Hosanna! Hosanna! The crowds cheered as Jesus rode in to Jerusalem screaming, “Hosanna!” on that first Palm Sunday.
Every year as we approach this last Sunday before Easter, pastors and church leaders go back and forth trying to decide, what will be the focus of this final Sunday of Lent? Will our focus be on the story of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, where the crowds cheered Hosanna, laying their cloaks before Jesus’ donkey as he made his way down the Mount of Olives and into the holy city … or, will our focus be on the story of the passion? Will our focus be on remembering what happened after the cries of Hosanna had subsided.
There was a time, or so I’m told, that the focus of this last Sunday was only on the great entrance of Palm Sunday. But, as our weekly schedules filled with other weeknight events, churches began focusing the story of the final Sunday of Lent on the Passion. What used to be reserved for Holy Thursday and Good Friday – the story of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion – became a necessity for the message on Palm – now Passion – Sunday, because we can’t celebrate Easter without the story of the Passion. There is necessity to go through Friday to get to Sunday, even if that Friday message has to come on Sunday, a week before.
As we are planning some alternative digital options for Holy Week, we will be hearing the story of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion on Thursday and Friday night this week. The information will be available on our website at wsumc.com, on the Facebook page, and it has already been sent out through the weekly email. Knowing that we are going to be hearing that story later this week, I wondered what it would be like to focus this Sunday morning on the Palm Sunday celebratory entrance. What would it mean to drive to all your houses and give you palm branches so that you could wave them around and scream “Hosanna!” as a … socially distanced crowd?
We decided it was best not to pass out any church-wide materials … besides, you may already have palms where you sit, if you can but look to the inside of your hands … you can wave your palms.
And yet, as celebratory of a day as Palm Sunday usually is, where I stand here in this historic Washington Street Church Pulpit, the silence of this room is deafening.
There are no waving palm branches in the pews where we usually are gathered at this time on a Sunday morning. There are no children leading us in procession waving branches as we sing, “All glory laud and honor.” We do have palms on display, but even the display had to be edited for live streaming purposes, so that they could be visible on the camera. … And now I feel like Zach Galifianakis, giving my sermon between the palm ferns.
There’s something tangibly different about this Palm Sunday – about remembering Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem – about the glory, laud, and honor of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem, where he was the only float.
The crying out in hopeful expectation of Jesus’ entrance feels a bit too firm on the nose. “I’m not sure we’re all that more faithful, all that much less fickle, than the crowds who played significant roles in both the Palm Sunday and Passion readings.”[i] If I can be honest, in this unexpected season of life, crying out the glory of Hosanna in hopes of Jesus’ final entrance seems almost hard to vocalize. What exactly are we crying out Hosanna for, anyway?
The crowds seemed to believe that Jesus was going to be a life-changing agent, who on God’s behalf liberated them from the oppression of the Romans. The streets on that Palm Sunday were filled with people who had long been oppressed; for them, Jesus was the hopeful expectation of righteousness that would bring them the equity they had been expecting for centuries of living in the Promised Land. The Promised Land was supposed to be the Israelites realization of the Garden of Eden – a land flowing with milk and honey. And yet, time, after time, after time, they found themselves at the oppressed end of regional fits for power.
What was Jesus, if not the new King of the Jews, the one who would liberate them from oppression, the savior who would give them the new life they had long desired, the Lord who would live into their expectation of the divine.
The sad reality is that God doesn’t always come to us in the ways we expect – the ways we want. The people of God desired for a warrior to come and lead a revolution. The people of God wanted someone to sit on a throne of gold and act as royalty amidst the community. … That desire and mindset is not just a 2,000 year old pipe dream. We still see faithful Christians today looking for redemption from those who claim wealth and prestige, and sit in gold adorned skyrise kingdoms.
How quickly the “Hosannas!” of Sunday turn to the “Crucifies!” of Friday. … How quickly do we go from having great expectations to feeling regret and anger. How quickly the preaching and teaching of Jesus about God’s kingdom gets re-written to promise us about our own kingdom.
This is not the Palm Sunday you were looking for.
This is not the Palm Sunday any one of us was expecting – not even 5 week ago when we ordered the palms that now sit arranged on the organ.
It is precisely this reason that I appreciate this text in Matthew 26 so much. It is precisely because this is not what I wanted that I appreciate Jesus’ prayer in the Garden.
After the Hosanna’s have faded, after the Last Supper in the upper room, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples. He tells the disciples to stay put as he goes off to pray. He invites Peter, James, and John to go a bit further with him.
Jesus has celebrated the dinner with the disciples. He has once more confirmed that things are about to be a bit different. He’s washed their feet. He’s called out the betrayer. He’s broken the bread and he’s shared the cup. Jesus seems to know what is coming. And yet, as he goes off to pray, he began to “be grieved and agitated.” Mark’s gospel uses even stronger verbs to describe Jesus’ feelings, saying that, “horror and dismay came over him.”
To confirm the author’s internal look at Jesus’ feelings, Jesus says externally to the disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”
The text tells us just how human Jesus was. … Jesus knew what was to come. He had told the disciples multiple times that his teaching, and preaching – his miracles and challenges – that these all led to one thing: his death. And yet, here at the precipice of such a world-changing event, Jesus is grieved, and hurting, and worried, and dismayed.
Jesus does not face this moment with calm or stoicism, “he experiences a sudden assault of fear and trembling, bordering on terror.”[ii] You think Jesus doesn’t have an idea of the season of life we’re in right now – experiencing fits of fear and trembling, bordering on terror?
In his deep human concern, Jesus turns to prayer. Listen to his words, as they confirm his distress. Jesus isn’t asking God to give him support, or to give him the strength to get through the coming day. Jesus is asking God to take this away. Verse 39, Jesus throws himself on the ground in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet, not my will, but your will be done.” … The cup is the cup of death. Jesus is asking God, if it is possible, take this from me. If there is any other way for us to live, let this be gone.
Jesus doesn’t love that this is the path for the salvation for humanity. Jesus would take any other way.
In the midst of his grief, Jesus has brought along some of his closest companions – Peter, James, and John – to offer support and be there with him and for him. He goes back to them, and he finds they’re sleeping. He says to Peter, “Could you not even stay awake for one hour? Stay her and pray that you don’t fall into the time of trial. The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is so weak.”
Before we chastise the disciples too much, it’s worth naming, there is without a doubt some exhaustion among the disciples. This story seems to be taking place late in the evening. They’ve already had dinner. They’ve already had their glass of wine. They’ve been on the move quite a bit in recent months. No doubt they are as physically exhausted as they are emotionally, having just sat through a meal where their rabbi and friend has once more said that he will be betrayed and killed.
Jesus doesn’t doubt that they want to stay awake. He says, “your spirit is willing” … I know you want to be here for me. “But the flesh is weak” … your body … your being … it’s physically exhausted.
Jesus seems to share in the exhaustion. In some ways, it seems that Jesus’ spirit is just as willing, but his flesh is just as weak. It’s as if the only way he has to overcome the sleep that has overtaken the disciples is for him to remain in prayer. So he goes back off to pray.
In verse 42, Jesus again asks of the Father to find another way, but seems to have come to mental acknowledgement that this is the only way. “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Though he is willing, it is not without some hesitation.
He finds his disciples sleeping again, but this time does not bother them. Instead, he goes off to pray some more before his betrayer comes with the authorities to arrest him.
When the words of Hosanna seem frail and weak, I find some comfort in this story. I find myself longing to be Peter, James, or John … perhaps longing isn’t the right word, I find myself playing the part of Peter, James, and John. Though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. This is all much more exhausting than the flesh was anticipating, or ready to handle. I find myself in that space of the garden, knowing that what is needed is prayer – is respite in God’s hands – and yet, like the disciples, I don’t know that I have the energy. Perhaps, like the disciples, if I can just sleep deep enough, or long enough, when I awake, this will all be over.
It is precisely because of this exhaustion that I am grateful for this story. “With unflinching honesty, the Gospel writer portrays the savior of the world in the most unheroic manner.”[iii] Jesus, himself, shares in our grief, anxiety, fear, and concern. Jesus is not immune to the very worry we all experience – whether in this season of life, in its unique and unexpected worry, or in any season of life, which always seems to have some form of pressing concern.
We’ve been looking this season of Lent at the model of faith that Jesus expresses, and identifying how, even when the faith of the disciples is lacking, the faith of Jesus is sufficient. From the stormy sea, to the feeding of the multitudes, every time the disciples fail to exemplify faithfulness to God, Jesus is there to show them what true faithfulness looks like. And his faithfulness is not just sufficient for himself; Jesus’ faithfulness is sufficient for them all. When Jesus shows faithfulness on the sea, they are all rescued from the stormy weather. When Jesus shows faithfulness among the multitudes, they are all fed.
The faithfulness of Jesus in the garden is just the next witness of how the faithfulness of the one is sufficient for the well-being of us all. Even when the exhaustion of the disciples led them to sleep, Jesus’ faithfulness led him to prayer – not an easy prayer, not a succumbing prayer, not a happy prayer – but a deep prayer of honest wrestling with God, that prayed, as Jesus taught us to pray, “not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus’ prayer in the garden, his willingness to do as God desired, his trust in God to see beyond his own well-being for the well-being of the creation, led him to a place of sacrifice that was not asked of you and me, that was not expected ofyou and me, that was not anticipated of you and me, but that was asked of Jesus for you and me. In our exhaustion, in our place of concern, in our weariness and wonder, Jesus’ faithfulness stands as a witness to God’s promise to find a way for you and I – for all of humanity and creation – to receive new life.
Our hosannas may fade, our shouts of glory may be put on pause, we may like the disciples find ourselves huddled in our own space, perhaps it’s because of an Governor’s executive order … but we are still here, isolated, a bit terrified, and most certainly grieving … and yet, Jesus is in prayer, declaring, “My father, thy will be done.” … “Abba, let it be as you have declared.” Even in our isolation, the faithfulness of Christ is sufficient for you and me. The willingness of Jesus to follow in the Father’s steps will bring us new life. God doesn’t always come as we ask, or expect, but God comes non-the-less. God continues to love us, and the work of God in Christ will redeem us, no matter the cost.
God is our rock and our fortress. “In you, oh Lord, I seek refuge … in your righteousness deliver me … for your name’s sake, lead me and guide me.” Let us rest, even in our weary state, in the promise and the glory that is the faithfulness of Christ, for it will be his faith that saves us all. Amen.