Palm Sunday is a day to begin focusing on the events of Holy Week by journeying with Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem to the shouts of “hosanna!” It is ironic that those shouts of praise by the week’s end turn to the visceral cries of “crucify him!” Capturing that irony makes remembering the love of God even more profound as we consider the depth of grace Jesus went to in order to secure deliverance for us from sin.
Every year on Palm Sunday thousands of Christians, from all over the world, gather together in the small town of Bethphage, located just 2½ miles outside of Jerusalem. They gather to walk from Bethphage to Jerusalem like Jesus did in his triumphal entry on a donkey. Many of those pilgrims will carry palm branches and olive branches. All of the people sing hymns as they walk up over the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and then up Mount Moriah into the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a worship experience filled to the brim with gratitude. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1).
Psalm 118 was an actual liturgy for worshipers coming to Jerusalem and the temple from all parts of Israel in order to celebrate Passover. Like the Christian pilgrims today on Palm Sunday, the ancient Jewish worshipers would walk into Jerusalem with great anticipation of their Holy Week together. And they would sing of God’s love and remember that love expressed to them in taking them from Egypt and slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. It is not just love itself; it is the love of God. This word for “love” throughout Psalm 118 is my very favorite word in the entire Old Testament. It is a rich word that is difficult to translate in English because the term is so pregnant with meaning. The Hebrew word is “chesed” and the NIV translates it in various ways: grace, covenant loyalty, mercy, compassion, kindness, and consistently translated in Psalm 118 as love. It is the kind of love that is graciously given despite whether a person deserves it or not. It is a steadfast love that holds on and never lets go. Our God is the God who shows and demonstrates grace when we sin; who has unflagging commitment where we are fickle; who gives unbounded mercy when we are broken; who provides constant compassion when we have been hurt; who gives a forever kindness even when we are unkind; and, who dispenses steadfast love that will never pass away and finds its ultimate expression in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who literally embodied chesed for us so that we might live and experience life to the full. That’s the kind of God we worship and serve.
On Palm Sunday let us not take for granted the fact that we may take a spiritual pilgrimage each and every day to the very heart of God and meet his great love there at the throne of Jesus. Our Christian life might be a bit like The Book of Heroic Failures, which contains a story about the 1978 strike of British firefighters, when the army filled the gap for the missing firemen. One afternoon the replacement firefighters got a call to rescue a cat caught high in a tree. The soldiers rushed to the scene, put up a ladder, brought down the cat, and gave it back to the owner. The woman was grateful and invited them in for tea. After a nice time together, they said goodbye, got in the truck, and backed away—over the cat. Let us never replace God’s love with human love because we desperately need God and the saving love he has shown through Jesus who has gone before us and made the way clear to a life-giving relationship with the divine. Let us never take for granted the ability to take a spiritual pilgrimage to God through the saving acts of Jesus that made it all possible. Let us be thankful and be forever grateful to God for his unique and eternal love, for he is good, and his love endures forever. Let us come to King Jesus, and allow his sovereign rule to so deeply penetrate our hearts that there is no room for complaint but only thanksgiving. Let us enter through the gates of righteousness and give thanks to the LORD.
True and genuine joy cannot be manufactured, but is a spontaneous response to being deeply thankful for the love of God in Christ. The season of Lent, the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is a time of seriousness, self-evaluation, and looking at one’s heart and practicing repentance. So, to have this joyous worship celebration toward the end of the season might seem a bit out of place, maybe even weird. But that would be to misunderstand repentance because repenting of sin might be a hard thing to do, but it is a joyful act. It is a joyful act because it is a beautiful thing to say “good-bye” to old sins and idolatrous liturgies that vie for our love and attention. And there is no love-loss here – it is a happy occasion to let go of those long established sinful liturgies of life, those routines that do not develop us as faithful followers of God, and throw ourselves upon the mercy, the chesed of God.
Turning from old sinful liturgies of life and turning to a new liturgy of following Jesus is like walking through a gate into a new reality and rejoicing with all the other redeemed pilgrims who are walking the road to Jerusalem to be with Jesus. Our Lord himself said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:9-10).
So let us enter worship on Palm Sunday, as well as each and every day, with the heart of a pilgrim. Let us enter with a song on our lips and joy in our hearts. Let us enter knowing that this is the place where we come in contact with the love of God through our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us enter expecting to come out of worship changed, expecting great things to happen. Soli Deo Gloria.