Palm Sunday

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Do you ever wish for someone to come and just make everything better?

Well, if you are familiar with that feeling today, multiply it by a million and you will be close to how the Jewish people in Jesus’ day felt. Israel’s history was one of being conquered by one empire, then another. One empire carted them away from their homeland. The next one brought them back, but still ruled them. They ruled themselves as an independent kingdom for around 100 years, only to be conquered by the Romans, who didn’t so much conquer the nation themselves, but backed and bank-rolled a usurper, who was then loyal to Rome, and whose family held on to power by using foreign soldiers in the city of Jerusalm.

You can imagine that this all took a toll on the people of Israel. Not only because of the spiritual damage it did to their pride and patriotism. But also because of the heavy taxes they paid because of it.

Not to mention that every Sabbath they would read in their scriptures that the land was theirs, and that God had destroyed Israel’s enemies before.

They read in Exodus about how God had saved them from slavery and drowned their oppressors. In the Psalms they would read that the one who guarded Jerusalem would neither slumber nor sleep. And in the Prophets, they read descriptions of those who had saved Israel in the past, and week after week, and year after year, began to wonder if they also meant that someone would come to save them in the future. And when and if he did come, they knew that he would finally restore Israel to its rightful place in the world, because they read that in their Bible.

They read passages like Zechariah 9:9-10 which says

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Now, if that doesn’t seem like much to you, I don’t blame you. But keep in mind, that not only was this from Israel’s holy text, but for the vast majority of them, it was from their ONLY text. So they knew it pretty well.

That’s the context for our scripture from Luke 19: 29-40

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the 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.

Now, it’s important to remember that Jesus actually told these two disciples to do this. Saying “The Lord needs it” is only a good excuse if the Lord actually needs it. Don’t try this with my car.

As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.”

So it works in this situation. But this isn’t the reason for the story. If you do the readings this week (at the bottom of this page), and you totally should since it’s Holy Week, you might notice that in Matthew’s version, he reports that Jesus rode both a donkey and a colt. Some suggest this is a literary device to emphasise that the prophecy is extra fulfilled.

But since Hebrew poetry uses a technique where one noun is echoed by another for emphasis, so

“humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey… (Zechariah 9:9)

is not talking about two animals, but emphasizing the fact of the donkey over the warhorse that one would expect of a hostile king.

And the toughest of the warhorse riders would be towing a spare behind them. The centurions coming into Rome all had their remounts— their spare horse in case the main mount broke a leg— And it made them look that much tougher and cooler. And so Matthew has Jesus towing his own remount. But it’s just a little baby horse.

Which is kind of hilarious, if you think about it.

You don’t usually think of Jesus doing a sight gag, but that might be exactly what he is doing, in Matthew at least.

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.

Putting clothes down on the road is a sign of acknowledging royalty. A clear reference to this is in 2 Kings 9:13.

“Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’”

If we read the rest of 2 Kings 9, we’ll see that Jehu has just been anointed king by one of Elisha’s emissaries—a junior prophet—although the current king is still alive and on the throne! This is a coup. Jehu then rides off, pretending still to be loyal, and kills both the king of Israel—who is the son of Jezebel—and the king of Judah.

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!”

And this is the icing on the cake. It was implied, but now Jesus’ disciples have made it explicit. Jesus is the king.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

Now, I don’t think they were being nasty here. I think they were genuinely concerned with keeping the peace. Displays like this one could lead to a riot, which would lead to some mass casualities courtesy of the Roman garrison. But Jesus doesn’t seem too worried.

He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It seems to me that Jesus is being intentionally provocative here. He is engaging in a form of protest and street theater that isn’t just going to stir up trouble for himself, but stoke the flames of dissent in Jerusalem.

Israel’s world was a hot mess. People were sick of it and wanted, no expected, someone to come and save them from the evil in their midst. Jesus knew all of that. Even if he hadn’t been all knowing, he would have known all of that.

And so knowing full well what he was doing, Jesus entered that royal city like a hero, like a deliverer, like the Messiah. He rode a donkey because he wanted the people to know that he knew.

Jesus knew that if he was going to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey during their most holy week of the year, that they also expected him to ride up to a Roman soldier, and with an epic slow motion uppercut, start the war that would liberate Israel.

But he didn’t do that.

Instead, he rode to Israel’s temple, and made a whip, and drove his own people out of it. Instead, he disrupted the economy of the money changers and threatened the stability of the treasury.

Instead of taking the fight to the enemy, Jesus taught. He taught his own people to be less stuck in their certainty. He taught them what their religion really means.

Which is, for the most part, what Jesus had been doing all along. He had been teaching and healing. So why tell the world that he was the Messiah in such a public spectacle?

Why did Jesus decide to be that kind of Messiah anyway?

Why didn’t God send a Messiah who would liberate Israel? Who would destroy the evil around them? Who would force the world to change?

Frederick Buechner explains it better than I can,

“… the power of God stands in violent contrast with the power of man. It is not external like man’s power, but internal. By applying external pressure, I can make a person do what I want him to do. This is man’s power.

But as for making him be what I want him to be, without at the same time destroying his freedom, only love can make this happen. And love makes it happen not coercively, but by creating a situation in which, of our own free will, we want to be what love wants us to be.

And because God’s love is uncoercive and treasures freedom – if above all he wants us to love him, then we must be left free not to love him – we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again.

This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, the greatest of all powers, God’s power, is itself powerless.” (From The Magnificent Defeat)

I think this is what Jesus was teaching on Palm Sunday, without words. And he taught it in the way that all the best teachers teach…by forcing his disciples to discover it for themselves.

Jesus didn’t fix everything, because even if everything was fixed from the outside, by external power, it wouldn’t have stayed fixed.

His procession into Jerusalem with the palms waving and the crowds yelling wasn’t about power.

It was about love.

A love that brought God to be with us here, in person, because we couldn’t hear him otherwise. A love that would carry him through this last week and finally to the cross. A love that even has Jesus rode in on the donkey, taking on the powers of this world and the sin that holds us captive, would lead him to weep.

This was the love that would change the world, starting with us.

The same Jesus who choose love over power, donkeys over horses, the cross over an army, loves you.

Which may not sound like much, especially when life is hard, or when the world seems upside down. Like the people on the sides of the road that afternoon in Jerusalem, when we are longing for a world that looks different, when we are crying out for a king to come and fix it all, what do we do with love on the back on a donkey?

Two things.

First, we need that love in our lives more than we know. The love of Jesus takes on our sin and brokenness and makes us whole. Start by letting Jesus change you. Read the Holy Week Scriptures this week. Remember all over again what the cross really costs God. Bring all of your brokenness into the light and feel the grace of God take it all.

Second, that love that changes us then sends us out to change the world. The people on the streets wanted their community to change. But Jesus changed them instead, and then sent them out as his disciples to go and change the world. You are sent out too.

Each year, as Christians, we celebrate Palm Sunday. The palms they waved were signs of victory, and we remember the victory that Jesus has on the other side of the tomb next Sunday on Easter. But then next year we will burn the palms we wave in victory and put the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, remembering once again our sin and brokenness.

This is the best image I can think of of who we are this morning. A people both broken and redeemed. A people marked by the ash our sin and yet still dancing on the streets waving palms by the victory of Christ, transformed by his love and sent out to do his work.

About the Author

David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins

More Readings for Holy Week

  • Palm Sunday- Matthew 21:1-16, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-40, John 12:12-19
  • Monday- Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 10:32-34, Luke 18:31-34.
    Matthew 12:38-42, Mark 8:11-12, Luke 11:29-32, John 6:30
    Matt 16:13-28, Mark 8:27-9:9, Luke 9:18-27
  • Tuesday- Matthew 17:22-23, Mark 9:30-32, Luke 9:43-45, John 12:20-36,
    Matthew 26:1-5, Mark 14:1-2, Luke 22:1-2, John 11:45-57
  • Wednesday- Matthew 26:1-20, Mark 14:10-17, Luke 22:3-14, John 6:60-66, John 16:29-33, Matthew 26:30-55, Mark 14:26-31, Luke 22:31-38,
    John 13:36-38, Matthew 21:18-22, Mark 11:12-26, Luke 19:47-48
  • Thursday- Matthew 26:21-29, Mark 14:18-25, Luke 22:15-23,
    John 13:21-30, John 6:26-59
  • Friday- Matthew 26:36-27:66, Mark 14:32-15:42
  • Saturday- Luke 22:39-23:56, John 18:1-19:42

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