Hail Him With Palms & A Crown of Thorns (Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40)
In the Church Year, at least according to the Revised Common Lectionary which I have used over the past sixteen years, this Sunday marks two occasions rolled into one, Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, and these two do not head exactly the same way down the road, or don’t seem to. The Old Testament Lesson is a reading for Passion Sunday, and comes from one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. At least classically Christians have always recognized the ministry of Jesus in the figure of the Servant of the Lord, not the least because Jesus seems to see his ministry that way. In fact, however, the New Testament also sees the ministry of the Servant as fulfilled by the People of God as they follow Jesus. The community of faith is made up of servants of the Servant of the Lord.
In that Isaiah text, we learn that servants (including the Great Servant) are taught by God to be wise even in the midst of difficult circumstance. Everyone who has tried it knows that it’s difficult to serve God and, sometimes, faithfulness in ministry and mission leads to difficulty and suffering in this world. And, so, as we Christians think of Jesus’ suffering on behalf of others later this Holy Week, we ought also to be thinking of our own lives of service to bring wholeness to the world in the name of Jesus the Servant. Discipleship is acting as Jesus acts.
But, then, there’s the Gospel Lesson that tells a story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the King of Peace on Palm Sunday, though there are no palms in Luke’s story. Here he is greeted by the crowds with a paraphrase of Psalm 118 in which Luke specifies that this “one who comes in the name of the Lord” is really a King. Frankly, that word isn’t in the Psalm, it’s Luke’s own addition. When we think of kings – and most of us who don’t know much about kings –we think of royal power and prestige, and the ability to do whatever they want. Is that how Jesus is a king? Is that how Jesus shows us power? The only crown we find in and around this story is a crown of thorns, planted on Jesus’ head by the Romans with the complicity of some of the same folk who had greeted him as king a week before. Jesus Lord of Palms is crowned with thorns. Again, these things point in opposite directions.
The fact that the Old Testament and Gospel seem to point in opposite directions tells us that the king of peace and the suffering servant are one and the same.
Let me go a different way for a few minutes. Most of you know that I was raised in an American Baptist minister’s home. Both my parents grew up in the same small town in southern Indiana, my father as a Methodist, who my mother “convinced” to become a Baptist (she was good at getting people to see things her way). I suspect that it was because of his non-Baptist background that I grew up in a hymnologically divided home. My father always preferred the great hymns of Wesley and others: “O For a Thousand Tongues,” was his favourite, but “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Love Divine,” and many other more formal worship hymns were on his list. We always sang at least two of them at Sunday morning worship. The other hymn on Sunday morning and by the bucketful on Sunday evening were the “Gospel Songs,” preferred by my mother. “God Will Take Care of You,” “Beulah Land,” “When We All Get to Heaven,” “More Like the Master,” “I Would Be Like Jesus.” These were the songs that I would hear my mother singing as she went about her housework day by day. If I try, I can still hear her. Actually, we learn a great deal of the way we put our faith together from our hymns. It’s a good reason to make sure they’re good.
I say all this about sacred song because there remains the Epistle Lesson from Philippians, which most consider to be an early Christian hymn that Paul quoted here to make a point to that little congregation of Jesus’ disciples in Philippi in Macedonia (the northern part of Greece). I have always been fascinated by this hymn, as by poetry at large. It seems to me that the Epistle to the Philippians is Paul at his wisest and most mellow, mature self. Evidently the folks there had found themselves running into opposition in their communities, and so Paul is counseling them to take care not to let opposition harden their love for one another, and others, into resolve to be competitive or doctrinaire with one another, and others, as they try to work out how to be disciples in their world. Don’t let outside pressure harden your desire to, to use the title of that little gospel song of my mother’s: “be like Jesus.”
Paul began the passage by writing directly to the Philippians:
“Only, live your (community) life, in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ…(that is)…standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side, with one mind…do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others…”
In other words, let your community life be full of grace, full of love, full of care and concern for the other. Stop competing with one another to be the most spiritual, but undergird one another’s interests and needs. Collaborate together in communion and in joy. Don’t explain Jesus. Live Jesus.
Then, Paul quoted that hymn about Jesus. Before he does he sums up his advice: The pew Bible reads: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” We hear those words with our contemporary American ears as words for each of us as individuals to follow Jesus’ moral example. A better translation of this sentence might lead us a little different way: “Let the guiding principle at the heart of your community (for the “you” is plural), be the same one that is also (always so) “in Christ Jesus,” that is to say, united to him and one another in a true communion of love.
Then Paul quotes this hymn:
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
These words are, of course, about Jesus (as we finally figure out in the last two verses, when we read, “at the name of Jesus,” and “Jesus Christ is Lord.”) What is remarkable here is that, as Paul speaks of Jesus, he is also speaking of God. The words point to Jesus’ exaltation by God which is, in some way related to his being “in the form of a slave or servant.” In fact, the words here seem to coordinate exaltation and humiliation, which are, of course, movements in opposite directions.
A long time ago now, I first read an article that suggested a better reading of verse 6 and the beginning of verse 7: “he (Jesus) did not consider equality with God as consisting in exploitation, but on the contrary in emptying of self…” To put it positively, equality with God is be found in self-emptying, and a life on behalf of others. Jesus’ passion and death is precisely the point at which we see the true nature of God and the true nature of God’s power. The passion and the triumph are the same thing.
Most of us, as Christians, have been taught (or at least learned) that God’s power is pretty much like our power only bigger. God is able to smash anybody and anything with a bigger hammer. God’s power is like any ancient or modern earthly dictator’s power, only greater. Is this really what the scriptures teach? There is no doubt that many ancient folk who gave us parts of the Bible may have thought of God that way, just as we do. But is that really what God is like according to today’s scriptures? What of the visions of God as revealed in the poor and the needy all through the Psalms and the Prophets?
There is the remarkable statement of Jeremiah, when he was speaking truth to the power of the government in his day, he said that for governments, it is not competition to build the biggest and the best economies that pictures the power of God. He says that when governments do justice and righteousness and judge the cause of the poor and needy, is when they “know” or “recognize” God (see Jeremiah 22:15-16). In Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and Goats from Matthew 25, we hear people asking the Son of Man at the last judgment “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or in need of welcome at our doors, or needing clothes (how could God need that kind of thing, everyone knows God’s power is just like ours only bigger)? The even more basic question it seems is “When did we see you?” And, you know the response…”In the least of these.” What a remarkable thought, that we see God in the guest at Monday’s Meal, or the Legal Clinic, or at Centro Latino, or in the abused at New Horizons and find power their weakness. Our hymn from Philippians suggests to us that God is never more true to the divine self than when taking the part of another in self giving love. And all this is pictured in the story of Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem as the king of peace and soon is given a crown of thorns. Hardly seems the same as the God of the bigger hammer does it? We see God’s matchless wisdom and find out that wisdom costs death on a cross. God’s wisdom bears the imprint of nails. Hardly the detached, Unmoved Mover, of some Greek philosophy and popular Christian theology. Wisdom is involved in a costly way. Finally, we behold God, the living one, and find that the deepest occasion of that love and that life is in dying for your friends. As we go into Holy Week, let us remember it is not to “explain” God, Jesus, or the cross that we go, it is to live these things into the world.
In this passage of the Apostle Paul we see that Jesus who rode into town as the King of Peace, and the one who had the tongue of one that was taught how to sustain the weary with a word, is also the one whose way of thinking is to be alive and well in us: the way of giving, and embracing others, even at great cost.
To give one of my mother’s favourite gospel songs the last word (and she’d be pleased at having the last word in a sermon):
Be like Jesus, this my song
In the home and in the throng
Be like Jesus, all day long,
We would be like Jesus.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.