!?
And next Easter Sunday, we will join with the women who shout:
“He is not here! He is Risen!”
These shouts encapsulate the entirety of the life of Christ as expressed in the gospels. Perhaps those who wrote and compiled the gospels used these shouts to “highlight” the text – much like we might type print in a bold font, or use a bright yellow highlighter to emphasize something important. Along with these “shouts,” we know that the gospels – especially Mark, Matthew and Luke – use all sorts of literary devices to get their point across.
Matthew uses mountains. When you come upon a mountain in Matthew, you know that something important is about to take place. Mark uses “secrets.” In the gospel of Mark, whenever Jesus does something miraculous or is identified by someone, he tells them to go and not to tell anyone who he is or what had occurred (this doesn’t fare well for door-to-door evangelism). As a youth in a church who encouraged this form of spreading the Good News, I remember thinking it strange when I read Mark and found Jesus telling persons to keep everything quiet! I didn’t realize at the time that it was a literary device – a beautiful way of writing that expresses a message in a powerful way. For all of this secrecy in Mark builds and builds and builds until the book culminates at the cross of Jesus where a Roman Centurion finally says aloud: “Surely, this was the Son of God!” – another shout – like the surprise ending of a great movie where every unknown is finally revealed.
It’s meaningful to study the gospels in this way – to find the literary use of shouts, and mountains and secrets, and to realize how the gospels were written and compiled. For then we begin to see them for what they are – not a literal history of Jesus’ life – but as creative proclamations of faith which can bring about a deep experience of worship.
Here’s a bit of the background as to how the gospels came to be:
After what we call Easter, when Jesus was no longer with the community who followed him, his friends continued their tradition of worship in the Jewish synagogue. The Torah would be read, the prophetic writings were chanted, the psalms were sung, then individuals would speak their ideas as to the meaning of the scriptures…and the followers of Jesus inserted their experiences, their remembrances; and a body of stories were developed and eventually written down. Since these stories about Jesus were shaped by the annual cycle of worship and liturgy in the synagogue, they would be easily formed into our own Christian calendar with days like Palm Sunday.
These early Jewish followers of Christ took their traditional and sacred stories – their Moses stories, their stories of deliverance, their prophecies, their accounts of other “messiahs,” their wisdom writings, and re-told them by inserting their experience with Jesus into them!
For example: did you hear the Hebrew Scripture today? — of the daughter of Zion rejoicing as the King came riding in on a colt? This passage from Zechariah is the basis for Mark’s story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem. There are countless other examples of how Jesus was inserted into the sacred stories of the Hebrew people — including Matthew’s familiar Christmas story with its wise kings and camels and gifts, which comes directly from the book of Isaiah.
What does it mean when we realize that the gospels are not written as actual history but as expressions of faith? I think it means that through them we are celebrating something greater. As we live with these gospels through our Christian Year and represent the life of Jesus from Christmas to Easter, we are not dramatizing a literal history of his life, but we are exclaiming the great Love his life apparently expressed — a Love so great that it influenced his remembrance to be inserted in the most ancient and sacred of stories — a Love that would begin a movement – a church — of story-tellers, musicians, dancers, creative artists of all kinds, of worshipers that would seek in many ways to express their experience of Love to the world – to shout it out loud!
On this Palm Sunday when we dramatize Jesus’ triumphal entry, I am reminded of a chant I taught you a couple of years ago. It is drawn from these ancient but altered stories we find in the gospels: the stories of Kingship. Except in the gospels, the King so desired is born in humble circumstances, rides on a lowly donkey and describes himself as poor and hungry. These stories have shaped the way we feel about Jesus, our faith and the church. They teach us to look for God’s love in unexpected places and through all people. As we consider our experience with Christ, echo the phrases of the chant with me:
Different kind of King: born in a manger, riding on a donkey, friend to the poor.
(Copyright 2010 Larry E. Schultz.)
Along with the synagogue experience, I’m sure the stories of Jesus were told around the table as the early believers continued the Jewish tradition of feasting together. It is noted in scriptures that the early community of believers combined their food and shared all that they had. In this way they were responding to Jesus who is recorded to have said that he was hungry and poor, and that he was in all persons who were suffering. We have the unique opportunity to share a communion meal on this Palm Sunday. As we do, perhaps this image of Jesus as poor and hungry – a “different kind of King” – is fitting as we look ahead from this Palm Sunday to the Good Friday to come.