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Preaching on Palm Sunday

Why it matters, and what to say.
Preaching on Palm Sunday
Image: Livia Salajova / Getty

I read a biography of Winston Churchill, where the author gave nearly equal attention to each part of his life: childhood, struggles as a student, military college, years as a war correspondent, service in World War I, Member of Parliament, the war years, and after he left office. In this author’s telling, no one section of Churchill’s life stood out.

In the Bible, there are four “biographies” of Jesus, and though those are written by four different people with four different perspectives, not one structures his biography that way. They largely ignore the first 30 years of Jesus’ life.

Instead, they all focus on Jesus’ last three years. And they save about 35 percent of their biographies for one week. His final week. The people who knew Jesus best felt you could not understand him unless you understand this week in his life. What happens in these eight days is the hot burning center of his life.

Palm Sunday is the doorway into this week.

And on its own, Palm Sunday is a critical day in Jesus’ life. We might say that Palm Sunday matters as a day, and Palm Sunday matters as a doorway. Here’s how to preach to do justice to both.

Preaching the Day

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell how Jesus enters the royal city of Jerusalem as king. They give us jarring juxtapositions and clashing contrasts. Triumph—Hosanna to the Son of David—and tragedy—the leaders reject him. We hear the cheering of crowds (Luke 19:38-40) and the weeping of Christ (Luke 19:41–44). Joy and judgment. The waving of palm branches, and the waving of a whip. Preaching on Palm Sunday works best when people can feel this tension.

From the core details, each Gospel writer brings a unique emphasis, giving the preacher various approaches:

  • In Matthew’s account (Matthew 21), as soon as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he clears out the buyers and sellers in the Temple. Didn’t see this coming. People expect him to clear out the oppressive Romans, not the beating heart of Israel. So one Palm Sunday, I preached a message on Regime Change.
  • In Mark’s account (Mark 11), the donkey takes up half the story. Why does Jesus need this donkey, and why does he get it in such an unusual way? The Lord Needs It
  • Luke (in Luke 19) contrasts the reactions to Jesus: his disciples praise God for him; the Pharisees object. So I preached a sermon called “Mixed Reviews” about how we praise Jesus or push him away.
  • John (chapter 12) connects Jesus’ entry to his raising of Lazarus. I have not yet preached this text, but possible directions include, “A Preview of Coming Attractions”—Lazarus’ death and rising previews what Jesus will go through (vv. 23-24).

We could preach every Palm Sunday for decades, though, and not exhaust the possibilities. For example, “Humble King”: Jesus fulfills all people’s longings for a leader (1 Samuel 8) who will carry his authority humbly (Zech. 9:9), not like the arrogant Roman generals on their war horses.

Preaching the Doorway

Palm Sunday is more than a day, though. It is the doorway into the most important week in Jesus’ life, and therefore the most important week of the year for Christians. So, Palm Sunday is not, and cannot be, just a day of triumph (he’s King!), but also the start of his suffering (the only crown this King will wear is thorns). This is why Palm Sunday is also called the Sunday of the Passion.

To bring out these two themes, triumph and suffering, Christians have for centuries included two things in Palm Sunday worship:

  1. A palm procession. Usually at the beginning of the service. In the late 300s, a Christian woman named Egeria traveled from Europe to the Holy Land and joined with the Jerusalem Christians in their Palm Sunday worship: “All the people … go down on foot the whole way from the summit of the Mount of Olives … responding the while with hymns and antiphons: ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.’ And all the children in those parts are there holding branches of olive-trees or palms; even those who cannot walk because of their tender years are supported on the hill by their parents.”
  2. A reading of the Passion Gospel (Matthew 26:36--27:54; Mark 14:32--15:39; or Luke 22:39-23:49. In this reading, the people—who not long before were singing, “Hosanna!”—join in shouting the verses, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

What do we preach from, to draw out this twin theme of Christ’s triumph and suffering? A cherished Palm Sunday text is Philippians 2:5-11: Jesus’ kingship comes from his kenosis. I’ve preached how Christ’s trajectory here—downward emptying, then upward exaltation—forms a letter “V” for Victory. This becomes the shape for our lives as we follow him.

Other Palm Sunday approaches I’ve used:

  • A Tale of Two Basins: Contrasting the basin Jesus uses to wash his disciples’ feet on Thursday night, and the basin Pilate uses the next morning to wash his hands of the responsibility for state-sponsored murder.
  • Shortly after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a friend sent me this amazing quote from Henri Nouwen: “This moment when Jesus is handed over to those who do with him as they please is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. It is turning from action to passion. Things are now no longer done by him, but to him.” So, I preached on how Jesus’ most powerful work is done in his passion, and asked, “Could it just be possible that our greatest contribution in life may be not through our achievements as usually defined but through our suffering?” (Why Did This Happen to Me?)
  • From Mark 14:1-11, contrasting the woman who breaks an entire jar of perfume and pours it over Jesus’ head with the people watching who say, “What a waste!” Extravagance for Jesus is never wasted.
  • Told You Don’t Count: Jesus’ conversation with two felons on death row, from Luke 23: Jesus became One who does not count, so he could rescue ones who do not count.

Palm Sunday opens believers to the greatest week and greatest work of Jesus Christ. As a preacher, I want to help them celebrate the day and to go through the doorway.

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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