Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

Mark 11
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

If I told you that the average temperature for the first week of spring was minus one, what would you call it?

Unfair comes to mind, sad (with an exclamation mark) might work, or someone brave might say it’s ironic. The problem with describing this turn-of-events as ironic, of course, is that a debate will immediately ensue. Is it ironic? Or is that just unfortunate? Or is it just cold?

One of the things I neglected to mention in our recent Lenten study on preaching is the appropriate use of poetry—it illustrate a point or raise the tenor of the preaching event. So perhaps something from a well-known Canadian poet will help:

It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take
Who would've thought... it figures

Of course, the gift that our famous poet gave us is now 23 years of debate on the nature of irony. Bad luck is not really irony—it is said. Misfortune is not really irony, nor is sarcasm, though the debate still rages on the last one. Generous amounts of ink has been spilled on whether Alanis Morrisette was describing irony or something else, and all we’re left with is another ear-worm that will haunt us through lunch.

So what is irony, really? When what is said or intended is opposite to the outcome or the reality, it’s ironic. So, if you have ever shouted at someone saying, “I’m not angry!” then you have fallen into irony. Or that time the fire station in Mount Albert burned to the ground. I think you get the picture.

A closer look will tell you that there are three types of irony—verbal, situational, and dramatic—and that all three happen in the reading Joyce shared this morning. But before we get back to the loud hosannas (palms wave) we should get our examples straight.

The first kind, verbal irony, begins with the “I’m not angry” example, with intended meaning and actual meaning falling apart. And this is where sarcasm enters the mix, and another debate we don’t have time to explore. If you can see your keys inside your locked car and you say “Oh, that’s just great,” it may or may not be ironic. If you have forgotten the spare key you left in the bottom of your bag as you stare into the locked car, that’s ironic.

Situational irony seems the most straightforward, with the fire station example, or “unsinkable” liner that left Southhampton and sailed the north Atlantic in April. Or the three characters that spend the whole film looking for a wizard to bestow courage, brains and heart, only to discover they possessed these things all along.

And dramatic irony, of course, requires a spoiler alert, because it’s all about the audience knowing things that the characters in the drama do not. So Juliet’s plan was clever but she forgot to tell Romeo, and bad things happen, but it’s the audience that’s all torn up because we can see exactly what happens when the best laid plan goes awry.

So how is Palm Sunday ironic? I guess we can begin by imagining a military parade, with a conquering hero entering the city, flanked by an excited crowd. People sing and shout, and celebrate the exploits of this general or strongman, a give him names like Africanus or Germanicus, places conquered or subdued. Instead, we hear this:

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

So it seems ironic to use the form and circumstance of a military parade to shout hosanna—God, save us—to cry out for liberation in a setting that usually means victory. Unless you imagine that the victory is already won, and that the coming Kingdom has already arrived in the person of Jesus the Christ, perhaps a kind of double-irony. So that’s the verbal part.

The situational irony is like the first: using the familiar form of a military parade to welcome the Prince of Peace, and to call for the coming kingdom of David that will, in fact, be a spiritual kingdom. It’s using the form of conquest to usher in a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom that Jesus tells us already exists within us.

And the dramatic irony—that seems to be happening on a few layers. The first belongs to us, the audience for this unfolding drama. We already know what awaits Jesus—because he told us—and because we already know the end of the story. Even the first readers of this text would know the end of the story, most often introduced to Jesus through his death and resurrection.

So it’s dramatic irony in the sense that we know the outcome even as those shouting and waving palm leaves do not. We know, and Jesus knows, and together we can only shake our heads at the bystanders and the disciples who think this is real. Like poor Romeo, the disciples thought this was real, when in fact it was staged to make a point: the coming kingdom is unlike anything you know, and the coming conquest is unlike anything you know.

The theologian Tom Wright begins each talk with some variation of these words: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” The Christian story was never about saving souls or imposing some sort of religious agenda, but about the creation of a new Jerusalem here on earth. When Jesus said “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he was expressing his entire project, that God’s realm and our realm become one.

The first step in this project is the incarnation, God entering our world in a new way—in an ironic way—in the form of a baby. The next step was a variety of teachings, all counter-cultural and designed to disarm even the most jaded—blessed are the meek, and the poor, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Love your neighbour, and forgive seven times seventy.

The next step is this bit of theatre, mocking all the conquering heroes by adapting this form for the coming kingdom. And the final step—the step that will take us closest to drawing heaven and earth together at the last—is Jesus death on a cross. In perhaps the greatest example of irony yet known, Jesus forgives the very people who placed him on the cross, and began the mystery of reconciliation that lies at the heart of our faith.

As we enter Holy Week and the most ironically-named Good Friday, I encourage you to live the entire story. Wait with us in the Upper Room. Approach the cross and the mystery set to unfold. And then come Sunday for a celebration, as something empty becomes filled with the promise of new life. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home