Wave Those Palm Branches

Palm Procession Psalm for Palm/Passion Sunday

This coming Sunday is both Palm and Passion Sunday in the church’s calendar. Let us, for the moment, concentrate on that first part.

 

This time of pandemic we are almost all confining ourselves to our homes. But let us, for a special moment, let our imaginations soar. Let us take up our palm branches and join the throngs of ancient Jerusalem as they welcomed their Savior.

 

The psalm appointed for this moment in the Sunday ritual is Psalm 118. We are instructed to pray the first two verses, and then skip down to pray the last ten—verses 19-29. But do read those intervening verses, 3-18, because they are so instructive for this time when we are surrounded by an invisible, threatening army—i.e. the virus.

 

James Luther Mays, in his “Interpretation” commentary on the Psalms, directs our attention to the central point of this psalm, with a note about echoes of this central message in Psalm 56 and Romans:

 

The most wonderful truth a person can know is: “The Lord is for me.” The cry of the celebrant [in psalm 118] was an expression of that knowledge, and the Lord’s answer its vindication (cf. 56:9). That knowledge opened up the marvelous possibility of living by faith instead of fear. Human strength is vulnerable to the power and threat of adversaries. It is better not to rely on it, even if it belongs to princes. The Lord’s help is a power in which one can take refuge from both human weakness and human threats. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31).[1]

 

We read, see, and hear, with great anxiety, a daily flood of stories about the battle between the virus and the “front line” in this battle—our global health care system. And the death tally reminds us that our human efforts come up short. We fail in so many ways. We weren’t ready with the tests. We don’t have enough ventilators, not to mention the simple masks, face shields, and gowns for these heroes who step up to defend us. Even if we get our act together, the modeling says millions will still die.

 

The psalmist takes note. It is not wise to put ultimate trust in any mere mortal—not even a prince (vv. 8-9). There is not a president, governor, doctor, expert of any kind, who can guarantee victory.

 

But the one who is riding in this Sunday on a donkey comes in the name of the Lord. This one is absolutely and infallibly for us! This One has answered our cries for help, and has become our salvation (v. 21)!

 

The masses that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on that first “Palm Sunday,” were expecting a prince, on a white horse, at the head of an army, that would vanquish the Romans and deliver peace and prosperity to Judea. When Jesus rose from the dead, for a short time, his followers thought, “The Messiah has come, but the job isn’t done. He must come again, and then all our dreams will be fulfilled.” The second coming, or Parousia, will be the Big Moment.

 

But soon the church experienced things that helped them recognize something profound: Our Big Moment has indeed already come. It came at the resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead; and we know it because he is working acts of power every day among us. In the resurrection Jesus has already taken his throne as Son of God, King, Son of Man, and Christ. All authority is his as the Resurrected One, and he is not only for us, he is with us as we go to baptize and teach all nations (Matthew 28.16-20). And when we reach out from our socially isolated places by phone, text, email, Zoom, prayer, or whatever, miracles of Christ’s New Age are already happening. Right here. Right now!

 

There will come a day when we will be able to gather again to wave palms and hug and shake hands and celebrate. Yet we will have to prepare for another wave of infestation. But, meanwhile, the One who comes in the name of the Lord, is both for us and with us always. Until the end of the age.

 

Lets wave the palms and start the celebration—even if just in our imaginations.

[1] Mays, J. L. (1994). Psalms (p. 376). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.

 

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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