This sermon has been been reworked over the years and I’ve long lost track of the original sources. It is based on some material originally published in Scripture Union’s SALT in the 1990s. If I remember rightly the closing section was inspired by C.S. Song’s Compassionate God. It preached well enough at Archway this morning, though on reflection it is perhaps a bit too didactic. Being a sermon rather than an essay, I’m afraid there are no citations, but I believe the scholarship behind the sermon is fairly accurate.
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. Today we join with Christians around the world to remember the events that took place during the final week of Jesus’ life. Events which led to him being put to death on the cross on Good Friday only to rise to new life on Easter morning.
Palm Sunday is a day of mixed emotions: of joy and sorrow, triumph and tribulation. It is a time of celebration – for the coming of the King into his city; but it is also a time of foreboding – because we know that this King is going to die. It is also a time of bitter irony, for this is a King like no other, yet he goes all but unrecognised by those he rules. So Palm Sunday is a time to sing and rejoice – and how eagerly we join in the crowd’s cries of ‘hosanna’ – but it is also an occasion for introspection and a growing sense of unease. After this last hurrah, everything starts to fall apart for the would-be Messiah and King, as enemies gather, friends waver and flee, and shouts of ‘hosanna’ are replaced by the crowd’s cries of ‘crucify’.
What better symbol for this strange mixture of sorrow and joy can there be than the palm cross? It is made from palm, a reminder of the joyful crowd waving leaves and branches in welcome and celebration. But it is shaped into a cross – the cruel instrument of torture on which Jesus met his death.
This morning we are going to look again the events of Palm Sunday. I hope to answer the question: what exactly was going on? And what does it have to tell us about Jesus and his mission?
You see, I believe that the entry into Jerusalem was planned as carefully as any modern demonstration or publicity event. It may seem strange to describe it in these terms, but Jesus was actually falling back on ancient prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Old Testament knew that a dramatic symbolic action could speak far more powerfully than a sermon. The events of Palm Sunday are packed full of symbolism and meaning. For those who knew their history and their Scriptures, each detail would have its significance.
This puts us at a disadvantage, for we are not so familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures or Jewish history. We need to do a little research and investigate is we are to fully appreciate what was happening the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
Matthew’s account of Palm Sunday begins with these words:
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives…
This is the last stage of a journey that began in verse 17 of the previous chapter:
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death…”
Of course Jesus had been to Jerusalem before, no doubt many times. But this time is different. Jesus is aware and we are aware that events are moving to their terrible conclusion. So we are joining Jesus on the journey he must make in the last week of his life, from Jericho to Jerusalem via Bethphage and the Mount of Olives. A journey that will eventually bring him to Calvary, and beyond Calvary a tomb.
In our imaginations we can join this journey – and this has become an indispensible part of the Holy Week devotions of many Christian traditions, whether it be a Palm Sunday procession, a Good Friday walk of witness or a reflective following of the Stations of the Cross. It is not an easy journey to make, with each new step drawing us deeper in the darkness of the Passion story. Even on Palm Sunday the celebrations are short-lived.
Palm Sunday begins with two disciples being sent off to secure a colt, or young donkey.
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.”
Why did Jesus choose to ride on a young donkey? This detail of the story is often misunderstood, because the significance of the donkey has changed over time. Think of a donkey, and what comes to mind? A dumpy, slightly comical animal. Compared to a horse, a rather inelegant and humble animal. So we assume that the choice of a donkey was an act of humility on Jesus’ part. But in the ancient world a donkey, or ass, was regarded as a suitable mount even for a king.
Matthew tells us that Jesus’ choice of animal was in fulfilment of scripture:
“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 main difference between a donkey and a horse was no so much a matter of status. Rather a donkey was employed for everyday use, whereas a horse was ridden in battle. A king riding on a donkey was, first and foremost, a sign of peace. If Jesus had just wanted to express humility, surely he would have walked – as he normally did – and as most pilgrims would enter the Holy City. By riding a donkey on this last stage of his journey people would have understood Jesus to be making some claim to authority, and perhaps even connected it with the prophecy of Zechariah, which speaks of the coming of a king who has defeated Jerusalem’s enemies and now enters the city in peace.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was welcomed by a crowd.
Crowds play an important role in the final week of Jesus’ life. A crowd welcomes him to Jerusalem. A few days later, another crowd shouts for him to be crucified. I wonder whether anyone in this latter crowd had been there to greet him on Palm Sunday? There’s no way of knowing for certain. But the events of our Lord’s passion remind us of the danger of the mob. Crowds are easily subverted and manipulated for ignoble purposes. In the drama of Palm Sunday the crowd is an important actor in the play.
Let’s look at the crowd in more detail. Matthew writes:
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road…
In 2 Kings 9:13 we are told that this is exactly what the crowd did for King Jehu following his coronation. If you have ever watched the Queen arrive at a royal occasion you will have seen a special red carpet laid out for her. It was the same on the Jerusalem road. By laying their cloaks on the road the crowd were giving Jesus the VIP treatment.
This was a very costly thing that the people in the crowd did. A cloak might well be the most valuable possession a poor person owned. A cloak served as a blanket by night and a coat by day and even as a makeshift sack to carry loads. Possession of a cloak was regarded as an absolute necessity; in fact the law forbade a cloak to be retained as a pledge on a loan overnight. And yet for all this the crowd willingly laid down their precious coats for their king. No doubt they picked them up afterwards but imagine what they must have looked like after being dropped on a dusty, stony road and trampled all over by Jesus, the donkey, the disciples and the crowd!
What else did the crowd do? Well, we all know they waved palm branches – that’s why today is called Palm Sunday! Only Matthew doesn’t say that – he just mentions ‘branches’ being spread on the ground. It’s John that tells us they were palm branches.
Why palms? This may have a historical significance. Some two centuries before Jerusalem had been conquered and occupied by a monomaniacal Greek king called Antiochus Epiphanes. After taking Jerusalem, Antiochus embarked on a severe persecution of the Jewish people and made it illegal for them to practise their religion. He desecrated the temple by burning pigs on the altar and turning the temple courts into brothels. Eventually a man called Judas Maccabaeus led the Jews in revolt and the Greeks were expelled. The temple was purified and during the celebration the people carried branches and palm leaves as they sang psalms to God. Even to this day Jewish people commemorate the cleansing of the temple in the Feast of Hanukkah.
Palms were therefore a sign of celebration and victory. In New Testament times the palm branch was a national symbol – it was even included on coins minted by Jewish nationalists during their war with the Romans.
And what about the cries of Hosanna? This is a Hebrew word, which literally means ‘Save us!’ It comes from Psalm 118, which is a song taken up by the crowd:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Psalm 118 was traditionally sung by pilgrims attending the Passover Festival. Whether the crown knew it or not, this time it took on new significance, for the one who comes in the name of the Lord was in the midst of them, riding on a donkey. For us the word hosanna has lost its original meaning, and has become just a shout of praise. But to the crowd it was an expression of their longing and expectations. They chafed under Roman rule. Could this be the one who would deliver them from the hand of the oppressor, Zechariah’s promised Messiah and King?
So here we have all the familiar ingredients of Palm Sunday: donkey, crowd, cloaks, palms and shouts of hosanna. And in the midst of all of this noise and activity and turmoil – Jesus. Jesus doesn’t say anything the entire journey. Jesus doesn’t need to say anything. To the welcoming crowd the way in which Jesus chose to enter the city must have spoken more clearly than words.
Throughout his ministry Jesus has been proclaiming the message of the Kingdom of God. God will deliver his people and indeed has sent Jesus as the agent of his salvation. But this was easily misunderstood. His people were all too ready to identify the boundaries of God’s kingdom with the boundaries of their own nation. But the Gospel message is that God’s kingdom transcends human boundaries of race, culture and nation. It is for all people.
By making this very public demonstration of riding into Jerusalem, Jesus was claiming authority – but an authority very different from that many people in the crowd were expecting. He entered the city without armour or weapons and riding on a donkey – a symbol of peace.
If we had been in his place, would we have done the same? I very much doubt it. We would probably have taken the path of prudence and caution and entered the city secretly. As always, Jesus was uncompromising and faithful to his mission. He entered in such a way that the attention of every eye was upon him. Already he had incurred the wrath of the religious leadership; now this demonstration would bring him to the attention of the Roman authorities as well. In Luke’s gospel some Pharisees ask Jesus:
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” (Luke 19:39)
But there can be no stopping this journey that will take Jesus into the Holy City and all that awaits him in the coming week.
For the crowds on the Jerusalem Road this was a time of decision. Many must have been disappointed, especially those in favour of armed insurrection. They had expected a show of force, not an unarmed man on a donkey. Now they would have to put their weight behind the party of violent resistance, led by men such as Barabbas.
Jesus simply refused to tell people what they wanted to hear. And one of the most dangerous things a person can do is to go to people and tell them that all their accepted ideas and notions are wrong. Anyone who tries to tear up by the roots a people’s nationalistic dream is asking for trouble. But that’s what Jesus was doing.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus overturned expectations; he went his own way, which is God’s way. And Jesus continues to challenge and unsettle us today. His Gospel frequently contradicts common sense and human nature. That is why life as a follower of Jesus can be uncomfortable and unpredictable; if you think otherwise, you have forgotten the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.
Although on Palm Sunday the crowd welcomed Jesus with shouts of hosanna, the cross was not far away. Jesus accepts the title of king, but he will not be the war-like Messiah eagerly awaited by the crowd. His is a kingdom not of power but of service and peace. It cannot be gained on a wave of popular acclaim, but through the agony of Gethsemane.
Consider this: if Jesus had accepted the demands of the crowd that day; if he had allowed himself to be crowned as king, if he had led a rebel army against the Romans, we would not be sitting in church today. For Jesus would have been no more than a footnote to history, alongside Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas Maccabaeus, Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, and all the other petty rulers of defunct nations and empires. But by breaking the barriers of race and nation, Jesus has showed us that he is a king for all people. By breaking the barriers of death, Jesus has showed us that he is a king for all time.
And so we are here, carrying our palms and shouting hosanna. Ready to welcome Jesus, as king of our lives today.