Palm Sunday is a special Sunday in our liturgical calendar and in some ways
a unique one. If we plan carefully, the service begins with praise, and includes a procession with children waving palm branches, but the service ends on a more somber, reflective tone, as we make the transition to Passion Week and our journey to the cross. It is the only time in the church year, I believe, that we sing, “Hosanna, loud Hosanna”, and “All Glory, laud and honor.” Two very old hymns that have been in most hymn books for many years.
This journey that begins with hosannas shouted by the crowd ends in nails pounded into flesh, blood shed, suffering and eventual death for Jesus.
This journey that begins with a joyful procession with crowds going before him and crowds following after him, ends in isolation for Jesus.
This journey that begins with people wanting to see Jesus ends in people turning away from Jesus.
All 4 gospels have an account of the ‘triumphal entry’. Each writer paints a slightly different picture of this event. For Matthew, the gospel we are using this year, this entry into the city is seen as a coronation procession proclaiming the coming of a new king, the Messiah. Mark’s account makes no mention of a king and no reference to an O.T. prophecy!
For those of you who have been in that part of the world and walked that road, literally, you will remember the scene. Jesus and his disciples were approaching Jerusalem, but several miles outside the city, near the vicinity of the Mount of Olives, near Bethphage, Jesus instructs two disciples to go to the nearby village and obtain a donkey and a colt, telling them exactly what they should do and say if questions were asked of them. This was all done to fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy, “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, humble (gentle) riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It was important for Matthew to connect with the Old Testament story. Only Matthew records Jesus’ request for two animals.
The disciples are obedient, the animals are obtained and they return to Jesus. Cloaks were placed over the animals for Jesus to sit upon. In Matthew’s account, large crowds were spreading cloaks and cut branches on the road, showing respect and honor for a famous person. We read of shouts coming from the crowd of “ Hosanna to the Son of David”. The original meaning of ‘hosanna’ was ‘save us’ or ‘help us’, but later it became just a shout of praise.
What a sight it must have been!
(When we were there in 1999, I remember this scene so well. On the one hand it was so exciting to be in that place, to remember this story from scripture and then to be able to see it in person. Our tour leader, Loren Johns, was reading the texts as we walked along, as we tried to imagine this scene, winding our way down the narrow road, seeing the Kidron Valley ahead of us and the city of Jerusalem up the hill across the valley. This was really it! It felt surreal. But then again, part of me saw it for real in that there were lots of people around, 20 college students ahead of me with their backpacks and water bottles and cameras. And as I looked around there was trash along the way and it really wasn’t that spectacular and I found myself also saying, “Is this really it?”)
As Jesus made his way across the Kidron Valley and up the hill to Jerusalem, something changes. In fact it seems everything changes, for when Jesus enters Jerusalem, Matthew, and only Matthew records, “the whole city was in turmoil,” stirred up, in an uproar!. The word used here is also used to refer to an earthquake or storm! The residents of the city were asking, “Who is this?” The crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” He was identified by his Galilean roots. The title “prophet” was accurate, but not complete. It wasn’t enough! Jesus was the messianic healer, the King, the Son of David! The One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Ride on, ride on King Jesus! Show us your strength, exhibit some royal presence and majesty, make a statement, show the people what Kingship is all about!! After all he had been performing miracles..they saw that, they had been following him. Were they not hoping that this new king would be the one to deliver them from Roman occupation, from oppression? Couldn’t this king defeat the enemy and restore the kingdom of David? They wanted a strong king. They wanted a HERO!
But Jesus confuses them, confounds them. Their dreams are dashed, their expectations unrealized, their hopes destroyed. Jesus shows up riding into the city on a beast of burden, an animal of the common folk, a gentle, humble, dependable donkey! They wanted their king, their hero, on a white stallion! It just didn’t add up. Jesus’ action confused the people. They didn’t understand. And sometimes neither do we. Was what Jesus did subversive, radical, a counter procession, a deliberately provocative act? Some scholars describe it that way. Too often we tend to sentimentalize the text. We focus too much on the Palm Sunday part and negelct or forget about the Passion and what happens the rest of the week. And so we go from Palm Sunday to Easter morning and never take time to enter into the rest of the story or reflect on Jesus journey to the cross. But Jesus action and choice of animal made a powerful statement. It conveyed that this king was different. It conveyed that this king’s reign was not about power and might, not about a kingdom of violence and military conquest, not about using brutal force and coercive actions, but rather about humility and serving the common good.
Jesus shatters our stereotypes, our preconceptions about things. Sometimes we realize that what he models for us is something so radical and so upside down, so contrary to the way the world thinks and operates, that we don’t know what to do with it. Jesus idea of kingship was so different. It was about humility, gentleness, sacrificial love, self-emptying, serving others, being obedient.
We have read and heard reported much recently about the new pope, Pope Francis. From what we see, observe and hear about, he, too, is a ‘different kind of leader’, and a different kind of pope! What he speaks of and his lifestyle models humility, simple living, care for the poor and those living on the margins. People are watching and note who he speaks to, blesses, kisses, washes feet with. A different kind of leader. Robert Brenneman, in the recent issue of The Mennonite writes an article, “Habemus Papum Mennonitum”. We have a Mennonite Pope. :-)
The Apostle Paul instructs us in his epistle for this week, from Philippians 2, “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus”
Jesus was one, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Some years ago in an essay, a scholar named Daniel Clendenin wrote, “Identifying with Jesus and patterning our lives after him results in endless subversions....divestment of wealth rather than accumulation, renunciation rather than gratification, self-sacrifice rather than self-satisfaction, humility rather than exaltation, and peace for all rather than security for a few.!”
Following Jesus, a different kind of king, requires us to live a different kind of life. Are we willing to do that?
Sometimes we even glean similar thoughts expressed by one of our own. Six years ago Jennie Rose Howard Davis died, wife of Abraham Davis. I read a poem that she wrote at her memorial service and have kept it in my file She wrote several books of poetry. She wrote: “The Crown, The Cross”
Sometimes we’re caught up in self-exaltation
In striving to accomplish earthly fame
We lose sight of Christ and His service
As we work to build our important name
In this earthly world of opportunity
Abandoning power may seem a loss
Yet, how can we gain that crown
Without the humility of the cross?
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