Ezekiel 33.30-33

John 12.9-19

The Agony of Victory, The Thrill of Defeat

Palm Sunday

The scene, as I remember it, is a snow-covered mountaintop, whose hills are lined with ski markers, and whose base is covered with a crowd of winter sports enthusiasts. It may have been the Olympic qualifying trials, it may have been the winter Olympics themselves.   At the top of the hill, a solitary figure slides his skis back and forth and mentally checks balance and timing, the crowds’ necks collectively craned, anticipating the start of the run. And in a moment the skier is off, gathering speed by the yard, crouched, concentrating, when inexplicably his right ski catches something, and he goes sailing off, head over heels, and it seems he will tumble through the air forever when a silver-toned voice injects, “Where athletes know the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, welcome to ABC’s Wide World of Sports; I’m your host, Jim McKay.” And as the camera lingers for several seconds more on the crumpled figure at the bottom of the hill, what began as a mountaintop celebration has turned in a split second to utter catastrophe.

“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” How many times did I hear that phrase on a Saturday afternoon when I was growing up. And as you and I stand at the pinnacle of Holy Week, the start of a swift yet significant journey with Jesus into Jerusalem and then on to Golgotha, I can’t think of a better phrase to characterize what Jesus went through in those few days than Jim McKay’s words, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The triumphal entry into Jerusalem was one of those moments of Jesus’ greatest success. The crowds lined the streets and cheered him on; people took off their coats and shirts and lay them before him; they plucked branches off the trees and created a royal carpet for his procession; they shouted and yelled and hailed their conquering hero. And when Jerusalem’s religious leaders complained that the crowd looked like it was beginning to get out of hand, Jesus insisted that even if they were silent, the very rocks and stones in the streets themselves would sing his praise. An electric anticipation bolted through the crowd, because here came the deliverer they had awaited for so long. Finally, after generations of oppression and persecution, they would taste the thrill of victory.

But you and I know what happened five days later. What began as the expectation of the beginning of the reign of God itself came crashing down to a humiliating end the following Friday as the hope of Israel hung on a cross, “sorrow and blood flowing mingled down,” as the hymn describes it. From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat in less than a week. Where else can you find such an astonishing denouement in such a brief period of time? It had seemed as though God’s reign was finally going to break into the world and bring earthly power to its knees, but for all the crowds’ enthusiasm, the powers of this world still held the swords and the chains and the cross.

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge was pastor for twenty-five years at Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan, and if her name sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be because she has also preached in Episcopal churches in Washington, CT, Salisbury, CT, just down the street at St John’s in Essex, and at churches in Lime Rock and Rye, NY. Rutledge once observed how difficult it must be for congregations to come to church on Palm Sunday, because in spite of the happy handing out of the palms, today is only the first day of the week, and we all know where this week is headed, and the preacher never forgets to remind us that Maundy Thursday’s and Good Friday’s services are fundamental and indispensable if we are to make sense of this morning’s service, and of next Sunday’s as well. Rutledge talks about a woman in her congregation who could not bear coming to church on Palm Sunday, because she knew very well where the enthusiasm of that Jerusalem crowd would lead less than a week later. What begins with celebration, Rutledge writes, ends in catastrophe. From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat in a quick five days.

Now when we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that much of the movement of Holy Week comes down to the caprice of human nature, we might even say the faithlessness of human nature, so transparently on display among the crowd along that Jerusalem streetside. It was those same people who shouted Hosanna on Sunday, who praised God and stood proud for Jesus and wore their faith on their shirts for everybody else to see, it was those same people who caught the changing winds and cried “Give us Barrabas,” and “Crucify him” on Friday. And if we think about this even for a moment, it will make us more than a little uncomfortable, and will help us understand why that woman in Rutledge’s congregation will not come to church on Palm Sunday. The people of Palm Sunday were not particularly good people, and the people of Good Friday were not particularly bad people; rather, they were the same people. They were you and me. In fact, let’s stand and do those Hosannas one more time like the people Charlene read about in Johns’ gospel; [everybody up – grab your palm and repeat after me:] “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Now: don’t move – keep standing for one more minute, because it is only for a little while that the good people of Jerusalem will stand with Jesus. Soon the waves of excitement and emotion begin to peter out, and things take a turn in a different direction, and they became the ones who will turn with the same passion and emotion and abandon you when you’re down and out. Put your palms down and repeat after me: “Crucify him.” Louder: “Crucify him!” Louder still: “Crucify him!!” OK, you can sit. Now that part of the biblical story didn’t feel very good did it? I sure didn’t like saying that. And this is why that woman in Rutledge’s church couldn’t bear the suggestion that she was part of that same crowd - but she knew she was. And so are we.

Good people sometimes bear evil, and evil people sometimes bear the good. Life is seldom about cut and dried categories; most of try to live our lives striving toward one and avoiding the other. In cities and towns large and small, thousands of people across the country stood for good against evil yesterday in the “March For Our Lives.” At rally after rally after rally, evil was called out by name: its name is gun violence, its name is hated, its name is prejudice, its name is injustice, its name is homophobia, its name is misogyny, its name is war, its name is famine, its name is intolerance, its name is xenophobia. Its name is Good Friday, when a whole bunch of basically “good religious people,” stood around and did nothing. Some of you will remember Tom Paxton, a folk singer from the ‘60s and ‘70s whose songs were filled with incisive social commentary. One of Paxton’s best-known songs reminds me of that crowd in Jerusalem. It’s a kind of honky-tonk song called, “Small Circle of Friends,” rooted in the real-life story of Kitty Genovese, whose neighbors heard her cries for help in the middle of the night as her attacker brutally murdered he; they closed their windows and pulled their shades and left her there to die. The first verse goes like this:

“Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed;

They’ve thrown her in the bushes and now she’s being stabbed;

Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain,

But Monopoly is so much fun, and I’d hate to blow the game,

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.”

Or, as Edmund Burke is reported to have said, “It is necessary only for good people to do nothing, for evil to triumph.” There were lots of good people standing around the cross that Good Friday; the same good people who had stood in the streets on Palm Sunday. If evil had a name and a face on that Holy Week, we might say its name was “inertia,” or maybe “apathy” or “indifference;” and its face was the face of every person in that crowd. Every one who gathered in huge numbers to celebrate Jesus on Sunday and then fell away on Thursday and Friday wore that face and carried that name. Are we really part of that same crowd? Well, where are we on Sunday? And where will we be by the end of the week? And I don’t mean that if you’re in church today that you’d better be here on Thursday and Friday too, that’s not the point. But how are we Palm Sunday people, how are we Good Friday people, and how are we Easter people?

But if there was victory in the streets of Jerusalem and agony on the Golgotha, there was also victory in that agony, and agony in that victory because the collective evil of the throng of people standing around gawking as Jesus died there, was overpowered by the redemptive power of God’s uncompromising goodness. As the apostle Paul reflected on the cross, he wrote, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting..? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” There was agony in the cross, but it was the agony of victory, of Jesus’ conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its creator. Now I know I’ve turned Jim McKay’s Wide World of Sports motto around. Because as much as the cross of Christ enables us to speak of the agony of victory, on that day the powers of death and evil were overcome. I’m not rushing forward to Easter yet, but it remains that the death of Jesus was the victory of the divine over the human, good over evil, life over death. Dr. Fred Anderson at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, called this moment “the triumph of defeat.” Because it looked for all the world in those moments that the triumph of Palm Sunday morning lay in tatters at the foot of the cross, that the people who seemed to give their heart and soul to Jesus had abandoned him utterly and completely, and by doing so had unwittingly pronounced the judgment of history upon themselves. But the triumph was not in the Palm Sunday parade, as much as we like to call that scene from the Bible “the triumphal entry.” The triumph of Holy Week was in reality on that dark hillside on Friday afternoon. Finally, and for all time, sin and death were vanquished, and what to ordinary eyes looked like the defeat of Jesus and his cause, was in fact the triumph of God over the powers of the world. Good had finally trumped evil.

And this is where we find ourselves at the threshold of Holy Week. You many have noticed that the church considers today to be both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. Each idea is contained in the other. In fact I want to point out that Karli’s music this morning reflects this movement, from the Hosanna fanfare for voices and “Ride On in Majesty,” through “Father Forgive Them,” to “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” and “What Wondrous Love.” On Palm Sunday, just when it seemed as though the powers of good would finally have their day, evil found its way into the heart of the crowd and turned it one hundred eighty degrees. And at the passion of Good Friday, on what seemed to be the absolutely worst possible day in all of human history, as Jesus hung dead on the cross and the dark clouds spat thunder and the earth itself quaked with rage and sorrow, the power of evil over good stood beaten.

From the agony of victory to the thrill of defeat in less than a week. Friends, that journey begins again today, and we walk it together in the company of our God.

            Amen.

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