March 25, 2018 - Palm Sunday


 118:1-9; 13-29
Mark 11:1-11


Our reading from Psalm 51 takes us back to the two most defining moments in Israel’s history: 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 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 statement that opens and closes the psalm: God is good and his love endures forever (v. 1 and 29). So Psalm 51 invites us to celebrate this reality of God even as we come face to face with the threat and reality of death.[1]

Today, we commemorate again, as we usually do every year, the jubilation of the crowd in Jerusalem as they welcomed Jesus as their King. But unlike the crowd who welcomed Jesus and his disciples, we know what was about to happen in Jerusalem, namely Jesus’ slow and painful death on the cross on Good Friday.

But Palm Sunday does not lose its meaning because of Good Friday. Just like Easter Sunday would never exist without Good Friday, we cannot fully grasp the full meaning of Easter Sunday without Palm Sunday. Easter celebration begins with Palm Sunday because Easter is the fulfilment of what is proclaimed on Palm Sunday, namely that Jesus is the King who comes to liberate people from evil and oppression.

Now, the way Jesus fulfilled what was proclaimed on Palm Sunday 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 Israel. No one who welcomed Jesus was expecting that he would be killed by the same power that he was supposed to defeat.

But God’s mission in Jesus was different from what people had in mind. Jesus came to Jerusalem to declare victory not over the Roman Empire, but over the power of 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 Israel in slavery in Egypt. It was the real power that had destroyed their kingdoms and taken them as captives in Babylon. 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 final word. Jesus’ death on the cross was only a brief scene in a much bigger 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 will 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.

Let me tell you a story about Nguyen Tuong Van who was one of many Australian men who had been 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 met Nguyen in his prison cell to comfort him and pray with him. Nguyen loved Psalm 23 and, that night, they read and recited the Psalm together: “though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I fear no evil because you are with me.” That night, they put the impending execution into the hands of the Good Shepherd who walked beside them.

Indeed, 12 months before his execution, while on death row, Nguyen renewed his faith. He would later carry rosary beads to the gallows and he genuinely believed that he was going somewhere good.

On the day of his execution, standing in the doorway of his cell, Nguyen said to his guard in Hokkien, one of the Chinese dialects, “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 place where he would meet his death.

After his execution, 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,” Julian said.[2]

Nguyen didn’t cheat death. He too was frightened of the hanging. But somehow, he found the courage to ‘dance’ in the face of his imminent death. And I dare to say that his renewed faith must have been the main source of his courage.

Now, I in no way condone what he did, which resulted in his execution. But the story about the end of his life teaches us that, even though death can definitely destroy our body, it does not necessarily have control over our soul.

Indeed, we ‘dance’ in the face of death not because we can cheat death’s efficacy or power. No. The power of death is real.

Death is present today in places like those war-torn Syria or parts of Afghanistan today. Death is also present closer 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; whenever a child has to sleep in a car because her parents cannot afford to pay the rent and the bills anymore; whenever an elderly woman dying alone in her unit, alienated from her family; in each of these cases, the power of death is present.

Yet today, and later on Easter Day, we dare to declare that death does not have the final authority because Jesus has come and he is the king of all! Death may claim victory now, but the ultimate victory belongs to Christ and Christ only.

So, yes, death is real. Its grip on our life is real. 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 imminent suffering and death. And when he entered Jerusalem, he knew that he was facing his own death there. But he didn’t stop the crowd from proclaiming and celebrating his kingship.

So, from now on, whenever we come face to face with the power of death, let us tell ourselves that Christ has already claimed victory over our life and the world. Death is real, but Christ’s rule and victory are also real. And we are to be the people of Palm Sunday, celebrating the Kingship of Jesus in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We are to join the psalmist of Psalm 51, ever proclaiming the eternal truth that God is good and God’s love endures forever.

Toby Keva

[1] J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, on (April 20, 2014).

[2] From different sources including: Steve Butcher and Connie Levett, One Last Touching Joke before the End, on (December 3 2005) and Van Nguyen’s Faith-Filled Last Moments, on (December 2 2005).