Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Missing the Point, and Glimpses of Hope
Updated: May 29, 2021
One of the questions I get asked the most by teenagers is “Why did God allow evil to enter the world?” It’s a great question – one that I sometimes try to answer, while other times I recognize my complete inability to even address the topic. Free will. Our ability to choose. The choice to love. The effects of sin. There are so many ways we can answer this. Yet all of these answers seem inadequate, especially when we are in the midst of experiencing that evil. We know who God is. We know what he can do. But if he is able to stop evil or even step in and prevent it from touching us, well, why doesn’t he?
Just a few days ago, it was Palm Sunday. Under ordinary circumstances, we would have waved Palm fronds and processed down the center aisle of our sanctuary together with great excitement for what the day would hold. Only a month ago, we were discussing whether or not we could bring in a donkey – well, the youth group and I were discussing it and Pastor Justin reminded me to bring a donkey diaper if we did end up getting the donkey. Palm Sunday is filled with so much energy. So much hope. It’s also a reminder of the day where we got everything drastically wrong!
You see, the people thought that Jesus would come in and be crowned king, kicking out their oppressors, the Romans, and restoring God’s rule to their nation. It wasn’t the first time they had gotten it wrong. And it wouldn’t be the last.
But then, we jump forward a week. It’s Friday. The one who they had wanted to crown king of the Jews is now hanging on a cross. A punishment for the worst criminals. A curse according to Old Testament law. Although this is reinterpreted later in the New Testament, the writer of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 stated that if anyone was guilty of a capital offense, they should be put to death by hanging their body on a pole; and anyone who died this way was under God’s curse. Jesus went from being the one who could free the nation to a cursed man. And the people are watching.
It’s now completely dark. But it’s not the middle of the night. Matthew writes that from noon until three in the afternoon, darkness came over all of the land. Is this a solar eclipse? While some part of a solar eclipse might last for three hours, complete darkness for that long is unlikely. More likely it is a reminder of two moments in Israel’s history, both of which were tied to the religious festival the people are currently celebrating – Passover. The second to last plague God sent upon the land of Egypt when the Israelites were captives there was a plague of darkness that covered Egypt for three days. For the entire three days, the Israelites lived in the daylight while Egypt did not. Second, the prophet Amos in chapter eight of his prophecy wrote of a future day when God would make the sun go down at noon, darkening the sky in broad daylight. He would turn the religious festivals into a time of mourning, and it would be like grieving the death of an only son.
It is in the midst of this darkness that Jesus cries out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!
For some reason, those watching don’t recognize the words from the opening line of Psalm 22. They heard Eli, which means “my God,” as though Jesus were crying out for the prophet Elijah, who in his lifetime, had come to the rescue of those who needed saving. Instead, Psalm 22 is read as the cry of the righteous sufferer. Here is one who doesn’t deserve death or suffering, but suffers anyway. It isn’t a cry of emotional anguish, the way we often interpret this phrase. Jesus is insisting that this suffering is undeserved, not that he is abandoned by God, but that he his righteous before God.
And the people watch. Some wait to see if Elijah will come. One tries to help or mock, we’re not sure which, by offering a cheap drink and pain killer. But mostly they are waiting to see what will happen.
I love this because it is exactly the moment most of us find ourselves in today. For a people that affirm and believe that God is able, we are waiting. Our current circumstances seem bleak. They are undeserved. The world is not being punished for something we did. But in a time of greater darkness than most of us have every experienced, we are waiting to see what God will do. We are asking, What happened to Palm Sunday, when the king came riding into the city and everything was just on the verge of full restoration? After the great recession, unemployment was at a historic low, stocks were up, we felt a sense of security, we were finally in a good place, set to retire or provide for our children’s education or put down a down payment on a home. But not anymore. The hope that felt so imminent last week has just been dashed completely. We’re uncertain and anxious. We don’t know how anything could be put to rights again. To quote two of Jesus’ followers just two days later, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. We can all relate to that sentiment.
Earlier that morning, people had mocked Jesus, telling him to come down from the cross and save himself if he really was the Son of God. I am sure there were people standing there, watching, waiting, hoping that he would do exactly that. He didn’t. Even those who had clung to their hope up to the last possible moment were disappointed. Jesus cried out one last time; then he died.
Too quickly we rush past this moment. Too quickly we run to celebrate Easter. And I think that is one reason we are called fake. We cannot only be the Easter people without also being the Palm Sunday people and the Good Friday people. Yes, we are the ones who celebrate Christ’s victory over death and sin. But we must also acknowledge how often we get things wrong. We are quick to march into town, claiming to have the answers and to know what God is up to – like the people did on Palm Sunday. We are quick to give up hope when we don’t understand what in the world God is doing – like the people did on Good Friday.
And God grieved. Not only did sky turn black, but the veil separating the Most Holy Place where God spoke to his people was torn from the top down to bottom. An earthquake caused rocks to split and tombs to break open. There is another Old Testament prophecy that fits this picture. God had given the prophet Ezekiel a vision. You can read about that vision in Ezekiel 37. There Ezekiel was transported to a valley filled with dead bones. While this is easy to write off as symbolic, instead, I want you to picture visiting a war zone, long after the war had ended, where so many had died without identification that there were piles of bodies, the flesh long gone. Perhaps this was a holocaust or genocide, where death had impacted the area beyond any ability to be measured. You might even picture the world as it is today, where hospitals are having to turn away the sick and families cannot gather even to grieve the deaths of their closest relatives.
Ezekiel commented that the bones were very dry. A long time had passed since this disaster had happened. If there had been any hope of a resurrection prior to this moment, it was long past. And still God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel, like us in our best and weakest moments answered, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
On Palm Sunday, nobody had it figured out.
On Good Friday, still, nobody had it figured out.
God alone is sovereign, which means that God alone knows. On Friday, God knew what Sunday would bring. On Palm Sunday, God knew what he had planned for Friday. And since the creation of the world, when the first person chose to listen to the voice of one who was not God, God knew what complete redemption would require and what it would cost. God didn’t wait for us to catch up. He didn’t wait for us to understand what he knew. He also never indicated that he had made a mistake by allowing evil, by allowing us to choose, or by paying the price for us. Instead, God stepped into the middle of human history with all of its messiness and did what needed to be done.
Can these dry bones live? God, you alone know.
So God told Ezekiel to prophesy to the inanimate, unliving, and very dry bones. And do you know what happened? The bones came to life. Not as an army of the walking dead or frightening skeletons that were a lesser version of what they once were, but a renewal of Genesis 2, where God’s breath entered the human body, bringing it to life, where tendons and flesh and skin covered the bones as the first person began to live. God then told Ezekiel he would open the graves and bring back to life those who had died. And that not only would these people live again, but God’s own spirit, his own breath, would fill them.
In Matthew, the description of the earthquake served the same purpose. Often earthquakes were referenced at the start of an apocalypse. Whether people were actually raised to life on that day or they would be raised to life in the future after Jesus’ resurrection, God was reminding people of what He alone knows – that these dry bones can and will live.
Matthew has one more thing to say before the narrative shifts. The centurion who was guarding Jesus, along with the other soldiers with him, saw the darkness and the earthquake and everything else. It wasn’t just the Jewish people who were watching to see what would happen. The Romans were also watching. And their interpretation of the day’s events was to proclaim in chorus, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
Today we are watching. Let’s not give up to soon. Let’s not claim that we know what God is up to. But let us adamantly insist that he is still working. My lack of understanding and my disappointment in the situation are in no way an indication of what is God is doing or what he plans to do. If we rush too quickly to Easter, we too quickly reach the answer, and we forget all of the times that we completely missed the point of what God was up to. But at the same time, on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday, there are glimpses of a future hope, hints that God is already stepping into the midst of our situation, and a reminder that he is Sovereign and that he is good – even when we don’t have a clue about much else that is happening around us.
This is a Palm Sunday sermon I gave at Oneonta Congregational Church in 2020.