Palm Sunday 2018
“So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him…”
John tells us the most stripped down version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Here there is none of the elaborate preparation found in the other gospels. There is really only one detail not found in the other three, John is the only gospel to name the tree branches used to celebrate Jesus.
As we examine words of scripture that bear on our faith, it is fitting on Palm Sunday that our word is Palms.
Have you ever wondered why those who celebrated Jesus used Palm Tree branches instead of say oak tree branches, cedar tree branches or even olive tree branches?
It's because of all the meanings and symbols that were associated with the Palm Tree. For ancient Jews, the Palm tree was seen as one of the greatest trees of all creation. Its image was carved on the doors, the door posts and on the walls of the Temple. It was one of the most visible symbols pointing back to the Garden of Eden, to God’s abundant life on earth and to the life to come. In the book of Revelation it is one of the trees that John sees growing by the crystal waters on the New Earth. And it was a symbol of victory raised and waved to celebrate the power of God’s covenant with the people.
Humanity has long used nature to symbolize human characteristics. For example:
A red rose signifies the idea of love whereas a white rose symbolizes the ideas of purity and innocence and at one time white roses were the main flowers for a wedding service.
The Eagle is a symbol of power as well as a symbol of holiness, perseverance and commitment.
The oak tree is a symbol of strength, stability and endurance.
The olive tree is a symbol of prosperity, peace and harmony.
The raven is the symbol of death or sorrow whereas a dove is a symbol of new life and peace. Unless you are in the Tower of London, where the raven’s presence symbolizes the endurance of the kingdom.
So what of the Palm tree?
There are some 2,780 different varieties of Palm Trees in the world. So, which one of these varieties did the People of God look up to? From all that we can discover through the images they used, from the stories they shared and from other sources it was the Date Palm. While other plants could not withstand the arid and harsh environment in the Middle East - the Date Palm was able to not only survive but thrive. The Date Palm provided food, shelter and comfort. It was argued that it took only one single Date Palm tree to meet all the necessary needs of a Jewish man, woman, boy or girl.
The Date Palm was seen as the Queen of all Trees. A number of places in the Middle East were named after it. The Hebrew word for Palm is "TAMAR". In Genesis 14:7 is a place named Hazezon Tamar; in 1 Kings 9:18 King Solomon named one of his new cities - "Tadmor" a variation of the word Tamar. Jacob's son Judah, King David as well as Absalom all named daughters Tamar which stood for the ideas of grace, uprightness and beauty.
From biblical writers, to rabbis, to crowds welcoming Jesus, to our own day, the Date Palm is a significant symbol for understanding our faith.
First, think of hearts of palm. Trees are unique in many different ways. One of those being the way it grows. The Date Palm grows out from its center. It grows from the inside out. Think of it as growing from the heart.
Have you ever seen what happens when someone puts a wire around an oak tree? Someone wants to put up a wire fence or a clothes line, so they wrap the wire. Over a period of time that oak tree's bark will grow over that wire. The oak tree will in effect envelope the wire. In a matter of years it looks like the wire is growing out of the tree.
The Palm Tree is different. It grows from the inside out. If you were to put a wire around a Date Palm Tree something far different would happen. Instead of the wire becoming a part of the tree the tree would actually grow and expand until it broke the wire.
That is the same way we grow in Christ. We grow from our hearts. We grow from the inside out. We grow from drawing on the redemptive strength that God nurtures within us. Scripture reminds us of the fact that our bodies will not last forever. We see that every day we wake up and look into the mirror. We know that our skin, our muscles and even our bones over time begin to sag, weaken and become brittle. It's just a part of the human aging process. We may not like it but it happens. We may do all we can to slow it down but in the end we all begin to look a little worse for wear.
But that does not apply to our spiritual insides. Rather than aging and falling apart the reverse can occur. Over time our spiritual bodies are able to constantly renew, flourish and mature. Our hearts, our spiritual minds and souls are able to continually mature more and more as disciples of Christ each day. One of my favorite slogans is to remind myself that we do not know all that God wants us to know until we draw our last breath.
It goes back to what Jesus told Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well. The life and water that they sought were physical in nature. But Jesus wanted them to have life from above - new birth. Jesus wanted them to enjoy living water - spiritual water that would bring authentic and everlasting life and comfort. Jesus wanted them to live as New Covenant People.
The people of God wanted a growing relationship with God that symbolized that of a Palm Tree. They did not want merely to have the appearance of outward holiness. They knew that you could look holy on the outside and yet be rotten to the core on the inside. Most of us have seen that happen in other trees.
Many learned that after Isabel. When we had tree inspectors come and assess damage, some trees that remained and looked good, we were told, were actually rotting away. A second storm would topple them.
The people of God wanted to be like the Date Palm. They wanted to be living and growing on the inside. They knew that their physical bodies would mature, age and eventually die and go back to the earth. But they also knew their spirits, their souls could enjoy everlasting life, even then.
One of the joys of discipleship is that we can have a heart that is growing more and more like Jesus. We are to grow in what Paul called the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is a continual upward trajectory towards living a life of righteousness, discipleship. It is a experience a progressive walk in God's Holy Spirit.
Date Palms have a unique root system as well. Their roots go deep in the soil and can absorb the smallest of water sources. Many Date Palms are able to grow 80 - 100 feet tall and yet they live in sand and in desert like environments. The roots are almost hollow, like straws, so they reach down deep sending out a root system that is able to search out the smallest drops of water while at the same time establishing a strong and stable foundation.
In like manner we are to make sure that we too are deeply connected to our source of living water and that we build on a stable foundation. We too live in a desert - all one has to do is to listen to what passes as political discourse, read social media, watch TV and you know that that there is a great deal of spiritual wasteland all around us. In other words, there is a great lack of holiness out there in our world. To find holiness you have to search for it, reach out for it and be ready to absorb each and every little drop.
Perhaps the path for us is to be Palm Tree Christians – disciples who have deep roots and a deep thirst for God's Word and for Holiness. We need to make sure that we have a firm footing in this life. We need to make sure that even though our journey may be on a sandy ground, we have our footing in Jesus Christ.
Now, because of their deep roots, Date Palms can withstand the great wind and rain storms that come to the desert. In a storm they don't break. Instead, they bend down. They are flexible enough to bend down and allow the storm to go around them and over them. Without their deep root system they would be carried away. Without their flexibility they would be crushed by the wind and the storms that comes their way.
So, too is it with us as Christ followers. We need deep roots and we need to have the ability in times of great storms to bend down in humility and prayer. We need to be flexible as followers of Jesus. That is just one of the reasons we study scripture in Sunday school or a bible class. Scripture will help us have a great spiritual root system and prayer helps us discern the faithful path through any storm.
Another thing about Date Palms, they grow in clumps and intertwine their root systems with one another. That way when the storm comes they are not trying to stand alone but they are reaching out and supporting one another. They are sharing space and helping one another.
That is what we are about in a faith community, intertwining our lives with one another. Building relationships that will last and will help one another. Sharing space and life with one another. Communicating with one another. Becoming one with one another.
That is why it is vital that we nurture one another, eat with one another, pray for one another, listen to one another, learn from one another and serve one another. When we do those things our roots come together and we get stronger and stronger. When we do that we can support one another and share what Jesus called living water with one another. When we do that we will be able to withstand the dry times and the storms that come into our lives.