Zechariah 9:9-10, Matthew 21:1-17
March 16, 2008
The people were desperate for a revolution! They were weary from living under the thumb of the occupation forces of another country. They were tired of the oppression they suffered at the hands of a tyrannical government far away. They longed to be a free and independent nation. Who does that sound like? Does that sound like Israel on that first Palm Sunday? Or does it sound like the people living in the American colonies in the middle of the sixteenth century?
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the similarity between those two groups of people. In 1776, the people of America wrote a document declaring their independence. And I found myself wondering if the people of Jesus’ time would have been so bold as to write their own Declaration of Independence?
I went back and read that Declaration the other day, and it really is an amazing document! The more I read it, the more I was taken by the fact that it was a daring and dangerous thing to write! It openly accused England of many violations of the people’s rights. And it specifically accused King George himself. That was not a very safe thing to do in those days. The seriousness of what they were doing that fateful day is reflected in the ominous words with which that document ends. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of [God], we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”
This was serious business! This was not just a wonderful, historic document, to be revered for all time by a grateful nation! Yes, it is that! But this was, as was pointed out in a recent film, an act of high treason! Those who wrote it and those who signed it were putting their very lives at risk! And the more I think about it, the same was true of the people on that first Palm Sunday!
As you probably know, not all people in the colonies supported independence. (By the way, do you know which colony had the most signers of that Declaration? That’s right! You’re sitting in it!) But not everyone was in favor of this dangerous act! In fact, one source tells us that one out of every five colonists refused to accept the Declaration, and continued to profess their allegiance to the British monarchy. They called themselves “loyalists.” And some of them got together and wrote their own “declaration” – a statement affirming their loyalty to England. That document was written in a pub on Wall Street in New York City, and over 700 loyalists signed it! (The Declaration of Independence had only 56 signers!)
Of course, if that first Palm Sunday had been the start of a revolution in Israel, it wouldn’t have been the first. Over the years there had been many kings and empires that had conquered Israel and subjugated the people. And there’s no doubt the people that day remembered the story of their most recent revolution. It took place two hundred years before, and it was the time when Judas Maccabees led the revolt by which they threw off the occupying forces of the nation of Syria. The Jews still celebrate that revolution today. It is the heart of that holiday called “Hanukah.”
So if we think back to that first Palm Sunday, I think we have to ask, would all the people of Israel have supported the cause if Jesus really had come to be their king? We know that England was ruthless in putting down revolts in her colonies, but we also know that Rome was much worse! The ancient historian Flavious Josephus describes the time of an earlier revolt. At that time, the Romans crucified many people! They lined the street leading into Jerusalem with people on crosses! So, do you think there were some people that first Palm Sunday who stood back? Do you think there were some who preferred to stay on the “safe ground” and hold Jesus at arm’s length? As you’re thinking about the answer to that question, remember Simon Peter. Sure, he pledged to follow Jesus even unto death! But when the “heat was on” he took the safe route and even he distanced himself from Jesus, denying he even knew him.
I think it’s safe to say there were many who just watched on that first Palm Sunday. Yes, many were shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But not all of them. Not all of them were saying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!” as John recalls this scene. Some of them were standing back “observing.” Some of them were standing back on “safer ground?”
It’s interesting then how Matthew includes this little extra story about the children in the Temple. Jesus enters Jerusalem, he goes into the Temple. But he doesn’t do what the people wanted. He doesn’t take the throne of King David. Instead, he “cleared the temple.” He turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out those who sold animals. And who were they? They were part of the Temple “staff,” if you will. The were the ones who changed the people’s money into the “temple currency,” and who sold animals for sacrifice. They were part of the life of the Jewish people! So instead of inflaming the Romans, Jesus angers his own people. (And I have to think the Romans were semi-amused by that!)
Matthew goes on to tell us how the children in the temple continued shouting what they had heard in the streets. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And the priests, who were not very happy at that moment, reacted indignantly. Among the other things Jesus “attacked” that day was their “control” over the people, and the cushy life that came with that power. And now even the children had been “corrupted” by this Jesus.
Look how Jesus answered them! He did what he often did – probably more than we realize. He quoted scripture to them – which I’m sure enflamed them even more. And I want us to see why. Because notice where this quote comes from. (I’m sure those priests knew!) His quote comes from Psalm 8. Maybe you remember that one. It was a psalm to the greatness of the Creator God. “Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” Remember that one? It says, “[Your] glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouths of babes and infants…” In using this quote, Jesus is casting himself in the role of God! He’s really “turning up the heat” with these religious leaders, isn’t he?
So, on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus took action, not against Rome, but against the religious leadership of Israel. He attacked the way they were oppressing the people. Was this just a first step? Was this just a precursor to a move against Rome? I’m sure the Romans were wondering that same thing! And I’m sure the people who were ready to fight the revolution were watching and waiting to see if he would take it to that next level!
Well, I also have to wonder if the people were ready to follow this man Jesus, Or would they have backed just any king? Were they simply ready for a revolution? Or was their something special about this man? I’d like you to think about that. I’d like you to think about that in light of what was happening that day, and what would happen throughout that week. Because Jesus was growing in popularity on a daily basis. He was growing in importance in the people’s minds. And many were beginning to believe he actually was the Messiah they had been looking for so long.
With all of that in mind, with all of those images and thoughts and questions about the events of that day, I find myself wondering, what would we have done? Would we have shouted “Hosanna”? Would we have signed the Declaration? Or would we have stood back and just watched? If we had been there, would we have been “uncomfortable” with this Jesus, and tried to distance ourselves from him?
We’re all great with this idea of Independence. We celebrate the 4th of July with great fervor. Or at least we cook a lot of hamburgers! But what would we have done in 1776? Would we have joined the revolution? Or would we have taken what I’m sure was seen as the “safe route,” and stayed with the oppression?
I think that we’re starting to face those same questions in our world today. As I think about this Palm Sunday story, I think about how our world is becoming increasingly more hostile to Jesus and his message. Who would ever have thought that? This Jesus, who had the greatest message of love, grace, and redemption ever heard in this world, is now seen as being “offensive.” And many of his followers are acquiescing to that. They’re denying like Simon Peter that they know him. They’re going along with the crowd. They’re not wanting to offend anyone and so they’re backing away from their allegiance to the Son of God!
I think the question is ever more frequently before us. “What will we do?” When faced with the difficult step of following Jesus, will we shout “Hosanna?” Or will we back away? That’s the question we must face as we remember this wonderful scene of Jesus riding into the holy city in triumph. That’s the question we must ask as we think about what happened to him the rest of that week.
I don’t have to tell you that the world around us is that it’s getting more crazy every day! Every day we read stories of people doing terrible things. People seem to have lost any sense of common decency – let alone any sense of “godliness.” And is it any wonder? Is it any wonder that when God has been removed from society, that society has become more “god-less?” It’s no wonder to me! It’s sad, but it’s no wonder!
Maybe you think I’ve taken this wondrous happy day and turned it into a downer. But don’t you see that’s what happened then, too. Four days later, the shouts of “Hosanna” turned to cries of “Crucify him.” That’s how serious this is. What will we do? What will be our answer to this Jesus who enters this scene and calls us to a better way of living? Will we follow him? Will we pledge our lives to him? Yes, that’s a glorious thing, but it won’t always be an easy thing. What will we do?
Eternal God, as we look to the events of Holy week, help us to follow Jesus. Help us to follow this procession, and to hail Jesus as king, even when it might not be so easy. As this week goes by, help us to remember all that happened so long ago, so that we might be ever more devoted to him, in whose name we pray, Amen.