Judgment and Mercy at Palm Sunday
I dug up one of Dr. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermons — one of which I think is the dean at his best. It demonstrates the genius of the black pulpit stringing Gospel truths in and around issues in the lives of the congregation. After my brother Thabiti’s tribute to the doctor, I thought you might appreciate this taste of his work. The date of this sermon is unknown but thought to be before 1981.
And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. (Luke 19:41-42)
And so, judgment and mercy at Palm Sunday! That is the meaning of the strange pageantry of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on the humblest of animals and midst the roaring hosannas of a great mass of people, waving their palm branches. All who look upon the coming of the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem and who hear the multitude want to rejoice. We want to enter into the spirit of gaiety and celebration, taking our own palm branches and lifting our voices to join in the thunder of the multitude, crying, “Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38).
Only there is a shadow over it all. We know now that not a week would pass before these happy cries would turn to frenzied screams for the death and end of the strange, quiet man who moves in the midst of this tumult and excitement. The sun shines brightly on Palm Sunday, but grim things are in the offing. So quickly the awful fury of all hell will be loosed in the midday midnight of Calvary’s hill, engulfing all, Jew and Gentile alike, Caiaphas and Pilate, in the horror of the death of the Son of God. With what a shudder would these happy shouts end, making many to understand the lament of some simple people whose words haunt the world. “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Yes, in the midst of the merriment and the note of deliverance drawn nigh, a solemnity and a sadness hang over Palm Sunday, determining that the mood of the church on this day of happy shouts is somber, grave, measured.
In this, Palm Sunday is much like life. There is a brightness, a sparkle in our day, and thank God for it. We are often merry. There are days almost cloudless when our families are all about us and our strength and health within us and the road rises to meet us and the morning wind blows gently in our faces. Thoughtless must be the person who does not sense in all of this, oh, not morbidly, that there are shadows over life too.
There are hard duties, sometimes harsh ones, which must be met, burdensome responsibilities which must be shouldered, and parts of the journey which are uphill and taxing. Yes, and in this life there are sorrow and sin and sickness with all the dividends of misery which they bring. Over our dearest and tenderest loves there hovers another shadow, far off, we hope, but certain. It is the awareness that no matter how close we are to those whom God has given us to love, we must part. The mood of Palm Sunday, then, with merriment and sadness mixed is an authentic sample of our lives with their lights and shadows.
At the center of this odd procession which we call the triumphal entry is the figure of Jesus, facing the city of David, Jerusalem. Adoring and pious Christian art has painted him as gentle, tame, inoffensive—Jesus, meek and mild. The Palm Sunday procession where judgment and mercy meet hardly shows such a bland, passive soul. The figure at the center of Palm Sunday has a splendid dignity, a royal purposefulness, a grand determination, an almost austere majesty, as he faces the city of Jerusalem. He considers this Palm Sunday entry to be one last offering of himself, one final chance, too, for his people to embrace his way before a terrible and awesome visitation of death and destruction would come upon the city. The awful option of life or death hangs over this day.
Jesus has the courage to face the city, Jerusalem, your city, my city, and every city. He does not run from them; he moves toward human attempts to fashion some kind of community. He knew that there are hazards, fierce ones, where men and women of good intentions and evil intentions come together, but such are the terms of community. Jesus faced people in community. He did not flee from that enterprise.
A person is no friend, no follower of Jesus Christ who looks with contempt and disdain upon our old, faltering, admittedly imperfect, attempts to establish community, to build a livable society. There are those who seek their security and salvation in separating themselves from the pain and stress of men and women together in a community. Well, of course people disappoint us and disgust us. Well, we disappoint and disgust them too. Still, does it not seem that Jesus, facing the city, on Palm Sunday, not fleeing it, is saying that our peace in the earth will never be found in denying our common humanity? In that way lies an endless hell and destruction, as so much of our history tells us, and in blood, over and over again.
Something else is needed, at whatever price, at whatever peril, at whatever pain. Edwin Markham speaks of it when he describes one who:
Drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
Our hope is in community. It is truer now than ever that “we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”—and on gallows of what varied and indescribable agony. Jesus faced the city, offering it light and life, offering it himself.
It was with no sickly sentimentalism, no pious pap, no pale politeness that Jesus faced the old, grand capital of religion— Jerusalem. Coming upon the ancient city, our Lord spoke words of judgment, of God’s overseeing inspection and superintending examination. “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace!” Did he behold more than the ugly, massive power of Rome, perhaps evil incarnate in its refined cruelty and never-to-be-satisfied lust for conquest? Did the piercing insight of Jesus see also a community in which angry divisions, brother against brother, sister against sister, would be more destructive than the alien warlords of Rome? Such became the history of Jerusalem before its fall in A.D. 70.
So the eyes of God search any city, any community, any nation, any individual soul. Do we believe that our human affairs, international, national, local, individual, any of them, go on with no eyes to gaze upon them and to judge them save our own? Do you think there is no review of our human doings? No other court except the petty tribunals we set up of dying men and women whose dust will soon be blown by every vagrant wind? History speaks otherwise. There are many evils left in the world, but every great group guilt has been judged by history and history’s God. Massive, entrenched institutions of evil have not gone unchallenged, unpunished. The divine right of kings, sweatshop labor, oppression, slavery, doctrines of Aryan supremacy. There is an all-seeing eye. God is still on the throne. This, Jesus was saying to his city and to your community and mine.
Do we need to do anything other than search the events around us, crime, the lust for things, the international uncertainty, to hear what is being said to us, to see what is laid out before us? Is not greed strangling our society? Are drugs and guns, crime in our streets and offices the final epitaph to be written on our society, so advantaged in so many ways, so promising even in its darkest hours? One senses that this nation is intended of God not to be as the old notion had it, a melting pot, but a concert of ethnicity, each bringing the rich notes of his, her origins to the great music of the American undertaking. One wonders if slothfulness, an empty swagger, and slavery to every passing fad are to be the fate of our black community in America where fathers and mothers and theirs before them embraced a bright vision of our destiny and toiled on toward it so gallantly and against such overwhelming odds? The words of Jesus, “If thou hadst known… the things which belong unto thy peace,” sound so powerfully, solemnly over us.
How is it with you? You will know better than I what gifts of mind and heart you brought to the living of your days and what you planned to do with those gifts. No one can know as you can how far you have fallen short of what you meant to be and what you intended to do. Someone has told of meeting a disheveled beggar in one of the worst sections of London. Asking for a handout, the poor, broken shell of a man said, “I know I don’t look like much, but you’ve no mind the man I meant to be.” On a day to be forever regretted someone gave up on integrity and honor and decided that one plays the game, and that’s all there is to it. You thought that you were wise, smart, knew your way around when you turned from the God of your fathers and from the old, dear lessons of home and church and school. Now you have only a nameless sadness as you try to push out of your mind the mystery, the loneliness, the uncertainty, the pathos of life with no sense of God to steady you and to keep you. How piercing sound the words of Jesus over our brokenness, the end of our flight from God, “If thou hadst known… the things which belong unto thy peace!”
The judgment is searching and disarming, but something else appears to sound, also, in the charge of Jesus. One seems to hear in these solemn words a stubborn refusal to write if all off. “If thou hadst known…at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace!” Surely there is a limit, a cutoff point, a terminal line in the time of privilege and opportunity.
It runs out somewhere, but I think I hear a reluctance here to close the case, to ring down the curtain forever on opportunity. Still, while darkness comes on, there is a last faint light before the night falls, and on some of us forever. “If thou hadst known… at least in this thy day.”
I will not hint it. I will say it boldly. The old, pursuing, persisting love of God has not given up on you, on me, not yet. Jesus left Palm Sunday and headed on his sad and lonely way toward Calvary, the place where he declares in his own death that it is not over, not yet. The sands have not run out, not yet. There in the darkness on Calvary where Jesus died, God made a statement. It is that a way is opened, and a highway. Calvary is the hill of another chance, the mount of a new beginning where the love of God goes all of the way for us people and our salvation. Palm Sunday’s sorrow leads to Crucifixion Friday.
It is all there in essence on Palm Sunday, a searching judgment and an endlessly tender mercy. That mercy, that care comes into full view as the pauper King leads his ragtag retinue toward the city of a thousand sacred memories, Jerusalem. The procession comes at last to the southern slope of Olivet, and suddenly the city in all of its stately beauty lies smiling in the morning sunlight. The immaculate marble of the temple and the pinnacles of the city’s palaces make Jerusalem a strangely touching sight to the Savior, as his vision beholds, also, the pain and pleasure, the bright friendships and the ugly cruelty, and the things which break souls that transpire in the city’s avenues and alleys. Looking across the ravine of Kedron, Jesus beholds the city with its missed opportunities, its pretense toward love of God; he sees what might have been, and from the soul of the world’s Savior tears come. Could it be? Is the strong Son of God moved to tears by our poor mortal failure? A hush falls on our souls at this inexpressible sight. It slowly dawns on us that this is no slip, no chink in the armor, an embarrassment to be quickly glossed over. This is the very heart of God laid bare before our eyes, and that heart is infinitely tender and cares about you and about me. Dare we look on this heartbreak and remain unmoved? It is enough to melt the stoniest heart. For Jerusalem, for your city, for mine, for you, for me, the great Savior weeps, and the sobs send visible shudders through his work-hardened, strong body. Ends of the earth, see your Savior weep. Yes, Calvary is at the gates of Palm Sunday.
I trust myself to these tears of a sobbing Savior; do you? I throw my frail heart, with all its doubts, at the weeping Son of God. I place my hopes, all of them, in the strong hands of him who openly grieves and sobs for me. Christ weeps, my heart melts. Christ weeps, my will is broken. Christ weeps, my head bows, my knees bend before him. Christ weeps, my life is his. Christ weeps! That wins me forever. Does it you?
Words of Gardner Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor – 50 Years of Timeless Treasures.