If any of the disciples had kept a personal diary, perhaps something like the following might have been the entry for last Sunday: "Triumphant entry. Cheering crowds. The long days and sacrifice have all been worth it. People have begun to realize that Jesus is no ordinary man, but truly one sent by God!"
Palm Sunday was but one day in a life, but a day unlike any other. David Atchinson, too, knew such a day, though it's mostly forgotten so long after it happened. It's a footnote in history, but a notable one.
David Atchinson did pretty well for a fellow born in Frogtown, Kentucky. He was fortunate enough to go on to college and graduated from Transylvania University in his home state. Still who would have ever thought… well, that one day he would be President of the United States. He was, you know, but just briefly.
President Atchinson. That title and name don't seem to belong together. We never heard about him in that long list of Presidents we learned in school. Still, he served in high capacity for one day, and here's how it happened.
After moving to Missouri he was appointed to fill out the term of a US Senator from that state. Atchinson was only 36 at the time but he was well-liked and able, enough so that he was elected to a subsequent term on his own merits. His colleagues also had high regard for him and they selected him President Pro Tem of the Senate. As such he was presiding officer of the upper chamber in the absence of the Vice-President.
Then in the fall of 1848 Zachary Taylor was elected President and was set to be sworn in on March 4, 1849. That being a Sunday, Taylor thought this not a fitting activity on the Sabbath. He refused to take the oath on that day and, instead, planned to take it on Monday, the 5th. When James Polk and his Vice-President both resigned as of midnight Saturday, the next in line to serve was the Senate leader. Enter David R. Atchinson into history.
So, how did he spend his one day in charge of the country? It's said that he went back to the boarding house where he stayed and slept. We may never know if he was relieved or sorry when Taylor was sworn in on Monday, but it's a fact that he didn't do much with his brief time.
Imagine yourself for a moment with all the powers of the presidency for 24 hours. What would you do with the opportunity? What changes would you make? What directives would you give? Would you be responsible for some lasting contribution to world peace and understanding? To a new sense of equity and equality among people? It's interesting to consider.
Now contrast Atchinson's time as President, dozing away the hours, with how Jesus filled that Sunday spent in procession with the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. We get the feeling that every hour of that day, and of the few remaining, would be filled with intentional activity. Not a minute would be lost, though certainly those last days in his life would be painfully spent. A blank journal could have been filled up with recording all the crowded events and momentous decisions of that week.
Some of that time would be spent in Christ's customary teaching and preaching. As he enters the temple he becomes incensed by the way that the lawful trade within its confines has been turned into an open-air market. Indeed, moneychangers were needed to take the various currencies and exchange them for one that could be used in the temple.
Those who sold animals or grains for sacrifice served the practical needs of those who came to worship there.
It wasn't the merchants legitimate role that angered Jesus, but how they mishandled their business and desecrated that holy space. They hawked their wares as on a street corner and cheated the unsuspecting through excessive commissions or charging inflated prices. That certain temple officials may have profited also by this money gouging only made it more wrong.
A diary of events would also have shown that Jesus was regularly challenged by those who questioned his authority to do and say what he did. Some of the scribes heard him preaching the Good News then confronted him by saying, "Tell us, what right do you have to do these things?"
They also tried to trap him by asking him a question about paying taxes. They were very deliberate about this particular question and worded it so that no matter how he answered, he would lose. Imagine their chagrin when he took a common coin and turned the question right back upon his accusers.
Those who opposed him now became even more resolute that they must stop him. The diary of that week would reveal that Jesus was quite aware of the plots against him. He knew the fate that awaited him if he stayed true to his course. His parable of "The Wicked Tenants" acknowledges the evil that can well up in people's hearts when their power and profit are jeopardized.
Perhaps Jesus addressed this prophetic story to those who challenged him now, for they were of the same mind as those leaders of Israel who had opposed God's other messengers over the years. The parable warns that they will be called to an accounting and their leadership will be stripped from them. They will think they have the upper hand in the short run, but they will be shown to be wrong.
Thursday evening he spends the Passover meal in the intimate company of his disciples. As he is at table with them he lifts up the symbolism of the bread and wine for his own body which will be broken and crushed on their behalf. Do they comprehend his meaning? Partially, perhaps, maybe not at all. As he sits with companions, he is in the presence of the one who will betray him and hand him over to the civil authority. How Judas must break his heart.
Jesus goes to the garden to pray, wishing that his fate can be lifted from him, but recommitting himself to finish what he has started. He is now totally at God's directive. The soldiers come to seize him and he goes without resistance because he knows they wield no power over him. For that matter neither the Council who tries him nor the Romans who pronounce his sentence can stop him, though they may drain his mortal life from him.
How tempting it would have been to any other to have received the adulation of that Palm Sunday crowd and to possess such personal power, to bargain for a better fate. To accommodate to temporal forces would mean to live another day. Whatever that temptation may have been in Gethsemane, it was rejected thoroughly and totally.
The open tomb on Easter morning is the vindication of Jesus who was loved by the poor in spirit and crucified by those intoxicated by self-righteousness and privilege. It is the denial of death over life, for the presence of God's Chosen One became even more real after he was nailed to the crosspiece and breathed his last. The discovery that his body was gone was the very sign that he had returned to live in and through those who would commit themselves to serve God as God truly desires. The journey of the human Messiah ended even as that of the eternal Messiah had begun.
None of us here may know the heady feel of what it would be like to be President, to be one of the most powerful persons on earth, to exert our will for good or bad upon millions of others. That's a political reality.
Today, though, we are presented with a spiritual reality as we recognize Jesus—alive and in our midst right here, right now. He invites us to take the spark of divinity God has placed in each one of us and to let it grow as we journey through life.
The truth is we become empowered not by what we bring of our own doing, but by emptying ourselves to receive what God has to give us. When Jesus fully enters into a person, the diary of our life will indicate it can never be the same again. In Christ's rising is the hope of our own rising from the hell of meaningless existence to the glory of a purpose for living made fully clear to us.
Whether it is we who walk the road with the risen Jesus, or Jesus who walks the road with us, is immaterial. That we walk it together, today and everyday, makes all the difference in the world.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church