Zechariah 9:9-10, Matthew 21:1-13
March 20, 2016 – Palm Sunday
I’m using a little “play on words” here this morning. (As you know I am “wont” to do!) Palm Sunday represents an “unexpected turn of events.” You know that expression. It means that things all of a sudden went differently than expected. Or, in this case differently than some people expected!
That’s what happened that first “Palm Sunday” – and “Holy Week.” Here was this hugely popular man, Jesus. He came riding into the city, he was cheered and adored by the crowds. And by this point, there were crowds wherever he spoke. But then, just 5 days later, he was dying on a cross! That was an astonishing change over a matter of just a few days! That was an quite the “unexpected turn of events.”
Maybe you remember something similar which happened a few years prior to this. Just as he began his public ministry, Jesus came to his home town of Nazareth. Do you remember that story? It’s in Luke chapter 4. He was speaking in the Synagogue there. And at first, it says, “All spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.” But, by the end of that encounter, the people were ready to throw him off of a cliff!
This was like that! The people heard that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem, and they had gathered for this “impromptu parade.” And they were thrilled! They waved the palm branches. They spread their garments on the road before him. They shouted “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But, by the end of the week, Jesus hung on a cross.
The play on words I want to make here has to do with Jesus himself making “An Unexpected Turn” – an actual, physical turn. As you know, the people wanted him to be king! They wanted their freedom. They wanted their nation back! They wanted the Romans gone! They wanted Jesus to begin the revolution! (Or anyone else, for that matter!) They wanted this parade to end at the place of government, whether that was their place of government, or the Roman’s seat of government – the palace in Jerusalem, or whatever that was. But at the end of that procession, Jesus took an “unexpected turn.” He turned, not toward the palace, but toward the Temple! And there, he created this scene of chaos, as he drove out those who bought and sold. We can’t imagine the shock of those who saw that!
One thing we know about that, was that it was the “last straw” for the religious leaders. Jesus had already “taken them to task” on many things. But that day, he had directly attacked the “business” they had going on in the temple. That was highly embarrassing for them! And the Gospels tell us that, from that moment on, they started “taking counsel” – they began talking directly about – how they would get rid of him!
This was it for them! But I suspect this day was also the last straw for many of the people. They wanted their king. They shouted “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But it was more than that. I did a quick comparison, and three of the four gospels are very specific about the people calling Jesus “king.” Here in Matthew it simply says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” And he adds only “Hosanna in the highest.” But Mark adds, “And blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming.” That’s what they wanted, a king like King David! Luke changes that first phrase slightly, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” And John says it plainly, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Make no mistake! These people were excited about Jesus that day, because they believed he would be their new king. And what a great king he would make! A compassionate man! A wise man! A miracle worker! But maybe they didn’t think that through all the way. What did they think the Romans would do? Would they just stand by and let it happen? That’s not vey likely from what we know of the Romans! So, was this really to be a rebellion – a war? That would come, eventually. Was it to be now? Would they have to fight? Or would Jesus just make the Romans “go away” somehow? Would it be miraculous, like the way he calmed the storm?
In the end, it didn’t matter. Because Jesus didn’t take up the crown. He didn’t turn toward the palace. He “turned” toward the temple. And that sealed his fate. And when he was arrested and tried, just a few days later, none of the crowds seem to be anywhere near!
That part still amazes me! At the height of his popularity, Jesus and his disciples could hardly have a decent meal together! They were constantly mobbed by the huge crowds! When the woman touched the hem of his garment and was healed, Jesus turned and asked, “Who touched me?” And his disciples said, “Are you kidding? In this crowd? Pretty much Everybody touched you!” There were times when they tried get away from the crowds for a while. And the crowds followed them! All of that was certainly still the case on Palm Sunday!
But seriously! Where were those crowds later in the week? After this Palm Sunday procession, where were they? They were there! It was Passover, and Jerusalem was a very crowded city! Every year, pilgrims would come to the city from all over. There were so many, that people built makeshift shelters on the roofs of their houses to accommodate them. Some scholars believe that may have been where Jesus celebrated his last supper. That may have been his “Upper room.”
So the crowds were there! But, when the trial of Jesus was happening, where were they? Where were his supporters? How could the priests have gotten those who were there to shout for Barabbas? Surely, if those who supported Jesus were around in the numbers they were before, that wouldn’t have happened. Remember, the priests were afraid of those crowds. They feared Jesus’ popularity. But in the end, that didn’t seem to have been much of a problem. It became only a matter of convincing Pilate. So much of that seems incongruous to me! Maybe to you, too.
Whatever the case, Jesus seems to have taken an unexpected turn. He turned the people’s ultimate desire for “that which is seen” – the earthly kingdom – into his highest example of “that which is unseen” – the heavenly kingdom. We’ve been talking about that all throughout Lent. “Things seen and unseen.” And it has all come to a head on Palm Sunday. Jesus tried to point the people to the spiritual, but they wanted to crown him an earthly king. And when he refused, they sent him to the cross. If you think about it, it was either to be a real crown, or a crown of thorns. Nothing else would be acceptable.
What about us? How do we see this event we call “Palm Sunday?” What do we “take away” with us today? Certainly we take with us “visions” – mental images – of this event. I hope we will continue to think about that. But we also can think, was this really “unexpected?” In the swirl of all the emotions, the confusion, and the actions of the players in this story, there is this overall understanding that all of this was part of God’s plan.
Yes, we don’t understand some parts of this story. But somehow, it’s all encompassed in the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” Think about that when you picture this scene, when you think about the upper room, the garden, the cross. In all of this, in all of the traumatic and tragic events of the rest of Holy Week, think also of the simplistic vision of the Gospel story, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Know, too, that it’s too easy for us to insist on our own way of seeing things, isn’t it? In all this, Jesus is pointing us to the “things unseen.” It’s hard for us to set aside our constant attention to the “things seen.” I hope that’s one important thing we’ve all been thinking about this Lenten season. I hope we see in this story how these people couldn’t do that, especially when what was “seen” was so important to them.
May we, now and in the days to come, be better at looking to “things unseen,” to God’s kingdom, to the “spiritual” part of our lives. And I close with the words of C. S. Lewis, who said this. “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul! You have a body, temporarily.” “We look not to the things that are seen, for the things that are unseen are temporary, but to the things unseen, for the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Eternal God, your love for us is everlasting, and beyond comprehension. Help us, as we look to these stories of Holy Week, to look to your kingdom, to look to your higher purpose in all of this, and to see ourselves in light of your plan and purpose. We give you thanks and praise, now and forever, Amen.