Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Palm Sunday, April 5, 2009.
Sustaining the Weary
4 The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.
5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears,
and I have not been rebellious;
I have not drawn back.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.
7 Because the Sovereign LORD helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!
9 It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Who is he that will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment;
the moths will eat them up.
Isaiah 50:4-9a NIV
The Turn of the Road
Have you ever driven down a road, thinking you were heading in the right direction, only to wind up some place else? A couple of years ago I had an appointment with a doctor in Charlottesville. I had plenty of time to get there, and set off on my way. I headed up to Lynchburg and made it that far with no problem. But from there, things went wrong.
The bypass at Lynchburg, or whatever they call it, had just opened, and I took it. I was eager to miss all that Lynchburg traffic and this was a wonderful, wide multi-lane highway and I was making really good time. I cruised along, not recognizing the scenery. But, I thought, “I’m on a new road that I’ve never traveled, and I’m sure everything is just fine.”
About that time I saw a sign that said, “Prince Edward County.” That didn’t seem familiar either, but I was making such good time, that I just kept going. Until I saw the sign that said, “Farmville, 15 miles.” Farmville? I wasn’t going to Farmville. I knew where Farmville was, and it wasn’t anywhere near Charlottesville, as of course, you all know.
My appointment was in 30-minutes, so I had to re-group quickly. I pulled over onto the side of the road, grabbed my map, and figured out where I was. I called the doctor’s office, told them I was delayed (by stupidity, but I didn’t offer the reason), and asked them to hold my appointment until I arrived in about an hour. To make a long, boring story shorter, I was the last person they saw that day, and then I had to drive back home. I did find my way home, not via Farmville this time.
I figured out that I had taken 460 around Lynchburg, failed to get off onto the correct road, and kept on driving until I was in Farmville. I am happy to tell you that my cell phone now has both GPS and Google maps, so that should not happen to me again.
My problem was, I thought that road was taking me in one direction, when in reality I was going someplace else. And that brings us to Palm Sunday.
The Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem
We know this story so well that it is easy for us to think just like those in Jerusalem that day — that Palm Sunday is taking us someplace else, when in reality we’re on a different road. A road we might not choose. A road we had not planned on. A road we do not welcome.
The crowds that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem were ready for a change. The oppression of the Roman empire lay heavy on them like the Egyptian captivity from which their forefathers had been delivered. It was Passover week, after all. Emotions were running high, plans were being made to gather in homes, and rented rooms to share a subversive meal.
This meal appeared to be about an ancient story, a tradition, that celebrated the deliverance of the people of Israel from an evil tyrant, the Pharaoh of Egypt. Moses, chosen by God to lead his people out of captivity, had instructed the Hebrews to gather with their possessions in hand, their garments ready for travel, their staffs in their hands. They were to put the blood of a lamb on the door post, and wait for God’s deliverance.
And deliverance came. The death angel passed over Egypt, and all over that land death visited Egyptian households, taking the future of Egypt with it. Wailing could be heard rising from compound after compound. The will to resist the God of Israel had faded. Pharaoh relented, God’s people were free. It was a temporary freedom, as Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the nation of Israel, but God continued to protect his people. They had slipped in the dark of night from the chains of slavery into the guidance of God. They were free.
It was that same hope of freedom that the crowds in Jerusalem invested in Jesus that day he came riding in. Of course, he knew that he was popular. After all, he had fed people, healed people, raised the dead, made the lepers whole, rebuked the Pharisees, confounded the theologians, and captivated the hearts of the people.
It was not the first time the crowds had searched for a leader, and it would not be the last. But Jesus seemed different. A mystic, and yet a mystic who stayed with common people, ate with tax collectors, forgave women of poor reputations, played with children, and taught vast crowds who came out to hear him.
And while Jesus didn’t say anything directly about overthrowing Roman rule — he had even suggested they pay the taxes owed Caesar — he must have implied it. After all, he seemed to fear no one, but the Pharisess, the chief priest, and the other religious leaders feared his popularity. Of course, those religious Jews had betrayed their own people, as had the puppet kings of Judea. The less popular they were, the more popular Jesus became.
So, on that Sunday morning, when Jesus came in riding on a donkey, the symbol of the triumphant king who had brought peace, those in Jerusalem took up the chant, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!
The road to kingship, to freedom, to the overthrow of Rome seemed to be the road Jesus was riding that day.
A Different Road, A Different Destination
But the Jerusalem road on Palm Sunday was not the road to freedom. It was the road to sacrifice. It was not the road to power, it was the road to humility. It was not the road to fame, it was the road to death. It was not the road the crowd thought; it was the road God had planned.
In our celebration of the wonder of Palm Sunday, we forget that only a few short days later Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, tried, abandoned, whipped, spit upon, slapped, have his beard torn out, be scourged, tortured with a crown of thorns, mocked, ridiculed, and ultimately killed. And the same crowds that had sung Hosannas at his arrival, would shout for Pilate to release Barabbas and put Jesus to death.
This road had taken a different turn, had lead to a different destination.
Isaiah, in our passage today, writes perhaps 600 years before Jesus. And yet Isaiah’s words are both prophetic and descriptive. Isaiah paints the portrait of the Suffering Servant as one whose back will be beaten, whose beard will be plucked out, whose face will be spat upon, and who will be mocked. And all those things happened to Jesus. All of that and more. And why?
Because the road that Jesus trod was the same road he had always walked. It was the road of humility, of love, of patience, of hope, of encouragement. It was the way of salvation, not the way of the empire. It was the way of the kingdom, not of the king. It was the road to glory, not to government. It was the way of righteousness, not of Rome.
And in a perfect world a man who did nothing but good, who relieved suffering, who comforted the mourning, who sat with the sorrowful, who ate with sinners, who made the broken whole — in a perfect world such a man would be honored, praised, loved, and reverered. After all, we give awards to people today who do those things. We call them Nobel Peace Prize laureates, or bestow on them humanitarian awards, or name parks or streets or schools in their honor. But for Jesus no such honors were forthcoming.
The Weary Turn Away
In their confusion, and anger, and fear those who on Sunday had welcomed Jesus as their new messiah-to-be, by Friday had turned on him, weary of disappointment, weary of themselves, weary of their lives. And so tired of all they could not control, they cried out for vengeance they could control. If Jesus would not be their king, then let’s be rid of him, they said.
But Isaiah had written six centuries before, that this servant of God knew the word that sustained the weary. That word was, “Come to me, all ye who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
And so when the road in Jerusalem changed from triumph to torture, Jesus stayed on it. When the shouting of the crowds moved from joy to judgment, Jesus stayed on it. When the mood of the mob switched from adoration to accusation, Jesus didn’t flinch. When the road became rough, steep, and lonely, Jesus kept going.
All the way from the gates of Jerusalem, through the streets of the city, into the halls of judgment, down the dark alleys of hatred, out on the other side to the place of the skull. Jesus walked a road whose end he knew, whose destination was no surprise, whose journey took him not to the crown room, but to the cross.
And though the weary turned away, Jesus did not. His word would sustain the weary, give rest to the restless, provide peace to the strife-torn. His word was his life, his journey, his sacrifice, his violent death, his sinless life, his self-giving love. That is the road of this week. A road that takes us where Jesus has been. A road that leads to the cross.