But it is good for us to begin Holy Week this way—with the whole story.
Over the next week, we will go through it again a little more slowly. On Maundy Thursday, we focus on the Last Supper. On Good Friday, we get Christ’s passion again. On Saturday, we wait. And then, on Easter morning, we will be ready to celebrate the good news of great joy that, despite everything we remember this week, Christ is alive. Death is defeated. God wins!
That is where we are heading. But we are not there yet. The sad truth is, we can’t have resurrection without crucifixion. And so today our long gospel reading ends with Jesus dead and buried, and the tomb sealed with a great stone. We will get to resurrection. But not today.
The irony is, our service today began with such apparent promise. We prayed over the palms that they would “be for us signs of [Christ’s] victory.” We processed around the Church singing a song of triumph and waving our palms to hail Christ as our king. It is fun, even for those of us who cannot sing, and it is happy.
If that is how we feel marching around the Church, think how the disciples must have felt on that first Palm Sunday. After three years of hardship and work, Jesus was finally getting his due recognition. And the disciples were right there with him, soaking it up, thinking to themselves, “At last, our ship has come in. Now is the time. God’s kingdom is here, and we are first in line.”
I don’t know how long that feeling lasted for them. For us, it lasted about thirty seconds. From the moment we took our places in the Church, the mood of the service shifted. Everything since the procession has been all about Jesus’ suffering and death. So much for that initial promise. So much for that glorious victory.
And that, I fear, is a lesson of Palm Sunday. Even at its best, worldly triumph does not last long. It is great when your team wins the Super Bowl and you get to have the big parade. But next year, the other team is going to get its own back.
We know this from our own lives. We can be on top of the world one minute, and everything comes crashing down all around us the next. In a novel I just finished, the main character won a glorious victory after more than ten years of struggle. The same day, she received another piece of wonderful news about a development in a different long-simmering conflict. She rushed to her closest friend to celebrate these two pieces of good news, and found her friend collapsed from a sudden illness that would shortly kill her.
Triumph gives way to tragedy. That is how the world works.
Palm Sunday is a grim reminder of that reality. People cheer Jesus one day, and call for his crucifixion just a few days later. We rightly celebrate the good things in our lives. But we know from painful experience that everything passes.
Now, if that were the whole story, it would be grim indeed. Thankfully, that is NOT the whole story.
Sometimes all we can see is a sealed tomb. But we know that behind that great stone, inside the sealed tomb, God is at work. New life is stirring. Christ, who has been obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—is being exalted.
We Christians are people of faith and of hope. Even when we can’t see what God is doing, even when God seems far away, we know deep down that God is present. That God is powerful. That God is good, all the time, even when we cannot see what good God is doing.
That is Palm Sunday faith.
Palm Sunday forces us to acknowledge that worldly triumphs are ultimately meaningless. But Palm Sunday also invites us to live in the faith and the hope that God is at work in even the darkest times and places. God was at work in that tomb. And God is at work in our world and in our lives.
That faith, that hope, sustains us as it has always sustained the people of God.
Listen again to our readings from the Old Testament. They speak to Jesus’ experience on the cross. But they also speak to us, to people of faith who have sometimes suffered.
Isaiah talks about a person who is beaten and insulted and spit upon. But even as he suffers, the beloved child of God knows, deep down, “The Lord God helps me….I shall not be put to shame; [the one] who vindicates me is near….It is the Lord God who helps me.”
He may suffer. But he does not suffer alone, and he looks forward in confidence and hope to a day of vindication. That is Palm Sunday faith.
In our Psalm, the speaker says “My life is wasted with grief, and my years with sighing; my strength fails me because of affliction, and my bones are consumed.”
But the Psalmist does not despair. “As for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. I have said, ‘You are my God.’”
And so, despite everything that is happening to him, the Psalmist prays, “Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving-kindness save me.”
That is Palm Sunday Faith.
I am looking forward to Easter. I am looking forward to celebrating Christ’s resurrection, Christ’s victory over sin and evil and suffering and death.
But I am grateful for the lessons of Palm Sunday. I am grateful for the invitation to celebrate the good things in our world, even if we know they will pass. I am even more grateful for the reminder that God is at work in our world and in our lives even in the dark times, that life is stirring in what seem like dead places, that God is with us even when we cannot see.
And so I give thanks to God, who helps us and sustains us through the dark times so that we can experience the love and the joy that comes with life in God.
In the name of Jesus Christ before whom every knee will one day bend and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.