The Voices of Holy Week

St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore
Rev. Jackson H. Day, Pastor
Palm/Passion Sunday, April 10, 2022[1][2]

Palm Sunday is like one of those beautiful days when you wake up and the sun is shining, the air is pleasant, everything you see is sparkling and so you head out for a picnic.  But no sooner have you spread out the tablecloth and prepared to enjoy the food, than the sky turns dark, a cold wind strikes up, and you know that if you don’t hurry, you’ll be caught in a terrible storm.  

We heard the Hosanna voices this morning. We can recall the other familiar voices of Holy Week; as the mood grows darker, the crowd’s voice changes to “crucify him.”  The many readings of today’s lectionary – far more than we could read in this service – include Psalm 31 in which the speaker is utterly miserable, the object of scorn by those around him. Today’s truth is that all these voices still ring today.  Today’s good news is that these voices are not the end.  They are not the only voices we can hear.

1. Hosanna Voices

I believe the crowd was genuine in their hosannas on that first Palm Sunday when Jesus came to Jerusalem.[3] How could they not be?  Who would compel them to shout Hosanna to a Galilean carpenter on a donkey?  So, yes, the hosannas came from the heart.

They may have trusted him because they had heard his words and seen his healing.  They could see this was a different sort of King.  Surely this king, who didn’t come in with a conventional army, must have supernatural powers.  That would be reason enough to support him.

And so we hear the Hosannas of the crowd.  Caiaphas took the Hosannas seriously enough that he had Jesus arrested by night, not during the day when Jesus was in the temple.

But if the crowd was enough to make Caiaphas cautious, it was still a crowd with no staying power.  

Jesus told a parable, once – the parable of the Sower.  Some seed fell in the good soil, but a lot of it fell on the road where the dirt had been packed down hard and the seed would simply blow away, or in the thorns where they would be choked out.  The Hosannas were like seed that fell and sprouted a little bit – but had no staying power.  They went away.

The real question for us is “when are we like the Palm Sunday crowds?”  When our Hosannas last for a few minutes and then go away?  When Jesus sees us cheering him on in the morning – but then discovers we’re gone at night when he needs us?

The Hosannas are the morning of the picnic, but before anyone gets to eat, the dark clouds have come up and the rain is threatening, and another voice is heard instead.

2.  Crucify Him – The Voice of Evil

As we look back to that first Holy Week in Jerusalem, we discover that in just a few days the dark clouds have gathered, and the cries of the crowd instead are “crucify him.”

Make no mistake, these voices are about hell.  Over the centuries we have been given a picture a hell that awaits some after death, a hell that is the kingdom of Satan, a hell that is opposed to everything that we cherish as humans, a hell that represents absolute evil. That hell is outside our experience – but when we hear the crowd crying “crucify him”, that hell erupts from the place of the dead into our world.   It erupted from hell into our world with the death camps at Auschwitz.  It erupted from hell into our world in the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  It erupted from hell into our world in the genocide in Rwanda several decades ago where the mass murderers were Christian leaders killing other Christians in the name of the Christian church because they were of the wrong race.  It has erupted into our world in the mass murder taking place in Ukraine.  It erupts in our own land as political conversations become hateful and impossible. 

Make no mistake – the crowd represents all of us.  Hymn 289 in our hymnal captures that sense:

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty?  Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee.

Sometimes the voices against Christ are loud – and sometimes they are soft. Sometimes the evil of that crowd is hot – and sometimes it simply is cold.  While looking through a hymnal one day, I came across this poem called Indifference, by G. A. Studdert-Kennedy: 

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to our town, they simply passed him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
for men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain;
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.

3.  Alleluia Voice of Hope

The voice of hosanna is not the last word, but neither is the voice of crucifixion.  Even before the first Easter Sunday, the voice of evil was not the last word.  We see signs all through Holy Week that the voice of evil is not the last word.  At the time, perhaps people didn’t understand these other voices.  The voice of evil may have been so loud they didn’t hear them.  The enormity of what was going to happen may have been beyond people’s capacity to understand.  

But after Easter people could look back and see that signs of Easter were happening before Easter.

Even on Palm Sunday, we see Jesus’ sense of humor, his witty way of turning things upside down, another way of calling attention to the emptiness of those who called themselves important.  They say Jesus did this by virtually making Palm Sunday an insult – coming into Jerusalem with a rag-tag mob, riding a borrowed donkey, as if to say, you big guys think you are kings, you are less than a carpenter coming to town on a borrowed donkey.

Even Jesus’ words on the cross were words beyond the words of evil.  Would it not have been natural to speak words of anger, to pray a prayer asking God to hurl down fire on those who had done this evil deed?  But in the midst of pain, in the midst of the accumulated power of evil that converged upon him, Jesus could say, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”   These are words of Easter; these are words of someone who was already victorious over hatred and anger and evil and death.

The night before, the last night Jesus was together with his disciples for a meal was another occasion for what were really Easter words even before Easter.  Jesus knew well what was in store even if the disciples did not.  We know how painful it was to face the cross, for we heard his prayer in Gethsemane.  But just a few hours before that, at the Last Supper, at the Passover Seder meal when good Jews like Jesus and the disciples commemorated, through the story of freedom from slavery in Egypt, the freedom God brings us all, Jesus looked beyond himself and his suffering and the weakness that the disciples would exhibit, looked beyond that to the Church that would be created, and gave them our Communion service.  He took the bread and wine of the seder and gave it additional meaning that enhanced its old meaning, so that the bread of heaven now represented not just the manna, but his body, and the cup of salvation represented his lifeblood.  The words he spoke Thursday night were not the words of one who was defeated and whose life would soon end, but the words of someone who expected to be victorious, and so he was already victorious and planning for the future.  Do this, he said, in remembrance of me.  Do this, and you will have me present with you.  Do this, and you will open a channel for God’s grace.  Do this, as often as you break bread and drink wine, and you will create the church, for whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I with you.


And so today we have a choice of voices to make our own.  

We can choose the Hosannas which lasted only a short while.  

We can choose – and how often the choices come to us as we deal with fear and anger and hate, to say the things that really mean, “crucify him.”

Or we can choose to make Christ’s voice our own. As the author of Philippians[4] wrote, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.“  It’s a challenge, and it can often be discouraging, and it will certainly be hard work – but in the long run it’s a choice between heaven and hell, and when we’ve made the choice, we’ll hear our own voices saying – not Hosanna – not “crucify him” – but “Alleluia – Christ is risen, and so am I.”

[1] Adapted from a sermon preached at Grace UMC, Hampstead, Maryland on April 4, 2004, and at Providence UMC, Towson, MD Mar 24, 2013.

[2] Lectionary:  Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (UMH 839); Liturgy of the Passion:  Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 31:9-16 (UMH 764), Philippians 2:5-11Luke 22:14–23:56 (or Luke 23:1-49)

[3] Luke 19:28-40
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,
19:30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.
19:31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”
19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.
19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
19:34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”
19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.
19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.
19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,
19:38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
19:40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

[4] Philippians 2:5-11
2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.