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So why then PALM Sunday? What is the big deal with palms? Actually, for that first century crowd, a story from their heritage would have been vividly in mind, the story of the Maccabees.
It had taken place 200 years before, during the reign of the brutal Antiochus Epiphanes, the Saddam Hussein of his day. In 167 B.C. Antiochus precipitated a full-scale revolt when, having already forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death, he set up, right smack in the middle of the Jewish temple, an altar to Zeus and sacrificed a pig on it. Hard to imagine a greater slap in the religious face to good Jews.
Stinging from this outrage, an old man of priestly stock named Mattathias rounded up his five sons, all the weapons he could find, and a guerrilla war was launched. Old Mattathias soon died, but his son Judas, called Maccabeus (which means "hammer"), kept on and within three years was able to cleanse and to rededicate the desecrated temple. But the fighting was not over. It would be a full 20 years more, after Judas and a successor brother, Jonathan, had died in battle, that a third brother, Simon, took over, and through his diplomacy achieved Judean independence. That would begin a full century of Jewish sovereignty. Of course there was great celebration. "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and PALM BRANCHES, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel."(4) So says the account in I Maccabees - a story as well known to the crowd in Jerusalem that day as George Washington and the defeat of the British is known to us.
Knowing that history of the Maccabees allows us to read the minds of those who are waving their own palm branches. They are going out to meet Jesus in hopes that he is coming to crush and remove another great enemy, this time Rome. What is the message of the palms? Simply this: we are tired of being kicked around; we want to be Number One again; we are ready to strut our stuff once more. Here is our agenda, and you look like just the man we need. Welcome, warrior king! Hail, conquering hero!(5) Let's PARTY!
William Stringfellow once said that Christians go to church on Palm Sunday because they love a parade.(6) True enough. At churches all over this land this morning, we parade all the children down the center aisle waving palm branches while the congregation sings something appropriate for the day. It is wonderful, as I am absolutely certain that the first Palm Sunday parade was monumentally wonderful. But above all the day reminds us, and especially in this year that has seen the release of "The Passion of the Christ," that Jesus was here for a reason, a mission he was ready to fulfill.
We who see the story from the perspective of 2,000 years of history know how it turns out. In fact, we are sorely tempted to yell to Jesus, "DON'T GO! They are going to turn on you. There is beating and torture coming. A crown of thorns, nails, a cross."
Could they not see? A king bent on war rode a horse, but one seeking peace rode a donkey. The Jerusalem crowd was remembering the earlier triumphal entry, one that Simon had decreed would be marked annually as a Jewish independence day. Jesus' mind, however, was on something farther back:
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt the foal of a donkey.
The palm wavers see triumph in Jesus, and they are right. But they misunderstand it. Jesus has come to conquer not Rome but the world. He comes to the holy city not to deal death, but to meet death head-on. He will conquer the world and even death itself...by dying.
Perhaps we should confess our own misunderstanding. We, too, come to the parade, agendas in hand, amid crowds lined up as though Santa Claus were coming to town. In a world that routinely places ultimate value on less than ultimate things, even the faithful are tempted to come ready to remake Jesus according to our own expectations. If we are Republican, we expect Jesus to be Republican. If we are Democrat, we know Jesus is a Democrat. That is why we can have this past week's bizarre scene with advisors to Mr. Bush, that most publically pious of presidents, actually complaining of Mr. Kerry's quoting scripture to make a point. Amazing! Even so, regardless of party, ALL of us know that Jesus, in his heart of hearts, is as American as apple pie. Sure!
The message of the palms is that such an approach has been taken before, but has been found wanting. Let King Jesus be King Jesus, but remember, as he himself said, "My kingdom is not of this world."(7) The waving branches say that we still misunderstand, as did his disciples. Perhaps the simple truth can begin to break through as we gather at a simple meal.
1. John 12:13
2. Matthew 21:8, Mark 11:8
3. Luke 19:36
4. I Maccabees 13:51
5. Byron Rohrig, "What Do the Palms Say?", The Christian Century, 3/9/88, p. 236
6. John Buchanan, "In Adversity," The Christian Century, 4/6/04, p. 3
7. John 18:36