Grace to you and peace,
The palms of Palm Sunday are significant especially in John’s Gospel. Last year, I unofficially called this day “Garment Sunday”, because we were in the Gospel of Luke, where they only spread garments on the ground. Lots of social justice symbolism there, and we gathered coats last year to donate and give thanks for Jesus coming into our lives and our towns. The other gospels do mention “leafy branches” being spread on this day, but only in John is the actual word “palm” used. Interesting, huh?
In the ancient world, across all the cultures of the ancient world, everyone knew what the symbol of palm branches meant. So much diversity then, as we have now, but everyone knew that when the palm branches came out, it was a universal symbol for...VICTORY.
The Gospel of John makes it very clear for the readers (all the way back in Chapter 12) that victory is at hand.
Only not the victory that everyone imagines: When we think of victory, even today, when we shout, “Victory!” What kinds of images come to your mind? Winners and losers. Conquering, heroic generals and soldiers marching in the streets, having just violently, crushed the opponent. Trumpets and loud sounds. Horses, parades, flags flying high. In the ancient days, they’d actually spray a perfume in the air, so it literally smelled like victory. The loser is humiliated, and heartbroken — head hung low, like March Madness. The winner, on the other hand, is crowned with trophies and flowers and medals...and palm branches wave high as a signal of all of this, as a sign of victory.
Only Jesus’ victory is different. The victory is in the cross.
The victory is a victory of love. That’s very different.
It almost seems to take the wind out of our parades and crushing opponents, and certainly out of our violence that we — like ancient Rome — can certainly employ to dominate.
This victory of Jesus, signaled in the palms, is a victory of love. And we segue now from the palms way back in Chapter 12 to the cross and the place we’ve been for the last 3 weeks in Chapter 19. Last Sunday, violence won the day — begetting more violence — and the angry crowd, the cruel Jewish leaders, and Pilate-under-pressure all seemed to result in Jesus being sent to Golgotha...only Jesus was actually in control of it all, unlike the way it looked on the surface. Jesus was actually the one who put Pilate on trial. Jesus, way back in the garden, actually turned himself in to the Jewish authorities. (18:4) “Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘Whom are you looking for?’… ‘I am he.’” Totally calm and in control.
[Ever annoy you? There’s just not the feeling of Good Friday chaos and hopelessness in John’s Gospel! Jesus is totally all-knowing and in-control. And today already, he is “lifted up”. This is the moment of his glorification...TODAY! The crucifixion is Jesus’ glorification in John. We get to glory and give thanks in Good Friday this year for weeks! (Since March 7 we’ve been reading things that happened in John’s Gospel on Good Friday! It’s a month of Good Friday!) And it’s ALL GOOD.]
So a victory of love — what does that look like? If it’s not about winners and losers, and humiliation, and military violence and crushing the opposition, then what could those palms possibly be about? OK, so Jesus being lifted on the cross is a victory...but how do we understand that?
We have a clue today: in the sign hanging over Jesus’ head. Pilate unknowingly proclaims the Gospel by arrogantly refusing to change the sign. The Jewish leaders were quibbling, wanting it to say something else, but Pilate says what I have written, I have written. And here’s the thing: Jesus is the king. Jesus is the Messiah. It seems a mockery of a king in the world eyes. But in the eyes of Jesus-believers, this is an absolute and total victory of love...
See, Pilate has the sign written in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. That’s basically every single language in the world...in their context. In other words: [slowly] Jesus is for everyone.
In Hebrew, Latin and Greek. For the insider Jews, for the persecuting Romans, and for everyone else in the Greek world. Jesus sign was written in Spanish, in English and in Chaldean...if we think about our more common languages here in our neck of the woods. But fill in every language you can think of: “It was written in Portuguese, Indian and Russian, in Swahili, German and Japanese, in Arabic, Hawaiian and Norwegian…” Jesus is for everyone. That’s a victory of love!
This crucified Messiah is not just for any one group, he is for all. He loves all. He loves the powerful Romans who think they’re in control of the world. He loves the back-stabbing religious leaders. He loves the crowd with all their baggage — all their self-centeredness, all their addictions, all their obsessions, all their pain. He loves the outsiders who haven’t even heard about all this yet! He loves the those who have died; he loves those not yet born. He loves you and me, he loves our pets and he loves that last white rhino that is going extinct. He loves the oceans and the deserts, he loves the mountains and the prairies, he loves the little toddler and the 96-year-old widow. He loves the gay man and the bisexual teenager and the soccer mom and the divorced dad. He loves the stars and moons and planets. He loves the scientists and the atheists and the fundamentalists. He loves the Fox News followers and the MSNBC loyalists. He loves Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton and Steve Bannon. He loves the members of the NRA and he loves all the children who protested yesterday! He loves the East Coast and the West Coast. And everywhere in between!
As Jesus stretches out his arms on the cross, do you see how this is a victory of love? It’s all right here on the cross. This is actually THE moment of ultimate glorification, of being lifted up — you could say the “highest” moment in the Gospel of John! We ought to sing “Lift High the Cross”! There’s no ascension up to heaven in John. Jesus abides/stays with us, it says over and over, and breathes the Holy Spirit of peace upon us. The cross is as “up” as Jesus gets, thank God! Jesus stays.
Yes, we know how the Gospel ends, that Easter is the celebration of life eternal, Jesus rising from the dead. Yes, Easter next Sunday is the Great Day of Resurrection...
But it’s not going to be a surprise at all to us! Looking at this Jesus of victory on the cross even today! It’s not going to be a surprise at all to us who look to and worship this cool, in-control God of universal, unconditional love, which has been pouring out, all the way through the Gospel of John!
Once again, all we can do is give thanks, give our awe and our worship (that is, make sacrifices), and follow. If Jesus‘ love is for all, then all are invited to come and see, to come and follow this one who goes to the cross in Divine Love. You are invited into God’s love, and into Christ’s services anew this day. Now that’s worth waving palm branches for! AMEN.