Rev. Stu Smith 3/29/21 at CCU in Anaheim, CA
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday has held a variety of meanings over the years. I’d like to take a look at its origins this morning.
To get the whole picture of Palm Sunday, we need to go back a couple thousand years. It all started when the Hebrew people were enslaved by the Egyptians. In the third chapter of Exodus, God speaks to Moses through a burning bush to tell him that he is to free the Israeli people from Pharaoh Repeatedly, Moses tells God that he’s not up to the job, but God insists that he’s the right man for the job. He eventually lets Moses use his brother Aaron as a spokesman because Moses stutters.
So, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, went to Pharaoh and told him that God says to let the Jewish people take a three-day holiday in the desert to worship. But this just made Pharaoh mad. He ordered that the slaves would no longer have straw supplied to them to make bricks. They had to gather their own straw and still make the same number of bricks.
So, Moses consulted with the Jewish elders and with God. Then, he and Aaron returned to Pharaoh. This time God gave Aaron a miracle to perform to help convince Pharaoh of God’s power. Aaron threw his staff to the ground and it became a snake. But Pharaoh still wouldn’t budge.
This is from the 7the chapter of Exodus:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the river. Confront him on the bank of the Nile, and take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake. Then say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. But until now you have not listened. 17 This is what the Lord says: By this you will know that I am the Lord: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.’”
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs—and they will turn to blood.’ Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in vessels[a] of wood and stone.”
Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.”
Eventually, the people had to turn to digging for water along the river bank. A week later, God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will come up on you and your people and all your officials.’”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the streams and canals and ponds, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’”
So, Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land. But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt.
The frogs ended up getting Pharaoh’s attention, and he agreed to let the Israelis go into the desert to worship. But as soon as Moses prayed for God to get rid of the frogs, Pharaoh changed his mind.
So, God sent a plague if gnats. But that wasn’t enough to sway Pharaoh. So, that was followed by a plague of flies. When that didn’t work, God killed off all of the Egyptian’s livestock. Next, all Egyptians were covered with festering boils. Still, no movement from Pharaoh, so, God upped the ante, and sent a hailstorm. (If a hailstorm in the desert doesn’t get your attention, hardly anything will.)
Next came locusts. Again, Pharaoh was unmoved. So, God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.”
But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.”
But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”
“Just as you say,” Moses replied. “I will never appear before you again.”
At this point, God was running out of ideas, so he decided to pull out the big guns. This is where Passover comes in. This is from the 12h chapter of Exodus:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door-frames of the houses where they eat the lambs.
“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”
And that’s where the term Passover comes from. God promised to pass over the houses whose doorways were adorned with blood from the sacrificial lamb.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years. Israelis were required to bring their proposed sacrifices to the temple to be inspected by the priests four days before Passover. That’s what was happening on the first Palm Sunday. That’s what made that day special.
As I was researching for my talk for this morning, I realized that Jewish Passover isn’t always celebrated on the Sabbath. It’s set according to a lunar calendar. It’s always within a few days of Easter, but it falls on a different day of the week each year the way Christmas does.
So, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the only significance of that day was that it was four days before Passover. That’s why all the people were there. Jesus had been teaching around the area, and when they saw him, they got excited and a spontaneous celebration broke out.
This is how Matthew describes the scene a Jesus rode into Jerusalem. ‘A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Many churches to this day bless and distribute palm fronds to worshipers. One Palm Sunday, a 5 y.o. boy was sick and unable to go to church. When his family got home, he asked what the palm fronds were for. His father told him that the people waved palm fronds over Jesus’ head when he passed by and laid them down in front of him. The little boy said, ‘Man time I don’t go to church and that’s the day Jesus shows up!’
The next few verses of Matthew describe how Jesus drove the money changers from the temple. These were members of the religious power structure who were charged with approving people’s sacrifices. But they would always find tiny flaws that would make their sacrifices unacceptable. Then, they would charge the people outrageous prices for replacements. That’s what set Jesus off. After that, scripture tells us that the blind and lame came to Jesus to be healed.
That celebratory entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday put Jesus more keenly on the Pharisee’s radar than he was before. Five days later he was crucified.
The Christian church incorporated all of the symbolism of Passover and applied it to Jesus. Jesus took the place of the sacrificial lamb. Just as the blood of the lamb smeared on the door posts caused God’s Angel of Death to pass over the houses of the Hebrew people, Christians expect to escape death on the day of judgement by being ‘washed in the blood’.
For many mainstream Christians, the Jesus story is primarily about his death. And that saga starts with Palm Sunday. The wisdom of Jesus teachings is secondary. It’s really all about accepting the narrative about his sacrifice and getting that ‘get out of jail free’ card.
In Unity and in other New Thought churches, we reject the idea of Jesus being sent as a sacrifice, and see him rather as a way-shower. He’s not an exception, but rather an example.
In the book we’re studying on Tuesday nights, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh sometimes uses Jesus and Christ interchangeably when referring to the higher power. When he uses Jesus, I’ve found myself commenting that we would say Christ. In Unity, we put an emphasis on that distinction. Jesus was the man. Christ was the state of being that he attained.
And when discussing the significance of Christian holidays, we put our own spin on them. We emphasize the metaphorical importance of the events. Christmas is not just about the birth of one special baby; it’s about the birth of the Christ nature within each of us. Easter is not about the physical resurrection of one man; it’s about recognizing that each of us contain that spark of the divine within that will burn on beyond our years on the Earth. It’s about hope. It’s about knowing that we can all overcome whatever obstacles life throws at us.
But I want to take a little bit of time this morning to talk about Jesus, the man. We know that the gospels were written decades after his death. We know that many of the words attributed to him were probably not spoken by him. Much has been added and much has been lost. We don’t know exactly which things Jesus actually said.
But if we look at the forest instead of the trees—if we look at the over-arching message of his ministry, we get a pretty good idea who Jesus was. We can fuss about the details, but we know that he shared a message of love and compassion and forgiveness.
And we do know the effect he had on people. We know because of the events of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday was a spontaneous event. It wasn’t parade day. People were going about their business and they saw Jesus riding into town. That’s the type of reaction Jesus inspired. He was a rock star.
We take great lengths to separate the man Jesus from his position as the Christ. But I want to give Jesus his props this morning. Jesus wasn’t a metaphor; he was a man. The hardships that Jesus suffered were real. The horrible death that he submitted himself to was real. A real guy did that.
Jesus was a real guy who somehow got it all figured out. But to share that message with the rest of us, he had to sacrifice everything. He was shunned by his community, hounded by the religious establishment, mocked; he was ultimately tortured and killed. He accepted his own death on the cross in order to show us how to live.
Next week, we’ll be celebrating Easter and acknowledging the resurrection of the Christ Spirit within each of us. But this Sunday, Palm Sunday, let’s take this opportunity to recognize the man Jesus. Let us metaphorically, wave palm branches over his head. Let’s be thankful for the wisdom he shared, his compassion, his love, his willingness to set aside everything for the rest of us.
In our mind’s eye let us find ourselves among the people of Jerusalem, shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”