The problem with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday palms

The problem with Palm Sunday is that it’s hard to face up to the truth about the day.

You should know that your pastor is struggling mightily right about now, getting ready for tomorrow, because the truth about Palm Sunday turns out to be very different from our expectations. Your pastor is wondering how honest to be.

Here’s the thing: most people love Palm Sunday. And who can blame them? It’s fun to see our children waving palm branches and singing. And it’s fun for adults to sing, “All Glory Laud and Honor.” I saw a YouTube video this week of an American gospel choir singing “Ride On King Jesus,” and I found myself wanting to go to that church tomorrow to sing and dance and shout along with them. (Unfortunately, that church is a few thousand miles from here.)

As I child I loved going to church on Palm Sunday. Not only was it a welcome break from the tedium of Lent, but people seemed genuinely happy, even joyful, which you didn’t see very often in the church where I grew up. I thought then that Palm Sunday worship was a dress rehearsal for Easter, the mother of all happy church celebrations.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Preach about the dark truths of the day? Only the brave (or the ones nearing retirement) would do that. Mention that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to die? That would bring everybody down. Remind listeners that Jesus may have been the only person that day who wasn’t enjoying himself? I’ve done that, and there was no applause.

If, as Luke tells us, Jesus wept over Jerusalem in the minutes before mounting that donkey, then his eyes would have been puffy and red. If he smiled, it was a forced smile, the smile of someone who doesn’t want to take the fun out of the day for other people.

But surely the people closest to Jesus could see his growing sadness, apprehension, and determination to see the mission through. They at least knew the truth.

Palm Sunday is a mixed bag of emotions – kind of like life as we live it. I find that even my best days, even my happiest moments, have at least a small twinge of regret or sadness or pain. You don’t get to be my age and not accumulate a few scars.

Speaking of scars, when Jesus emerged from the tomb on Easter morning, having triumphed over death, having destroyed sin once and for all, his hands and feet and side still bore the signs of his crucifixion. I suspect that he wore those scars proudly – and did nothing to hide them.

I think that’s honesty.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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4 Responses to The problem with Palm Sunday

  1. Victor Kach April 13, 2014 at 6:24 pm #

    Hi Doug. It’s been about one month since I visited IPC on Sunday evening at the Methodist Church. It was delightful to meet you and to hear Scotty preach and sing with the brothers and sisters in Christ at IPC.
    With regard to Palm Sunday, I see it as a time of remembrance of the Passover and the launching of the week that leads to our full and complete reconciliation with God, through a different sacrifice, through His Son, Jesus Christ. Although the week started with great hope and celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, it ended with his death outside of Jerusalem. But His death resulted in victory. A victory that gives me peace, purpose and standing before God, Our Father.
    Thanks for blogging your thoughts on Palm Sunday. We had a great sermon on LOVE and Christ’s commandment to love one another, with our launching point in John 13:34-35.
    I will look forward to the podcast of your sermon on Palm Sunday.

    • Doug April 14, 2014 at 12:54 am #

      Thanks, Victor. And I can’t resist adding that your pastor must have dodged the problem of Palm Sunday altogether by preaching about a different matter. That’s one tried-and-true method of approaching the day. I hope your holy week is good, rich, and inspiring.

  2. Georgia Hamilton April 14, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    A beautiful message, Doug. I think our Pastor hit the mark–he used Matt 21:1-11 and entitled his sermon, “Friend or Foe.” He spoke about the joy of the day and the pain and sorrow to follow. He ended by inviting us to walk Jesus’ walk this week.


    • Doug April 14, 2014 at 11:49 am #

      That was my sermon exactly! At least that was the message I aimed for. Glad you heard it. Happy Easter, Georgia.

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