Today in the Spirit: Palm Sunday B

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Thus far in Lent, having walked in Mark and John with Jesus through conflict, we now come to Holy Week and the final upsurge of opposition ending in our Lord’s death in Jerusalem. As always on Palm Sunday, the combining of the Triumphal Entry and the Passion narratives will send us as worshipers reeling in the Spirit between the joy of crying “Hosanna” at one moment and the ignominy of yelling “Crucify him!” in the next. The assigned Gospel reading during the Liturgy of the Palms this year is Mark 1:1-11a, to be accompanied by the royal song Psalm 118:19-29 appointed every year in this ceremony.

For Palm Sunday, Year B, the reading of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ comes out of Mark (14:32-72) 15:1-39 (40-47). If only the required portion of this passage is selected, it is by far the shortest rendering of the crucifixion story, with a unique devotional effect I will try to tease out in the commentary below. 

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In all three years in the lectionary cycle, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is the appointed OT reading for Palm Sunday and an option for Good Friday. (The portion Isaiah 53:4-12 also comes up at Pentecost, Proper 24B). The church purposely reserves Psalm 22:1-21 for use during Holy Week (every Palm Sunday and Good Friday). Beyond just considerations of length, there is a pastoral choice to be made between including the most graphic material in vv.12-21 of this psalm or not. The first section (1-11) focuses on the devotional thinking of the speaker amid his suffering, and the second (12-21) on the brutality of the suffering itself.

The appointed NT reading for Palm Sunday every year is Philippians 2:5-11. These renowned words of Paul are likewise set aside by the church for exclusive use on Palm Sunday (except Pentecost, Proper 21 A, where they come up again as part of the sequential reading of Philippians in ordinary time). The great Collect assigned for Palm Sunday has us as worshipers praying that the revelation of the cross of Christ might be for us both an inspiration to endure suffering as we serve and the means to “come to share in [Christ’s] resurrection” now and always. 

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 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.

LITURGY OF THE PALMS

Open to Me (Psalm 118:19-29)

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord. 
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it. 
21 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. C.H. Spurgeon comments on this passage 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 question the petitioner, “Are you worthy?” 

Reciting this psalm, we picture in our mind’s eyes, first,  the psalm’s king, then Jesus of Nazareth, and then we ourselves as 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 that hints at the joy of Easter to come, but between the two, there is, like that guarded gate in Jerusalem, 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.

The Coming Kingdom (Mark 11:1-11a)

9  And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple (9-11a).

The Liturgy of the Palms takes less time in Year B because Mark’s account of the Triumphal Entry is abbreviated relative to Matthew (in Year A) and Luke (in Year C). One added detail in Mark’s Gospel is the acclamation of the revelers going into Jerusalem, who shouted,” Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and then,” Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (10). 

Okay. This second line might reflect the people’s mistaken understanding that Jesus was coming to create a political kingdom in Israel at this time. But, devotionally, we might want to consider what this statement adds to our understanding of Christ’s coming to Jerusalem and the cross. Remember the key teaching of Jesus at the beginning of this Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). It is a kingdom (reign) which Jesus declares to be inaugurated by his death on the cross. Mark’s added declaration from the lips of the crowd reminds us to expect and pray for internal and external changes in people’s hearts and out in society as a fruit of conversion.

Much cultural and political change has occurred as a result of Jesus’ Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem that day. Today, in the Spirit, rehearsing the events of that great day, we are inspired to pray bigger prayers for tangible results from the coming kingdom.  

THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST

My Servant Shall Act Wisely (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
    he shall be high and lifted up,
    and shall be exalted. 
As many were astonished at you—
    his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of the children of mankind— 
so shall he sprinkle many nations.
    Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
    and that which they have not heard they understand (52:13-15).
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities. 
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors. (53:11-12)

This is one of two “servant songs” of Isaiah in which the servant sings nothing about himself, only YHWH about the servant (see also 42:1-4). In these two, the focus is on how the servant will accomplish God’s mission in the world, but in this one, we are compelled to wrestle hard with YHWH, who states bluntly that he will seek to accomplish his will at the expense of the servant: it was the will of the LORD to crush him (53:10). 

In the first line, Behold, my servant shall act wisely (42:13), the term wisely (Heb. sakal) carries the meaning “be successful” in addition to “act shrewdly.” Clearly, in context, this means that the servant’s suffering will be the right thing to do because it will succeed for the Father God. Devotionally, we must grapple with the reality that it is in God’s design that we, too, must suffer to carry out God’s purposes successfully. Though in varying ways, what is true for Paul is also true for us: I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24, NET).  

That said, brothers and sisters, our part in the sufferings of Christ are only light aftershocks following the earthquakes of Calvary. Their damage on us, though significant, can never be compared with that inflicted on him. Jesus, as demonstrated in this passage, has taken the lion’s share of the suffering the Father requires. Today, in the Spirit, we witness our Lord’s suffering wisely for his Father as encouragement to persevere through our own.  

But…Yet (Psalm 22:1-21)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
    and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
    let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
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. (1-11)

Treat the first part of this psalm as an interchange of but-yet statements: But you do not answer…Yet you are holy (2,3); But I am a worm and not a man…Yet you are he who took me from the womb (6,9). We are overhearing “David’s” intense spiritual struggle between conflicting portraits of God and self-jockeying for position in his mind: God does not answer my prayers, yet he is holy; I am a worm, yet I am chosen.

Where do these conflicting thoughts come from in the singer’s mind and in ours? Are they not a product of the conflict we face every moment of every day between the “truth” we see with our eyes of flesh and the truth revealed by God and seen with our eyes of faith? 

Truthfully, only one person can say that God has truly abandoned him, and that is Jesus. When he cried out after three hours on the cross at Calvary, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? he was correct in his assessment of the situation. God the Father had truly abandoned his Son for a short time for our sake. He took on the separation we deserved. So Paul writes: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

Holy Spirit, absorbing the messages of abandonment in the psalm and the Gospel reading today, I ask you by faith to assist me in gratefully receiving the prize of your abiding presence that the Son of God won for me on the cross.  

Have This Mind Among Yourselves (Philippians 2:5-11)

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The icon of Christ Jesus painted in words in this great section of Philippians is full of the colors Paul finds in our OT passage this week from Isaiah. To name a few, words and phrases like servant (see Is. 52:13) and obedient to the point of death (see Is.53:12), and highly exalted him (see Is. 52:13) demonstrate to us how much Paul’s thinking is influenced by his vast knowledge of the “servant songs” in the Isaiah scroll. 

What is NT “new” in the Philippians passages is the audacious command, Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (or, You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, NET). As he writes elsewhere, Paul truly believes that It is no longer [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us] (Gal. 2:20) and that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Please erase from your minds any notion that this writing is just metaphorical. Paul urges us to have this mind based on the fact that as a result of the death and resurrection of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ is actually in us to live by. It is ours in Christ Jesus. In this life, we will never achieve that perfect emptying of ourselves, that “kenosis” of Christ, but we are not mere copycats of Christ either. By faith, we walk with his life in us.

Today, Holy Spirit, teach me to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this majestic passage in Phillippians for all its worth, correctly interpreting the mind of Paul in his saying that we have the mind of Christ.

But Jesus Made No Further Answer (Mark [14:32-72] 15:1-39 [40-47])

1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. 2 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 3 And the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed (15:1-5).

38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (38-39)

The Gospel of Mark loses much of its length in the narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus. Here, there is no interlude recounting the death of Judas as in Matthew, no conversation between Jesus and Herod as in Luke, and no extended dialogue between Jesus and Pilate as in John. Relatively speaking, the Gospel of Mark is hurrying, not silently, but quietly, from the presentment to the execution of our Lord. There is undoubtedly noise in this section of Mark, but it is muffled. The simple phrase above, But Jesus made no further answer (5), might be seen as emblematic of the spiritual atmosphere of quiet this Gospel seeks to create.

Devotionally, we might ask what particular spiritual effects the passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark is uniquely suited to create for us. If all we had was Mark’s version of hurried quiet at this stage of our Lord’s life, what might we find to be our spiritual position before the crucified Christ? One answer might be that God must eventually leave us to our desires to rebel against him at some point. On Golgotha, there are no more parables, signs, or clever teaching. To pay the price of our sin, Jesus of Nazareth must die quietly for us. And we are left looking on like the centurion to say, “Truly, this man [unlike us or any other] was the Son of God!”

Today, entering Holy Week, with the help of the Spirit, bring us, Lord, to that painful but productive place of quiet at the recounting of your death when we realize (yet again) how much we need you on that cross. 

Today in the Spirit

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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.

View more from Geoff Little

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