The events we remember on Palm Sunday are very important events, but they are not the most important events of Holy Week. We all recognize that Easter Sunday is the moment we are eagerly anticipating, but it is easy to get caught up in the pageantry of Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday is actually a lot like the events of a campaign year. While the candidates are campaigning, pomp and pageantry are the order of the day. They focus on appearances and sound bites. Palm Sunday looks quite similar.
In the weeks since Christmas we have talked about Jesus’ earthly ministry. After the word got around that Jesus could heal lepers and madmen, crowds gathered. They sat through his sermons and storytelling in order to be able to give him the sick and the possessed for miraculous healing. Jesus was a celebrity. Whispers and gossip made him a candidate for the fulfillment of prophecies, and the most desirable story was the one that made him a candidate to be a king who would take David’s seat at the head of a triumphant, independent, glorious kingdom. The rumors suggested that he might overthrow Roman rule and send the hated oppressors back to their emperor. When Jesus showed up at Jerusalem for Passover, he was greeted the way supporters today greet their favorite candidate for president.
Interestingly, Jesus did not pander to their expectations. If he had wished to look kingly, he would have chosen some steed other than a donkey or a colt. The gospel writers differ as to the precise biological classification of the animal Jesus rode, but they all agree that it was not a mount fit for a king. Jesus was treated like a king, because of the rumors and speculation surrounding him, not because he wanted it that way.
The Jesus who rode into Jerusalem to the shouts and accolades of the crowd was the same Jesus who told prospective disciples that he had no home. He is the same Jesus who told his disciples that not only would he be tried, tortured and executed, but that if they followed him, they could expect the same fate. As he rode into town on that donkey, he may have been thinking about the days yet to come when the crowd around him would shout very different words.
The procession into Jerusalem points to two very important truths:
- Jesus was truly the fulfillment of God’s promise that there would be a descendant of David whose glory would eclipse even David himself, and
- The enthronement of the Christ would be very different from the parody of royalty presented by Jesus’ procession into the city.
Today’s reading in Isaiah reminds us that one title in common use for Jesus was “Teacher.” In Isaiah, the Teacher is subjected to torture and humiliation. As people shouted “Hosanna” to the man riding on the colt, some may have thought about the teachings they had heard, and they may have wondered if a simple teacher could possibly be the real fulfillment of God’s promises of a Messiah. Isaiah’s words remind us that this day was like the climb to the top of a rollercoaster. The climb up is full of anticipation, but once you reach the top, the rest of the ride is downhill and completely out of your control. Jesus knew that the adulation of the crowd would soon spiral downward under demonic control.
The reading in Philippians reminds us how pitiful was the emulation of a kingly procession in Jerusalem compared to the magnificence and glory of Christ’s heavenly throne room. The man who rode a colt into town did not bask in the popularity of that moment. He knew what real glory was. And he knew that if people were actually focused on his chances to sit on a human throne in the city of Jerusalem, they had completely missed the point. The man who rode into Jerusalem that day was the incarnation of God himself, and he had lovingly and willingly accepted not only the limitations of human flesh in a world bounded by time, but he had also committed himself to endure torture and death, monumental pain and suffering and shame, for love of the very people who would soon turn from fans to foes crying out “Crucify him!”
In one of John Piper’s sermons there is a statement we should examine and think about. Piper says, “Jesus was not accidentally entangled in a web of injustice.” He did not enter the city as the flavor of the day and then simply get suckered when one of his disciples sold him out. Jesus didn’t go to the city to get more fans. He went there, the Bible says he “set his face” to go there, because it would glorify God. He knew before he set foot on that path that he would suffer and die there, and he went there anyway. This is the sort of thing he meant when he told his disciples that it was necessary to deny self in order to follow him.
Jesus was a real human being and Jesus was really God. How that works I don’t know, but I am sure that when Jesus the human being contemplated what Jesus fully God knew about the cross, he felt afraid. He didn’t want to do it. In Gethsemane, we hear his one last plea for God to find some other way to redeem the human race. It makes sense to think it could have been in his thought as he rode into Jerusalem on that little colt. As Paul tells us so eloquently in Philippians, Jesus showed us what it means to deny self. It is hard to do that, and none of us wants to do it, but Jesus showed us how.
What will we do if we deny self and act like the Jesus who rode meekly and humbly into Jerusalem on an unbroken colt? What will we do when we see people in need or sick or lonely like the people Jesus helped? What will we do when people behave spitefully and abusively toward us and toward churches in general? What will we do when people make fun of us and our faith? What will we do when government tells us we are forbidden to express our faith? Will we be able to deny self and accept pain, suffering and humiliation as he did?
Palm Sunday looks like a celebration, but I doubt Jesus felt very festive that day. We should examine ourselves as we are enjoined to do throughout Lent and ask ourselves where we are accommodating self instead of serving Christ. We must dethrone self, take self off its fine knightly steed with all the trappings of royalty and put it on a little donkey. The only king in our lives should be the King of Kings, now seated at the right hand of the Father, who will one day return, not seated on a donkey, but in true power and glory.