Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Palms or Passion?

Worship leaders are told that we have the option on this day of celebrating the Liturgy of the Palms that focuses on Jesus’ triumphal entry or a Liturgy of the Passion that focuses on his impending suffering and death. It’s a hard decision to make. Obviously the Liturgy of the Palms is more of a celebration but this seems somehow out of step with the more solemn services of Holy Week.
We don’t want to get to Easter Sunday too soon.

They call the walk from the condemned prisoner’s cell to the place of execution, “The Green Mile.” Jesus is not quite there yet but that time is approaching. All the more wonderful too him, therefore, knowing he had not much time left, must the joyous shouts of praise have been – “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” This is the focus of the Liturgy of the Palms. But the story has within it hints of the Liturgy of the Passion also.

One of the great westerns is the 1952 film High Noon starring Gary Cooper as embattled Marshall Will Kane who one by one loses the support of the townspeople so that he has to face the outlaws alone. They are coming into town on the noon train having sworn to kill the sheriff when they arrive. The film is shot roughly in real time and the director Fred Zinnemann masterfully builds the suspense by returning to two shots – the clock on the wall approaching twelve and the long railroad track stretching off into the distance and which will convey the bad guys into town. Every one has deserted him – his deputies, all the menfolk of the town, even those who boasted early that they could help him face the bad guys even his new bride has left him. One of the great lines in the film is when Kane replies to the question of why he has to go the final showdown he says, “I've got to, that's the whole thing.”

Well Palm Sunday is the last hurrah before people start deserting Jesus and he will have to face his High Noon alone just like Will Kane. Only here the stakes are much higher. Kane was facing his fears to protect his own dignity and self respect and for the protection of a small frontier town. But Jesus was facing his High Noon alone for the salvation of the world. Barclay reminds us that this…"was an act of glorious defiance, and of superlative courage. By this time there was a price on Jesus’ head (John 11:57). It would have been natural that, if He was going into Jerusalem at all, He should have slipped in unseen and hidden Himself in some secret place in the back streets. But he entered in such a way as to focus the whole lime-light upon himself, and to occupy the centre of the stage. It is a breath-taking thing to think of a man with a price upon his head, an outlaw, deliberately riding in to a city in such a way that every eye was fixed upon him. It is impossible to exaggerate the sheer courage of Jesus.” [William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke: Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953), 249.] This was a well planned dramatic prophetic action in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who sometimes acted out their prophetic messages in dramatic action. Barclay again…"Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the centre of the stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defiance; and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst."

In one sense Jesus is walking into a trap but it isn’t really a trap because he knows what will take place. “No one takes my life,” he says, “I give it.” Jesus started this journey to Jerusalem with a crowd, but he will end it alone, or all but alone, with only his mother and the beloved disciple staying by him.

Do you find when you watch a favourite movie, even though you know the outcome, you feel like you want to influence the players toward a different one? You know Rick is going to say to Ilsa in the final scene of Casablanca that she should get on that plane and leave with her husband. When Bogie says “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” You know what’s coming; you’ve seen it all before. She’s going to get on that plane just the same as she has done every time you’ve watched the film. But there’s a part of you that wishes she wouldn’t.

In the same way the story of Easter is familiar to us. We know there is an inevitability to it and yet it still draws us in. There may not be real suspense any longer, because we’ve seen the ending, but there is still involvement and dramatic power. But there is one sense in which we can affect the outcome of the story – in our response to it. What if we were to walk with Jesus and share these experiences to some degree with him this week? Yesterday and today we have enjoyed time with friends and family – with the community of believers. This is what Jesus did before entering jeruslanm, he was with his friends at Bethany. We all have our Marys, Marthas and Lazaruses. Today we shout “Hosanna” and wave our Palm branches welcoming the King. What if tomorrow we were to drive out some money changers of our own as Jesus did when he went up to the temple? Perform some act of righteous indignation – sign a petition, write to our local member, challenge some injustice. During this last week Jesus taught several parables including the parable of the talents. On Tuesday we could ask ourselves whether we are utilising the talents we have been given, and whether we are ready to give our account to God. Charles Wesley wrote in 1762 -

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.

Jesus spent Wednesday alone in prayer. What if on Wednesday we set aside some special time to be with God and to think about Jesus’ betrayal, and what ways we continue to betray him in our own lives? The early church fasted every Wednesday and every Friday, and John Wesley adopted this practice also - Wednesday in commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal, and Friday in commemoration of his death.

On Thursday we will have the opportunity to gather with the Lord and remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper in our Maundy Thursday service.

Friday will be a day of mourning, a day of deep agony, when sorrow and love will flow mingled down upon the most perfect brow of the Son of God. Will we be with Mary and John watching with them at the cross or will be trembling in hiding with the other disciples? I’m not asking, “will we be in church?” but something much more important, will we watch with Jesus, standing by him?

On Saturday the tomb will be sealed shut. Will we stand vigil and allow ourselves to let the tragedy of the death of Jesus really sink in?

When Sunday comes, we will be back here as we are each Sunday – but it will be a Sunday with a difference because the story has a twist. From Palms to Passion, and then...what?
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