Zechariah 9:12, Matthew 21:1-11
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
Palm Sunday is a funny day. It's a joyous time. Any day that you get to wave palm branches and march
in a procession is a good day as far as I'm concerned. But today is also a day of contradictions. There's
a line in our middle hymn that captures the contradictions perfectly, "lowly pomp." "Lowly pomp" is
an oxymoron. Lowliness implies humility and pomp is the opposite of humility. It's a complex day, a day
We live in an age of sound bites and Twitter, short little spans of attention, so it's hard for us to deal with a story as complex as this one. Many things are happening in today's scripture lessons. These passages are rich with the past and filled with signs of history, and filled with hope. The hope of a nation that has been waiting a long time to be saved. The hope of a nation that knows its history. And the joy of a nation watching its history being fulfilled, its long-awaited salvation literally coming down the road.
Part of the difficulty for us in dealing with these passages is that we see them from a modern perspective, we already know what Paul Harvey used to call, "the rest of the story," so we don't have to pay close attention, we know how this is all going to end. For us, Palm Sunday is like watching rerun of "Murder, She Wrote." We might forget a detail or two from the story, but as soon as our memories get jogged, we can just sit back and watch the story unfold predictably and comfortably. That's unfortunate, I think, because following Christ is almost never predictable and comfortable.
This morning I'm going to give a history lesson of this snapshot from Matthew's gospel, a history lesson of these scriptural sound bites so that we can see fully what Palm Sunday meant to those in Jerusalem and what it means to us today, as we continue this story.
The history goes back a long way. Just about every detail in Matthew's account of Palm Sunday is important. We'll start clear back in Genesis when Jacob spoke to his twelve sons as he was dying. Here's what he said to Judah, "Your brothers shall praise you, your hand shall be on the neck of your ememies; your father's sons shall bow down before you...Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his robe in the bold of grapes..." (Genesis 49:8 & 11) Jacob foretells the importance of Judah, and he also fortells prosperity. Judah was not only Jacob's son, his name became the name of the sounthern part of the kingdom, the part that included Jerusalem. Historians are divided over when exactly Jacob and Judah lived. It may be as early as 1,900 years BCE
We have a much more definite idea of when the oracle that is our lesson from the prophet Zechariah was written. God is always surprising us. God is always doing things that are different from what we expect. God is always at work creating salvation and liberation, and it's almost never what we ourselves foresee. This oracle was written when the people of Judah saw their liberator in Alexander the Great. The writer saw that the messiah was coming south from Syrian after the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE. In January of 331 BCE Alexander's army began a siege of the island city of Tyre. Tyre was a very wealthy city, a center of trading and commerce. It took them eight months, but finally Alexander's army defeated Tyre. All those cities that the Greeks defeated on the way to Tyre: Gaza, Ekron, Ashkelon, Ashdod are cities occupied by the Philistines, Judah's enemies. But God is surprising everyone, because in their defeat the brokenness, is the expectation that they will no longer be enemies, but friends with Judah. The oracle promises a time of peace, the long-awaited king, the Promised Prince of Peace is coming - but the oracle says he's not riding a war horse, he's riding a colt, the foal of a donkey.
You can imagine what happened when this amazing man Jesus rode into Jerusalem and up to the temple on a donkey. Here's the sign that the people had been waiting for, this guy who's been doing all these miracles, healing people, giving sight to the blind infuriating and out-witting the religious authorities. Of course all of Jerusalem was in turmoil - here's the guy they'd been waiting for. Oh sure, for a little while almost 400 years before it looked like Alexander the Great would set them free, but he turned out to be just like all the other foreign conquerors who had come before, he never got off his war horse, but this Jesus, he's the one!
And even though all Jerusalem was in turmoil, everyone knew what to do. They spread their cloaks on the road for the donkey and colt to walk on. That's what the people did years before when Jehu was anointed as king. "Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps...and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king!'" (2 Kings 9:13) That's what you do when there's a new king. Jehu became king around the year 843 BCE.
And they cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road, just as they did on special occasions. "Bind the festal procession with branches." That was part of our call to worship this morning. They shouted "Hosanna," a word you hear one day a year, and you only hear it in church. It means "Save us, we pray." And they shouted, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." All of this is from Psalm 118. The whole city was in turmoil, it was a spontaneous demonstration, but they knew what they were doing. It wasn't chaos; it was citizens joining together, having recognized all the signs that their savior, their anointed king, their Messiah was coming. This is the prophet whom God promised would replace Moses clear back in Deuteronomy. It's happening at last.
At Christmas time we sang that the ‘hopes and fears of all the year are met' in Jesus' birth. And now he's grown into a man and he's going to be a great king, look at all the signs from history! Jesus is the Messiah; he is just what we've been waiting for!
Some churches all today Palm/Passion Sunday. In some churches' worship services today the story will continue past this street dancing moment in Jerusalem. But we're going to linger here a little while. We're going to hold onto this moment of happy turmoil. We're going to dwell on the joyful knowledge that Christ is come and we're about to be free. See, the Messiah is a national savior, a king anointed by God to rule fairly and to bring peace. Often we misunderstand what it meant for Jesus to come and rule because we see Jesus as a personal savior only, not as a national savior.
As Christians we claim to be a part of the body of Christ, and individually we are members of him. Now think about Christ's arrival more personally. Think of what your greatest personal need is. What is the one thing that most cuts you off from God's love? Now imagine that your greatest need has been met. Imagine that you are able to claim and live fully in the embrace of God's love. Not just for a moment now and then, but always to live in relationship with our Lord.
That moment has just about arrived for the people of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. History is about to be fulfilled, when God does something that no one expected. But instead of an anointing, Jesus arrived at the temple and threw a tantrum. He was outraged at the descration of the temple and lashed out at those who were using their positions of authority to profit from running it. This wasn't what the Jews had been waiting for. But this moment begins a week of great activity. Jesus had gone too far in cleansing the temple and so the plot begins to arrest him. The story continues from this moment of joyous anticipation. The story continues to the sharing of the Passover feast one last time with his disciples, to the loneliness and despair of Gethsemane, to the trial and finally to the cross. And there the story comes to an abrupt and horrific end. This story is our story. If this story is to continue - and we are called by God to see that is does continue - we must claim this story as our own by living it fully.
To live a fully Christian life, to identify fully with the story of our Lord, we must do more than simply hold our collective breath starting on Friday and waiting for Easter morning. We must make Jesus' journey in lowly pomp our journey as well.
Today is a day of contrasts for us, it should be confusing. I'm a big believer in the benefit of being confused. The first ones who went to the empty tomb to tend Jesus' body after the Sabbath ended were terrified and confused. God is at work creating salvation and liberation and it's almost never what we expect. Open your heart this week, what does it mean to you that Christ is come? Take that with you and let the story continue.