Palm Sunday 2021
Return to Joy
March 28, 2021
Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID
Throughout our Lenten season this year, and into this coming week, we have considered a common theme in our midweek services, “Return to the Lord.” After missing the opportunity to gather in public worship most of Lent last year, and after even missing our typical Holy Week and Easter traditions, this call to return to the Lord is an important one and a meaningful one.
We are reminded of that as we enter into Holy Week on this Palm Sunday, that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Today is a day of joy as we sing “hosanna” along with people all over the world in celebration of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, of the Lord who returns to us. The Gospel of John tells us that the crowd which had gathered to see Him, had heard how Jesus had brought Lazarus back from the dead. People were following Jesus around and you can bet they were wondering what sort of sign and miracle He might do next. Many people had believed in Him because He could even raise the dead. There was a lot of anticipation about who Jesus was and who He would be.
It didn’t matter what group a person was a part of. It didn’t matter if they were rejoicing for the right reasons or the selfish and self-serving wrong reasons. Nobody in the crowds saw the cross coming at the end of that week. Nobody recognized that parade as the long-prophesied and purposeful procession to Calvary. Everyone celebrated Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem without a clear view of His purpose: to die for the sins of the world and be raised up again on the third day.
Whether they were crying out “hosanna” for the right reasons or not, everyone along that route still wound up devastated and shell-shocked six days later. Everyone looked on the arrest, the abuse, the mockery, the shame, the crucifixion as total failure and defeat. Nobody saw God’s Word and promise being fulfilled amidst all the darkness and blood and mockery. Nobody saw the serpent’s head being crushed in eternal defeat. Nobody saw victory, even though the Victor Himself declared victoriously, “It is finished” before bowing His head and commending His spirit into His Father’s hands.
Even the very faithful ones who were crying out their loud hosannas for all the right reasons, were still just as terrified and devastated six days later when life took a terrible and unexpected turn towards Golgotha. Think of the faithful women, who were undoubtedly part of that Palm Sunday procession, who would hurry out to the tomb one week later, with the goal of anointing Jesus’ corpse. Instead they are met with the question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is risen, just like He told you He would.” They didn’t get it.
Even the disciples didn’t get it at the time. Our text says that they “did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him” (John 12:16). Even after the women come to tell them the Good News about Christ’s resurrection, they don’t believe it. St. Mark tells us in his Gospel account that Jesus appeared to them the evening of the resurrection, and He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw Him after He had risen (Mark 16:14).
And truth be told, we’re no different either. You’ve heard the promises of God. You’ve followed Jesus around and listened to His teaching. And still, you have some doubts, some concerns, even some fickleness. Now, I’m not inviting you to identify with the Palm Sunday crowds not the crowd that would later demand to crucify Jesus nor even the disciples locked away in the upper room. But to return to the Lord in repentance and in faith.
Holy Week keeps you honest. You don’t have to pretend that everything is great, that it is all parades and excitement. God doesn’t promise that you’ll have it easy, nor that you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise. There’s no good to come by pretending that just because we’re able to come back to church after missing last year that everything is all good and fine. All creation still suffers the effects of sin. The cross comes before glory, suffering before the resurrection. But God does promise to strengthen the weak, comfort the mourning, heal the brokenhearted, to be present in every time of need.
“We know that God is at his best when life is at its worst. Our hope is not built upon our job security, our health and welfare, our physical comfort, or our income. All is not right with the world just because God is in his heaven. No, all is right with the world because God was on the cross—because God himself died on that cross on Calvary, paying the penalty for all of our sin and rebellion” (Hal Senkbeil, Triumph at the Cross)”
Palm Sunday is a high point, but also a turning point as Jesus’ opponents go after Him. Suffering comes before glory and death before the resurrection. While today is a day full of joy, and looking to the joy of Easter in one week, it also includes the seriousness of what happens in between. Serious, yes. Reverent and somber, yes. Joyful, yes, though not the fleeting feeling of happiness to which it is often confused, but the overwhelming sorrow over sin and confidence that God’s great love for you is displayed in the cross of Christ.
While we begin a transition today into Holy Week, the seriousness over the events of Jesus’ passion should not rob you of the joy. The hymns we sing are full of joy and praise to Christ, cries of hosanna, “Save us now” matching the shouts of Hosanna God’s ancient people. This was a plea to God for deliverance. But in the mouths of those witnessing the very salvation fulfilled in Jesus, hosanna is transformed into praise. You know what it truly means for Jesus to save. The prayer for deliverance has been answered, the promised Son of David has come to save. The praise doesn’t fade, for He would in humility rode in is not only the crucified Christ but also the risen Redeemer. Our joy, our songs of praise will never cease. You are to make a confession of faith that Jesus rode on in full knowledge that by His death He triumphs over sin and death. You are to make the bold confession that three days later He rose. You are to make the confession that He lives and reigns still today and look forward to His glorious return, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.
Rejoice over Jesus for the right reasons this Palm Sunday. Return to the Lord in worship this Holy Week. Return to make confession of your sin and to behold Christ crucified for your forgiveness. Return to see the empty tomb.