4 weird things about Palm Sunday
This is an edited transcript of one of my recent sermons at Desert Mission Anglican Church. Listen here.
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’”
And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.
And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
And 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. (Mark 11:1-11 ESV)
During Holy Week we will through Scripture readings, prayer, and special services walk with our Lord to the cross, and it all starts on Palm Sunday. This is– as you would expect–a rather somber journey, but Palm Sunday is a celebration. I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a little strange. The whole story of the Triumphal Entry is–if you think about it–a little weird. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon said,
“Christ’s kingdom is a very strange one, totally different from anything that ever has been seen or ever will be seen…”
This story is a perfect example of this. At virtually every turn Jesus is doing something that neither his disciples, nor the crowds that celebrated him, nor the religious authorities, nor even you and I would probably expect.
Now, this story may be strange, but here’s the thing…it’s in the strangeness that we’ll find the significance. We have to go a bit beyond a surface-level reading to see what’s happening here. Are you ready to dive a little deeper with me?
Let’s start at the beginning.
Jesus has been travelling. He’s been moving throughout Israel, teaching, preaching, healing, casting out evil spirits, doing miracles. He has repeatedly talked about the nature of his own ministry (Mark 8, 9, 10), how he came to serve and how he must die. But it doesn’t seem like the crowds or the disciples were getting it. In fact the Scripture says there were afraid of asking him about it.
Now he comes to Jerusalem. It’s certainly not the first time he’s been here, but this time it’s different. He stops at the Mount of Olives which stands directly opposite the Temple mount. So if you were standing there with Jesus, you would look across the Kidron Valley and you would see the Temple, the holy city, ruled by religious hypocrites and the Roman military. Luke says that Jesus wept over this city because they did not understand what was really happening here, who he really was.
That’s when the strange things start happening.
A series of strange events
Strange thing #1:
Jesus sends his disciples to get a young donkey, one that hasn’t been ridden before. Somehow he knows ahead of time that it will be there, and that the owners won’t mind if he commandeers it for a while.
I mean, think about what happens in this story: The disciples go, they find the donkey, and I’m sure you can imagine they’re just hoping they don’t have to explain what they’re doing. Of course, they’re caught red handed. The owner’s all like, “hey, why are you taking my donkey?” You know they probably looked at each thought, I hope this works. Then they say, oh, the Lord needs it…but don’t worry he’ll bring it right back. The owner response: “Cool with me.”
Imagine if couple scruffy dudes came to your house and started hotwiring one your cars. You’re like, hey what are you doing? They’re like, “The Lord needs this…but we’ll bring it right back.” Kind of strange.
Strange thing #2:
Jesus rides the donkey–a young colt that hadn’t yet been broken in–into Jerusalem. First, this is a little weird just because the colt allowed it, and second, it’s not exactly an impressive animal. It would be like a celebrity rolling up to the red carpet in a beat-up, borrowed Ford Fiesta instead of the Rolls Royce. It should seem a little off.
Strange thing #3:
The people love it! They starting shouting and singing and praising and throwing their clothes in the road and treating Jesus like a king! Why would they do this, and why would Jesus allow it when he had just told Peter back in chapter 8 to not tell anyone that he was the Messiah, which means “deliverer of Israel?”
Strange thing #4:
Jesus gets to Jerusalem, looks around, and leaves. All this celebration, all this commotion; Jesus is even using supernatural powers to find and ride this donkey…and the people are loving it…shouting in praises and talking about him like he’s a king and savior…and he walks away.
Sometimes I think we just accept all the details in this story without really thinking about them because we’ve heard it so many times…in reality this is a strange story but each one of these strange details is crucial for understanding the significance of the Triumphal Entry then and understanding the significance of the Triumphal Entry now.
Looking at the Triumphal Entry with fresh eyes
So let’s take a look at each of these strange events with fresh eyes and try to understand them in their cultural and biblical context.
First up: Jesus knowing about and requesting a colt. I think this is significant because it is a testimony to Jesus’s divine and sovereign character. He had foreknowledge that no ordinary human being could have. And he commands an incredible amount of trust and respect from his disciples who carried out the strange order, and from owners of the colt themselves. There’s more to it than just the supernatural-ness of this, though. Jesus is quite deliberately fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah from Zechariah, Chapter 9:9-10:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9:9-10 ESV)
Do you see what’s happening here? Jesus is taking on the mantle of Messiah. The connection between his actions and the Zechariah passages probably wouldn’t have been lost on the disciples although some of it definitely went over the heads of the crowd…more on that in a bit.
Okay, so getting on the donkey after doing lots of miracles and teachings and stuff is a deliberate fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But why did he ride it into Jerusalem the way that he did? To understand this you have to understand that the whole idea of a Triumphal Entry is not unique to Jesus. In ancient Rome rulers would make triumphal entries into cities after a military conquest, usually on horses with chariots, displaying the plunder and glory of their conquest. When Jesus starts on his ride to Jerusalem, the crowd picks up on the cues he’s laying down. He’s talking and acting like a king, finally! And that explains why the people got so excited.
The people, seeing what Jesus is doing, think he’s coming in to Jerusalem to triumph over their enemies, the occupying Romans! To be fair the timing was perfect…it was the beginning of Passover week, the celebration of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
The celebratory shout of the crowds couldn’t make this more clear:
And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! [(which means ‘please, save us’)] Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
(Mark 11:9-10 ESV)
In their excitement, they are missing that Jesus does things very differently. He makes no show of wealth–he borrowed his ride after all. And again, he’s on a donkey. Certainly kings rode donkeys in the ancient world, but they were seen as peaceful animals. Not like a horse, bred for war, a donkey is raised for acts of service. The crowd misses what Jesus would later make explicit–that his is a spiritual, not a political kingdom. It’s a kingdom marked by reconciliation, not war. A kingdom that is not concerned with making weapons, but in making peace between God and man. If you’ll endulge one other Spurgeon quote, commenting on this passage the great preacher said:
“His armies are loving thoughts, his troops are kind words. The power by which he rules his people is not the strong hand and the stretched-out arm of police or soldiery, but by deeds of love and words of overflowing benediction he asserts his sovereign sway.”
Jesus drives this point home by arriving at the end of his 2 mile journey at the Temple, taking a look around, and…doing nothing. He does come back and cleanse the Temple, on his own time-table, of course. And it’s not by spilling Roman blood or starting a riot. No, he drives out money-changers single-handedly in a powerful critique of how corrupt the religious leadership had become.
The cumulative effect of all of this is to bring the people of Israel to a point of decision. Jesus is acting like a king, talking like a Messiah, yet a very different kind of king, a different kind of Messiah than people wanted. He was in effect forcing the people to make choice, because now they can’t avoid his claim to be the Messiah, and after his stunt in the Temple along with the rest of his teaching, they can’t deny his idea of the Kingdom of God is very different than what they were expecting from a savior.
[bctt tweet=“Jesus did not demand a bloody political revolution, but a radical reformation of the heart."]
These were not the terms they were expecting or desiring or willing to consider, so the crowds that had cheered for him quickly turned against him. In just a few days the same people that had cried “Hosanna!” would be shouting, demanding, “Crucify him.”
He knew it would happen; he had already tried to tell his disciples three times! Mark Chapters 8,9,10.
What's your decision?
As we walk with Christ through Passion Week, we begin here, at the Triumphal Entry. And just like the crowds and the religious rulers we too are forced to come to terms with who Jesus claimed to be and what his Kingdom is really like.
And don’t assume that you or I would have thought much differently than the crowds. I mean, it seems to me that the church is in many corners is looking for Jesus to change their political situation–just like the Jews in the first century. It seems to me that many people calling themselves Christians are also publicly calling for military solutions to their persecution–again, just like the nation of Israel under Roman rule.
We have allowed our own evangelical culture to be politicized and militarized in ways that Jesus would not recognize as part of his Kingdom.
On personal level, are you submitting to the Lordship of Jesus on his own terms in your life? Or are you only following him when it is convenient, when it seems like Jesus is operating within your preconceived expectations? Are you willing to follow not a lord of war, but a prince of peace? A king that died not only for his oppressed people but for the oppressors, too? Are you willing to follow a king that doesn’t necessarily deliver you from your circumstances on your timetable, but is rather more concerned with transforming your very soul to be more like him?
Jesus did a very strange thing by riding into Jerusalem on that young donkey. He did a very significant thing. He said he was the Messiah, Savior, and Lord.
He proclaimed a counter-intuitive, new kind of kingdom, where a carpenter is king, where the poor have cause for celebration, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where God himself serves even the lowliest of his subjects. And those subject will be lifted up and called sons and daughters of the Most High God, and they will worship him with all their heart and soul and mind and body in spirit and in truth. T
hey will have a hope that frees them from the fear of death, and indeed they will be free from death itself!
This is the Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming, and you can be part of it.
But to enter that kingdom you’ve got accept Jesus on his own terms, strange though they may be.