The first procession is Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. People throw their cloaks on the ground, and they wave palms, and they cheer, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” This would seem to be one of the high points of Jesus’ ministry, when crowds finally recognize who he is. It seems like the culmination of his earthly ministry, the moment when he really comes into his own.
But of course there is a second procession, too, the way of the cross, as Jesus painfully walks to the place of the Skull where he is crucified. Crowds accompany him on that one too. Daughters of Jerusalem beat their breasts and wail for him. Others jeer at him.
The juxtaposition of these two processions introduces us to the most important themes of Holy Week.
We naturally prefer the first procession, the triumphant procession, the procession that celebrates human achievement.
When I was about ten, the sitting president drove by my street. Shortly before he was supposed to drive by, my mother took me to a good spot where we could watch and cheer. I knew absolutely nothing about the President. But I still remember how exciting it was to see the great man and to feel a little of his greatness wash over me.
It is a thrill to see famous people, people who have done something noteworthy, people who have made a name for themselves, people who seem to prove that human beings can do extraordinary things. Triumphant processions celebrate that kind of human greatness.
The people who cheered Jesus in Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday were celebrating greatness. But they were like my ten-year-old self cheering the president. The majority of the crowd was ignorant, and their cheers were superficial. They did not know much about Jesus, whose ministry was mostly in Galilee, about a four-days walk from the city. All they really knew was that a celebrity was passing by, and they wanted to be part of the excitement, to feel touched by his fame and glory.
The impulse to cheer famous people is a good thing. We need heroes. And in our cynical age, heroes can be hard to find.
But I have often wondered what was going through Jesus’ mind as he entered Jerusalem in triumph that day. My guess is, he was already thinking ahead to the cross.
Because, if Palm Sunday teaches us anything, it is that human fame and glory are fleeting. The same people who cheered Jesus during his first procession called for his crucifixion a few days later and mocked him as he made his way to the cross. A week after Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, he was dead.
What was true for Jesus on that first Palm Sunday is true for all of us in one way or another. The fact is, human accomplishments, no matter how great, cannot sustain us in the long run. Eventually the shouts of praise stop. Eventually we run up against our own limitations. Eventually we run up against our own mortality.
A contemporary parallel to Jesus during his triumphant entry is the return of traumatized veterans to civilian life. Many times I have been in the airport and joined with others in applauding uniformed servicemen or women. I hope they enjoy the moment of well-deserved recognition. But I also worry about what comes next for them. Many will struggle. For some, the struggles will be intensely difficult. For some, their moment of triumph will quickly give way to the ugly reality of the cross.
Palm Sunday reminds us that the cross stands over against every human accomplishment. Palm Sunday reminds us that our triumphs are not real, or at least not lasting. Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not in control of our destiny. Palm Sunday reminds us, even in the moment of triumph, that death will come to us all.
That is a sobering lesson, and it does not sound much like good news.
But there is good news on Palm Sunday. The real good news comes next week—the good news of resurrection and new life. But even today there is good news.
As Jesus’ final moments came, everything had been stripped away from him. Betrayed by one of his disciples, denied by another, abandoned by virtually all of them, handed over to execution by his own people—the very same people who had cheered him only days before—Jesus had lost everything.
On the cross, Jesus was not sustained by all the great things he had done, or the great lessons he had taught, or the adulation he had received.
But Jesus was sustained. On the cross, Jesus was sustained by God.
The real victory was not the triumphant entry, despite its superficial grandeur. Jesus’ real victory was on the cross. Jesus’ real victory shines in his final words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus’ real victory was handing himself over entirely to God.
We know what comes next, even though it is not part of our reading for this morning. God is faithful. God brings new life where new life seemed impossible. And the new life that God gave Jesus, and that God gives us through Jesus, can sustain us.
Jesus is showing us the excruciating good news of the Christian life. Everything merely human is stripped away—all our accomplishments as well as all our pain—and God remains.
This is the lesson from Paul as well.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself. . . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him.”
Christ emptied himself. God exalted Christ. We should follow Christ’s lead in trusting utterly to God.
May we heed Paul’s words. May we follow Christ’s example. May we have the mind of Christ. May we walk the way of the cross. May we empty ourselves of everything that fills our lives apart from God. May we commend our spirits to God at the last. And may we know the joy and the life and the exaltation that only God can give. Amen.