Renewing our Baptismal Vows
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2023
Epistle: Philippians 4:4-9
Gospel: John 12:1-18
Yesterday morning we gathered together to commemorate the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and today, on this Sunday of the Palms, we gather again, but this time to celebrate Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem. And we do this today not simply to observe his entry into that great city of old, but to acknowledge and proclaim Christ as Messiah! And today, as we do this, we do it in the same manner as the Jewish people of Israel once did — through the waving of palm branches. This may seem like a strange custom to our 21st Century eyes, but for the people of Israel it was something of a familiar practice. In Israel’s history, the waving of palm branches signified something in connection with a military conquest, or as a means of heaping praise upon a person they believed worthy to be called Messiah. 
About one hundred years before Jesus, Judas Maccabaeus and his brother Simon fought famously against the powerful Seleucid Empire, and in doing so they secured for the Jewish people the independent and sovereign state of Judea. Simon, in particular, is recorded in the book of 1 Maccabees as being greeted in Jerusalem with "praise and palm branches… because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” 
Now, in the Gospel reading we just heard the situation is very similar. Christ performs a mighty act that very few could accomplish, and for this reason Jesus is greeted by a great crowd who showers Him with praises and waves their palm branches. Yet, the miracle performed in this instance was not a military victory, as was the case with Simon Maccabaeus. And that’s important. The miracle they praise Him for instead is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John’s Gospel tells us that “The crowd that had been with [Jesus] when he called Lazaros out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.” Because Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life the crowd believed in Him, and rallied joyfully to His side. Their waving of palm branches was an expression of their belief that Jesus must be their long-promised Messiah who has finally come to save them. The word Hosanna, in fact, means “save us, we pray!”
Yet, amidst their rejoicing lies a stark division between the type of Messiah the people expect Jesus to be, and reality of who Christ truly IS! The crowd gathered before him is still envisioning the likes of Simon Maccabaeus, ready to usher in a political Kingdom for Israel. They wanted a military warrior that would save them from their Roman oppressors. And in one sense, we can’t fault them in their longing for a Kingdom that is to come. Our Old Testament prophesies of a coming Kingdom, after all. But to long for an earthly Kingdom established through violence and bloodshed, is to long for something outside the nature of who God is. What does Jesus ultimately reveal to us about the Kingdom? The Kingdom of God is…at hand, He says. The Kingdom of God is … within you! And more striking is what Jesus will tell us about His Kingdom when he is tried before Pontius Pilate. On Holy Thursday of this week we will hear a brief conversation read aloud from John’s Gospel where Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” 
And so, the Jewish people chose palm branches as a symbol to indicate who they think Jesus to be. And each of us stands here today with palms of our own. So it’s fair to ask, who do each of us think Jesus truly IS? Do you see Jesus as a man of military might? As a symbol of violence and bloodshed? Is Jesus a political Messiah who has come to save America from a godless culture? You might think to yourself, ‘no’ in each of these instances, but what do your own personal beliefs reveal to you when you hear this question? Are you someone who is willing to take up arms against your neighbor? How much money do you donate to political candidates? And how dedicated are you to any one political ideology?
These are questions I present because all of us stand here today with our palms raised aloft, just as the ancient Israelites did when Jesus strode in before them. And those people who praised him with Palm branches are same ones who cried out for him to be killed only days later. Those who cried “Hosanna” on this day, were the same who shouted “Crucify him” on the next. And they did this because Jesus didn’t match their expectation of who they thought the Christ should be. But it isn’t up to us to say who the Christ should be. The Christ simply IS. It is only left to us to decide if we wish to follow.
The reason we have gathered to celebrate this day, and the reason the Church has continued to commemorate it for nearly 2000 years, is because we once chose faith in Christ through baptism. And we should not forget… that when we were baptized, we were baptized into our own death. And it was in that moment that we agreed to make Christ the Lord over every aspect of our lives, and therefore we cannot die to Christ and take up His Cross while swearing allegiance to earthy kingdoms. Remember… the end goal of earthly kingdoms is self-preservation. The way of Christ is the giving up of self on behalf of others. When Christ asks, “Can you drink the cup?” he isn’t asking if you’re ready to take communion. He’s asking if you’re ready to give up everything, as unto death, that you might serve others through self-sacrificial love!
And so the Orthodox Church understands Palm Sunday as a day in which we all gather to renew the baptismal vows we once made. “We made this confession in baptism” states Father John Behr, “that everything in our life and in the world belongs to him… Taking up palms and making this proclamation is a renewal of our baptismal pledge: that Christ and his Kingdom is our only reality.” 
In choosing to be baptized into Christ, we have chosen the way of Jesus as our only reality. If we continue on the path of earthly kingdoms, seeking power, wealth, personal prestige, or religious ideologies … what does this tell you about which Kingdom you’re following?
If we need help remembering what Christ’s kingdom truly is, today is a good place to start. Christ enters not on a noble steed, but as a lowly and humble servant trodding before us “on the foal of an ass!” because there is no Palm Sunday without an eye toward the Passion. Jesus enters in today knowing he will die tomorrow!
 “This Palm Sunday, Ponder Donkeys, Not Branches,” Christianity Today, accessed April 5, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2023/march-web-only/palm-sunday-easter-holy-week-donkeys-not-branches.html
 1 Maccabees 13:51 (NRSV)
 John 18:36 (NKJV)
 John Behr, The Cross Stands as the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year (Yonkers, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press. 2014). 54.