After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept 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!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
One of the keys to unlocking texts from the gospel of Luke is paying close attention to details. The author of Luke’s gospel loves to sweat the details. In fact, he gives us quite a few in this account of Jesus’ final entry into the city of Jerusalem.
Notice first that we are given the exact location of where we begin: Jerusalem suburbs of Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives.
Jesus pulls two of his disciples aside and says, “Go into the village and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here”
Jesus has clearly given the matter of transportation into Jerusalem a lot of thought. He knows exactly what kind of colt he wants — one that had never been ridden. He knows exactly where the colt is. He’s even worked out a response to any accusations the disciples may encounter after they’ve swiped the colt. Jesus says, “If anyone asks why you are stealing the colt, just put the blame on me. Tell them the Lord needed it.”
Why does Jesus need a colt? Why doesn’t he just ask his disciples to find him a ride into town, or why doesn’t Jesus just walk in on his own two feet?
The details matter here, just like I said. The detail about a colt matters because Jesus is about to fulfill Zechariah’s ancient prophesy about the long-awaited Messiah. A prophesy which reads:
“Lo, your king comes to you triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
So a colt it is. Jesus has the details for the entrance into Jerusalem all worked out, in exactly the manner Zechariah has foretold.
There are other details here in Luke…there is the rabbinical tradition that said the new king would enter from the east, from Bethphage. The waving of branches and palms are likely the symbols of the successful Maccabean Revolt which had expelled the Greeks from Israel less than two hundred years before. Luke also tells us that the people lining the streets spread their coats on the road as Jesus passed by. Spreading coats on the road was an act reserved for royalty.
Why do all these little details matter?
Luke wants us to know that expectations were sky high among the people when Jesus rode into Jerusalem.
The crowds didn’t sing hosannas and wave branches and toss their coats into the road because of Jesus’ message of love and peace. The people did these things because they were ready for a revolt just like the successful Maccabean revolt against the Greeks.
All of these seemingly small details of Jesus’ entrance – the colt, the palms, the direction from which he entered into Jerusalem – all of it added up to only one thing for this miserable, hungry, oppressed group of people cheering for Jesus.
What all these details told the crowd was the Messiah had finally arrived to crush the Romans.
The people lining the road in Jerusalem were ready for an uprising and a military/political victory.
The people greeting Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem were thirsty for revolution, and Jesus looked just like the leader to get them there.
And so Palm Sunday begins. With a crowd ready for Jesus to make Israel great again.
Every year, on this day, pastors face the question – is today Palm Sunday or is it Passion Sunday? The church calendar is not much help because it tells us that today, March 20, is Palm-slash-Passion Sunday. The lectionary is just as indecisive in that it provides one set of texts for Palm Sunday, and another set of texts for Passion Sunday, either of which can be used on this day. The preacher has his or her choice.
This Palm-slash-Passion Sunday feels like a relatively recent development, at least in the Presbyterian Church, where I have spent most of my life.
For the longest time, Palm Sunday was Palm Sunday, right?
When I was a child, Palm Sunday was the day we made great giant palms out of green construction paper and Elmer’s glue during Sunday school.
Then, at the beginning of worship on Palm Sunday, the children processed down the center aisle of the church while the congregation sang, “All glory, laud and honor to thee redeemer king. To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas sing.”
On Palm Sunday, the adults in the congregation waved their palms, we waved our sticky green construction paper palms, and the hosannas rang out. It was Palm Sunday and Jesus – the king – was in the house. He’s made to Jerusalem. Everything is going to be okay.
Eventually, over the past few decades, people stopped showing up for the Holy Week services. On Palm Sunday, people waved the palms, shouted hosanna, went home, and didn’t show up again until Easter morning. They went from the great parade of Palm Sunday to the great party of Easter, skipping the shadows and darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday altogether.
Well, the church said, we’ll just see about that. If you won’t show up for Holy Week services, you will get a big dose of Holy Week preaching on Palm Sunday. We’ll let you have your palms and hosannas. We will let you sing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” But by golly, all of you who have no intention of showing up for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday will get a good dose of the Passion story before you get out of here today.
There are many good theological reasons for doing just that. The resurrection does lose some of its punch without the story of Christ’s last few days in human flesh on Earth.
But as I dwelled in this decidedly Palm Sunday text from Luke, I saw the suffering of Holy Week doesn’t begin on Maundy Thursday with his betrayal and arrest.
The suffering has already begun for Jesus, right here, in the middle of this raucous Palm Sunday parade.
One of the worst human experiences, I think, is disappointing people. The worst feeling I can possibly imagine is disappointing people that I love. Especially people I love. People who are counting on me. People who are depending upon me. Letting someone down in a big way is a suffering that all of us have experienced. It’s even worse when you know you could have done something differently to avoid the disappointment.
And I think for Jesus, that is the suffering he experiences as he rides into Jerusalem. Jesus is suffering as he looks into the expectant eyes of the children who have never known anything but Roman exploitation. Jesus knows how terrible their lives are living that way. Jesus sees the people’s poverty and need. Jesus can see and hear the sudden burst of hopefulness in their cheers for him.
Yet, Jesus knows that he is going to let them down this week. He’s not going to save them in the way they want to be saved.
Even before Jesus tangles with Pilate or the Sanherdrin…
Even before he is betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter and tortured by the Romans and abandoned to die on a cross. ..
Before all of the drama of Holy Week, Jesus is going to disappoint people in Jerusalem who are expecting a Messiah to save them in the way they want to be saved.
All of the details in Luke point to the people’s very reasonable expectation that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to deliver them from the Romans, from the poverty of their existence, from the darkness of their lives living under the thumb of a brutal empire.
Instead, they are receiving a Messiah on a donkey who is ready to take up his cross and die at the hands of the same political system the people hate with every ounce of their being.
And by the end of Holy Week, the people are so disappointed by Jesus that they will turn on him.
The people who cheered his entrance into Jerusalem will soon hate Jesus even more than they hate the Romans.
The Romans are just doing what the Romans do – getting rid of a threat. And Jesus is definitely a threat.
But Jesus is doing something unforgivable. In the eyes of the people who are suffering, Jesus is worse than your average everyday tyrant.
Jesus is the Messiah who does not save in the way the people want to be saved. In the eyes of the people watching Jesus give himself up to the hands of the empire, Jesus is either a fraud, or the cruelest God imaginable. That had to hurt Jesus deeply because he loved the people of Jerusalem so deeply that he will weep for love of them.
But, Jesus could not have done it any other way.
If you think about the arc of his life, Jesus’ popularity peaked pretty early in his ministry. Not long after his baptism, he had thousands of people around him, following him, listening to him, asked to be healed, hoping to be fed.
But as he moves toward Jerusalem, people begin to walk away from Jesus. The circle of support around Jesus becomes pretty small the closer he gets to Jerusalem. Even his disciples were not so sure about Jesus’ plan to walk right into the jaws of the beast that was the political and religious establishment in Jerusalem.
And then we have this parade in Jerusalem, and for a few minutes on Palm Sunday, Jesus’ ministry receives a little bit of a popular boost. But as we know, the popular acclaim of Palm Sunday doesn’t last very long. People figure out within a couple of days – if not a couple of hours – that this isn’t exactly the Messiah they had in mind.
What we have seen throughout Lent is that Jesus doesn’t move like someone who is fearful of disappointing anyone. Jesus moves toward Jerusalem to fulfill God’s plan so that we too may have courage to brave rejection, persecution, and disappointing people – even people we love — for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus moves into Jerusalem so we may also have hearts huge enough to take risks and still love even those who shake their heads at our crazy notions of peace and justice, radical love and outrageous hospitality.
It is very simple. Jesus resisted any attempt to make his message or ministry a handmaiden to the culture, to the government, or any particular religious group. That wasn’t God’s mission for Jesus. Jesus came to be a servant and a savior to all, even to the most hated and despised people in the culture. As this mission became clear, the crowds began to melt away.
The people in Jerusalem were not much different than we are. We want what the crowd in Jerusalem wanted. We want a savior who supports our political views or our opinions. We want Jesus to act in the way we want him to act. We want to call the shots at this parade. We want our faith in the same way we want every thing else. Our way.
It’s not your fault. I heard a pastor this week talking about this tricky business of how the church keeps running into a wall when we get the Jesus we need, not the Jesus we want.
It’s not our fault. We have been trained over time — particularly in North America — to want what we want, when we want it, the way we want it.
After all, when you leave worship today, you can go to the drive through at McDonald’s and order a single cheeseburger, with extra ketchup, no pickles, just the way you want it. Or you can go to a Starbucks and order a grande, no fat, double shot vanilla chai latte with extra whipped cream, just the way you want it.
There are literally dozens of churches you can go to if the one you’re attending disappoints you with its music or its pews or the pastor’s weird voice.
We want what we want. In our religious life. In our political life. We want politicians to tell us what we want to hear, even if it’s a lie. We want what we want.
The people in Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna,” want to be saved…that is what they want.
But they want to be saved the way that they want it. On their terms. With their enemies being destroyed and their lives elevated. And it’s not their fault for wanting to be saved that way. That is the way empires rise and fall.
But it is not the way of the Kingdom of God.
The bad news of the Gospel on Palm Sunday is that God will never be God on our terms.
The good news of the Gospel on Palm Sunday is that God will never be God on our terms, but only on God’s terms.
Palm Sunday is a reminder to us that God came, not to fulfill our hopes, but to bring all of our hopes to nothing,
and that by so dashing our hopes,
we will receive grace upon grace upon costly grace.
Let us pray: Eternal God, as we enter into Holy Week, strengthen us to move beyond the festive parade of palms and to follow Jesus into the way of the cross…that united with him and all the faithful, we may one day enter through the gates of righteousness to find an eternal city, a new Jerusalem, where we may praise you with Christ and the Holy Spirit forever. Thanks be to God.