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Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16 or Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29;
Mark 11:1-11 (for Palm Sunday) or Mark 14:1-15:47 (for Passion Sunday, or shorter passage) or John 12:12-16; Philippians 2:5-11
There are a number of passages to choose from this Palm or Passion Sunday. Many churches choose to focus solely on the Palms, but in our busy society, not everyone will be able to attend Holy Week services such as Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Even if you focus on the palm passages, I feel you need to bring in the message of the Passion as well, because for many, the next time you see them will be on Easter Sunday celebrating the Resurrection. But you cannot get to the Resurrection without going through the cross.
Isaiah 50:4-9a speaks from the Suffering Servant voice, reminding us of the innocent who are often portrayed as guilty. The servant does not strike back, does not return violence for violence but maintains righteousness. While as Christians it is easy for us to read Jesus into these passages, we must remember that previous readers understood these passages differently. They saw Israel as the sufferer, and indeed Isaiah leads into that interpretation in chapter 42. What we can learn from reading this passage is that God is indeed on the side of the innocent, and that God is the defender of the innocent and righteous. God’s ways are not to be abandoned, and God will indeed bring deliverance.
Psalm 31:9-16 is the voice of another innocent who is suffering, who faces adversity, but trusts in God and seeks God’s deliverance. Others around may plot against the innocent, but God knows the truth. Even though the psalmist feels such despair, the psalmist claims trust in God and prays for deliverance.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 sings of triumph. This psalm was sung as a celebration of entering the temple of God in Jerusalem. Jesus quotes this passage while in the temple, but rather than celebration, it is often read as a warning, as Jesus quotes it soon after overturning the moneychangers tables.
Mark 11:1-11 is the familiar tale of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey instead of a white horse, hearing the people cry out “Hosanna, save us!” While we often say that it is the same people who will shout “Crucify” later in the week, I’m not sure that interpretation is correct. The people who have come to see Jesus, who shout “Hosanna!” may not have been the crowds that gathered later, the crowds made up of religious fanatics and leaders who have had enough of this Jesus and Messiah talk, instead of the people who were taught and healed by Jesus. Maybe they were the same people, but it’s not clear.
Mark 14:1-15:47 is the lengthy description in Mark of Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. While there is much one can focus on in this passage, I am moved this year by Jesus in the garden. This scene is in Matthew and Luke as well; there is a lengthy prayer passage in John but it does not take place in the garden. However, what catches my eye is that Jesus’ close companions have fallen asleep, yet we have a recording of what Jesus prayed. Who knows if this was the actual prayer Jesus prayed, as who could have written it down, but we know that Jesus was very, very human in these last hours. No miracles, no displays of power, no healings (other than possibly the servant’s ear in Luke’s account)–but a human being who does not want to die, except that he understands it is God’s will, to bring about life. It is the most human part of the Gospels, where Jesus is so lonely and his friends are falling asleep and don’t understand what is going to happen, and Jesus prays to Abba, Father, for strength. It is Jesus’ own faith in God’s steadfast love, as sung by the Psalmists and the Suffering Servant, that moves me. Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, and Jesus is as human as you and me, innocent and yet committed to death.
John 12:12-16 is another account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but in John’s Gospel the people proclaim, “The King of Israel!” It is clear that Jesus is being presented against the leadership of Rome, but uses the prophet Zechariah to prove that Jesus is the one prophesied about in the Hebrew Scriptures, that this is God’s doing, not the people’s, not a political move.
Philippians 2:5-11 is the old, familiar hymn of Jesus being humble and did not exploit his Messiah-ness, his God-ness, but instead emptied himself upon a cross. Jesus became human so that we might know God more fully and deeply. Paul (and later, Elvis) sings that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Unlike the Greeks, who had godlike humans and humans that became gods, Jesus is God, but becomes fully human as well so that we might know God. Not to have power over us, not to fight other gods as in the Greek and Roman pantheons, but in order that human beings may know God’s love and know that nothing on earth or in heaven can ever separate them from God’s love.
In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing and the aftermath that he was unarmed and shot, the cry of the innocent is ever more in our minds. God is on the side of the innocent. God defends the undefendable. God hears the cries and brings deliverance. However, God’s justice is about restoration, not punishment. Seeking revenge against Mr. Zimmerman or the police that did not arrest him does not bring restoration, it brings revenge. While nothing can bring back young Trayvon, we can work to end racial profiling and violence. We must work to speak out for the innocents, whether they are sitting in prison for crimes they didn’t commit or gunned down for looking suspicious. We must stop the violence first and foremost. And as we recall Jesus, we see Jesus in the life of Trayvon, who looked too suspicious as a rabble-rouser and reformer and didn’t behave at all the way they thought a Messiah should. Jesus is in Trayvon, and Jesus is in you and me. But we must remember, from the scriptures of old, that God hears the cries of the innocent, and will bring justice.
Call to Worship:
Leader: We cheer on leaders who say what we want to hear.
People: Hosanna, Save Us!
Leader: We cheer for justice that calls for life imprisonment and death sentences.
People: Hosanna, Save Us!
Leader: We cheer on with the crowds that drown out other voices.
People: Hosanna, Save us!
Leader: We desire to gather with the people welcoming Jesus, but we know all too well we may be the very ones to shout “Crucify Him!”
People: Hosanna, Jesus, Save Us!
Leader: Come, let us worship our God with singing and palms and praise, knowing God loves us and will restore us.
Prayer of Confession:
God of Justice and Mercy, we know that we have fallen silent when we should have spoken up. We have ignored the cries of the innocent and joined the crowds in calls of judgment. We have mistaken justice for revenge and have sought punishment to ease our pain. Forgive us, God, for not seeing our own faults, our own sins, and for not holding ourselves responsible for our inaction and injustice. Restore us, God, to the ways Jesus taught us, to drop our stones and instead seek forgiveness and restoration. Call us into the paths of love and reconciliation, knowing Your mercy extends to all of us, Your grace is a gift, and there is nothing we can do to deserve or earn it. Guide us into living into Your forgiveness, peace and reconciliation, in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon:
God has opened our ears and our hearts to know God’s love and forgiveness. There is nothing we need to do other than love one another and love God, for all things come from God’s love. Go forth knowing You have been forgiven and You are restored to God. Live in the way of Christ. Amen.
God of Grace and Glory, we come singing with palms and praises, knowing that our efforts to be faithful to You at times fall short. We, like the disciples of Jesus’ day, will at times run away, betray and deny our Savior. We seek Your guidance in our lives to be more authentic, more true to You, so that we might share Your love with the world in a way that the world will know it is from You. All too often, we wrap up Your gift of love in our own expectations and demands, to where Your gift of love may seem too great a burden to others. Peel off the layers that we hide You in, Lord, and guide us into living Your love faithfully in this world. In the name of Jesus the Messiah we pray. Amen.