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Palm Sunday – the triumphant procession?

Our gospel reading today is often titled “The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” and is probably one of the better known stories about Jesus. One we probably heard many times in Sunday School. Jesus triumphantly riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, heralded by waving palm branches, people shouting in excitement and laying their cloaks in front of him. It’s such an important event that 2000 years later people process about waving crosses made of palms, and if their lucky, even following a donkey, as they process either around the town or at least from the lych gate to the church building.

This year as part of my biblical studies we are looking at the church year and how the church celebrates festivals and how they are rooted in scripture. We were recently discussing Palm Sunday and how it can get so exciting (or possibly gimmicky) with the donkeys and processions that Easter can fade into second place, rather than being the triumphal end to Holy Week. When our tutor, who to be fair does like to play devil’s advocate, threw into the mix “But surely Palm Sunday is a time of despair, not one of triumph”. Or, more pertinently, does the title given in our bibles of “The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” colour our reading of the passage that we no longer read what the bible actually says, and rely on our memory of this familiar story.

So, is this event of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey the triumphant moment of our king?

Like the cleansing of the Temple which we heard about a few weeks ago, this event is one of very few that is recorded in all 4 of the gospels. So it must be important, but, is it about Jesus the triumphant king?

In Mark’s gospel, this event is immediately preceded by the healing of Bartimaeus who was a blind beggar. Now often when Jesus has healed people, the gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus would tell the person who was healed to tell no-one. He would not allow demons to speak as they knew who he was. But after he has healed Bartimaeus there are none of these warnings to keep quiet, Jesus simply says “Go, your faith has made you well” and we are told that Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

Jesus is aware that his time for ministry on earth is coming to an end. From this point forward, he no longer appears concerned that people might find out his true identity, as son of God, the messiah. Instead he starts to give greater pointers to who he is, as he starts to enact parts of Jewish prophecy.

When he gets to Bethany, where his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha live, he sends two of his disciples to a nearby village to find a specific colt that has never been ridden.  Lazarus would probably have had a donkey, but Jesus chooses not to ask his friend for help, but instead he carries out the actions of an earthly king. He sends his disciples to take a donkey that does not belong to them, in just the same way that an earthly king might take what he wanted, when he wanted it. But, and I guess there has to be a but, Jesus makes an addendum that an earthly king would not.

“If someone says to you, Why are you doing this? Just say this “The lord needs it, and will send it back here immediately”.

Unlike an earthly king he has no intention of keeping the donkey, only of borrowing it.

But there are further pointers to this being the entry of a mighty king into Jerusalem. No-one would have been allowed to ride the King’s horse, other than the king himself. And Jesus specifically chooses a donkey that has never been ridden. His divine power showing, as he can ride an unbroken donkey. Even entering into Jerusalem in a procession with people before and behind him shouting out, would have been reminiscent to the people of his time who were used to Pilate entering the city in a similar fashion.

But, was this the entry of a king in triumph?

The disciples and those who join in the crowd obviously think so. They are shouting Hosanna! Laying down their cloaks and waving palm branches.  Hosanna, not a joyful shout like Alleluia, but a cry for help. “Save us!” “Deliver us!”

This is not a cry to Jesus for salvation, to save the people from their own sinfulness but a cry of “Save us from Roman Rule” The cry of a crowd looking for salvation from a messiah, ready to do battle on earth, rather than in the spiritual realms. They have recognised their king. But they don’t seem to have noticed that their king is riding on a donkey, rather than a white stallion. This is not a battle charger, but a symbol of peace.

In Mark’s gospel nothing is said about the people shouting, but Luke records that the Pharisees in the crowd ask Jesus to order his disciples to be quiet. But he replies that even if the people were silent then the stones would cry out. The people may have missed that Jesus was entering Jerusalem in peace. They may have missed that he wasn’t coming to overthrow the Romans. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop shouting for him to save them. He knows they are asking for the wrong type of salvation, but he knows that the salvation he can offer is far greater than any earthly kingdom overthrowing another.

But then in Luke’s account we have the first real indicators that maybe this is not a triumphal entry for Jesus into Jerusalem. For he continues…

As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying “If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes”.

When Jesus saw Jerusalem he wept. He wept for the ways that things could have been, the way they should have been if people did not consistently choose to follow their own path.

Whilst the crowd may be excited and joyful that their long awaited Messiah is finally here, this is not a king entering a town in triumph, this is God, entering his holy city in grief.

And when he arrives in Jerusalem he enters the Temple. And whilst we may have the impression that it is after his triumphant entry that he throws out the money changers and stall holders gathered there, Mark tells us that this didn’t happen until the next day. On Palm Sunday Jesus merely enters the temple, looks around, and leaves to go back to Bethany. This must be the biggest anti-climax for the triumphant crowd. Their king entering the seat of Roman rule has just turned around, quietly and walked away again. He hasn’t seized the moment as he should have done. He hasn’t gone on to start a riot. He’s walked away in peace, in grief.

This is our God, totally misunderstood. A king coming not in triumph unlike his disciples and the crowd, but in brokenness.

This is our God, on his way to make the greatest sacrifice of love. Not in a triumphal overthrowing of Rome from Jerusalem but in the offering of his own life.

This is our God, the God who loves us so much that he is willing to die for each of us.

The God of Palm Sunday is the suffering servant, not the triumphant king.

The God of peace, not war

The God of love, not hate.

Don’t stand with the crowds calling out to Jesus to save you from the trials of this life, but instead look with Jesus towards the cross, and call out on him to save you from your sin.

This is the God of Palm Sunday, whose love is so amazing, so divine, it demands our soul, our life, our all.

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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