Rev. Jeffrey M. Lindsay
A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother. His father returned from church holding a palm branch.
The little boy was curious and asked, “Why do you have that palm branch, dad?”
“You see, when Jesus came into town, everyone waved palm branches to honor him, so we got palm branches today.”
The little boy replied, “Aw Shucks! The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday that Jesus shows up!”
Today as many of you know is Palm Sunday, the day taken from the Gospels, where a whole city threw a parade for Jesus. As Jesus rode into the city, the people threw palm branches in anticipation of his coming. Thus we get our word Palm Sunday. This day marked a time of celebration where Jesus was worshipped and praised.
Everybody loves a parade. Most parades are celebrations. Big celebrations call for big parades. Some of you will remember the big parade welcoming the troops home from WWII. We have all been to a 4th of July parade. I remember the big parade down Hennepin Avenue when the Vikings won the Super Bowl! Oops, I mean the Wolves when they won the NBA championship… Well the Twins did win the World Series twice and the Lynx have won the WNBA championship 4 times. So this city has had its share of sports parades. I am looking forward to the really big one when the Vikings do win it all. That’s a parade worth waiting for.
Well — Jesus’ last week began with a parade. We call it the Triumphal Entry. Palm Sunday marks the event. But this too was a parade of a different sort.
As we trace the events of Jesus’ last week, I hope you will become more and more convinced that these events matter. They changed history. They can also change our lives. These events are about more than what happened then. They are also about you and me. Peter sums it up when he writes, “For Christ died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). This is Jesus’ story. But it is also ours!
On the surface, it certainly looked like a welcoming party for a victorious hero. But not everyone was happy. That first day of Jesus’ last week was a day of mixed emotions. There were cheers and jeers and tears. We won’t truly understand what really happened unless we see all three.
First, the Cheers. Jerusalem was already crowded for the Passover feast. A hundred thousand people or better were in the city. That was six times the normal population. Passover is the biggest event of the Jewish faith. It marked the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and their march to the Promised Land.
But this Passover was different. Jesus was in town. For three years, Jesus had traveled across Israel teaching and performing amazing miracles. He had been in Jerusalem before. This time it was different. He knew it. He had been telling his disciples that something big was about to happen. The word had spread. Expectations were high.
Jesus has two of his disciples borrow an unbroken young donkey for him to ride into the city. That in itself was strange. The procession begins as Jesus and his group came over a hill called the Mount of Olives just east of the city.
The hilltop stood two hundred feet above the temple compound of this capital city. This road winds its way down the hill through the olive groves heading directly into the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem. Crowds gathered along the route. They began to lay cloaks and palm branches across the path, rolling out their version of the proverbial red carpet.
Cheers rang out. “Hosanna,” they cried. The words meant “Jehovah Saves.” It was that cry and the song “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” which comes from Psalm 118, that filled the air. Others shouted out “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” How fitting, that words almost identical to the angel’s song at Jesus’ birth should also herald the beginning of his last week.
Jesus enters on the Donkey.
Why the cheers? I suppose there were lots of reasons. Some were likely just curious. You know how a crowd can build. People hear the noise and come to find out what’s happening. Before they know it, they are joining in, but they haven’t a clue what’s going on. That can happen. That’s happened to me. How about you?
Others cheered because word of Jesus’ miracles had spread. This wouldn’t have been the first time that crowds had followed Jesus just to see what he would do next. That had happened in Galilee a couple years earlier when Jesus had miraculously fed the five thousand. But this Passover, word of something even bigger, had spread throughout the city.
John’s gospel links these events with the raising of Lazarus from the dead a week earlier. Some would have been cheering because they wanted to see him do it again.
Maybe, (like had happened before) some in the crowd had come in hopes that maybe they could be the object of his next miracle. Or perhaps, the cheers were like when kids wave their hands and shout “Teacher, choose me! Choose me!”
We could believe that the heart of the crowd was made up of those who had already been touched by Jesus. The Gospels don’t tell us, but I can’t help but wonder if Lazarus wasn’t in the front row. If so then Zaccheus wasn’t likely to be far behind. Then perhaps Mary Magdalene who experienced Jesus’ forgiveness, Bartimaeus the formerly blind man from Jericho, the lame man from the pool of Bethsaida, and who knows how many others. Wouldn’t they have been there cheering for their hero? Outcasts, tax collectors, and even some lepers would want to celebrate their friend, too.
Jesus had touched many lives. At least a few of them were probably in that crowd lining the road leading to Jerusalem.
That’s why many of us are here today, right? We know what Jesus has done for us. We aren’t afraid to let everyone know how grateful we are. For that is at the heart of worship — it’s about cheering for Jesus.
If historians are correct, a big part of the crowd may have thought they were inaugurating a new king. Most Jews looked forward to the day when God was going to send his heavenly army to liberate Jerusalem from the Romans once and for all. The messiah would lead the way, riding on a great white stallion with his sword flashing in the sun. If that’s what they expected, they were in for a surprise. That’s probably the point of the young donkey. It was just the opposite of a war horse. If this was the messiah, he already wasn’t living up to expectations.
I can make that same mistake. I often create an image of God as I think God should be. Cuz imaginary gods always take our side. They always come through with our hopes and wishes. They condemn other people’s sins, never ours. They solve our problems and meet our needs. Maybe it’s that side of human nature that explains how quickly Palm Sunday becomes Good Friday.
But we don’t have to wait for Friday to see the cheers turn to jeers in our story. If you listen close, you can hear the jeers in this Sunday’s crowd.
Some in the crowd challenge Jesus to quiet the parade. But the problem wasn’t the noise. It was what the crowd was saying, not how they were saying it. Jealousy and fear drove the opposition to Jesus that day as well. The religious leaders were worried that the rumors of a conquering Messiah might spark a reaction from the Romans. The High Priest would argue later in the week, “Better for one man to die than our whole country be punished.”
I find it hard to understand why anyone would find fault with Jesus. How could anyone not appreciate his message of, “love your neighbor” and “be nice to your enemies.” Surely everyone wants peace on earth and good will. Those of us who are followers of that “meek and mild” Jesus are easily confused.
Maybe the truth is some of the jeers come from those who are paying more attention than we are. Maybe they know there is more to Jesus than the tiny babe in the manger. They see through the superficial message of kindness and universal tolerance. Maybe they understand the implications of “take up your cross and deny yourself.” Perhaps, they realize Jesus never left room for middle ground between belief and action, between faith and following. Jesus is many things but “just nice” does not tell the whole story.
Maybe some jeered on that first Palm Sunday because they weren’t going to be surprised on Monday when anything but a “meek and mild” Jesus marched into the temple with fire in his eyes. Turning over the tables.
Our text records one more revealing moment on this first day of Jesus’ last week. We will never understand Passion Week until we see his tears.
Suddenly the parade grinds to a halt. Those in the rear probably wondered what was happening. It was like a traffic jam in the middle of I-35. Everyone stops for no obvious reason. Part way down the parade route Jesus stops. Maybe he rounded a turn coming down the winding path. Perhaps he came to a clearing in the olive groves. He just stops and looks at the big city spread out before him. Even today, the view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is a breath taking sight.
Jesus looks down at the crowded streets, the busy market places, and the rows and rows of houses. He could see the magnificent temple in all its glory. Maybe with nostalgia he thinks back over the centuries of history that have taken place on this same patch of real estate. David, Solomon, Isaiah, Nehemiah, Ezra, all the great heroes of the nation of Israel had stood on this same hillside and looked down at this same great city.
But there’s more to the tears than nostalgia. Jesus knew what had happened before. He also knew what was coming. This parade was no accident. Jesus knew what he would face by week’s end. He had told his disciples that he had come to die. He would be betrayed by a friend, tormented by his foes, and eventually crucified for the sins of the world. They refused to believe him. They even argued with him.
The tears were partly over the realization that many of his followers just didn’t get it. I’m sure those tears were for me too, when I just don’t get it. But the tears truly flow because he knows what will happen even later. He sees the end from the beginning. He knows the consequences of the rejection he will face that week.
He knows the judgment and destruction that will come to this city that has rejected the offer of God’s mercy and grace.
Jesus wanted it to turn out differently.
If he were the kind of savior who forces people to follow him, who makes decisions for them, it would be different. But that’s not the way it works. A couple of days later, he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt 23:37).
I wonder if we saw, what Jesus sees, if we might not shed more tears. I wonder if we were to put our faith more in Jesus and less in ourselves if we might not shed more tears motivating us to lean into our relationship with Jesus in new ways, more profound ways, leading us to deeper faith and devotion. Would we have more passion for Jesus and for others, if we understood Jesus’ passion for the world better?
This is the beginning of the end, the first day of Jesus’ last week. It began with a parade like no other. It is the scene of cheers and jeers and tears.
The prophet Isaiah wrote so poignantly of the people of God six hundred years earlier, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
There is a danger that we, like those religious leaders, can find ourselves opposing God, if we would resist the change Jesus longs to create in our lives.
He wants to…
Change the way we see life.
Change the way we understand God.
Change the way we understand our lives.
Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote: “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto a cross… and that is the way in which he can be with us and help us… only a suffering God can help.”
The crowds of the first century wanted what they wanted and wanted what they thought they needed — a warrior king. But Jesus came as a suffering Messiah. Jesus came as the one who would die on a cross to show us how to die to our own will and seek God’s will.
The crowd missed the point. What about us? Do we get it? Will we follow the God revealed in Jesus or can’t we get there from here?
I pray that we/I can!
May God bless your holy week journey.