Zechariah 9:9-10, Luke 19:28-44
Palm Sunday, April 1, 2012
I’ve chosen this idiom “coming to a head” because it really fits this celebration we call “Palm Sunday!” I looked that expression up in several sources, and it actually has two “shades” of meaning. On one level, it has the meaning of something reaching a high point or a climax. We might say, “The baseball season comes to a head in October.” But it also means some kind of a problem that has reached a critical stage. As in, “All of the problems the man was having were finally coming to a head.”
I say that because both of those things were true on this day we have come to know as Palm Sunday. The high point of Jesus’ ministry was approaching. And, of course, the difficulties he was encountering were becoming critical.
Now, I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen this Palm Sunday event portrayed many times – in movies, in religious films, and maybe even on the History Channel. But as I think about all of those depictions, I wonder if any of them really even comes close to portraying either the size of the crowds involved, or the intensity of the emotions and the conflicts of the day. As we think about this scene, this is probably one where our “mental images” are the most inadequate. We’ve been “tweaking” our mental images during this Lenten season. And I think this one is perhaps the biggest “tweak” of them all – so far!!
Think about this. It was the time of the Passover. And this was Jerusalem! And at this time of year, Jerusalem became the most populous city on earth! Because all good Jews were expected to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime. But, those who lived in the area were expected to make the trip every year. So there were large numbers of pilgrims on the roads! Remember how the boy Jesus was lost for three days in the crowds making their way home!
Historians also tell us that Jerusalem was so crowded at this time, that the Passover meal was celebrated by many people in makeshift rooms constructed on housetops! Some have even suggested that Jesus and his disciples may have used such a structure. It may have been a housetop that served as the “upper room” for their “Last Supper.”
So at the very least, the size of the crowds needs to be “tweaked” in our minds. But beyond that, I also want you to think about the people in this scene and the emotions that were in play. Yes, there certainly was a “circus atmosphere” that day. As I’ve said on other Palm Sundays, many people saw this event as the beginning of the revolution against Rome. They were waving the same palm branches that they waved a couple of hundred years before when Judas Maccabees rode triumphantly into that same city, having led the people to freedom from the Assyrian occupation. Now they were expecting Jesus to enter the city in the same triumphal way, and to become just such a revolutionary leader.
Yet there was certain sense in which Jesus was not taking part in that circus atmosphere. In fact, there are several points – especially in Luke’s Gospel – where we see that he was troubled by the people’s lack of understanding about his true mission and purpose. Luke tells us that “as he drew near the city, he wept over it.” Then Luke gives us these ominous words of Jesus. “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace. But now they are hid from your eyes.” As much as he had deliberately set this scene up – and the Gospel writers are very clear about that – Jesus had other things that he wanted them to see about himself. But the people weren’t buying it! And the caused him great anguish!
I discovered something when I went to look up this passage in my Bible. When I Googled “Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem,” I found that in Luke’s Gospel, there are two places where he did so. The first comes at the end of chapter 13. Go back and read those words sometime. They can also found, almost word for word, in Matthew’s Gospel at the end of chapter 23. He said, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you. How I would have gathered you under my wings like a hen gathers her brood. But you would not.”
Now we have the lament on Palm Sunday. And the more I’ve thought about this, the more Luke implies a connection between these two laments. Because in the lament at the end of chapter 13, Jesus says this. “And I tell you this, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” And then, here on Palm Sunday, he’s coming back into the city, and they’re shouting those very words! That’s pretty amazing! And I also think that was an intentional connection!
So now we have this second lament. And this lament is much more specific. In fact, this lament is a prophecy of what would eventually take place some 40 years later, at the end of the war that finally did come with Rome. At that time, these words by Jesus would literally come true. The city was besieged and it was leveled, along with the Temple, by Titus and the Roman legions. And it’s eerie if you compare what Jesus said that day, with the things historians have recorded about that event!!
So let me say that it’s very clear that Jesus was being intentional about this triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He arranged for the donkey he would ride – or he made it happen supernaturally. But it’s also clear that he was in anguish over the people, and their errant expectations of him. They didn’t see what his real purpose was. They saw him as a political deliverer. They didn’t understand, and they refused to believe until much later, that he was to deliver them from much more! And all of that would “come to a head” in the next four days!
The other thing that was coming to a head, of course, was the tension between Jesus and the religious leadership. And if we don’t see that, it won’t make much sense how events could have reached the critical stage they did in those next few days. In the middle of this Palm Sunday account, Luke gives us this wonderful exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees.
The parade was in full swing, the crowds were saying those words Jesus predicted six chapters ago. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” In fact, they were shouting them, Luke tells us, “with a loud voice.” And notice that they added the word “King” to that phrase! Because that was a big part of this whole thing for these people. For centuries, they had longed for a king – “a king like unto David.”
Luke then tells us how that was “too much” for the Pharisees! They got near enough to Jesus to talk to him and they said, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” And then Jesus gives them this wonderful answer! He says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Now, that response also had two levels of meaning. First, Jesus was acknowledging that the event was appropriate. His coming into the holy city was important! Again, he set this whole thing up from the very beginning. And despite the fact that the people had the wrong expectations about it, it was ordained that he would come to that place, at that time.
There may also have been a deeper meaning, one that would have I inflamed the situation even more. When Jesus talked about “the stones crying out,” he may have been quoting scripture – which he often did! In the second chapter of the prophet Habakkuk, we have this warning. “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house… For the stone will cry out from the wall and the beam from the woodwork will respond.” (Habakkuk 2:11) Jesus was quoting from a prophecy where the stones were crying out in judgment against those who used their positions of authority to make themselves wealthy – at the expense of the people. And make no mistake! The Pharisees would have known that passage! And they would have seen that he was using it to accuse them.
That would have been consistent with Jesus. In these last days his conflict with the Pharisees was indeed “coming to a head.” The next day, he was teaching in the Temple, and he told the people the parable about the wicked tenants in the vineyard, and how they treated the master’s servants shamefully. And then when the master sent to them his only son, they killed him. And in verse 19 it says “The scribes and chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour… for they perceived that he told this parable against them.” They knew the role he was casting them in, and their animosity toward him was “coming to a head.”
So in all this, my hope today is that we see this event for what it really was. Because if we can’t, we won’t see how much it means in our lives. Too many people over the years have had the same kinds of “lesser expectations” about Jesus. Too many people have decided to accept him only on their own terms. They want him to be “only what they want him to be.” And I’m sure the Pharisees would have been fine with that!
What about us? Do we seek to follow Jesus? Do we trust him to guide us? Before you answer “yes,” please know that it is not nearly as easy as you might think. This is where “what we have in our minds” might need the most “tweaking.” Jesus wanted people to make the change from wanting things on their terms to being able to seek God’s will. And he wants the same for us. And make no mistake, that’s a conscious decision! The Pharisees decided to stick with which they “already knew.” They decided to stay with that with which they were familiar, with which they were comfortable. We can do that! It’s easy! Or, we can take the more difficult road and go beyond our comfort zone and seek to be followers of Jesus.
But know that if we do nothing. If we are silent, we might consider that the very stones will cry out!
Eternal God, we thank you that you have come into our lives. Help us to listen to your spirit speaking to us and guiding us. Help us to know that we are your people. Help us to follow Jesus, no matter what it costs us. For we pray in his name, Amen.