April 1, 2012
How do you feel about Palm Sunday? Ecstasy, elation, exaltation or foreboding?
You’ve probably heard about the fickle crowds who shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” on Good Friday. None of the Gospels say that these were the same people. Luke’s account of Holy Week distinguishes between the people who enthusiastically welcomed and followed Jesus and the crowd or mob that was whipped into a frenzy to get Pilate to execute Jesus.
You probably came today expecting to add your voice to those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as King. You came to hear a story that never seems old, even though you know it. Today the joy of the palms! I urge all of you to join us for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to prepare for Easter. All four Gospels report Jesus’ welcome into Jerusalem as King. We tend to squash them together in our minds, but each one has a unique perspective and emphasis. Mark 11:1-11 ends with a peculiar detail that the other Gospels don’t mention.
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks
on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11Then 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.
All four Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday draw heavily on allusions to the Hebrew Scripture. Some of these are considered to be prophetic and confirm that Jesus is truly the Messianic King. Jesus also planned, even staged, his entry into Jerusalem with these images in mind to communicate the significance of not only that day but of the week ahead.
We read from Psalm 118 this morning, much as it would have been chanted by pilgrims walking up to the Temple to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles in the fall and Passover in the spring. Others had processed to the temple singing from Psalm 118 that week, but it took on special power and meaning when the King was with them.
Pilgrims carried branches to tie to the altar, and now they were symbols of royalty present.
Opening the gates of a city was a symbolic way of recognizing the entering King as our King.
When the people shouted, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they knew they were quoting this Psalm and were celebrating that the one who would restore the kingdom of David had arrived.
“Save us, we beseech you, O Lord” was a cry for God’s deliverance from enemies. It had become more like a cheer, “hosanna!” But when Jesus came, it became a prayer appealing for God’s Messianic redemption.
As opposition to his teaching built during Holy Week, Jesus identified himself as the stone rejected by the builders that had become the chief cornerstone (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17). Peter used it in his defense of healing the lame man (Acts 4:11) and in his epistle appealing to people to come to Jesus (1 Peter 2:7). This image became a symbol of Jesus’ redemptive rejection and suffering.
Psalm 118:24 is used as a generic blessing, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” But Holy Week makes the day of redemption, of Jesus rejection, the day God made in which we are to rejoice, starting with Palm Sunday.
The people who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday would also have recognized the historic precedent from the time of the Maccabees about 200 years earlier. The Greek occupying army had been expelled and the Temple rededicated, which started what we know as the Jewish celebration of Chanukah.
Compare how Judas Maccabeus was welcomed into Jerusalem with Jesus on Palm Sunday.
The Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51) Carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. (2 Maccabees 10:7)
These dramatic events inspired Handel to write the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. One of its tunes has become an Easter hymn, but I invite you to get a feel for Palm Sunday as Wanda plays the refrain.
III. In all the Gospels only Mark 11:11 reports that Jesus looked around the Temple and went back to Bethany before running the merchants and money changers out of the Temple the next day.
Clearly Jesus had not just staged Palm Sunday as a one-day spectacular event. His entry into Jerusalem was carefully orchestrated to identify him as the redeeming King who was in charge of all the events that unfolded in Holy Week.
Matthew 26:3-5 and Mark 14:1-2 explain that when the Temple leaders plotted to eliminate Jesus, they made a point of wanting to wait until after Passover when the visiting pilgrims would have gone home and the mood of the city was calmly getting back to normal. But Jesus had other ideas. His whole ministry had been moving toward crucifixion in Jerusalem on Passover. Events
spun completely out of control for the Temple leaders. Even the Roman Governor Pilate cannot rein them in.
Whether by advance preparation or divine insight, from the moment Jesus sent the disciples to fetch the colt, he was in charge of every detail of his entry into Jerusalem. He knew exactly where the colt was. He knew exactly what to say to those who questioned the disciples. At the end of the day, he looked around the Temple and mapped out a plan to return the next day and run the
merchants and money changers out. I think he also planned when and where to preach his most confrontational sermons. Jesus forced the hand of the Temple leaders. He was the only one who is actually in control during Holy Week.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem proclaimed as King. He was the sovereign King as the climax of God’s redemptive plan unfolded. When the Temple leaders had temper tantrums and the Pilate’s tricks failed to release an innocent prisoner, Jesus was calmly in control of himself and even the details of his trial and execution.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as King was not just the prelude to his crucifixion and resurrection.
Jesus had planned it to point ahead to his coming as the ultimate King at the climax of human history. The Palm Sunday drama of the King’s joyful subjects rushing out to welcome him and accompany his back into the city to reign is exactly the image of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “We who
are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
Ben Witherington teaches New Testament at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In the April 2012 Christianity Today he writes about how life spun out of control for him and his wife
Ann. (pp. 36-39)
The phone rang late at night on January 11, 2012. It was their 32 year old daughter Christy’s boyfriend, Saragan Sankar. He was barely intelligible because he was crying so much. “Christy is gone. She was found dead in the house. Christy has passed away.”
As Ben and Ann plunged into grief, Ben said, “God did not do this to my child. God does not terminate sweet lives with a pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolisms are the result of the bent nature of this world. As I weep for Christy, I cling to Jesus’ promise that he came to bring abundant life (John 10:10), not the sorry solace and cold comfort of ‘God did this but we do not know why.’ No! A thousand times no. I believe in a God whose ‘Yes!’ to life is louder than death’s ‘No!’ God is in the trenches with us, fighting the very same evils we fight in this world – disease, suffering, sorrow, sin and death itself. God cries with us.”
“We grieve with the hope that death does not have the last word. We grieve in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. Death has a way of convincing us of what matters in life. It shuts down our squabbles and complaints. It’s okay to have tears in our eyes as long as we have hope in our hearts.”