[ No Audio available, see sermon notes below ]
Today is Palm Sunday. It is like a little oasis on the dusty path leading up to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The season of Lent, a sombre and thoughtful season, is coming to its ultimate conclusion. In the scriptures, the focus is shifting to Jerusalem. Jesus has been at first hinting and then outright stating that he will be killed in Jerusalem. Last week Ryan told us the story of the dinner at Bethany and the washing of Jesus’ feet with the nard by Mary. When criticized by Judas, Jesus said that Mary had done this for his burial. Sad times on the horizon, but just for a moment, for just this day, we are lifted out of the solemn atmosphere into this incredible celebration.
Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he knows what has already been written about the life of Jesus, he has talked to eye-witnesses, he has carefully considered all that he has experienced and heard and writes in order that a man called Theophilus (and us) might have an accurate orderly account.
Luke is writing several decades after these events took place. Perhaps an interview with an elderly follower of Christ might have gone like this. “Tell me what happened on that day Our Lord went into Jerusalem.” “Well, Jesus had just told us a parable about being faithful and patient as servants of the king, and then we continued on, up to Jerusalem. We came near Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives. He said to two of the other disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
“As those two headed off, I remember wondering, where are they going and how is He so sure that the owners will lend him this colt? I wonder what is going to happen next. I knew that the traditions of our ancestors talked about the king coming, riding on a foal of a donkey. I had memorized that verse from the prophet Zechariah, Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass. (Zech 9:9) I felt the excitement level rising within me as we waited to see what was going to ensue. Was our Lord Jesus finally and openly going to reveal himself as the King we had been waiting for? As King we hoped that he would overthrow the Roman government and set up his everlasting kingdom. But then there had been all this talk of death and dying. So I was very unsure about how things would proceed. Quite frankly, I was more than a little confused.”
“Well just as He had predicted, when those two disciples were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’” “And was there any further discussion?” Luke might have asked. “Apparently not, at least those two disciples didn’t report that there were any difficulties.”
We don’t know and we aren’t told by Luke whether the colt’s owners knew Jesus or knew about Jesus or why they let the colt go – they just did. Some writers think that Jesus had pre-arranged things with the colt’s owners. But we don’t know if this is true or not – the text does not say.
Returning to the story, “So what happened next,” Luke might have asked his interviewee. “Well, they returned with the colt and we all threw our cloaks on the colt and we helped Jesus to get on. And then we continued our journey toward Jerusalem. There was a large crowd following us by then and to our amazement, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. And waving palm branches. The atmosphere was electric. I felt excitement spreading through me in a way I had never experienced before. We arrived at the path down from the Mount of Olives, and suddenly people began to break out into songs of praise. There was a whole multitude of people, not just those of us who had been closest to him but many people who had witnessed his miracles or heard his teaching. These crowds had been growing since that wonderful, scary, perplexing miracle where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. The miracles, the donkey, the ride into Jerusalem – surely this was the moment our history had led us to – surely great things were about to happen. You could just feel it in the air. We began to hear the words the crowd was shouting. I recognized the words from one of our Psalms and here it was coming true in our very presence.
Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!
The sounds of shouting and singing got louder and louder. For a moment we weren’t worried about how much noise we were making or who might hear it.
Jesus seemed to be encouraging it. He sat on the donkey as it moved slowly forward and we thought – This is the King. This truly is the King.
Then the mood was interrupted for a moment when some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ I wondered what he would say to this – but he turned to them and answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ And then the whole procession proceeded on to the city.”
Then as a further part of his investigation, Luke might have interviewed some of the Pharisees as well to see how they remembered the event. And they might well have told him how afraid they were that all this commotion and “king” business might really stir up the Romans. There was already a heavy Roman presence in the city to keep law and order while the Passover was being celebrated. Many people from all over the Mediterranean communities flocked to Jerusalem for Passover and there had been previous difficulties. “This is why” they said, “that we asked him to quiet his followers. We were worried about the safety of all our people if the Roman soldiers were to become unnecessarily alarmed. But he basically told us he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop them.”
So here we have this story of the joyous entrance of the King. What do we do with this story? What was Jesus up to? Probably he should have snuck into Jerusalem. After all the authorities were already plotting how to get rid of him. But here he is making this grand entrance with so much fanfare that everyone would have noticed. And he is using a time-tested prophetic device – he is acting out the story he is trying to tell – riding a donkey, entering from the Mount of Olives into the Eastern Gate (the Golden Gate) – This is a claim to Kingship. This is a claim to be the promised Messiah. And the people recognize this – whether they respond with shouts of joy and Psalms of praise or with fear and apprehension.
All four of the gospels relate this story in whole or in part. So it was seen to be important in the whole journey to Jerusalem and ultimately to the events of the Easter weekend. When I first started to think about this familiar passage a few weeks ago, it seemed to me, for the first time, a little incongruous. We are people who try to enter into the whole Lenten journey – to engage what an Anglican rector once told me was a season in a “minor key”. We try to reflect and remember and repent and generally prepare ourselves for the events of Holy Week. We know that Sundays traditionally in Lent have been referred to as “little Easters” and are not counted in these 40 days of Lent. But this Sunday with the Palm leaf waving and the Hosannas and the excited children and all somehow seemed at first to me to be a little over the top or at the very least, a distraction. Perhaps that is why many Palm Sunday sermons talk more about foreshadowing the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Maybe it is too hard to stay in this moment of joyous celebration, too much of an emotional roller-coaster. Is it?
The more I thought about, the more I became convinced that this is an extremely significantly important passage. We need to pause here today and savour the moment. Just think about it. This is the King of Kings entering into Jerusalem. This is the Messiah, the awaited one. Through all the many centuries the people of God had been longing for his arrival. Here He is, riding a donkey – the symbol of a king coming in peace. And the people respond with the words of today’s Psalm – Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Not only that, he is the Prince of Peace. The angels sang at his birth, Glory to God in the Highest and on earth Peace to those of goodwill. And now as the King comes into the city the people echo back the praises of the angelic hosts, Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven. On the threshold of this sacred city, which housed the temple of God, where people believed that heaven and earth met, there is this back and forth refrain — Peace on earth – peace in heaven. This is the One. This is God incarnate – come for the salvation of the whole earth — This is the One who will overcome sin and death and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. This is He. Hosanna! Praise be to God! Even if all of us were to stop our praises — the very rocks and stones would start take up the refrain.
Sit with that for a minute.
Last Sunday I walked the prayer labyrinth before church and on the journey inward, I prayed for all those who have burdens and problems that weigh heavily on my heart. And in the center, where there is a place to be completely quiet and still, I reflected on this passage and it came to me that this passage is about many things but for me, it is mainly about hope. We have deep hurts that we carry for ourselves and for others – wounds that seem to never completely heal. There is a lot of sadness in this world of ours – But we are not like those without hope. For we know the King. We can authentically enter into the joy and hopefulness of this story, of this day called Palm Sunday. Together with the people in this story we can add our voices, Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. For our God has come to us. Our God entered into human flesh and lived amongst us. King Jesus made that ride into Jerusalem, seated on a donkey, coming in peace that we might live and that we might live abundantly and with hope. For he knew the dark times that were ahead for him. He knows that we have times when our burdens are heavy. But we are never left with despair. This is Good News. So embrace this moment of celebration. Wave your Palm leaves and shout with the children, Hosanna for our God saves. God is with us. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.