(A Palm Sunday sermon based on Luke 19:28-40)
[Note: this sermon is the first of five that I will preach and post during Holy Week. Look for one on Maundy Thursday, one on Good Friday, one on Easter Sunday, and one on the Monday after Easter.]
When we refer to something as being done in a “cloak and dagger” fashion, we mean that it is being done clandestinely or in secret. Adventures in the world of spying are sometimes called “cloak and dagger” operations, for example.
Sometimes we try to be “cloak and dagger” about our discipleship. The Bible tells us about at least one “secret disciple” of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea, who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body, is referred to in that manner in John 19:38; we are told that he was a secret disciple because “of his fear of the Jews.” I don’t question the validity of Joseph’s discipleship and I certainly can’t judge him; I have to admire his courage in asking Pilate for the body of Jesus and burying the crucified rabbi in his tomb. Still, secret discipleship is surely not the best kind of discipleship because it does not bear public witness to Jesus in the daily life of the disciple.
Some of us sometimes try to keep our discipleship secret because we are afraid, too. We are afraid of what people will think. We think that they will think that we are strange or different—which is of course the truth if we are really living out our faith. Some of us may try to “hide our light under a bushel” because we really don’t want to have to deal with the very real demands of being a real disciple. Such hesitation may be a more troublesome motivation than fear.
At first glance, such efforts to hide devotion to Christ do not appear to be going on in the events of Palm Sunday about which we read in today’s text. The disciples of Jesus paraded him into Jerusalem. Some of them threw their cloaks over the back of the donkey before he mounted it. Many others spread their cloaks on the road in front of him as he approached the city. These were very public displays of devotion and adulation. Moreover, the multitude of the disciples shouted out words of welcome to Jesus, blessing him and declaring him king.
Nevertheless, I fear that when the disciples picked their cloaks up off the road and put them back on, they were harboring daggers under them. That’s not to say that they did not mean what they were doing when they spread their cloaks or that they did not mean what they were saying when they proclaimed Jesus king. It is to say, though, that they were lacking in the same ways that many of us are lacking—in understanding and in resolve. And their and our lack of understanding and resolve are daggers that strike at the heart of our Christian witness.
Under their cloaks the disciples hid daggers of misunderstanding. They did not understand who Jesus really was; they did not understand what he had come to be and to do. When they proclaimed him king, they likely had in their mind a different kind of king than Jesus came to be. They expected a king who would rule over a political kingdom; Jesus came to rule over a spiritual kingdom. They expected a king who would establish an earthly kingdom; Jesus came to establish a kingdom that, while it would have extraordinary influence in this world, would have its foundations and its fulfillment in another world. They expected a king who would gain authority by the exercise of power; Jesus would gain authority by living a servant life that would lead to a sacrificial death. Luke makes it clear that when Jesus spoke to his disciples about his coming death, they just didn’t get it (9:44-45; 18:31-35). Under their cloaks the disciples hid daggers of misunderstanding.
Really, though, their misunderstanding is to some degree understandable. After all, they had little evidence in their Scriptures to lead them to anticipate a crucified Messiah. The Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah pointed in that direction but frankly were much clearer in retrospect than in prospect. Also, the disciples were, like all people, blessed and cursed by their tradition; theirs taught them to expect a militarily powerful Messiah who would take Israel to a place of prominence in the world, not a Messiah hanging dead on a cross.
Our daggers of misunderstanding are much more difficult to comprehend and even to tolerate. If we have trusted our lives to Jesus and if we have committed our lives to following him, then it should be our aim to be true to him as he really is, not as we want him to be. We should know better than we sometimes show. Why? Because we have the New Testament, which is authoritative to us, and the New Testament consistently tells us that Jesus was a servant Messiah who willingly gave his life up as a sacrifice for our sins. He gave up his heavenly prerogatives to walk among us and to die as one of us for all of us. But is that how we think about Jesus? We may say that we do but do our lives reflect such thinking?
Remember, now, that how we think about Jesus shows in how we live because we disciples are to be modeling our lives after his. Do we have the mind of Christ? Do we show love even to our enemies? Do we forgive? Do we serve others with no thought of payback or reward? Do we focus on giving rather than taking?
We throw down our cloaks when we acknowledge Jesus as King. When we put them back on, are we concealing daggers of misunderstanding?
Under their cloaks the disciples also hid daggers of flagging resolve. On Palm Sunday, when spirits and expectations were high, they were singing the praises of Jesus. They were shouting and laughing and rejoicing. All was going well and they had reached the great city of Jerusalem for the great feast of Passover. They were committed disciples of the great rabbi Jesus. But where would they be four days hence when Jesus was arrested? Where would they be when he was being flogged and insulted? Where would they be five days hence when he was hanging on the cross? Where would they be six days hence while his body was lying in the tomb? They would be scattered, frightened, and hidden. When the going got tough, their resolve got going. The disciples celebrated who Jesus was by laying their cloaks in front of him as he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, but when they put their cloaks back on, they hid daggers of flagging resolve.
Their resolve would return, though, after they encountered the resurrected Lord. Let me remind you that the resurrected Lord who restored their resolve is the only Lord that we know. We know him in the power of his resurrection or we know him not at all. The resurrected Lord who caused his disciples to go out and to risk their lives to proclaim him to the world is the same Lord whom we know in our lives today. Should not our desire and commitment to follow Jesus remain at a high level, given that we know all the time what the disciples knew only after the resurrection? They fled not only because they feared for their own lives but because all of their hopes were crushed. When their hopes were corrected and then resurrected along with Jesus, their resolve not only returned but multiplied.
The disciples’ resolve disappeared in the face of imminent danger. What causes our resolve to fade or disappear? In our culture it is surely not the threat of persecution. I’m afraid it’s something far worse. It’s complacency. It’s carelessness. It’s inattentiveness. It’s indifference. And it’s truly incredible. It’s incredible because of the great gulf that often exists between what we profess with our mouths and what we live with our lives. We say Jesus is King and Lord. We say that we serve a risen Savior. But how are those realities really impacting our lives? Does our resolve to follow him and to serve him stay at a high level? Or do our cloaks of commitment shelter a dagger of flagging resolve?
On Palm Sunday we join with disciples around the world in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is King. But he was a humble King. He was a compassionate King. He was a forgiving King. Five days from now we will recall that he was a crucified King. As we remember his life and death, we do well to examine our lives. How well do they reflect our following of such a Messiah? Do we have the mind of Christ? Do we exhibit the love of Christ? When someone hurts us, how do we respond—do we hold a grudge or do we forgive? When someone is hurting, how do we respond—by talking about him or by trying to help him? When someone is struggling, how do we respond—by turning away from them or by turning toward them?
As we pick up our cloaks and put them back on today, let’s be sure that we are not concealing daggers of misunderstanding and flagging resolve. They really do hurt our witness to our Lord and Savior.