After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “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.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Palm Sunday is one of the great days of the church year. This is the day that we celebrate our Lord’s triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem. In those days, people from all the known world came into the city of Jerusalem. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, claimed that there would have been up to two million people in Jerusalem for the Passover in those years. That is probably an exaggeration. But at the very least we can say that hundreds of thousands of people would have been packed into the city.
Most Palm Sunday sermons focus on Jesus riding into the city. Other Palm Sunday sermons focus on the donkey – leaving no shortage of word plays at the creative preacher’s disposal, many of them involving one of my favorite words in the English language – a word that is both descriptive and incredibly useful. We know that Jesus rode a donkey as a symbol of humility and peace, to show the world that he was not like other kings, that he ruled not with might, but with love; not through war, but through peace. Others talk about the disciples, how they obeyed Jesus’ command to get the donkey and serve as an example of faithful obedience for us.
All of these would make a fine Palm Sunday for us, and in other years, you’ll probably get to hear sermons on these themes. But today, I want to talk about the crowd – that great multitude no one could number who lined the road from the Mount of Olives to the Great Eastern Gate of Jerusalem. I want to talk about the people who waved palm branches, who laid their cloaks on the road, and who shouted, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But the same crowd would be shouting “Crucify Him!” before the week was over. May we pray.
Walker Percy once asked, “Why is it that when we see a photograph of a crowd the first thing we do is to look for ourselves?” When we look at a church directory or a high school yearbook or ESPN crowd shots, the first thing we do is look for ourselves.
When I was working on my degree at Duke, I went to every basketball game I could. During the games, I would often get calls and text messages from friends all over the country who were watching the game and had seen me. Sure enough, I would go home, pull up the recording of the game, and scan the crowd scenes trying to find myself.
This picture, titled “Rivalry in Blue,” was released while I was a student, and it shows Cameron Indoor Stadium right at tipoff in a UNC at Duke basketball game. Can you see me in the picture? Right there – blue shirt, white hat.
Something about us loves to see our face in the crowd. I don’t know why we do this, but we do, and it sets the stage for what we’re talking about this morning. We’re talking about the crowd on Palm Sunday, and there were lots of different people with different agendas in the crowd. But as we talk about the crowd, I invite you to look for yourselves among those who were there on that first Palm Sunday so long ago.
In the crowd, there were people who were curious. They were simply there in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. They weren’t there to see Jesus; they probably didn’t know anything about Jesus. Maybe they were just leaving the hotel or were finishing breakfast at IHOP or were traveling around the city, seeing the sights and enjoying the Passover festivities when they heard the commotion.
A parade! How marvelous! They checked the official Passover Program Schedule, but there was no parade scheduled for this time of day on this side of town. But there it was – a crowd of people lining the road, shouting “Hosanna in the Highest!” “What is going on?” they asked. Someone replied, “There is a rabbi named Jesus from Galilee coming into town. Some say he is the Messiah.” They hadn’t intended to see Jesus, but they were curious about the spectacle all the same.
They were sort of like Voltaire. Back in the 18th Century, Voltaire was one of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. He was not, however, a Christian. In fact, he had some pretty harsh things to say about the church. Yet, one day when he was walking down the streets of Paris, a church procession passed him. Who knows, it may have a Palm Sunday procession or for some other religious festival or feast. At the head of the march was the crucifer leading the way with the cross. As the procession passed, Voltaire stopped, took off his hat, and nodded. Someone in the crowd said, “Voltaire, are you now a follower of Christ?” He replied, “No, but we have a nodding acquaintance.”
Maybe that’s where you find yourself in the crowd this morning, curious, perhaps with a nodding acquaintance of Jesus. If you’re curious – welcome. This is a place where you don’t have to have it all figured out or have your mind made up about who Jesus is. Church is not only for those who follow Jesus, it’s for those who are curious or noddingly acquainted with him. If you are curious, I am glad you are here, but I need to forewarn you – you will likely find the message of Palm Sunday challenging.
In today’s scripture, as they approached the city, Jesus told his 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.’ What’s the deal with the donkey? Because the prophet Zechariah had written, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout, daughter of Jerusalem. Behold your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.”
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was intentionally fulfilling this prophecy and making his claim as Messiah. He made his claim not with words, but with action. He said to Jerusalem and to the world, “Behold, your king comes, and I am your king.” By riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was intentionally forcing an answer to the question, “Who you do you say that I am?”
We are forced to answer that question. The poet James Russell Lowell said, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” Palm Sunday is not a day to be noddingly acquainted with Christ. Nor is this a day to be mildly curious. There comes a point in every person’s life when we must decide. On Palm Sunday, the time was at hand. Not with words but with action, Jesus says to Jerusalem and to the world, Either you will you receive me as the King of kings and the Lord of Lords, or you will crucify me.” But the choice is yours.
In addition to curious people in the crowd, there were also those who had made their decision and they were against Jesus of Nazareth. Our reading from St. Luke’s gospel says, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’” Jerusalem was an occupied city in those days. It was under control of the Roman government and army. You can’t just waltz into the city and claim to be a King! The political leaders will consider it an insurrection. The Romans will clamp down on us with martial law. The religious leaders would call it heresy. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” But Jesus said, “Even if my disciples were silent, the very rocks would cry out.”
I would like to think I’m with Jesus here. I’d like to think I’m one of the shouting disciples, leading the crowd in cheers of “Hosanna!”, looking at Peter, James, and John and saying “No rock is going to cry out in my place!” But the religious people were decidedly against him. I can’t help but wonder if that’s where my face would be in the crowd.
Jesus once said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins” (Luke 5:36). Old wineskins are hard and brittle. New wine breathes and expands, and pouring it into old and brittle skins will burst those skins, and both the skin AND the wine will be ruined. We need to be like new wineskins. We need to be flexible and pliable and shapeable to what God is doing. If I become so rigid in my traditions that I am no longer receptive to what God is doing in our midst in the here and now, if I become so entrenched in the old ways that I am no longer willing to accept the new, if I cling to the authority of the past while rejecting what Christ is doing in the present, then I am like the Pharisee who said, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” The thing that haunts me about Holy Week is that it was not the bad people who turned against him. It was the good religious people. Blaise Pascal wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Before the week was over, the good religious people who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover would be shouting “Crucify Him!” There were those in the crowd who were against him.
But, there were people in the crowd who were for Him. These were the people who laid their cloaks in the road. These were the people who waved palm branches. These were the people who shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They had made their decision – they were for him as the Lord and King – but they shouted for the wrong reasons.
In those days, the palm branch was a national symbol. We know this because coins that were made during the Maccabean revolt of Jews against Syrian Greeks show a palm branch on them. There are mosaic pictures of Hebrew soldiers with palm branches. In the crowd that day were those who cheered for a militant Messiah. They were watching and waiting and ready to start a rebellion. They were hoping for a certain kind of king – a king who would restore the kingdom of David, a king who would unite the country and bring down an army of angels and run the hated Romans out of the country, a king who would turn their country into a military superpower before which all nations would cower in fear and trembling.
Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” As Jesus came to the Great Eastern Gate of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he wept, saying, “O Jerusalem, if only you had known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
There were those in the crowd who cheered for him, but for all the wrong reasons. They didn’t know the ways of God. They couldn’t see that his kingdom is of heaven, not of this world. Would my face have been in that crowd?
Whenever I am tempted to use Jesus Christ to justify my opinions, or my political views, or my agenda – when I am more concerned with my way than his way – when I reduce and abuse Christ to fit into my preconceived notions about how the world works, then I am like those who cheered for all the wrong reasons. Before the week was over, they would join those who were against Jesus, because they realized that he was not there to fulfill their agendas, but God had a different agenda. Before the week was over, they would also be shouting, “Crucify Him.”
Finally, there were those in the crowd who understood exactly what was happening. Earlier, the disciple Thomas had said to the others, “If he is going to Jerusalem to die, then let’s go die with him.” Thomas understood at least that much of it. After his death and before they realized his resurrection, two travelers on the road to Emmaus said to a stranger, “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” They understood the message of redemption and salvation. Mary Magdalene loved him so much that she refused to leave his side when the other disciples fled and hid; she understood it wasn’t about using and abusing Jesus to promote a political agenda. It was about the forgiveness of sins and the amazing self-giving love of a Savior. There were those in the crowd who understood. They understood Jesus’ message, they realized the true cost of God’s love and grace, they understood the sacrifices they would make to be his followers. I don’t know about you, but I want to find my face among that group in the crowd.
Today there are Christians around the world marching and shouting “Hosanna!” and raising their palm branches high. With join with them and countless believers through the ages – a great cloud of witnesses with whom we are partners in praise. This is a day to proclaim Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of our lives. This is a day to follow Christ instead of telling Christ to follow my agenda. This is a day not to allow our fears and blind religious traditions to keep us from seeing the new things God is doing in our midst. This is a day to move from being mildly curious about Jesus to committing ourselves as his followers. There are plenty in the crowd who will end up shouting, “Crucify Him,” but I hope and pray that we will not be among them.
This is a day to commit ourselves to what God is doing in our world today. Today is a day to cheer for the right reason – our Lord and Messiah has come to us and we belong to him.
There were those in the crowd that day who were ready to follow Jesus to the end. There were those who were willing to lay down their lives with him. There were those whose lives had been changed by his love and who wanted to give him the honor that he is due. I don’t know about you, but I want my face to be in that crowd. I want to be among those lifting our palm branches and saying, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”