Today in the Spirit: Palm Sunday A

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In our walk with Jesus through the liturgical year, Palm Sunday is designed so that we might contemplate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross as a unit. Yes, the reading of the Passion or our Lord on Palm Sunday is no doubt an accommodation to the fact that many churchgoers would miss it altogether if they did not hear it on a Sunday. But combining Jesus’ Triumphal Entry with his Crucifixion turns out to be a good instrument for delivering a devotional shock to the system, stunning and confusing us as we head into Holy Week. The assigned Collect contains the language of walking with Jesus “in the way of his suffering.” The only differences in assigned readings for Palm Sunday across the three-year cycle is in the Gospel readings. So in Year A centered in the Gospel of Matthew, we have Matthew 21:1-11 for the Triumphal Entry and Matthew (26:36-75) 27:1-54 (55-66) for the Passion narrative. There are two psalms assigned for the day: Psalm 118:19-29 has the worshiper crying out Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!, only to hear a little later the lament of the Spirit of God, Jesus, in Psalm 22:1-21, Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. The OT reading out of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which is assigned again on Good Friday, gives voice to the Suffering Servant burdened under the weight of God’s enemies permitted to kill him according to God’s purpose. And the NT reading assigned every year for Palm Sunday Philippians 2:5-11 is a hymn of praise to Christ’s obedience unto death exalting him to the side of the Father God on the throne of glory.     

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, in your tender love for us you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon himself our nature, and to suffer death upon the Cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and come to share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Liturgy of the Palms

Open to Me (Psalm 118:19-29)

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation (19-21).

In this royal psalm we find defiant insistence in the king’s voice as he approaches the temple gates in Jerusalem, saying Open to me, maybe after having trusted in Yahweh to win a great battle in Israel (see vv. 1-18).  C.H. Spurgeon describes it this way: He “speaks like a champion, throwing down the gauntlet to all comers, defying the universe in arms.”  It is as if there is stationed at the doors to the Holy City one more challenger (or two like Bunyan’s “Shining Ones”) to lay out a challenge, “Are you worthy?” In this position we picture in our mind’s eyes the psalm’s king, then Jesus of Nazareth, and then we ourselves who are members of God’s royal household, making the faith cry, Yes!  Blessed is he (or she) who comes in the name of the Lord.  Palm Sunday strikes a victorious chord which hints at the joy of Easter to come, but between the two there is like a guarded gate darkness and death yet to be endured.  Today, with the help of the Spirit, we begin Holy Week by finding within ourselves the stubborn confidence of the faithful king in this song.

Who Is This? (Matthew 21:1-11)

And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (9-11).

Matthew’s account of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus is the only one that includes this added report of rumor circulating among the crowds in Jerusalem.  The Evangelist likely seeks to differentiate the perspective of the mainly Galilean mob accompanying Jesus into the city from that of the Judeans ready to receive him.  Of course, neither view–conquering king nor prophet–is sufficient.  It’s not until the utterance of the centurion at the cross Surely he was the Son of God! that the truth comes out (27:54). Crowd contagion–whether it originates from widely circulated teaching or a popular new Christian song–always brings a test of our own heartfelt understanding of who Jesus Christ is coming triumphantly into our lives.  Today, in the Spirit, as you begin this Holy Week, ask the Father that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened that you may know the hope to which he has called you through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:18).

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ

Stricken for the Transgression of My People? (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth (7-9).

Notice the question mark in the passage above, and as for this generation…?. Or, Yet who of his generation protested? (NIV). At any time, and especially in Holy Week, we need to face that question posed by the word of the LORD God through the prophet. And what of Christ’s own people who have crucified him? There is a tendency among us who have been converted for some time to believe that challenges delivered in the Scriptures regarding vicious and wayward behavior might be for others, not us. In the matter of the gruesome sacrifice of his Suffering Servant, it is no surprise to YHWH that it is his own people Israel who have despised and rejected him, and who have themselves hit mortal blows to his body. Here is a NT passage cited in full that I believe holds much the same message as the Isaiah passage, and one that we veteran Christians easily dismiss from our thinking: For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt (Hebrews 6:6). Again the question rises: What of his generation? Who can manage the impossible task of bringing those who have fallen away? Here is our Lord’s response given concerning the rich: What is impossible with men is possible with God (Luke 18:27). Today, Holy Spirit, let me this Holy Week include myself among the generation complicit in the Messiah’s cross, giving you, gracious God, all the more thanksgiving and glory for having sacrificed the Son of God for me.

Yet You (Psalm 22:1-21)

Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
    you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
    and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
    for trouble is near,
    and there is none to help (9-11).

See how far the spiritual man “David” travels, interiorly, from the question Why have you forsaken me? (1) to the petition But, you O LORD, do not be far off! (11). How exactly does he manage to walk the second mile?  Look carefully at what comes after the transitional phrase Yet you in the poem at verses 3 and 9: first, a vision of Yahweh enthroned (3, lit. “dwelling,” not seated sporadically); second, the remembrance of Yahweh’s deliverance of God’s people in history (4); and, thirdly, the affirmation of Yahweh’s presence in his own life (9-10).  Here in these proclamations we see a means of grace, a gift of the Spirit of God to the believer, in the form of right reasoning to fend off despair.  Today, with the help of the Spirit, make your lament to God as in the psalm and wait on the Lord’s provision of right thinking to strengthen your soul.

At the Name of Jesus (Philippians 2:5-11)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (5-11).

At the name of Jesus every knee should bow. It is highly significant that the name of the One to whom every knee everywhere will worship is a human name. The name Jesus we know is the Greek form of “Joshua” meaning “Yahweh saves.” It was (and in some parts still is) a common name for parents to give to their newborn sons. It was the will of the Father from the beginning that the One to sit enthroned with him carrying all authority, should be a human being–not (granted) a human like any other whose creation begins at birth, but rather One who passes through humanity. The Christ of God carries a human name and is human. Devotionally, a firm grasp on this fact produces in us who affirm this hymn both a bowing down and a rising up. The bowing down is plain in the text. The rising up is articulated not here but in every NT passage that calls believers to be more human than ever, super human, human like Christ. The very next section of Philippians gives us something of the idea: Paul follows on from the hymn to say, you humans who share the nature of the One exalted, rise up and work out your own salvation (2:12); rise up and be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (15a); and rise up, shine like lights in the world (15b). Today, in the Spirit, inspired by this hymn in Philippians, we bow down at the human name of Jesus, and rise in this name to the fullest potential of our own humanity.      

The Tombs Also Were Opened (Matthew (26:36-75) 27:1-54 (55-66))

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son[d] of God!” (27:50-54).

Reading Matthew’s version of the crucifixion narrative on Palm Sunday every three years is like, well, raising something from the dead we would have preferred to stay underground. “Here we go again: Why couldn’t Matthew be content like Mark and Luke to give one sentence about the tearing of the temple curtain and leave it at that?” We hear about tombs opening, bodies of the saints being raised and appearances in the city, and we cringe in fear mixed with incredulity, relieved the children are tucked away in their Sunday school rooms. But what if we stopped, suspended all our questions about what really did or did not happen, and mined this text for all its devotional worth? What might we discover? One thing would be the immense reversal this text in particular makes on our deeply ingrained assumptions about the finality of physical death. For Matthew’s Jewish audience, and any audience really, what could be more of a challenge to the fear built into their view of the world than true liberation from Sheol? What really happened at the moment Jesus yielded up his spirit? This we know for sure: the unleashing of hope was begun. This week a young woman, 35 years old, a friend of my daughter’s whom I knew from childhood, died tragically from alcohol poisoning. I prayed with her in her hospital bed to receive Christ crucified and risen. Today, in the Spirit, Matthew’s passion narrative fills me with assurance that this young woman can really rise from the dead.   

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

March 27, 2023

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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