Palm Sunday


Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday appears in chapter eleven of his Gospel. It reads:

They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (verses 7-11, NRSV).

Jesus is pushing it. Already he has angered the wrong people. Healing on the Sabbath, when everybody knows that’s the one day you’re not supposed to do anything that even remotely resembles work; declaring people’s sins forgiven, when, again, everybody knows that only God can forgive sins; having table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners — of all people, the ones you don’t want to be seen with; relaxing the rules on fasting, telling people that defilement is a matter of the heart, not of unclean foods. And everybody knows: that can’t be right. And now this. Now this untoward display. Riding into Jerusalem the Sunday before Passover like he is some sort of king. This is the kind of thing that will get him killed.

It’s not like people didn’t know their Bibles. They did. They saw the connection. Like the way Jesus comes into the city from the east, from the direction of the Mount of Olives. They could cite you chapter and verse. They could tell you how Zechariah of old says that that’s the way God will come when he returns to rule over Israel. “On that day,” the prophet says, “his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem…. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him” (Zech. 14:4, 5). They knew their Bibles.

They knew the part that says, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey… (Zech.  9:9). Jesus’ actions weren’t too subtle for them.

And it wasn’t going to get any better as the week went along. Jesus and the authorities were in for a week of it: Jesus overturning the tables of those who bought and sold in the temple; Jesus answering the questions of his detractors with his own questions; Jesus telling parables that put the religious leaders in a bad light — a strategy that in no way escaped their notice; Jesus honoring a dishonorable woman at a dinner party where all the cultured guests had shamed her.

It was more than his enemies could stand. It was almost as if he were daring them to take action. And so, they did. They arrested him on trumped up charges, put him through a series of mock trials, handed him over to the Romans, chose to release a known criminal when they could have let Jesus go, and watched with satisfaction as the nails were driven into his hands and feet. By three o’clock on Friday afternoon, he was dead. He would trouble them no more.

The sad thing is: In Jesus, God really was coming to rule Israel again. And what the people didn’t realize was: that, in rejecting Jesus, they were rejecting God. And the way God wanted his world to look. The way God wanted things to be.

How might we fare on that score in our own day? Would we want things the way God wants them. If Jesus had waited until our time to come, would he have been greeted with a warmer welcome?

Oh, sure! There would be some who would welcome him. There were some in his own day. Mark says that “many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields” — a kind of “red carpet” reception, I guess you could say. And they went ahead of him and followed him, shouting, “Hosanna! Lord, save! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”

But, you see, that’s just it. Not everyone thinks this whole business is so categorically blessed. Not everyone wants the kingdom to come. We have our own little kingdoms. We have our lives arranged just the way we want them. We have everything set up so that it is to our advantage. And Jesus doesn’t seem to understand that. He doesn’t seem to think as soberly as he ought about our agenda.

He cares about all people; we care only about our own people. He reached out to heal brokenness; we hide out to avoid it. He spent his time with sinners; we spend our time with the righteous. He looked on the heart; we look on the outward appearance. He defended the outcast; we cast out the defenseless. He prayed through sleepless nights; we sleep through prayerless lives.

On the night of his arrest, they came for him “with swords and clubs.” He came to them with outstretched arms. They would bind his arms to the cross and pin him down, but all they would get in return from him would be mercy.

Mark records only one of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Is this what it came down to? All the kind things Jesus did, all the gracious words he spoke, all the hope he embodied — was this to be the outcome? Forsaken by others, forsaken even by God?

I know it’s not Easter yet; that’s next week. But it is Sunday, and, as we say, every Sunday is a little Easter. God did not forsake Jesus. Jesus died. Yes. There’s no getting around that. But God raised him from the dead. It was so unexpected, Mark tells us, that the women who first discovered it didn’t speak about it — not to anyone. They were too scared to, too “afraid,” Mark says.

And maybe for good reason. That empty tomb means that all our little kingdoms will one day fade away. It’s only God’s kingdom that will remain. But is that so scary? In God’s kingdom, little people figure big. But that’s okay; we’re all little people, really. In God’s kingdom sinners are shown God’s favor. But that’s okay; we’re all sinners, really. In God’s kingdom, it is God who rules; it’s no longer us. But that’s okay, too; we won’t lose anything that’s really ours, and everything we do lose isn’t worth having. Not really.

Look! There are some people gathering around a man on a beast. They’re spreading their cloaks on the road before him — and leafy branches, too. And now they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Lord, save! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom….”

Look around at your feet. There just may be an extra palm branch.

No? I guess not. But, what if there were? A palm branch there? Would you pick it up? Would you wave it? Would you bless the coming kingdom?

Photo credit: Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte, 1842

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