This will be Palm/Passion Sunday, focusing on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and commemorating the awful events that followed during that week. We will read Luke 19:28-40 at the very beginning of the service; Isaiah 50:4-9a as the text for the meditation, and Philippians 2:5-11 at the end of the service. These texts take their narrative coherence from the overall shape of Holy Week; we’re telling a story that is bigger even than the texts about Jesus. Although I want to hint at the events that are to come, we aren’t reading the whole passion narrative. Much of it will be read on Maundy Thursday.

Where are we?

In Luke, we have followed Jesus from backwater Galilee, past Samaria (the land of highly suspect faith), and through Jericho. Now we are on the final approach to Jerusalem. Jesus has just told the parable of the gold coins, where a man goes to a faraway country to be made king and entrusts his property to his servants.

In Isaiah, the text speaks to the people of Judah during their exile in Babylon. Isaiah proclaims that God has punished the people sufficiently for their sins, and now God will use the Persian empire to unseat the Babylonians and restore Judah. This material about the “suffering servant” has traditionally been understood by Christians as a reference to Jesus.

Philippians was written by Paul to the church in Philippi, a Roman city in Macedonia. Unlike many of Paul’s letters that were occupied with solving problems in the recipient church, the whole of this letter is glowing with joy and thanksgiving. Based on clues in the Greek text, modern scholars believe that this section of the letter may quote an early Christian hymn. In our service this week, this text will not be read for preaching, but as a liturgical element in its own right.

What’s going on here?

“Jesus said this…” I might even have this verse skipped for the reading in worship, but it sets the tone of Jesus as a person who is giving last-minute instructions to his followers before he gets on his way. It reminds me of the conscientious husband who, on his deathbed, told his wife in detail where the replacement furnace filters were kept.

The scenario of the colt tied up to be commandeered by the disciples gives this passage a sense of the supernatural. Jesus doesn’t have quite the level of control over events in Luke as he does in John’s story, but at these key moments, everything falls into place.

Notice there are no palms in this story; that detail is unique to Matthew.

The crowd’s greeting, “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” recalls Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Luke 13:31-35. In that passage, Jesus was responding to the Pharisees’ fears about what Herod would do to Jesus (and them). Here, the crowd prompts another word of caution from the Pharisees. Alyce McKenzie wonders if Jesus’ rebuttal (“the stones themselves…”) refers to Habakkuk 2:11, where the stones of a ruined city testify against their former inhabitants.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggest that Jesus’ entry could have happened at the same time as Roman governor Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem for the Passover, and they contrast the two takes on pomp and ceremony. None of the gospels describe Pilate’s procession, but the contrast is probably valid. I notice this year that Luke isn’t very particular about the timing of this scene at all.

Even before it became about Jesus, the Isaiah passage would have been all too true. Imagine someone who has been called by God to foretell the downfall of the empire that has captured their nation. Proclaiming this message would be sedition, not protected free speech (if nothing else because Nebuchadnezzar didn’t exactly work from the Bill of Rights). But the prophet puts his trust in God, even in the event of a court trial – which would have been a sham – because the Lord’s word is with him to strengthen God’s weary people.

Reading this passage about Jesus, we see the images of torture, the insults, and the travesty of criminal justice. And yet, this one endures all this injustice, in order to demonstrate that God is indeed faithful, even in the face of human evil.

So what?

This Sunday of contrasts invites us to find ourselves in the great story, knowing that we are all too easily swayed to shout whatever the crowd around us is shouting: “Hosanna!” or “Crucify him!” Paul Nancarrow allows Isaiah to remind us that the strength of character and commitment that describe the suffering servant are available to us as well. May we refuse to condone injustice and violence, even in the face of crowds that call for them.

And when we fail… well, that’s what this story is about too. We read, and if our eyes are truly open, we know that we are all too willing to “go along to get along,” to allow others to determine who will and who won’t receive our compassion. We hear our voices calling for crucifixion, and it’s a testament to our humanity that we are at least uncomfortable with the idea that we could have been part of that mob. We’re torn in two by this story, and Jesus is torn in two with us. He understands and carries in himself our fear, our guilt, our blinding confusion. He redeems all these by standing firm in God’s love, holding fast to God’s justice, all the way to the depths of human sin and death. And when he gets there, he’s lifted back to life by the God who is indeed on the side of love and compassion.