Good morning and blessings on this Palm Sunday! What a joy it is to see the palms waving, to sing All Glory, Laud, and Honor, and to witness the celebration of the community as we celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The joy we feel in this moment – the celebratory tone with which we enter this Sunday – it is like the release of steam from the build up of Lent. We have journeyed alongside one another as we we have sought repentance and renewal. We need some good news in the midst of a season during which we have been reminded of our need for repentance.
But we have some real work we must do this week to get ourselves to the festivity of Easter. Don’t give up on me yet – we have but seven more days until we are able to truly celebrate.
But today, and this week, we must acknowledge why this week is so Holy. Let’s set the stage first for the scripture that was read this morning.
Jesus and his disciples have finally made their way to the point they are ready to enter the city of Jerusalem. Since the story of the transfiguration, Luke’s Gospel narrative has been leading us to this moment. If you remember the story of the transfiguration, Luke tells us that, having been transfigured, having appeared there on the mountain top with Elijah and Moses, Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem. From that moment to this, all that Jesus has said, done, taught, and traversed – they have all led to this moment, which will in itself mark a new beginning. As the journey to Jerusalem ends, the journey to the cross begins.
Jesus and his disciples are just a couple miles east of the City of Jerusalem in Bethany and Bethpage – at a place called the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is just across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount. Jesus sends two disciples into town where they are to find a colt. They are to untie the young donkey and bring it back for Jesus. Jesus prepares them to encounter someone who will ask their intention in taking the colt.
The disciples do as they are told – they go into the town and find, as Jesus predicted, this colt, tied up near the city gates. And, as Jesus predicted, someone inquired why it was they were taking the colt. The person making said inquiry isn’t just any person, the scripture defines the person as the colt’s owner. The disciples respond as instructed, “The Lord needs it.” And, perhaps just as miraculously as Jesus’ prediction of the colt existing, is the willingness of the colt’s owner to allow the disciples to take it.
Understand the significance of what has just happened. The owners didn’t respond back – they let the disciples make off with their colt. Can you imagine someone coming to your home, getting in your car, and preparing to drive off with it? And then to have this kind of encounter? Really, they say, the Lord needs it … so I’m just going to take it. Do you turn around and go back about your business?
There are some who have suggested that perhaps Jesus had already gone into town to arrange such a pick up. Yet, we have been following the story of Jesus and the disciples – we’ve seen their path. It seems unlikely Jesus would have been able to get away from his followers long enough to arrange such an exchange.
Others suggest that this sign – this exchange – is just the first indication that something is about to happen that is worth our attention. Is this perhaps part of a larger and mysterious plan for which we are unprepared?
Either way, through Jesus’ craftiness or through God’s divine intervention, the colt is taken back to Christ, who still awaits the disciples at the mount of olives.
Prepare now for the triumphant entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The entrance that is about to begin is a celebration the people of God have been waiting on for years … no, no – decades … even longer really – they’ve been waiting for this entrance for centuries. The people of God have been waiting for the entrance of a king who would be the grandest and most powerful of all the kings.
The last true Judean king to rule over the people lost his reign in 586 BCE (Zedekiah). That’s over 600 years prior to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. There were Judaen leaders like Nehemiah after the return from exile, but the king was never again from the Jewish community. After Cyrus allowed them to return home, they were continuously ruled by another agency, such as the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Hasmoneans, and finally the Romans.
So, for 600 years they have had no true Jewish king. And it’s been since before 920 BCE that the nations of Israel and Judah had one king. Following Saul, David, and Solomon, the nation had been split into Israel and Judah.
So, 600 years without a Jewish King at all, and almost 950 years since a they had a unified Jewish king.
Again – party of the century is about to take place, right? This man – Jesus of Nazareth – has a following. He is being hailed by his disciples as the Son of God, the King of Jews. And he’s preparing to enter into the central city of the region – the political, industrial, religious, and residential focal point of the region. Can you imagine how giddy his followers must have been on the eve of this entrance? Tomorrow our king is going to take this place by force, the new monarch will take his throne, we will be freed from the rule of others who have for too long told us where and how to live.
Remember this man – he has healed the blind. He has healed lepers. He has given voice to the mute, ears to the deaf, legs to the lame … yes, this man has even given life to the dead. Romans, prepare to meet your maker.
The disciples arrive back at the Mount where Jesus awaits. The colt is prepped (they lay their cloaks across its back) and Jesus is helped onto the donkey.
Already, something seems to be different.
Can you imagine the disciples looking around at each other as Jesus starts to descend the hill on the back of the donkey. What is happening? He’s going to ride in on that thing? No – he’s playing around with our emotions. Kings don’t storm the city on the back of a donkey. Kings enter with force – they ride in on chariots and storm the city in siege. Look, one disciple even has a sword on his hip ready to attack the Romans.
Where’s the chariot? Where’s the legion of horses? Where is … where is the show of brut force?
The disciples, probably dumbfounded as to what is happening, have no choice. We either join in the procession, or we get left behind. So they take off after the donkey, descending the hill, with Jesus on its back.
As they make their way, other believers see Jesus en-route. Hear what the scripture says, “As he rode along, people kept running, 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!’
This is a grand processional. Not necessarily as large of a party as we would have expected. The passage says that only those who were disciples – the multitude of disciples are involved. But, in the midst of this celebration, do you notice what’s missing? I mean, we have the disciples, and the believers, singing of Jesus’ praise – hailing him for his great works of power. They are laying their cloaks down on the road in front of Jesus. But there are a few discrepancies here from other Gospel accounts, and even from our own account of the entrance into Jerusalem, celebrated each year on this final Sunday of Lent.
Did you even notice? In Luke’s account of the entrance to Jerusalem, there are no palms. In fact, of all the Gospels, none of them name palms except for John. John’s account simply says, “They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him [as he began his entrance into Jerusalem].”[i] This high holy day that we have named Palm Sunday gets its name from this narrative slice found in only one of the four Gospels.
Jesus is riding in on a donkey – a colt even, not even a mature donkey. Jesus isn’t entering in with a presidential motorcade. He is purposefully entering in the most humble way possible. God is trying to redefine for us what it means to be the King, as he has been trying to do since Christ was even conceived. And even we, those of us in the church who study this story year in and year out, seemingly look past the humble presentation God makes of the heavenly kingship in all that Christ is and does. God starts in his humble beginnings – he was born in a manger; in his humble childhood – he is the son of a carpenter; he is a humble miracle worker – he tells those healed not to tell others what has happened to them; he’s even a humble Son of God – he tells even the disciples not to share the news of his divinity with others. And even here, he is presented as a humble King – riding into Jerusalem upon the back of a young donkey. And still, we, the church, have chosen to name this Sunday after the most un-humble part of the four Gospel accounts. We find this one note in John about the waving of palms, which just so happens to be the detail that is the most closely related to the ruling empires of the age.
“The palm branch [was] a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.”[ii] As war heroes entered back into their capital cities following victories in major battles, the people would wave palm branches in their honor. As new kings and emperors were chosen and seated on the throne, the crowds would wave palm branches in their honor.
Jesus is doing all he can to demonstrate that God desires to rule in a different way, that God is coming to change our understanding of power and divinity. And yet, even still today, we name this Sunday after the one minor detail – that only shows up in one Gospel account – that defines what has historically been a sign of victory and triumph in the secular realm.
Yet, Jesus’ entrance on the donkey is not to be a sign of greatness in the way the secular world has come to have it defined. In this passage in Luke’s Gospel, we are reminded that this entrance is exactly as God has been planning all along. Hear the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, which offers, “Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”[iii]
The entrance into the city is God’s sign of the reign that is to come. The new reign – the reign in which Christ is King – is not a typical example of worldly powers. This is intentional on God’s part. Rev. William Carter, a Presbyterian Pastor in Pennsylvania, offers that, “This is a prophetic act, a sign of God’s vulnerable love, which risks everything and promises to gain all.”[iv] He continues, “This is the means by which God creates peace.”
The celebration of this day, which we have dubbed Palm Sunday, is a day in which we try to celebrate the fullness of God’s kingship in Christ as we celebrate Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. But in our own celebration is our acknowledgement of why we must continue to journey this week to the cross come Friday. In our own celebration is our admitting that we have misunderstood the call of God to live in peace with the world and creation surrounding us.
Our celebration of Palm Sunday is our own admittance to having failed to grasp God’s call to live in love and at peace with the world. Our celebration of Palm Sunday is our own way of naming why we need to be reminded of God’s sacrifice in the death of Christ for the atonement of our sin.
Palm Sunday is our owning the failure to truly understand God’s desire for peace, and God’s witness of peace in Christ. Palm Sunday is our confession of error in believing that only through war will we make a way for peace, or that only through competition will we make a way for cooperation, or that aggression is the only solution to opposition, or even the belief that only in strengthening and arming ourselves will we find a way to ensure our safety.[v]
It is these examples and so many more, that define our failure to recognize our complete reliance upon God’s faithfulness in sending Christ into the city on the donkey. It is these examples and so many more that lead us to the words of Christ from the cross, as he utters in his final breaths, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
In the events of this week, God will reject the binary that says either conquer or be conquered, win or lose, succeed or be a failure. God is seeking, even in giving Christ to the cross, to make a way for new life in death. Will you journey with me this week as we are once more reminded of God’s desire to offer new life in each of us? Amen.