David A. Davis
March 20, 2016
When you watch the end of one these NCAA tournament basketball games, sometimes the camera shots of the crowd are sort of gut wrenching, especially if you are watching the final seconds of a stunning upset. One team nobody expected to win (like the team from New Haven on Thursday). The other team expected to be playing for another couple of weeks. So the camera shows the winning fans in all of their celebration. Then, of course, they cut to the faces of those who can’t believe what they are seeing. You sort of figure some are parents of the players knowing they’re going to have to have something to say to their heartbroken child. The game’s not over yet so the players themselves have yet to react. I saw one young fan, maybe 10 or 12. Maybe he was a little brother, or a coach’s kid, or just with a family who had good seats. But the look on his face as they zoomed in. He was too shocked to cry. His face said it all: It wasn’t supposed to be this way!
When our children entered the “go to the party at someone’s house the parents don’t know” stage of being teenagers, we tried to do all the things parents are supposed to do. Set the rules. Confirm adults will be at the party. Who’s driving, who’s picking up. One of the parts of the plan was a code word we gave to them. If they called and said the word, one of us would come immediately and pick them up, no questions asked. This was before cell phones so if the party was going bad and you needed to leave, you would have to ask to borrow a phone and you wouldn’t want to risk embarrassment in front of your friends. Thus a code word. Our code word was “pickle.” If Hannah or Ben ever called and said, “Hey, if you’re coming to the party, could you bring some pickles,” I would have been there in a heartbeat. Today your teenager would just text and say, “This is out of control, please come get me.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Palm Sunday account comes in the same chapter as the parable of the wicked tenants that I just read to you. Jesus and that ride on the donkey down from the Mount of Olives and then back up the steep hill to the city walls of Jerusalem. The parade comes with all those “hosanna shouts” and palm branches and garments strewn on the path. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here in Matthew 21 when Jesus gets to the temple, he overturns tables and tells the money changers to get out. Then Jesus heals the blind and the lame as the tension among the chief priests and scribes continues to rise. The very next day he comes back to the temple again and has a heated exchange with the elders and the chief priests. They confront Jesus and pretty much say, “Who the heck do you think you are?” So he tells them this parable. The one about a landowner who planted a vineyard. The landowner who tried to collect the harvest. The landowner who ultimately sent his son to collect. Jesus told them the one about the tenants in a vineyard who seized the landowner’s son, took him out of the vineyard, and killed him because they wanted to get his inheritance.
It’s the day after the Triumphal Entry, that great “hosanna” party and there in the temple Jesus is going toe-to-toe with those who are determined to put an end to all this, put an end to him. There had to be some followers of Jesus with a stunned look on their face. As Jesus was telling this parable of violence and death, there must have been those who just about then were starting to get it, put two and two together, figure it all out. You and I, we’re sort of expected to think that the crowd surrounding Jesus was full of fickle deniers and betrayers who shout “hosanna” one week and “crucify him” the next. But there had to be some, a few, someone, some follower of Jesus there on the edge of the crowd, just within earshot of the Teacher’s voice, someone who hears the one about the death of the son, someone who right then realizes this is going to end badly. There had to be someone in the temple the morning after Palm Sunday who texted a family member, “Can you come get me? This is out of control.”
It’s the Palm Sunday predicament of faith. The followers of Jesus, you and I, we know where this is headed. The Son is being treated like a king today. But he is going to be sweating drops of blood soon. The Son is going to betrayed, and tried, and beaten, and tortured, and killed. This parade is going bad. It’s far too easy to shout “Hosanna” today and “He is Risen” next week. Sometime, some moment in between there comes this awful realization that it shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t go this way. And there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. And yet today we still shout, Hosanna in the highest! Save us! We know where this parade is heading and we still have to shout to the Son of God!
Last summer a group of travelers from Nassau Church stood on the Mount of Olives and looked across the Kidron Valley at the Old City of Jerusalem. It is an incredibly beautiful view. The Garden of Gethsemane is just down the hill. The view of the valley sort of allows you to ignore the highway that runs through it, so full of cars and tour buses. You look over at that old wall and the iconic skyline. After you get your bearings and someone points out the various domes and steeples and rooftops, after you take the pictures, you just linger there in silence. Time and history sort of collapse. And this unsettling feeling comes. This gnawing at the spirit. A sort of soulful nausea. Because the view, there from the Mount of Olives, it’s a Palm Sunday view. You can see it. Where the parade starts. You can trace it down the hill and up the other side. You can see the gate in the wall where the parade passed through. And you just know, you know what’s going to happen. How the parade goes bad. How he so willingly empties himself, gives himself, sheds his blood. How God so loved the world that God sent his only Son. Hosanna! Hosanna! The Palm Sunday view it is so… so… so beautiful.
The Palm Sunday predicament. You see what I mean, right? Shouting “hosanna” and knowing how it’s all going to end. That Palm Sunday view. I’ve discovered a Palm Sunday song too. A song that gets at this wondrous combination of praise and heartbreak. I didn’t just discover the song. It actually is at the top of the most played on my device. I checked my stats this week. The top three in order? “Born to Run.” “Birdland.” And “Oh Happy Day.” That’s the Palm Sunday song. Not just the song “O Happy Day,” but a recording of Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples singing “Oh Happy Day.” Two giants of gospel music with a full choir behind them. Everybody knows “Oh Happy Day, when Jesus washed my sins away… he taught me how to watch, fight and pray, living, rejoicing every day.” But the lyrics themselves don’t do justice to how Aretha and Mavis sing it. Theirs is a Palm Sunday arrangement.
They don’t sing, “Oh, happy day.” It’s more like, “Awh, happy day.” At one point in the song, if you listen carefully, you can hear them telling the story, it starts with well, well, and then going back to the Garden of Gethsemane, and not my will but thy will be done, and riding into Jerusalem, and the crying crowds and waving palms, and crying hosanna. As they tell about Jesus and his suffering, how he goes about washing sins away, the choir just keeps singing “Oh Happy Day” louder and louder, an incongruent shout of praise. The women, they’re not just singing about Jesus and his suffering, it comes with this kind of guttural shout, this groan, this pain from somewhere deep within. Because they know how it’s all going an end. It’s a Palm Sunday song because the praise, the gratitude, the shout, is in response to all that Jesus gave, all that Jesus gave. By the time they sing about the stone rolled away, the song has calmed down. The resurrection is a peaceful denouement. Easter is the postlude. The guts of the song, the climax of their interpretation, what makes it a happy day is his dying love.
Listen… [music plays]
It’s how you ought to shout “hosanna.” From the deepest part of your soul. A shout to the one who gave his life. One of those shouts that comes through tears. A shout to the Son that God sent. An informed shout because you know how this is all ends. One of those shouts that’s even louder, more striking, more powerful in your head. Not just your head, but your heart.
A shout to Jesus and his dying love.
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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