Palm Sunday Proof

Love is the best evidence we have.

Palm Sunday Proof
Photo by Florian GIORGIO on Unsplash

Isaiah 50:4-9a & Mark 11:1-11

Preached at First Congregational UCC, Redgranite and Zion UCC, Dale

Let's do an object lesson this morning. Let's try, and why not, to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ existed, that he loves us, and that he is our Lord and Savior.

  • If I were to hold up an icon, what would you say to me? Probably not, right? It's true that members of the Orthodox churches believe that icons bring you into the presence of the person depicted in them. But that's not really what we call proof. Also, where do you get such a thing?
  • What if I held up a cross? Still no, I'm guessing. It's a symbol, but it doesn't require you to believe anything by itself.
  • But what if I held up a Bible and told you that it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ existed and that he is your Lord and Savior? You might say okay to that. It might not be admissible in a court of law, but it at least counts as evidence. Or you might not agree. You might say, well, the Bible is great and all, but there's more to my faith than the Bible alone.
  • Or what if I lifted up the church, this gathered community, and said "The fact that such a group is possible demonstrates that Christ is at work in our lives"? You might go for that. Or you might say, "Oh heck no," depending on who's sitting next to you in the pew and how they smell. You'd almost certainly ask "Is that good for your back, Pastor?"

Again, none of these things, I would be willing to bet, would constitute proof to you in a scientific sense. We can prove very easily that a bowling ball and a tennis ball fall at the same rate. All we have to do is drop them off a balcony and observe them bouncing off the floor to prove that. That's simple.

But proving that God exists is not so easy. It's even more difficult to prove that God exists, and that he (or she) works for our good in the world. In fact, in a strictly scientific sense, it can't be done.

Yet that doesn't slow many of us down, does it? Most of us believe despite the lack of evidence.

We are trusting people

Despite what some atheists might say, that does not make us stupid. It doesn't make us stupid, and it doesn't make us gullible either. Rather, it makes us people who have chosen to place our trust in something whose dimensions cannot be measured by the scientific method.

More to the point this morning, it makes us people who have chosen to place their trust in someone. That someone, of course, is Jesus, the man of Nazareth, whom we trust to be the Christ, the chosen one of God.

We read in Mark's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem a remarkable story of such trust. First the disciples commandeer a colt for Jesus. When bystanders challenge them, they simply say "The master needs it," without a word as to who that might be. And they get away with it! (We never do hear if the disciples return the poor beast to its rightful owner.)

One of the commentaries I read to prepare for this sermon says that if you wanted to put this story in modern terms, it might be something like:

Go into the city, and you will find there a car with the keys in the ignition. Bring it here. If anyone questions you, tell them 'The Lord needs it, and we’ll bring it back right away, we promise.’

Then the citizens of Jerusalem give Jesus a hero's welcome, acclaiming him as the Messiah. Or do they? Up until this point Mark has taken pains to emphasize the hiddenness of Jesus' identity. And now the crowd gets it all of a sudden? Perhaps God has decided the time is right to reveal Jesus' true identity to the crowds, even if only for a moment. That would be a logical conclusion.

A silly little parade

But we could also conclude that this is a silly little parade meant to poke fun at the great triumphant imperial entrances. You've got this guy nobody knows riding into town on a donkey — a stolen donkey, at that — and when he's done, he doesn't throw a banquet or give a speech or anything you might expect him to do. After taking a look around, he goes off to get some rest. These are hardly the actions of a conquering king.

The people take it on faith that Jesus is the messiah they have been looking for.

Before we go any further, I want to stress that I'm not making fun here. Some scholars do believe the Palm Sunday parade was a parody of other, grander events. Seeing it that way does not contradict the other view I've presented. It could be that God does show the people of Jerusalem Jesus' identity. It's just that that identity is someone who undermines our common vision of what a king is and does.

For our purposes, what the people see in Jerusalem doesn't count as proof, either. Jesus has earned a reputation as a preacher, healer, and worker of wonders. So they've heard of him. But they don't know him first-hand. They are taking it on faith that he is the messiah they have been looking for.

Which is to say that God has shown Christ for who he really is. And for this day, the people have responded by placing their trust in Jesus. They have no firm proof that he is in fact the Messiah and few good reasons even to suspect that he is, other than his reputation. But that, for right now, is enough, and they trust him.

Trust, for now

Their trust will soon melt away when Jesus turns out to be a very different kind of Savior than they anticipated. But we ought to linger for a moment on the miracle of their trust in Jesus. If Mark is to be believed, for this day, this split second in history, the hearts of humanity were opened to God. These people chose to be vulnerable to the claims of Christ Jesus. They left themselves unprotected to him and to the world of possibilities that he opened up to them. They had faith in him.

Now, that's a miracle.

Why did the people choose to place their trust in Jesus despite previous misgivings? Fair question. From a human perspective, it's something of a mystery. But of course the gospel stories are not about our perspectives at all. They are testaments to the power of God.

From that standpoint, this story makes perfect sense. The people open themselves to God because God opens to them. Which is to say, each side becomes vulnerable to the other. We often read Isaiah's description of the Suffering Servant on Palm Sunday, because it so perfectly describes the kind of man who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a humble colt:

I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting. 

The slave

This is the God we know, the "slave" who Paul tells us "humbled himself" and "became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." This God made the choice to open his (or her) heart to us, to trust in us and to become vulnerable to us, come what may. Because of that, we are able to return the favor. 

Again, this is not inconsistent with the other views I've named here. Jesus is the king who would rather suffer on our behalf than act like a traditional monarch. He has no use for wealth and privilege and power. Jesus' idea of a king has no problem making fun of the pretensions of oppressors. And that same king embodies the love of God that is always open, always reaching out, to us.

Another commentary suggests that Palm Sunday is revolutionary. Not because it is radical or leftist, but because it interrupts the way things usually go. I have to say I agree.

Because what it shows to us is a king and a god more committed to love than to power or glory. It shows a king and a god willing to become vulnerable to us. It shows a king and a god, finally, who is willing to accept our vulnerability, to meet us in it, to stand by our side in it.

Every time we are kind to one another, we proclaim Jesus as king and Messiah.

Each time we follow the example laid out in this story, we testify to that king and god. Every time we take the side of the little guy against the powers that be. Every time we make fun of the pretensions of the rich and the powerful. Every time we work to heal one another. Every time we take part in simple fun and joy, every time we are kind to one another, we proclaim Jesus as king and Messiah.

Holy Week breakfast

In keeping with that proclamation, I want to close with one of my favorite Holy Week stories. (Don't get your hopes up, I've only got two.) Every year, my father's church, the church I grew up in, held a breakfast in the middle of Holy Week. They would have bacon and eggs (scrambled or hard-boiled), coffee, milk, juice, pastries, desserts, candy on the table. It was more or less an Easter breakfast before Easter, and they did it for no better reason than to get together and celebrate.

In other words, it was completely inappropriate. In Holy Week, tradition teaches us to contemplate somberly the last days of Christ's life. We don't have joyful breakfasts.

Yet this was always one of the high points of the year. My siblings and I all remember those breakfasts as wonderful, warm occasions. The church grandmothers would fuss over you and try to pump you full of sugar before sending you off to school. Everyone would leave my dad alone for once. It was a simple, joyous event. I always came away from it knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people of that church loved me and my family.

Without exaggeration, those memories have sustained my faith across the years. They have given me the model of an open and loving God. Too often, Christians seek to prove their faith with logic or symbols when they should be looking to relationships healed and transformed.

Because my Holy Week story by itself does not prove either that God exists or that God loves us. Neither does the story of that first Palm Sunday. But you know what? Love is the best evidence we have. In the story of Palm Sunday, we see a people who love their Messiah, and a humble Messiah who loves them. I don't know about you, but I find that angle more convincing than anything else.

Now you go and see if you can give the world good reason to believe in God. I won't say that you have to hold a Holy Week disaster for everyone's diet, but it's not a bad place to start. Amen.