In Haunts of Wretchedness and Need: Palm Sunday 2017

In July of 1985 a group of 6 young American university graduates arrived in Taiwan to spend a year serving in church student centers related to colleges and universities. The following year, before returned to their homes and lives, they were asked about their experience, including their first impressions after they got off the airplane and were being taken into Taipei for orientation training. One of them, a woman who had grown up on a farm and had almost no urban experience before. She was quick to answer.

After getting off of the plane, and being met by the Taiwanese pastor responsible for her care and feeding the first few weeks, she was put onto a bus to go to Taipei. As she rode along looking at the country where she had signed up to live for the next year, she reported that her thoughts were, “When are we going to get out of the slums?”

Think back on the places you’ve been in the past 7 days…. Your house, your neighborhood, your office, classroom, lab, shops or restaurants that you patronize, streets you’ve walked along, maybe even, because there were holidays last week, tourist spots or graveyards.

Our title today “In Haunts of Wretchedness and Need”, is taken from the hymn we just sang. To call someplace a “haunt” in English is to say that it is a sad place, or maybe a location where bad things happen. In our daily lives, we go into a lot of places, in some of which our needs are met (like to a barber shop for a haircut or to 7-Eleven to buy almost anything) and in other places where we meet others’ needs. Today we’re going to consider how Jesus comes to meet some of OUR needs.

In the church year we’ve come to Palm Sunday, on which we mark Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. By the end of this coming week, on Saturday, all triumph will have been wrung out of it, and there will be only the darkness of a stone-sealed tomb.

Jesus’ week can be seen as having begun with entry to a city, accompanied by a crowd who cheered him on, and ending with entry into a tomb, a “Haunt of Wretchedness and Need.”


That hymn, Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” was originally written in 1903. The hymnal we use has a version altered in 1981 by Ruth Duck, an American hymn writer. She removed the patriarchy and exclusive language about Jesus from the first verse and gave us a grace-filled and inclusive option. Her gift reads,

“Where cross the crowded ways of life,

where sound the cries of clan and race,

above the noise of selfish strife,

O Christ, we hear your voice of grace.

That verse, both as originally composed and ESPECIALLY as re-visioned by Ruth Duck, is a fairly good description of the place where the events narrated in both the psalm and gospel lessons we read today.

When a city has a wall around it the gates create “choke points” for people entering and leaving. You’ll find fewer people standing around by the wall someplace between gates than you’ll find moving purposefully, or just hanging around, AT a gate, and like certain government offices in modern life, places like Automobile and Motorcycle license offices, that all citizens must visit from time to time, people of ALL social classes tended to meet at the gates.

Jesus came to a gate in the  Jerusalem wall, where and a lot of people were moving about. The writer of Matthew’s gospel, ever ready to find verses from the Hebrew Bible to prove his point about Jesus, dragged up some from Zechariah.

“ Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The writer of Matthew knew his Hebrew Bible pretty well, but the people of Jerusalem outdid him. They didn’t greet Jesus with the words of a minor prophet, but went to their hymnbook and chose right out of Psalm 118 the word “Hosanna” that they found there, and they used it to call this , donkey riding prophet to be their savior.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of that mixed group of Jerusalem visitors, citizens, seekers and layabouts, people of every class. Jesus comes to us on the crowded paths of our own lives. He does not wait until we have time for him. He pays little attention to how we might “expect” things to be. Though he comes “as your king,” he comes “humble”. He’s even willing to enter the haunts of wretchedness and need in your life and mine. He comes to us in our sadness and defeat. Do you recall a Sunday School picture of Jesus standing outside a door and knocking?  It’s one artist’s way of showing his misunderstanding of a verse from Revelation 3:21. Today I want you to imagine the gate or door to your personal “haunt of wretchedness and need” and imagine Jesus, not gently knocking on it, but shouting to you words we found in the psalm, “open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them”

        When Jesus had entered through the gates and into the city,  some of those who greeted him thought he was coming to 1)take control, 2)throw out the social, political and religious elites who led their nation, 3) get rid of the foreigners who were oppressing them, and 4) make Israel great again. But he didn’t enter for that reason, and he didn’t do what those people were expecting.


In the psalm we read, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” These words are picked up and reused in the New Testament 5 times, including later in Matthew 21. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.”

Today we rejoice in our Lord’s triumphant entry today, but even that is conditioned by remembering how the leaders of his society rejected him. It seems that many in the crowds who welcomed him when he came in may also have been in the crowd that shouted only a few days later that he should be crucified. They had welcomed him in the expectation that he would become a populist political and military leader who would throw the political elites out of power, turn the religion over to the believers, expel the foreigners in their land and make their nation great again.

Recently in this world, the entry of populist leaders in places as far apart as Europe, the Philippines and America has thrown things into turmoil. Thankfully, Jesus came neither to unleash extra-judicial killings (like President Duterte) or twitter storms (like President Trump).

As wretched and needy as politicians’ and nations’ haunts might be, we personally have them, too. They may be emotional, romantic, psychological, religious, financial or political. They may be external to us (about your jobs, marriages, finances, relationships, health, or something like that)  or if internal, relating to your excess or absence of self-esteem, your arrogance or  narcissism or your personal religious faith. Jesus enters these places, but not just to be there. Jesus enters to do what he did immediately after coming through the Jerusalem gate. He goes to the center and cleans things out (look at verses 12 and 13 of Matthew 21). We can hide nothing from Jesus. When he calls, “open to me the gates of righteousness” he means that “righteousness is coming in”, so get ready.

Did you ever notice how hard it is to “get ready for” something that you don’t have on your calendar? A student in his or her last year of university “gets ready” to graduate. The date has been clearly announced in advance. A woman who is pregnant “gets ready” to give birth. Her due date is approximate, but she knows pretty well what month it will happen.  So, how ready are you for an earthquake, for a stock market fall, or for a flood like the one that shut down Taipei’s subway system about 10 years ago?


Before he climbed onto the donkey we read about, Jesus was already getting ready for what was about to happen. His friends weren’t. It was a surprise to them that a donkey was “ready positioned” for the Lord to use.

We celebrate Palm Sunday today in part because that’s what the church calls this Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week, and because it’s a church habit. Whatever special things we do today have been anticipated, and preparations have been made. Over the past 5 or 6 weeks our church has followed the church year and considered aspects of Jesus’ call to die for our salvation.

As we hear from and respond to the words from the psalm, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” we come to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good”  Most of the people who met Jesus at the gate the day when he came in were rejoicing, being glad and giving thanks. They met him with the expectation that he would save them.

Jesus meets us within our time and in our places. And will continue to do so, every week as we worship, every year as we meet him at the gates. As we move into Holy Week, though, many of us may skip over the sad stories of his betrayal, death and burial, and just go from “Triumphant entry” directly to “Triumph over the Grave.”  So beware of the temptation to just be “happy.” Stick with Jesus, through the gates, into the temple, and all through this coming week in which we remember his betrayal, death, and burial. He meets us whether we’re ready or not. He meets us, as is noted in verse 6 of the hymn, “Till all shall learn compassion’s might.” And even then he will not stop meeting us, for he has promised eternity.


So today, here, in this room, at this church, in this city of Tainan, we celebrate the joy of the people in Jerusalem who greeted Jesus, arriving humbly on a donkey. We look forward from this triumphant entry to the news we’ll hear next Sunday of his triumph over death, and his promise to us of eternal life. But we do so from places in life which can be described as haunts of wretchedness and need, because that’s often where we, and the people around us, dwell.

The good news is that we don’t have to. The King of Glory waits for us outside those spaces, the Lord of Love joins us in them, and we are saved.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN


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