When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “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 disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
For the last several weeks, we’ve spent time with Jesus during the events of the last 24 hours of his life before the crucifixion, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve found it to be an inspiring and heart-breaking journey. Every step of the way, we’ve sought to see our own faces reflected back in the story. We have seen how we are like the disciples, who fell asleep and then who fled in fear. We are like Judas and Peter, who betrayed and denied Jesus. We are like the religious folks, who had it in for Jesus because he threatened the quicksand they had built their world upon. We are like the Roman governor, who convicted Jesus to death knowing he was innocent. And we are like the Roman soldiers, who took great delight in torturing and humiliating Jesus.
Today, we take a step back, away from the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion, and think about the events that took place at the very beginning of the same week. Across the worldwide church today, Christians everywhere are celebrating Palm Sunday, observing and remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week. We are waving our palm branches high and greeting Jesus as a king, joining our voices with those across the centuries who shout “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We have already looked at, as Paul Harvey might say, “the rest of the story.” We’ve started with the end of the story, and now, today, we come to fill in what came before. You know that those who greeted him with cheers of “Hosanna!” will be shouting “Crucify Him!” in a few days. Join us for worship on Thursday night and Friday night at 7pm as we consider the tragic turns in the story. Sure, you can skip past all that, from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluias” of Easter, but if do you, you’ll miss some of the most important parts of the story. The crowd will turn on Jesus this week. How did something that began so well end so tragically? May we pray.
Have you ever been excitedly anticipating something, and when it finally gets here, it’s not everything you hoped it would be?
Every year in December, one of the movies I enjoy watching, and I know many of you do, as well, is A Christmas Story. This 1983 classic is the tale of a family in Hammond, Indiana, as they prepare for Christmas 1940. The main character, Ralphie only wants one thing for Christmas – anyone know what it was? He wants a BB gun – specifically, an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. The movie revolves around his ongoing quest for this BB gun, and he even goes to see Santa at the department store to ask for it. After hours in line, anticipating the big moment, Ralphie makes it to Santa and suddenly can’t remember what he wanted. Santa suggests a nice football, and Ralphie looks confused and squeaks out “A football.” Santa says, “OK, get him out of here,” and as Ralphie is pushed down the slide, he suddenly comes to, stops himself, and climbs back up the slide and tells Santa he wants an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, to which Santa simply responds, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” and we see the bottom of his boot come toward the camera to shove Ralphie back down the slide.
Clearly, that exchange did not go as Ralphie had hoped. Have you ever been excitedly anticipating something, and when it finally gets here, it’s not everything you hoped it would be? Maybe it was over-hyped, maybe you thought you were getting one thing, and it turned out to be another.
When we look at the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, we see people who thought and hoped they were getting one thing, but as it turned out, they were getting another.
The events of Palm Sunday took place at the beginning of Passover week in Jerusalem. Passover is one of the great, high holy festivals of the Jewish religious calendar. It commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. If you need a quick refresher on that story, I’m sure the movie, The Ten Commandments, will be shown on several stations this week. For Passover, great crowds of people travelled from all over the known world to be in Jerusalem, the holy city, for the festival.
However, Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judea were, at the time of Jesus, under the control of Rome and part of the Roman empire. And so, Passover, celebrating liberation, took place in an occupied city. At Passover, the faithful would gather to offer traditional prayers. Close your eyes and hear this traditional prayer. Think of it being prayed by a people who are oppressed by an outside government:
Long ago, at this season, on such a night as this, a people - our people - set out on a journey.
All but crushed by their enslavement, they yet recalled the far-off memory of a happier past.
And heard the voice of their ancestral God, bidding them summon up the courage to be free.
Boldly, they went forth from Egypt, crossed the Sea, and headed through the desert for the Promised Land.
What they experienced, they remembered, and told their children, and they to theirs.
From generation to generation, the story was retold, and we are here to tell it yet again.
We too give thanks for Israel's liberation; we too remember what it means to be a slave.
And so we pray for all who are still fettered, still denied their human rights. Let all God's children sit at his table, drink the wine of deliverance, and eat the bread of freedom:
Freedom from bondage and freedom from oppression, freedom from hunger and freedom from want, freedom from hatred and freedom from fear, freedom to think and freedom to speak, freedom to learn and freedom to love, freedom to hope and freedom to rejoice; soon in our days. Amen.
With prayers like these, do you see how the Passover holiday was a political powderkeg just waiting to explode? Further, the people were looking for a Messiah. They were waiting, hoping, praying, for God’s anointed who would deliver them again, set them free, and establish the kingdom of Israel forever. And during the Passover, when emotions are high, would be the perfect time for the Messiah to arrive.
Enter Jesus on the scene. He had been engaged in public ministry roughly three years at this point, and has already made quite a name for himself. He has been teaching about the kingdom of God, healing the sick, spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners, challenging religious rules and the authority of religious leaders, restoring sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who are oppressed and announcing that the time had come when God would save God’s people. He performed signs and miracles, he offered a new teaching, and he taught as one with authority. He was quickly becoming the people’s favorite, and some, based on things they had seen at his baptism and overheard throughout his ministry, staked their claim on the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah.
Jesus and his disciples were among the thousands of pilgrims going to Jerusalem for the festival, and as they approached the city, Jesus told his disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied . . .; untie [it] and bring [it] to me. ” The prophet Zechariah had written, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Behold your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” Jesus was intentionally fulfilling this prophecy and making his claim as Messiah. His actions said, to Jerusalem and to the world, “Behold, your king comes, and I am your king.”
The symbolism was not lost. Imagine someone looking off in the distance, toward the Mount of Olives, as Jesus came riding down the road on the donkey. They thought, “Oh my gosh, this is it! Here he comes! The Messiah! It’s happening! It’s happening! The Messiah is coming! The Messiah is coming!”
This message spread like wildfire through the crowd – Jesus was coming down the road, and if he was the Messiah, he was the answer to everyone’s prayers. They threw down their cloaks on the road, they ran to the trees to cut down palm branches so they could wave them and shout “Hosanna!” as Jesus rode on by.
Throwing cloaks on the road – it was an ancient way of rolling out the red carpet, so to speak. The idea was that this would keep the person’s feet – or the feet of the animal they rode – from touching the dirty ground. It’s similar to the way men used to throw down their overcoats over a mud puddle so a lady could keep her feet from getting dirty, though that always seemed an odd habit to me, because then you had a muddy overcoat when it might have just been smarter to walk around the mud puddle. I’m just sayin’!
As the crowds greeted Jesus by waving palm branches, they were remembering a similar episode 190 years earlier, when another government oppressed the Jews. The Syrian-Greek dynasty had killed many Jewish people, and during their occupation, set up an altar to Zeus in the Jewish Temple and slaughtered pigs on it.
Then, in 165 BC, a family of Jews, the Maccabees, began a revolt and were successful in driving the Greeks from the Temple and the Holy Land. When Simon Maccabee returned to Jerusalem, he was hailed as the great deliverer; and the people took palm branches and waved them in front of him as a sign of victory. “You have freed us from the Greeks. We salute you.” The palm branch was a national symbol. There are mosaic pictures of Hebrew soldiers with palm branches. In the crowd cheering for Jesus, there were those who cheered for a militant Messiah. They were waiting for the Messiah so they could start a rebellion.
The people waved palm branches as Jesus rode into town, and they shouted “Hosanna!” loosely translated as “Save us now!” They recited Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna, Son of David!” “Son of David” was a nationalistic term. Waving palm branches and calling him the son of David, they may as well have been waving flags of the nation and singing, “All Hail the Conquering Hero!”
In essence, the crowd was saying, “Jesus, be our deliverer. Save us from the Romans, as Simon saved our forbears from the Greeks. Cast out our enemies and save us from their awful oppression.” This is what they were looking for in Jesus – a militant, national hero – a king, an anointed one, a messiah. David was a messiah. Solomon was a messiah. Any of the ancient kings anointed by the priests were said to be messiahs. The people had specific expectations about what the Messiah would be like.
Many were looking for the leader of an armed rebellion, the prominence of the nation restored, the kingdom of Israel established as a political superpower; Jesus must have been a great disappointment. They cheered for Jesus as a way of saying, “Jesus, be the king to our nation! Jesus, be savior to our people!” Instead, what they got was a Messiah who came to be the king of all nations, a Messiah who came to save all people. There were those in the crowd who shouted and cheered for Jesus that day, but for all the wrong reasons. They didn’t know the ways of God. Jesus would challenge their preconceptions, their prejudices, and their presumptions, and joyful shouts of “Hosanna!” soon turned to indignant cries of “How dare you!”
I find there is often this same tension for those who would follow Jesus today. As long as Jesus does what we want him to do, as long as he fits inside our box, matches our religious and cultural expectations, and advances our own personal agenda, we are like those in the crowd who shout “Hosanna!” But, when Jesus draws us outside our comfort zone, when he broadens our religious perspective, and when he asks us to follow his way instead of conforming to our way, we look at Jesus and say, “How dare you!”
The crowd turned from their shouts of “Hosanna!” to cries of “How dare you!” because Jesus challenged their narrow, inward-focused, short-sighted worldview. They turned on Jesus because his purpose was grander and wider and deeper, and they just weren’t ready for that.
Jesus opens windows and shows us the true nature of the kingdom of God. He says, “This is my kingdom. A kingdom of peace, and love, and forgiveness. A kingdom of grace rather than judgment, a kingdom where all humanity is welcome to sit at the table with God. A kingdom where enemies are made friends, where the weak are lifted up, where the proud are brought low. A kingdom where lives are transformed, where the blind see, where the lame walk, where the deaf hear. A kingdom where the love of God rules in every heart, and the very fiber of everyone’s being become instruments tuned for praise.”
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There’s only one catch. In order to participate in that kingdom, in order for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, we must follow the one who is king. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey, fulfilling the prophecies and making his undisputable claim as the Messiah, he was saying, “I am the king. Follow me.”
Our proper response is captured so well in the lines from the old hymn. “Where he leads me, I will follow. I’ll go with him all the way.” Wherever he leads, we follow. If he leads us out of our comfort zone, if he leads us out of our prejudices, if he leads us beyond our own agenda, we follow. And we go with him all the way. We don’t stop when it gets challenging, we don’t stop when we are asked to make sacrifices, we don’t stop at the borders of what is safe and comfortable and easy to us. If we will truly follow Jesus, we’ll go with him all the way.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he made him claim as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. There were those in the crowd who were willing to follow him all the way. I don’t know about you, but that’s where I want to see my face in the story. Today, Christians around the world are shouting “Hosanna!” and raising their palm branches high, because they have been changed by his love and want to give him the honor he is due.
How about you? The King of kings wants to be lord of your life. As Jesus comes to each of us as a king, he is calling us to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the messiah, the anointed one – truly, he is God’s son. If he is your king and the Lord of your life, wave your palm branch high and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”