I hope that, as the day approaches, you have a holly, jolly Easter. I imagine you have Easter presents in mind already and, if not, good luck finishing your Easter shopping before the big day! How many Easter parties have you already attended? How many do you have left to attend? Have you already grown weary from all the social obligations that come from the Easter season?
I bet you plan to visit many family members during the Easter break, spending time in the warmth of hearth and kin. There’s lots to do to be ready for Easter, to enjoy the holiday to its fullest while meeting all the social and familial obligations in the process.
So I wish you, as you prepare for the big day, a Merry Easter!
It might sound funny, but if we skip ahead to Easter, paying no mind to what the week before us holds, we approach Easter in much the way we celebrate Christmas: with much joy and merriment. There will be colorful eggs filled with candy for our kids and grandkids, beautiful new dresses and suits for Easter Sunday, and flowers everywhere.
But before we can get to the color, the pageantry, and the celebration, there’s darkness, despair, and death. To truly celebrate, to truly understand Easter, we must go into the darkness first.
Palm Sunday, today, is full of pomp and circumstance, but it foretells a great change coming.
Let’s hear Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Luke chapter 19.
Everything in Luke’s gospel has been moving toward this moment. There’s this great image that Luke uses across the two books he wrote: Luke and Acts. The gospel begins with the ends of the earth, then moves to the greater region of the Middle East, then to Judea and Samaria, and then to Jerusalem, where Jesus arrives in today’s scripture. Then, in Acts, the disciples move in the exact opposite direction, from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the Middle East, to the ends of the earth, as the good news of Jesus Christ spreads.
It’s beautiful and poetic, and everything Luke has done builds to this moment of triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has a plan: to demonstrate that he is a King and upstage the Roman rulers, especially Pilate who likes to ride in through a triumphant parade. Jesus is showing that he’s the real king, but on a humble colt, not a great stallion, and not with a red carpet but with the humble cloaks of the everyday person.
And here, in Luke, it’s not great masses of people who meet Jesus but rather his disciples. Even so, the pharisees can’t take it. They’re so worried about what this will mean for their power, because Jesus also means to upstage them and show how their power is built on a sandy foundation.
The politics, the showmanship, the poetry of this moment are great. There are issues of cosmic significance! Especially around power: that earthly power, no matter how grand and great it may be, is nothing compared to God’s power. Jesus shows that true power, the kind of power that can really make a difference, is power characterized by humility, gentleness, and devotion to God.
But that’s not the primary message for us this morning. Palm Sunday holds a different message for us.
It’s easy on this Palm Sunday to get lost in the pageantry, in the pomp and circumstance, and the poetry of this moment and miss something incredibly fundamental to the story. It’s easy to jump ahead to Easter, with all it’s color and celebration. As much as saying Merry Easter doesn’t make any sense to us, we are prone to jump ahead to Easter on this Sunday, for we in the church live our lives Sunday to Sunday.
But Thursday is coming, with the darkness settling over Jesus and his disciples. Thursday is coming when Judas will betray him. Thursday is coming when he will break the bread and hold up the wine and declare his own death. Thursday is coming when he will go to the garden and be abandoned by his disciples. Thursday is coming when he will be arrested.
And then, Friday is also coming. Friday, when he will stand trial not once but twice. The law, rightly administered, will fail him, both religious law and civil law. Friday is coming, where he will walk down the via de la rosa. Friday is coming, where he will be nailed to the cross. Friday is coming, where he will cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” Friday is coming, where he will die.
Thursday is coming. Friday is coming. And Jesus knows it.
Imagine the scene. Here he is, riding in triumphantly on the colt, his disciples cheering him, throwing their cloaks on the ground as a sign of royalty, just like they did for former Kings of Israel. Everything is going very well. His first time in Jerusalem is a smashing success.
But as he rides the colt through the parade, like a hero returning to the US to ride through New York City, ticker tape falling, as he does that, he knows Thursday is coming. Friday is coming.
And it must produce some serious anxiety.
That’s the other thing that’s tempting about Easter: to focus on Jesus’s divinity at the expense of his humanity. To think that Jesus was God so Jesus could easily endure all the things that were before him, and forget that Jesus was also equally human, and would have been anxious, worried, fearful, even about what the week before him held: darkness, despair, and death.
Thursday is coming. Friday is coming. Change is coming.
We’ve been there. We know what it’s like to anticipate change and be anxious or fearful. On the positive side, we know what it is to be looking ahead toward graduation and feel the anxiety of that change, as much as the completion of school is reason to celebrate. We know what it is to be looking ahead toward a job change, a transfer, even the birth of a child, and feel the anxiety of that change, as much as those things might also be reason to celebrate. Easter is like that: there’s the looking ahead toward the cross but also toward the empty tomb, which is much reason to celebrate!
But that’s not the case for Jesus. No, he’s got to go through his own death first, after being betrayed, humiliated, and tortured. And he knows it’s coming. On Thursday, he’ll pray and ask God to take it all away. On Friday, he’ll cry out in agony to God from the cross. He knows it’s coming. Like we who anticipate the results of a medical test to confirm what we already know: that we have cancer or some other dreaded disease, or await the results of a legal case to confirm what we already know: that we’re about to lose assets; or await the results at our workplaces to confirm what we already know: we’re losing our job. Those things get a little closer to what Jesus is anticipating, the change he knows he will experience, as he rides into Jerusalem.
Thursday is coming. Friday is coming. Change is coming.
So it’s reasonable, in fact it’s essential, to recognize that Jesus must be very anxious about this coming change as he rides into Jerusalem.
And we today might could relate to that anxiety. There are changes we’re anticipating individually, to be sure. And there are changes we’re anticipating in our families and across our community. Think through your life at this moment. What changes are you anticipating? Major life changes? Changes to your business or job? Changes with your parents or children? Changes to your health?
Now, how do those changes make you feel? Anxious? Excited? Fearful? Some combination of the three?
All of that is perfectly normal and to be expected, just like Jesus riding into Jerusalem anticipating, anxiously and fearfully, the coming days.
So we have change we’re anticipating and experiencing as individuals and families. And, we have change we’re anticipating together as a church.
I’m able now to say to you what many of you already know, that I am leaving in May and will begin a new post at Mulberry Street UMC in Macon, GA, in June. We’re glad to return to Macon and excited about the church but also sad at the same time. This has been a wonderful five years of ministry. We have come to love Eastman, to love and care about you, and have formed some wonderful friendships. To say we’ll miss it here is an understatement. My family and I are deeply grateful for you and the impact you’ve had on our lives. We’re glad to have these final weeks with you to say thank you to you, our church, for loving on us and for serving with us. And we will have time between now and my last Sunday on May 15 to say goodbye, to express gratitude, and to love on each other. Certainly, that’s our plan as a family to this church that has been such a blessing in our lives. It’s truly been a pleasure to be your pastor.
So we as a church are anticipating change with the coming pastoral transition. You’ll hear more about that from Nicole Barnett, our SPRC chair, in a few minutes. But until that time, knowing that change is coming, the question before us is this: how do we handle the change?
Jesus himself is facing change; anxiety-producing, fearful change. Whatever change we’re anticipating in our personal lives, as a family, as a community, or as a church, and wherever we are on that spectrum from excited about change to anxious or downright fearful, how do we handle the change?
Palm Sunday, the story here crafted so carefully by Luke, shows us three things we should do when anticipating change of any kind: Keep moving forward, keep helping, keep leading.
Keep moving forward. Jesus could have turned his back on Jerusalem, but he didn’t. He could have tried to flee the change, but he didn’t. Doesn’t that ring true to our experience? When we’re facing change, especially change we didn’t ask for and don’t want, it’s very tempting to try and flee from it, to try and escape it. Of course we can’t, but it’s a natural reaction. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus felt the same impulse, but even if he did, he didn’t flee. He kept moving forward, straight into the future he knew was full of change and hardship.
He could keep moving forward because he trusted God. His faith, and his commitment to the mission, allowed him to keep moving forward. Jesus was equally human as he was divine, he had to choose to keep walking forward into the future he knew was fraught with challenge, difficulty, and death, because he understands our human weakness that wants to flee change. He could keep moving forward because he knew God would take care of him. And we can do so as well, because we know that God will provide.
While we are not moving forward to our own deaths, change can still be scary and anxiety-producing. Whether we’re facing graduations, job changes, test results, or the pastoral transition, change is never easy. And Jesus shows us that the first thing we should do is keep moving forward. Don’t run away from it or try and escape it; move headlong into the change trusting that God will take care of you.
Second, after we keep moving forward, we keep helping. Note the way Luke spends so much time talking about the colt. The owners of the colt only needed to hear that “the Lord needs it,” and they gave up their colt for his use. Also note that the disciples threw their cloaks on the ground, which is a sign of royalty. But, in both cases, the owners of the colt and the disciples gave of what they had, literally the clothes on their backs in some cases, to serve Jesus.
So it is with us: we are to give of what we have, helping where we can, to aid each other in times of change. We can give of our attention and ear, as we listen to those who are feeling anxious about impending change. We can give of our time to help our friends and family experiencing change, finding ways to love on them and bring the presence of Christ to bear in their lives. We can also, in light of the pastoral transition, offer to help Leigh as she leads our transition team. I’m sure she’d love it if you just walked up to her or texted her and said, “I don’t know what you need, but I’m here to help.” We can give of our resources to help support the church.
We aren’t asked to give of what we don’t have. No, the example of Palm Sunday is the people gave of what they had to help out. So it is for us. Keep helping, finding ways to love on those who are experiencing change.
Third, after we keep moving forward into the change, and after we keep helping through the change, we keep leading, just like Jesus. He didn’t shirk his responsibilities. It’s tempting during times of transition where we have responsibility to want to avoid it, as a way of avoiding the change. Think of senioritis, for example, or the way that people drop balls as they’re leaving a job, or the way we might stop taking care of ourselves when we’re facing a terrible health diagnosis or some mental health malady. We must keep leading, doing what we know is right, attending to our responsibilities.
Jesus did that. He knew the disciples would abandon him in the end, but he kept leading them, even through Thursday evening with Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. He kept teaching Monday through Wednesday. And even from the cross, he was making sure his mother would be cared for as he tells John to take Mary in like Mary is John’s own mother. In the midst of great, tragic, terrible, change, Jesus kept leading.
And we can, too. We should keep leading ourselves, doing what we know is right, engaging in self-care when going through change or anxious in anticipating it. We should keep leading our families and our workplaces, no matter how much anxiety or fear we have about the coming change, attending to our responsibilities. We should keep leading in our community, even when we see change on the horizon, no matter how anxious or fearful it makes us, attending to our responsibilities.
Many of us also have leadership responsibilities at the church, whether it’s to teach a class, work with children, or hold a particular position on one of our councils. Jesus calls on us to keep leading through the change, making sure we’re attending to our responsibilities and the needs of the church during this time of transition. It is indeed tempting to try and avoid responsibility when we’re facing change of any kind, because it’s tempting to try and avoid change, but we must keep leading, for the church, our workplaces, our families, and our very selves, demand it.
The example of Palm Sunday, for any of us facing change of any kind, including this pastoral transition, is to keep moving forward, keep helping, and keep leading.
To be sure, none of us are facing the kinds of things that Jesus faced on Palm Sunday. We cannot see, as he could, the betrayal, humiliation, torture, and death, that he would experience just four to five days later. But, if Jesus could keep moving forward, keep helping, and keep leading knowing the kind of change that was to come, how much more so can we who are facing less severe change do the same?
We can, because just as God provided for Jesus throughout his ordeal, the one we remember this Holy Week, God will provide for us, too. Sometimes, change is because of something God is doing. Sometimes, change is because of sin or the presence of evil in the world. Regardless, God’s ways will prevail, God’s power that we celebrate on this Palm Sunday will have the final say. There will be an end to our anxiety and fear. The change will produce something great in the end. Because that’s how God works: creating good and redeeming the bad.
Change is never easy. Transitions are hard. But God is faithful, God is good, in the midst of it.
What changes are you anticipating today? What changes do you see coming on the horizon? Changes to your family, changes to your job, changes in terms of schooling, changes to your health, pastoral transition here at the church. What changes do you see coming?
Palm Sunday shows us the way forward. So don’t skip ahead to Easter. Don’t miss this holy week, with all the change that it brings. Because it reveals to us how we are to handle change in our lives.
Keep moving forward. Keep helping. Keep leading.
God will take care of the rest.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.