Palm Sunday, 2023.
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 118:19-29; Hebrews 1:1-6; Matthew 21:1-11
+ Blessed be our God, now and for ever. Amen.
Palm Sunday is a turning point in our journey of faith with Jesus. We walk alongside him as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem for the last time. His fame as a messenger of God has travelled far. He is riding in triumph and humility on the back of a donkey, covered with two of the disciple’s offered cloaks. The crowd also spread their cloaks on the ground before him and covered his path with palm branches.
In Jesus’ time, spreading their garments in the street was an act of homage reserved for royalty; the crowd was calling him to be their king, and so they cried, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Most of the crowd around Jesus probably didn’t have a second cloak, but they spread theirs on the road anyway, to be trampled by the donkeys and the people.
They waved the branches they’d cut from the trees in order to make a triumphant celebratory procession for him. This, like spreading their cloaks before him, carried implications of royalty. Like the famous Judas Maccabaeus, 200 years before Jesus, who had come to Jerusalem after conquering the pagan armies that had oppressed Israel, and was welcomed into the city by a crowd waving branches [2 Maccabees 10:7], Jesus was met by a joy-filled crowd, who were clamoring for him to be their king.
Jesus had to go to Jerusalem in order to fulfill all of the prophecies about Messiah and God’s will for him. At Passover, Jews came from everywhere in Israel and around the Mediterranean world to celebrate as the Mosaic Law required. The gospel was to be declared in places that served as the crossroads of cultures and ideas, where people who heard Jesus’ story in Jerusalem could take it home with them and spread it far and wide throughout their world.
The same thing happened on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and gave them the ability to speak in different languages. People who heard the Good News in their own languages could take the message back to their home countries. The people showed that they were receiving the Messiah as royalty by spreading their clothes and palm branches on the road before him and shouting words meant only for the Messiah.
Welcoming Jesus as ‘son of David’ was about as explicit as could be. This was, after all, the capital city of David a thousand years earlier, and for half the time that had passed since then, Jews had been waiting and praying for a king like David to come on the scene and save them from oppression and rule with justice. Just as God, using Moses in Egypt, had saved his people from a cruel slavery, the people had been hoping for God to save them from the idolatrous foreign tyrants, most recently embodied by Rome. This must be the moment! The whole procession was saying, in its way, that Jesus is going to be the sort of a king we want!
But Jesus knows, and Matthew has told us, that nothing is that simple. We know, don’t we, that Jesus has come to Jerusalem, not to be enthroned like David or Judas Maccabaeus, or like Herod. As he has been telling his disciples for some time, and tells us also, he has come to Jerusalem to be killed like so many of the prophets before this time. Jesus entered Jerusalem not on a horse as a symbol of power, but on a donkey’s colt as a symbol of humility. Jesus is the peaceful king of the people of God, not a revolutionary with political interests, and is bringing in a kingdom “not of this world.”
Pride tends to swell our heads and hearts. We tend to think more highly of ourselves than we should. But Jesus was not striving to be a king in worldly terms. He didn’t try to become like a god, as Roman emperors did. He submitted his will and fear to his Heavenly Father. Jesus humbled himself to a painful and shameful death on a cross. We as believers are challenged to follow the same example in humility. Jesus kept his eyes on God, and on what God was doing, and so should we.
The time had arrived for Jesus to be presented to Israel as the Messiah, and the final end to the exile of all of the descendants of Jacob. Jesus chose to act out this truth in a public and memorable way, especially memorable for the two disciples who had the task of bringing him the lowly animal that he would ride on into Jerusalem. Jesus’ instructions to them could only come from one with knowledge given him by God, even telling them what to say when someone asked them why they were untying the donkey and her colt.
Just as the donkey was untied for Jesus’ purpose, we must unleash ourselves for God’s business. He is preparing the church to be a vessel ushering in a great harvest of souls. He is preparing us to be a major force in his great harvest. And God is capable of preparing us for that mission. After all, God prepared an unbroken donkey colt who had never been ridden, to carry Jesus through a tumultuous crowd into Jerusalem.
They expected Messiah to re-establish the kingdom founded by David. It was to be a kingdom reuniting feuding peoples into one nation which would bring all the People of God from the far corners of the world back home where they belonged, dramatically ending their many exiles. The Son of David would establish an everlasting reign, but Jesus rode into town on a humble animal used as a beast of burden for hard, sometimes cruel, labor rather than a powerful horse used for high status and war.
The crowd wanted Jesus to grab a sword and raise that sword to show what he and his followers would do to the Romans. Instead, Jesus had an olive branch between his fingers. The crowd that shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday would shout “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. As the crowds entered the city gates during Jesus’ triumphal entry, their zeal grabbed the attention of all of Jerusalem’s citizens.
When Matthew wrote that the city was moved, he used a Greek term related to the English word “seismic.” The pilgrims coming to Passover were wildly excited. They were hoping for a new Exodus, for a new return from the captivity of Babylon, and freedom from Roman rule. The jubilant crowd believed that Jesus might be that Messiah. Pilgrims came to Jerusalem by the hundreds and thousands for the Passover festival.
Since the people had a history of rebelling against the Romans, Roman governors would plan for additional security during Passover—more soldiers, keeping a tight and secure watch. As Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east, Roman soldiers were entering the city from the west. For those of you who keep an eye on the long, long history of the Middle East and its relationships, many of the Roman soldiers on duty in Palestine were Syrian mercenaries. They were coming because of the unruly crowds that were in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The soldiers incited fear in the crowd and increased the crowd’s volatility.
On the other hand, the crowd cleared the way for Jesus and hailed his presence. The crowd proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah in Jerusalem who was come as an outsider, a prophet from Galilee. He was proclaimed as the Lord, their King. They anticipated with joy that Jesus had come to replace Rome and Pilate’s cruel, effective system of rule. When we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we proclaim that it is possible for those with power to use it as Jesus used God’s power.
By this time in Jesus’ ministry, God revealed to him what he could expect from these fickle people. He wasn’t surprised by the change in the crowd’s attitude mere days after his triumphant entry. He knew his people and their history. Jesus remembered when ten divine miracles paved the way for freedom of God’s people from the Egyptians. He remembered the story of the Israelites’ complaints in the desert, and their fear and reluctance to enter the promised land under Moses and then Joshua.
The crowd heard his words and believed that he was the man who had been sent to free them. Unfortunately, they were sadly disappointed. Jesus didn’t do any of the things they expected of him. Instead, Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple. He cursed a fig tree. He told the people to pay their taxes to the oppressive Roman government. He taught the people that true greatness is to be found in servanthood. For the crowds in Jerusalem, this was radically disillusioning and it was natural that they turned on him. The people wanted Jesus to give them earthly freedom, but God had a higher purpose in sending Jesus into Jerusalem. He sent Jesus to free humanity not only from earthly oppression, but from the oppression of sin and death. He came to announce that God’s kingdom was very near.
Jesus came in humility and peace. He came to bring peace between people, all people, including us and God. He came to break the barriers that exist between God and us. He came so that we may find a peace that passes all understanding. All these events were part of God’s plan. There is a major contrast between what God, what Jesus, offers and what we think that we want, then and now. And Jesus doesn’t wait for our motives to be pure or for us to have sorted out our lives to the point where we can look him square in the eye. That kind of self-righteousness can be blinding. This was and is not his purpose.
Jesus came to seek and rescue the lost; it isn’t the healthy who need a physician, but the sick and incomplete—in other words, all of us. So, the people wanted a prophet. But this prophet would tell them that their city was under the judgment of God. The people wanted a Messiah, and this one was going to be enthroned, but on a Roman cross. They wanted to be rescued from evil and oppression in the world, but Jesus was going to rescue them from evil in its full depth, not just the surface evil of the Roman occupation and the exploitation of the many poor by the few rich.
Exactly because Jesus says “yes” to their desires at the deepest level possible, Jesus must say “no” or “wait” to the desires that they were most conscious of and have expressed. It is a funny thing about prayer and about our whole relationship with the Lord Jesus. Once we invite Jesus in to help us, he will do so more thoroughly and deeply and everlastingly than we ever imagined or perhaps even wanted.
The story of Jesus’ grand and surprising entry into Jerusalem was an object lesson, for the crowds then, and for us today, about the mismatch between our expectations and God’s answer. The bad news is that the crowd was going to be cruelly disappointed. But the good news is that the disappointment is at the surface level. Deep down, Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem is indeed the moment when salvation is dawning, for the crowd that day, and for us as well.
What happens to our well-laid plans if we pause to confirm whether or not the Lord has need of all we are doing? Do all of our preparations reflect what God has planned for us? Do we respond to what God has asked of us, or are we only following our own well-intentioned leading? When we obey God, we are given an opportunity and are empowered to bring others to Jesus.
Before Passover week, while they were still in Galilee, Jesus taught about being faithful workers in God’s kingdom, and about what God’s kingdom was like. Jesus came to serve and to raise people up to better reflect God’s image as he did, and to keep announcing his kingdom and God’s call to all people to enter it with him. As we progress through the remainder of our Holy Week, let us fully absorb again what Jesus came to do for us and the price that he paid. Can we take up our own cross and follow him? Are we satisfied with what we’ve given back to him in response?
Each year Lent and Holy Week are a new opportunity to travel the pilgrim road with Jesus. As all Jews were asked to remember what God had done for them in Egypt and throughout their history, and praise God in thanksgiving, so we are able to join with them and recommit to our covenant with God through Jesus and give thanks. In humility we continue to examine our own faithfulness and gratitude before coming with joy to Easter.
Go in peace and attentive prayer. May your Holy Week be blessed.