Palm Sunday – Encountering God in our Praise

The following was preached on April 13, 2014 at Grace Mennonite Church, based on Matthew 21:1-11.

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Today, we give praise to somebody who rides in on a donkey.  If it’s a Stanley Cup parade or Grey Cup parade (which we haven’t seen for a while in these parts), we’d expect to see convertibles or SUV’s with people hanging out of the sunroofs.  If it’s the Steinbach parade, we’d expect to see tractors and nice pick-up trucks and people chucking candy everywhere.  And If it was Carnival in Brazil or Mardi Gras in New Orleans… well, we’d see a lot of things we wouldn’t see in the Steinbach parade.

But here we are.  Gathering every year on Palm Sunday to give praise to someone riding a donkey.

The crowds went ahead with their palms and their blankets, shouting “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In the Old Testament reading, Hosanna meant, Save Us!  Save us!  This is what Canadian hockey fans feel like when 6 of the 7 teams don’t make the playoffs.  Somebody come and do something!  Come home Jonathon Toews!  We need help!

And then, though, by the time we read people shouting Hosanna in the New Testament, it’s come to mean something a bit different.  It had come to mean, Salvation has come!  We are saved!  Salvation is here!

It had changed from a plea to a proclamation. And it certainly got people’s attention.

Matthew records that the whole city asking, “Who is this?”

And the crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth.”

When people praise Jesus, when people proclaim that Jesus has saved them, when people worship Jesus, I think they are doing two incredibly counter-cultural revolutionary things.

The first, is that they are admitting that there is a higher source of authority than themselves.  This runs right against the grain of our culture.  We look out for number one, we decide what’s right and wrong, we believe that the governments should do the will of the people, we are the number one authority in the world.

But when we praise Jesus, when we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and Saviour, we willingly put our lives into the trust of someone else.  And this someone else doesn’t ask us to behave the same way that most authorities ask us to behave.  Most authorities, especially governments, are almost entirely self-serving and concerned about their own interests.  But putting your trust in someone or something else that asks us to die to ourselves for the sake of others is quite dangerous to self-serving interests.

It’s this kind of proclamation that made the Roman government hate early Christians.  If they weren’t willing to fight for Cesar, if parents weren’t willing to send their children off to war, if the Jesus followers were seeking ways to go and love their enemies, if the government says “Jump” and the Christians didn’t say “How high?”, it was going to be awfully difficult to maintain an empire built on violence and intimidation.

Putting our trust in a higher power than ourselves is remarkably counter-cultural.

And the second thing that’s counter-cultural about praising Jesus is that it demands a certain amount of surrender on our part.  It admits giving consent to God to use us as God sees fit.

Now, on one hand, we are quite okay with this language.  We can say identify with the quote of Mother Teresa, saying, “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”  We are giving consent to God to use us.

But, on the other hand, we are not always okay with this language.  People can do all sorts of terrible things and hide behind God, or God language.  Claiming God’s will has justified violence, oppression, stupidity, and, at its worst, teenager heartache… “God told me to break up with you.”

A while ago, I was having a great conversation with a friend who wouldn’t identify themselves as being a Christian, and might even probably think that I am dumb for claiming to be a Christian.  We were kindly batting around ideas about why or why not faith is important, if it’s good or bad, and at one point I said,

“You know, one of the reasons why I like being a follower of Jesus is that sometimes, some of the things that we do don’t make sense.  Loving our enemies, caring for the least of these, giving money to a church community, working towards reconciliation… The fact that these are so irrational and against our “survival of the fittest” approach to life gives me confidence in Jesus and there’s something to unique here.”

His response was so great, that I asked permission to share it in a sermon one day.   He said, “Oh great.  That’s just what we need.  More people walking around doing stupid things and then claiming they’re right because God told them so.”

I laughed.  I said, “Yeah.  You’re right.  But as long as the stupid things I am doing are rooted in non-violent unconditional love for others, I think I’m on solid ground.”

Giving praise to Jesus means surrendering ourselves to being little pencils in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.

This whole praising Jesus thing is quite counter-cultural.

We encounter God through praise because when we proclaim that Jesus has saved us, we acknowledge there is a higher authority than us, and we give that authority the right to dictate how we live.

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And here’s the great thing about giving praise to Jesus.  It’s circular.  It’s a cycle.

By giving praise, you are giving  authority and consent to God.  And by giving consent to God, you are opening yourself to love.  And by opening yourself to love, you glimpse the reality of God.  And if you glimpse the reality of God, you end up giving praise.  It’s kind of fun, actually.

Where you enter this cycle doesn’t really matter.  For some of us, we enter by giving praise –  through singing, or praying, through shouting on the rooftops, or simply sitting in silence.

For others of us, we enter by being  open and aware and mindful of the world in front of us, and by quietly saying yes to God in the hope that we will be loving.

And still for others of us, we enter when we get the chance to be a little pencil in the hands of a God who proclaims good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.  When we share our lives, our money, our homes… When we work towards ending homelessness or providing shelter for victims of domestic violence, or towards reconciliation between First Nation and Settler peoples… When we spend time with the people on the margins with the only thing on agenda being love, when we choose to deeply love our neighbours, we enter this cycle.

And still for others, when we’re able to look back over a day, a week, a year, a lifetime… When we’re able to look around us, when we’re able to see love around us and how we are a part of it, when we can look and see God’s presence in all that was given, both good and bad, we enter this cycle.

This Palm Sunday, my prayer is that we will enter this cycle of praise somewhere, somehow.

May we give praise to the one who saves us from our sin and shows us how to live and shows us how to love.

May we give consent to being God’s hands and God’s feet as we seek to love our neighbours.

And may we offer even more praise when we glimpse the reality of God.

Amen.

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