Sermon for Palm Sunday

Text: John 12:12-13
The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.  They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” (NIV)

Palm praise

We remember well the queen’s visit to Australia last year and the great turnout of people wherever she went to welcome her.  Whether a royalist or not you couldn’t help but be affected by the amount of affection demonstrated for this great lady.  People realised that a person now in her mid-80s could have quite easily considered such a trip and the gruelling schedule of events too much for a person of her age.  They appreciated her travelling so far.

There were the more formal moments when the military snapped to attention and dignitaries surrounded her but by far the most memorable moments were her walks among crowds of people cheering, clapping, waving flags, holding flowers and presenting gifts to her at every opportunity; those moments of stopping and chatting with children, the disabled, in fact, anyone along the way.  With the wonders of modern technology even people at home could be right there in the crowd as they watched their widescreen TVs and reporters gave moment by moment commentaries on what was happening. (A few photos of the Queen’s visit on screen).

If TV crews and reporters were around in Jesus’ day I wonder what they would have made of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we call today Palm Sunday.  Would they have even bothered to cover this event?  This was just some wandering rabbi coming to town and his followers stirring up a bit of a welcome.  There was nothing grand about the parade.  A man on a donkey – how ordinary is that especially in a place where donkeys were the equivalent the farmer’s ute of today.  And it’s not like the whole city of Jerusalem turned out to welcome this man from Nazareth – the Romans didn’t care, the church leaders ignored him and the locals had to ask, “Who is this man?” 

A thousand years from now who will remember the Queen’s visit to Australia?  No one.  Every year for almost 2,000 years we have remembered and celebrated Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  All around the world today people in churches are celebrating Christ riding in, like a conquering king, on the back of a donkey, to the shouts of hosannas and the waving of palms.  Why is this event so important that it is recorded in all four Gospels?

I’m going to answer that question about the significance and importance of Palm Sunday by noting that in John’s Gospel it’s recorded that the people took palm branches and went out to meet him”.  Why does John specifically mention palm branches whereas the other gospels just say branches were cut down and waved and laid on the road?  Maybe the other writers assumed a certain knowledge of what kind of trees were around at that time and John who wrote later needed to be more specific to make a point.  But John being John, he usually has a reason for why he adds information that others don’t and this is no different.

The palm leaves of Palm Sunday have a connection with the past and a connection with the future.   

First looking to the past.  A special festival date was the Day of Atonement.  The people of Israel would acknowledge that their sin had severely affected their lives especially their relationship with God and with one another.  The High Priest would bring in two goats, one to sacrifice, and on the other he placed the sins of the people and then drove the goat out into the desert taking with it all the evil of the people.  Then they would celebrate the Feast of the Tents and remembered how God had brought them through the desert where they had lived for 40 years in tents.  This remembering was to be a time of great celebration and thanksgiving.  In Leviticus God says, On that day take some of the best fruit from your trees, take palm branches and limbs from leafy trees, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).  The people waved palm branches in much the same way as we waves flags and banners as they celebrated God's goodness and grace toward them.

We see this in the great temple of Jerusalem. It was decorated with palms and palm fronds carved into its pillars and covered with gold.  Palms came to symbolise the strength, the victory, the ability to overcome all things, the deliverance, the forgiveness and renewal that only comes from God.  The temple was the place where God and people met together, where sins were forgiven, and where people came to celebrate the greatness of God.

Now to look to the future.  We are transported to heaven and given a glimpse of what is happening there.  The writer says, “I saw a vast crowd …. standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white and held palm branches in their hands.  And they were shouting with a mighty shout, ‘Salvation comes from our God on the throne and from the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).  The Lamb is Jesus and the people gathered around him are you and me and all those who have been given the victory over sin and death through trusting in Jesus.  We have something to shout about and wave palms of victory.  He is the one who enabled us to come through the trials and troubles and failings of this life.  Jesus is our Saviour and worthy of our praise and thanks.

So then we come to Palm Sunday and you can see why the gospel writer John wants to especially emphasise that palms were used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem.  We read, “The crowd took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting (and kept on shouting), “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Palm branches, the symbol of deliverance, forgiveness, redemption, renewal, victory and rejoicing were waved like flags and laid on the Palm Sunday road down the Mount of Olives.  They welcomed him as “the King of Israel”, “the One who comes in the name of the Lord” who has come once and for all to save his people.

They shouted “Hosanna” which means “save us now” but by the end of the week they would be calling out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  Jesus came to Jerusalem to save but not in quite the way people had expected.  He became like the goat that was driven out into the desert.  All our sin was laid on him.  There is no sin that is greater than God's love for us.  There is no sin stronger than Jesus’ passion for us as he carried his cross through Jerusalem, was crucified and died for us. 

The palm frond has become a symbol of our redemption, our forgiveness and deliverance from sin, death and the power of the devil.  The palm frond is a symbol that points us to the victory that Jesus gained for us through his death and resurrection and one day we too shall gather around the throne of God in heaven and shout, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and strength belong to our God forever and forever” (Revelation 7:11).

Today and during the days ahead, especially during Holy Week and Easter, the palm frond points us to the altar, the place of sacrifice, and the cross where Jesus gave his life.  There on the altar we see bread and wine, which in some mysterious way is also the same body and blood of Jesus that was given and shed for us on the cross.  It is God's way of enabling us to be there with the crowds that first Palm Sunday and Good Friday and the disciples on Easter Day and share in the victory that Christ has won for us and for all people. 
As we eat and drink
it is as if we are saying with the people of Jerusalem, “Hosanna – save us, Lord”;
it is as if we are saying with the mob, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
As we eat and drink
it is as if we have the hammer in our hands and our sin is driving in the nails;
it is as if Jesus is saying to us, “Forgive them, Father.  They don’t know what they are doing. … You will be with me in Paradise”;
it is as if we are seeing the resurrected Jesus with our own eyes and saying with Thomas, “My Lord and my God”.

When you come forward for communion today do so with a sense of victory and celebration.  If you have a palm cross bring it with you.  Join with those in the past and those gathered around the throne of the Lamb and celebrate the forgiveness and renewal and victory that God is again giving to you through the body and blood of his Son in the sacrament. 
Be refreshed, revived, renewed and celebrate God's grace as you eat and drink;
look forward to that day when we shall gather around the table in heaven;
and right now let the love and grace of Jesus fill you and overflow into everything you say and do in every part of your life.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
1st April 2012

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