By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Reading: Matthew 21:1-9; 26:36-39
In his famous work, The Tale of Two Cities, Dickens begins with the incredible contrast, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was an age of foolishness and of wisdom. It was an epoch of belief, and of incredulity. It was the winter of our despair. Writing about the French Revolution and all its contrasts, its tremendous opportunities and freedoms, but also its deaths, sorrows, and confusions, he tried to capture a sense that in the midst of it all, people wanted to find meaning and purpose.
I don’t think there is an image that captures the events of Christ’s own Holy Week any clearer than those opening lines by Dickens. For what we have in the Holy Week is nothing more than the most incredible contrasts and contradictions. Moments of height, adulation, and praise, like, today, Palm Sunday. But also moments of denial and rejection. Days of adoration, praise, and glory, and death, sorrow and confusion.
If ever there was the best of times and the worst of times, it was Jesus’ week in Jerusalem after he arrived on Palm Sunday. In that contradiction, that ebb and flow between the best of times and the worst of times there is something profound in it for us that speaks about our own faith and our own life as well, something we can capture, that makes our life different. While the story is about Jesus and is clearly centred on what he was going through, it nevertheless draws us into the contradictions that so often exist in our own lives and faith and gives us a sense of clarity and purpose.
Not long ago I looked at a YouTube video by a student of mine from two years ago at Acadia Divinity College, [Stephanie Corkum-Robbins] has these wonderful little vignettes that she puts online – she’s very talented. In this particular one, as she’s getting us ready for Lent, she makes a recommendation that in our own prayer life, maybe we can capture the essence of things by doing two very simple things. One of them is by turning the palms of our hands up when we pray, and the other, turning our hands down when we pray. She suggests that we turn our hands up as a sense of expectation that God is going to do something great, something magnificent, something awesome. We anticipate something great when we put our hands up. But when we put our hands down, we are in fact bringing the needs of our life, the concerns, the tragedies, the intercessions to God. In many ways, this Holy Week is an epitome of palms up and palms down. For both of these, it seems to me, are an integral part of the Holy Week experience.
This morning we read two passages that are very near one another in the gospel of Matthew. The one is the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and the other is Jesus’ dark moment in the garden of Gethsemane, a time of sorrow and a time of pain. In many ways these correspond with having our palms up and our palms down. They reflect both the joy and the exultation, as well as the deep longing and passion of our hearts that we bring to God. So playing on a theme of palms this morning, and being deliberate about it, I want us to think about the palms up of Palm Sunday, and the palms up of our own prayer life and experience.
What is particularly meaningful is that Palm Sunday was a time when the crowds were full of adulation for Jesus. They had come into Jerusalem anticipating something great. Their palms were up physically, and spiritually. They remembered all the things that Jesus had done, they had witnessed the feeding of the five thousand, had heard about the healings and the restoration of the blind in Bethesda, and about turning of water into wine. They were ready, anxious, and they wanted to praise. They thought somebody awesome was coming into Jerusalem and anticipated something great.
Jesus also anticipated it. He carefully choreographed his entrance into Jerusalem. He knew what he was doing. He knew that when he got on the foal of a donkey, he was making a statement. He knew that when he planned to come down from the Mount of Olives and across the Kedron Valley into Jerusalem, he was doing this deliberately. He knew it was fulfilling Scripture and that this was a moment that people would recognise. A powerful moment and Jesus choreographed it, and enjoyed it. I think Jesus knew that this was a moment of triumph, and of joy.
The people weren't only there to welcome him, they ripped off the branches from trees, which were probably palm branches, and exclaimed the most incredible things. They said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They anticipated a monarch, a king and a Messiah. They were full of praise and adulation.
Last night I was watching as the Leafs lost. I watched people gather and the euphoria that swept through the crowd when they started out. Marial and I ran into some young men who were going downtown for the big party. They were expecting something glorious: their palms were up, boy, they were ready for something great! Now it was pretty sad what happened in the end, but they were ready for a party, something big, a coronation, something great.
When the people came into Jerusalem, their palms were up, they were ready, Jesus was ready, this was a moment of triumph, and of celebration. It had so many images in it, so much so that when the crowds sang Hosanna, which is a loaded biblical word, they said, “Hosanna to the Son of David, to the Son of David.” Six times in Matthew’s gospel the term Son of David is used, and each time it’s about Jesus doing something marvellous. For the Canaanite woman who pleads with Jesus to heal her sick daughter, and who cries out to him, “Lord, Son of David, heal my daughter.”
When there were two beggars on the side of the road and they didn’t know what else to do. They were lost and blind, and cried out to him, “Son of David, have pity on us,” “Son of David” was loaded with meaning, it was the return of David, the king, it was the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, it was the defeat of the Roman empire, and it was the beginning of the revolution. As Dickens said,” it was the best of times.”
This was a palms-up moment. They expected great things from God. You can imagine that the authorities who had power, were most displeased. Seeing the crowd give adulation, seeing Jesus come in on his donkey, this was a moment of desperation for those who were in power, either politically or ecclesiastically. This was a moment of profound change, and they knew it.
Hosanna to the Son of David, this is palms-up. You're expecting big things from God. Expecting God to do wonderful things should also be a part of our faith and life. On Palm Sunday we expect big things from God, and in our lives, our palms should be up.
I must say, to be honest, I find that there is too much emphasis, at times, on the death and drudgery of Holy Week. It happened and it was bad, but I think on Palm Sunday, we forget that we, like the crowd that watched Jesus coming into Jerusalem, should be anticipating great things from God, and that there is nothing wrong with asking great things from God.
This morning when you take the bread into your hand and you come to the table of the Lord, I want you to do it with your palms up. I want you to do it with your spiritual palms up. I want you to expect great things from God. I think you want to expect great things for God, for after all, we know how this story ends. You can expect great things from God, He will deliver.
But there is also a time for our palms to be down. We come to Gethsemane. Jesus is now a few days from his triumphal entrance, facing the reality that the crowds have dispersed. He’s on the other side of the City, on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kedron Valley, with his disciples. He knows things are taking a turn for the worst. He knows about the betrayal, he knows about the denial, he knows Good Friday is coming and the cross is before him, he knows. He doesn’t know exactly how it’s all going to play out, and he certainly doesn’t know, even though he had predicted it, that great things would happen on the Sunday, nevertheless Jesus in that garden at that moment with his disciples, wanted a moment of deep prayer, where he puts his palms down. The celebration had died off, he is now alone.
The text tells us that he was agitated, that he was scared. And at a time when he needed Peter and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, like never before, they weren't there for him. At a time when he needed people to love him and to be with him, he was alone, and his palms were down. He didn’t know where else to turn, he had no other place, no other place to go than back to his Father.
He’s honest with his Father and expresses from the depths of his heart how he’s feeling, in the seminal moment, I think, in Holy Week, Jesus, we’re told, is on his knees and he prays this prayer: “Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering from me.” This was a moment of isolation, of fear and of loneliness, and he wants it to go away.
How many times in our lives, honestly, have we not put our palms down? How many times have we really said honestly, and been like Jesus, and doubted to the point that it becomes belief, where you know that all that’s left is God and you say, “take this cup of suffering from me. I can't bear this, I can't go through this alone, I can't take this.”
When you reach the moment where your palms are placed on that stone like Jesus’ were, and you know there is nothing left, then you understand Jesus in Gethsemane. And Jesus in Gethsemane understands us. He knows that there are moments when our palms are down.
Leonard Griffith in his incredible book, What is a Christian, put it so brilliantly and reminds us that in moments when we really do question God – and Jesus was questioning the Father – God is still at work. This is the faith of Leonard Griffith. I quote:
The supreme truth to remember, when God’s will conflicts with our own, is that God knows what is good for us better than we know it ourselves. His purpose may seem strange and unwelcome to us now, but we can be absolutely certain that it will be vindicated. Let us never make the mistake of judging God’s overall plan for our lives by that portion in which it happens to be revealed just today. God has all eternity in which to bring his plans to fulfilment, and God’s purpose will unfold in His way and His time, not ours.
Our Lord Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, resisted the guidance of God. ‘Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ Even in the mind of Jesus, perfectly attuned as it was to the mind of his Father, the cross must have seemed like the most futile, most disastrous event in the history of the world.
Yet out of the defeat of the cross God brought victory. Out of its weakness he brought strength, out of its death he brought life. Humanity’s obedience is the key that unlocks the power of God. God gives victory, strength and life to every person who, having prayed for His guidance and received it, can say, as Jesus did, not my will, but Thine be done.
There is the second part of the prayer. When his hands are down, when Jesus has no idea what’s going to happen next, when he wants out this ministry, he says, not my will, but “Thy will be done.” Not what I want, but what You want; not what I'm going to do, but what You're going to do; not what I can endure, but what You can give me the strength to endure. Not what I can know, but trusting that You know. This was Jesus’ submission to the Father. His palms were down, but it’s in that moment that he trusted the most.
As you take the cup in your hand, I want your palms to be down. I invite you to think about the needs of the world, I ask you to think about your own concerns, not as a moment of praise with your palms up, but with palms down for the world and for those around us, those we love, and those who have gone before us, and those who come after us. Our palms are down. Why? Because we trust, not my will, but Thine. Two palms up in praise. Our palms down in trust, Thy will be done. Amen.