Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! (sermon)

(This sermon is heavily based on Oration on the Palms, a third-century homily attributed to St. Methodius. I urge you to read it, if you are able. Preached on Sunday, April 10, 2022 at Potomac Episcopal.

Imagine yourself in Jerusalem at the turn of the millennia. You are perhaps returning with food from the market, or with a few items from a shop in preparation for the Passover. Or perhaps you are simply pausing for a few moments, watching the crowds flood into the city—people from across the country, and indeed, from around the Mediterranean and Roman Empire: the faithful and the not-so-faithful all mingled in one massive line that extends beyond the horizon.

But at this moment you choose to look, something changes, a ripple of excitement rolls through the crowd. A man on a young donkey has captured the attention of others. He is surrounded by a group of people—perhaps a wandering prophet and his disciples. Someone jumps in front of the rider and lays down a cloak. You see the dust fly up as the cloth settles on the ground. And to your surprise it is followed by another, and another, and another. The fervor of the crowd grows more intense, and the murmuring is broken by a hoarse shout. At first, you can’t quite hear the words, but as more people begin to repeat it, you recognize the words of the prophet Zephaniah: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! The crowd waves branches and swells with shouts—it’s no longer just the disciples saying it, now others are saying it too as they creep along the road below. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Many of us know this story, or perhaps have heard the basics before—even two thousand years later. Perhaps you’ve taken part in a reading of the passion narrative previously, or maybe heard it read for the first time and wondered “is this ever going to finish?”. Even for those who don’t attend church, processions of Christians with palm branches isn’t an unusual sight to see—from the streets of Virginia to Times Square to Jerusalem itself, Palm Sunday is a significant moment in our church year.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!, the crowds say.

And we sort of know how this goes… Jesus is a king who isn’t entering like a king. Jesus is entering the city to break bread with his disciples and give up his life for them, rather than ascending to a throne or kicking out the Romans. The very crowds that praise Jesus later mock him, and even the disciples mostly flee by the time of the crucifixion. And we know that in this Holy Week that begins today, we will walk through the heartbeats of this passion story: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And we know that at the dawning of the Great Vigil and Easter Day, there will be the resurrection, and life, and hope.

So what does it matter, really, that we’re observing Palm Sunday, given that we already know the whole story? What can this story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem give to us today?

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

I keep returning to this refrain  because in Luke, unlike the rest of the Gospels, there’s a slightly different ending to what the crowds say after this: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” If you pick up a commentary, many of them would say that Luke is intentionally trying to mirror the words that the angels said when they announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But what grabs my attention is that singular mention of peace: the king is coming? How? With peace. Peace, which seems so far away, as daily reports of war and atrocities in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia flood our headlines. Peace, which seems so far away, as we grapple with partisanship and violence in our own states and country. Peace, which seems so far away, as we wonder if there will ever be an end to the enduring pandemic.

And still, the crowds say, in a time of violence much like ours, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

 In an ancient third-century homily credited to St. Methodius (which this sermon is based on), the peace that Jesus brings is described as “unconquerable peace”, a peace that outlasts every attempt to silence it. Blessed is the king—he who brings peace.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord: that good and kind Shepherd, voluntarily to lay down His life for His sheep.

This hope of resurrection, hope above all hopes is what we cry out today, when we say blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Every year when we raise our voices with our palm branches, we shout in the face of war, and plague, and violence that we believe not in death, but in a God who brings resurrection.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord: the King against the tyrant; not with omnipotent power and wisdom, but with that which is accounted the foolishness of the cross.

The foolishness of the cross is the foolishness of hoping for peace in a time of war, the foolishness of hoping for an end to all wars through Christ coming again.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord: the True One against the liar; the Saviour against the destroyer; the Prince of Peace against him who stirs up wars; the Lover of mankind against the hater of mankind.

This good news, even, and especially, in our broken and strife-filled world is worth hearing again and again. Because when Christ rides into Jerusalem on a donkey in order to die, we are reminded not to look for hope in displays of might and aggression. It is instead the foolish humility of the cross that changes the trajectory of the whole world. The foolish, humble, death of Jesus gives us the power to laugh in the face of death, to believe against all odds that evil will never have the last word.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

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