The Crowds of Palm Sunday

I don’t know about you but I don’t like being in a crowd.  I don’t much enjoy the crush of people in the airport.  I get anxious in the press of a crowd at a concert or a football game.  If you think about it, there is power in a crowd.  It has a force all its own.  And that force always, at least to me, feels unpredictable.

It certainly is in today’s Gospel readings.  We see two crowds today, possibly, if not probably made up of some of the same people.  Can you picture yourself here?

This is a difficult Gospel to read.  The triumphal entry seems nice enough.  It is easy to join in the shouts of Hosanna with this crowd.  It is easy to place ourselves on the road with Jesus, cheering and eagerly waiting for him to pass by saying, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” We want to be in that crowd.

But a week later there is another crowd.  We really don’t want to be counted as a part of this crowd.  This is the crowd that rejected Jesus and called for his death with shouts of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”  No, we don’t like to think of ourselves as a part of that crowd.

But part of what makes this Gospel so difficult to hear is that we know we are part of both crowds.  We know that in the human heart lies the capacity for blessing and cursing, for praise and rejection.   We know how fickle we can be, how easily we can go along to get along, and how quickly we can shift our loyalites.

It reminds us of how utterly unworthy of him we are.

And yet we are reminded by the prophet Isaiah, But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  (Isaiah 53:5-6) 

Yes, in one breath we can cry “Hosanna!” and in the next we can cry “Crucify Him!”

The Consistency of Christ

But in the midst of our repetitive inconsistency, Jesus is reliably consistent.  This is why the source of our hope and the focus of our faith is not on ourselves, but on Him.  He knew when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday that he would not be leaving without passing through the fire of the cross.

He predicted it and told his disciples as much.  In Matthew 20 we read, “And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.’”

Knowing this, Jesus went to Jerusalem anyway.  Knowing that what awaited him was not a crown, but a cross, he pressed on toward Jerusalem.  While the crowd’s opinion would shift like the wind, Jesus mission would not be compromised.

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a co-worker when we began discussing our plans for Easter.  I mentioned that I had a full week with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services.  She said, “I don’t know why they call it that?  There’s not much good about that Friday.”

My jaw just about hit the floor.  Here was another Christian, so it seemed anyway, who could not understand what made Good Friday, truly Good.

In the simplest terms, it is the cross of Christ.  It is the most pivotal day, containing the most pivotal act, in the history of humanity.  Jesus, the very Son of God, bears on the cross the wrath of God against sin and pays the penalty that we could not pay.  It is the day our salvation was won.

Anglican theologian John Stott once noted three lessons that he learned from the Cross of Christ, “First, that my sin is foul beyond words.  If there were no way for our sins to be cleansed and forgive but that the Son of God should die for them, then our sins must be sinful indeed.”  He continues, “I learn that God’s love is great beyond all understanding…[since] he pursued us to the desolate agony of the cross.”  And finally Stott says, “I learn that salvation is a free gift.  I do not deserve it.  I cannot earn it. [All we can do]  is fall on our knees in penitence and faith and stretch out an open, empty hand to receive [our] salvation.” (Stott, John R.W. Authentic Christianity, IVP, Downer’s Grove, 1995, page 58)

Our hope and joy on this Palm Sunday lies in this staggeringly consistent love of Jesus Christ.

The Final Crowd

Because of the Cross we are able to join yet a third crowd.  We are able to leave the fickle and inconsistent crowd for another.  It’s in Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

That’s the crowd made possible by the cross.  If you are in Christ, this is the crowd of which you are destined.  Did you notice what they were holding?  That’s right, Palm Branches!  So take the palm branches from today and hold on to them.  Let them be a reminder that you are called to be a part of another crowd –a crowd made possible by the inexplicable love of God for sinful people.

As you begin your journey through Holy Week, remember that the cries of the crowd are drowned out by the Christ of the cross and eclipsed by the praises of the saints.    AMEN+

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