Today is Palm Sunday – a day when we celebrate with Jesus and his disciples and the people of Jerusalem. Jesus makes his triumphant entrance into the mighty city of Jerusalem, yet at the same time we can almost feel the tension under the surface. All is not well – things are being put into place that will shake the disciples’ faith to the core. And yet when they come out on the other side, they will be that much stronger and celebrate that much more on the other side of the darkness. We also need to go through the dark times in order to fully see the light.
It is interesting in Luke’s presentation of this triumphant entry into Jerusalem, that there are significant elements missing from this account. Kate Huey makes these observations: Where are the palms? Don’t we always recognize Palm Sunday with palm branches as supposedly the crowds were waving these and tossing them down before Jesus? We see the crowds laying down their cloaks as a sign of honor, but no palms. Chances are they were there just not mentioned. And where are the shouts of ‘Hosanna’ from the crowd? We usually sing “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” as we remember this triumph that marked the beginning of Jesus’ last week on earth before the crucifixion. If we look carefully at Luke’s gospel, he stated that Jesus’ disciples were crying out and praising God, but not the crowd. Isn’t that interesting? We often wonder about the crowd and how fickle they were to be praising Jesus one day, and then shouting to have him crucified just a few days later.
Luke 19:37-38 says, “…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!’” It is the disciples – a multitude of them not just the twelve – that are shouting praises to heaven.
What an interesting parade. Here we have a group of ordinary people who have followed Jesus throughout his ministry. They are not dressed in royal robes, nor are they presenting royal colors or banners – just a group of happy folks celebrating in earnest. Maybe the disciples were thinking Jesus would finally get the recognition he deserved, and they as his faithful servants would be rewarded with positions of honor.
We also see an ordinary looking man riding a humble beast, not a flashy warhorse decorated with symbols of honor. Jesus was possibly well known, but it is also possible he was more familiar for his deeds than his appearance. Did the crowd even know who Jesus was? Did they long to join in with the shouts of this band of disciples? The disciples are drawing a crowd because of their shouts of peace and their joy of being in the presence of the King of peace. So perhaps in Luke’s account, the crowd is a little stunned, a little taken back, maybe even a little afraid.
Recall that Jerusalem was an occupied territory at this time. Roman soldiers were everywhere and were even more prominent as the approaching holy days of Passover were upon them. Anyone who caused a disturbance could be subject to Roman punishment, which was often harsh. Kay Huey also points out that maybe that is why the Pharisees were quick to ask Jesus to have his disciples quiet down. It was almost like poking a stick at a wild animal – if you poke enough, the animal, in this case the Roman authorities, would strike back with pure vengeance. Even during this triumph and celebration you can feel the unease and uncertainty.
Here is another interesting piece of information. Recall that just before the season of Lent we studied, The Way: Walking in the Footstep of Jesus. I had told you we would postpone the chapter on Jesus’ final week until now. According to the author, there were in fact two other royal processions into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Pontus Pilate was coming into the city from the west with a huge show of force – some 1,000 Roman soldiers. Since the season of Passover was a remembrance for the Jewish people – a time when God rescued them from their oppressors – Pilate wanted an extreme show of force to ensure the Jews understood who was in charge. His cruelty was well known. In fact, he had several executions planned for Thursday of that week as an additional reminder of who was in control, and the penalty for stepping out of line. The third royal procession was that of King Herod Antipas coming from the north. Again, he would have been adorned with symbols of power and cruelty – a true warrior with a substantial army in tow. This would have been an additional show of force in order to squash any hope the Jews may have had for a life a freedom. Two out of the three processions into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday featured vicious rulers who always chose violence over peace.
Among this backdrop, Jesus processed into Jerusalem riding a donkey – an historic symbol of servant leadership, following the example of King David who used the donkey as a symbol of his role as shepherd king. In addition, the prophet Zechariah promised that the true king would enter Jerusalem riding a donkey. Jesus entered the city as part of what is thought to be the first ever peaceful demonstration. Other gospels note the joy of the crowd as they shouted ‘Hosanna’ and waved their palm branches. “This demonstration was for a king and kingdom built upon a radical desire to love God and a commitment to love one’s enemies” – a rather unpopular notion (Hamilton, 139.) ‘Hosanna’ literally means, ‘save us now’ and many thought Jesus would use force and violence to accomplish this, yet he instead chose the way of the cross. Often the message of peace is lost among the cries for violence and hatred. We do not need to look very far to see this for ourselves, particularly during this highly politically charged time in our country.
Our lives are full of celebrations and heartache. Many times we will be coasting along and get completely blindsided by a trial or tragedy that can shake us to the core. Life will challenge us in every way. While we treasure the celebrations and joys of our lives, we know the pain and sorrow that can often come our way.
Jesus also knew the pain and sorrow of life. Jesus understood and experienced the ridicule of scorn and the physical abuse of his attackers. Jesus understood heartbreak when he witnessed his disciples fleeing and leaving him in the hands of Roman soldiers, and hearing the denial of one of his own, and facing the betrayal of another. Perhaps we need to be reminded of what Jesus endured through his journey to the cross as we may be comforted during our own times of trial.
So I ask you to take this journey with us this week. Thursday we will share a covered dish meal together as a remembrance of Jesus sharing his last meal with his friends. I don’t believe we will be having an authentic feast – I don’t think casseroles were on the original menu! But that is ok. What is important is fellowship – coming together to support one another during celebrations and sorrows. We will share a short devotion where I will once again display a triclinium table arrangement and show just how wrong our friend Leonardo di Vinci depicted The Last Supper in his famous painting. We will also share communion together, remembering Jesus’ words as he reminded us to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’
Friday we will take the journey through the scriptures as we remember the events of Jesus’ trial, conviction, abuse and crucifixion. We will also see the story of Jesus’ passion through picture as we will be showing the work of sand painter Joe Castillo. It is a dark time, but a moving experience as we meditate on Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Sunday morning we begin outside at 7 AM with our outdoor contemporary service as we process into the church carrying the light of Christ. We will enjoy an Easter breakfast followed by our 10:15 AM service where we continue the celebration of victory as noted by the empty tomb and our risen Savior, complete with brass ensemble and balloons!
I encourage you to take this journey with us through Holy Week. I pray that you will be spiritually renewed as we journey to the cross and beyond to the empty tomb. Our final prayer service is this Wednesday and I encourage you to spend some time in prayer as we prepare to face challenges ahead for our church, our community, our nation and our world. God is our constant through all the dark and uncertain times. And as God has faithfully promised us, we will come through these times safely, and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.