‘The King of Life’
Psalm 118:1-9; 13-29
Our reading from Psalm 51 takes us back to the two most defining moments in the history of Israel: the exodus from slavery in Egypt and the return from exile in Babylon. These two events reminded the people of Israel that their God was a God who did not leave them behind in the grasp of death and destruction.
In Psalm 51, the psalmist said that he was in distress, but the Lord answered his call and saved him (v. 5). He was pushed hard and was falling, but the Lord helped him (v. 13). He had been punished severely, but he was not given over to death (v. 18).
That was why he dared to declare that God was his strength and his might, indeed his salvation (v. 14)
So, just like the events of exodus from slavery and the return from exile, Psalm 51 declares that in the face of death, God is a God who gives and restores life. Indeed, at the heart of Psalm 51 is the proclamation that opens and closes the psalm: God is good and his love endures forever (v. 1 and 29). Psalm 51 thus invites us to celebrate this reality of God even as we come face to face with the threat and reality of death.
Today, we commemorate again, as we always do every year, the jubilation of the crowd in Jerusalem as they welcomed Jesus as their King. Unlike the crowd in Jerusalem, however, we are aware what was about to happen in Jerusalem, namely Jesus’ slow and painful death on the cross on Good Friday.
But Palm Sunday does not become insignificant because of Good Friday. Just like Easter Sunday would never exist without Good Friday, Easter Sunday would mean nothing without Palm Sunday. Easter celebration begins with Palm Sunday because Easter was the fulfillment of what was proclaimed on Palm Sunday, namely that Jesus was the King who came to delivers the people from evil and liberate them from oppression.
Now, the way Jesus fulfilled that proclamation may have defied people’s expectation at the time. When the crowd welcomed Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, they were expecting that he would overthrow the Roman colonial power who had occupied them. No one who welcomed Jesus was expecting that he would be killed by the same power that he was supposed to eliminate.
But God’s mission in Jesus was not the same with what people had in mind. Jesus came to Jerusalem to declare victory not over the Roman Empire, but over death itself.
Death, not the Romans, is the real power behind all the pain and suffering in the world. Death was the real power behind the occupation and brutality of the Romans.
It was the real power that had kept them in slavery in Egypt. It was the real power that had destroyed their kingdoms and taken them as captives. It was the real power that Jesus, through his resurrection on Easter Sunday, came to declare victory over.
So both Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday put the suffering of Good Friday in brackets. They both proclaim that the power of death, manifested in the brutality of the Roman execution on the cross, does not have the first and last world. Jesus’ death on the cross was only a brief scene in a larger story, which is the story of God who gives life and hope, just the way God is proclaimed in Psalm 51.
Indeed, as we commemorate the jubilation of Palm Sunday, we dare to dance in the face of death. We all know what would happen on Good Friday. But today is the time for celebration. It is the time to declare that God has come in Jesus to declare that He is the Ruler of all; and not even death can deny that.
Nguyen Tuong Van was the last Australian man who was executed overseas. He was sentenced to death in Singapore for trying to smuggle close to 400 grams of heroin.
On the night before his execution in 2005, Father Gregoire Van Giang comforted Nguyen. They read the Bible together and recited Psalm 23: though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no evil because you are with me.
On the day of his execution, standing in the doorway of his cell, he said to his guard in one of the the Chinese dialects, Hokkien, “Bu chance bu?” “Do I stand a chance?” The question is a standard joke that prisoners in Singapore often ask to their guards before their trials. But Nguyen was not facing a trial; he was facing his execution on the gallows.
Indeed, Nguyen had told his lawyer, Julian McMahon, that he wanted to surprise the guards with the joke. He thought that it would be funny to say the words to the guards who were going to take him to the gallows where he would meet his death. Julian said that one of the most endearing things about Nguyen was that he was able to stay cheerful and witty even in the last few weeks of his life. “He died a good and peaceful death,” said Julian of Nguyen’s death.
No. Nguyen didn’t cheat death. But somehow, he found the courage to ‘dance’ in the face of his imminent death. And I dare to say that his faith must have been a significant part of his strength.
Friends, we ‘dance’ in the face of death not because we deny death’s efficacy or power. No. The power of death is still real, even today.
Death is present today in faraway places like those in war-torn Syria or parts of Iraq and Libya today. Death is also present close to us in many households in Australia. Whenever a husband beats his wife to a pulp; whenever a teenager loses his youthfulness and future because of his addiction to ice or other types of drugs;
whenever a child has to sleep in a car because her parents cannot afford to pay the rent and bills anymore; whenever an elderly woman is dying alone in her unit, the power of death is present.
Yet today, and later on Easter Day, we dare to declare that death has no authority whatsoever because Jesus has come and he is the King of all! Death may claim temporary victory, but the ultimate victory belongs to Christ and Christ only.
So, from now on, whenever we come face to face with the manifestation of death, let us tell ourselves that Christ has already claimed victory over it. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be like the disciples. They failed to understand fully the significance of the jubilation on Palm Sunday. They failed to embody the proclamation of Jesus as King. As such, they scattered in fear, leaving behind their Master, when he was taken to be nailed on the cross.
Jesus himself never denied the power of death. We hear it in other parts in the Bible how he trembled in the face of his suffering. And he knew that he was facing his own death in Jerusalem. Yet, he didn’t stop the crowd from proclaiming his kingship.
So, yes, death is real. Its grip on our life is real. But Christ’s rule and victory are even more real. We too are to be the people of Palm Sunday, celebrating the Kingship of Jesus in whatever circumstances that we find ourselves in. We are to join the psalmist of Psalm 51, ever proclaiming the eternal proclamation that God is good and His love endures forever. Amen.
 J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (April 20, 2014).
 Steve Butcher and Connie Levett, One Last Touching Joke before the End, on http://www.smh.com.au (December 3 2005).