“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21: 1-11
When Jesus told his disciples to get the donkey to ride into Jerusalem, you know that they were very pleased. Truly, this was a joyful procession. Imagine how the disciples felt. Finally Jesus was stepping forward into the role of Messiah. They had been waiting for this moment for a long time. Giving the disciples instructions to bring him a donkey said that he would enter Jerusalem fulfilling the prophecy. Jesus was complying with what the disciples thought was the first step in a new rule. We know that the disciples’ expectations were completely out of line. In the crowds who cheered and welcomed Jesus into the city of Jerusalem, their expectations were also wrong. That is the timeless message of Palm Sunday. Incorrect expectations of why Jesus came into Jerusalem are corrected on this day. That prepares us for the rest of holy week, for Good Friday, Easter, and living the Christian life in a true joyful procession toward an eternal goal.
Remember a time in your life when you anticipated a great event? Maybe it was someone’s name being read, your own, as you received a degree. Maybe it was waiting for the birth of a child, the arrival of the guest or family member, or good news that changed everything. Can you recall the sense of excitement that was in the air? One of my friends told me that moments before the ball dropped in Times Square he felt the entire thousands of people were in sync in wild anticipation. He told me the feeling was tangible and exhilarating. Matthew was trying to describe this feeling as Jesus was coming into the city, writing that the city was in turmoil. Other translations translate the phrase that the city was moving, or shaking. “Turmoil” as a translation for eseisthē, from the verb seiō, “to shake,” where we get the word, seismic, is too mild. Matthew’s readers would recognize the cosmic, earthshaking significance of what is happening in this story. Matthew writes that the whole city was “quaking”—not physically, but mentally and emotionally— when Jesus made His entry.
This joyful procession that Scripture describes with people in front of Jesus and the disciples and behind them proclaiming, “hosanna, save us,” was exactly fitting with what the disciples were hoping would happen. Yet what they finally got was not what they expected at all. Much like the man who convinced a waiter to get a recipe from a chef. His friend never thought he could get the recipe from the chef, but when he did, he waved it in front of his friend’s face and said,” I knew I could get it.” But then he opened up the recipe and discovered that it was written in Chinese. And he did not know Chinese! The disciples found out that Jesus was not the kind of messiah they had expected. He was much more.
The disciples were able to learn the lesson that expectations and our experiences often clash. Soon events would unfold in a language that they could not understand. But Jesus did understand. He rode in fulfilling prophecy from Zechariah, and another from Isaiah, “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame” (50:5-7). This question was raised in the Lenten Bible study this week. Did Jesus realize that he was riding to an inevitable clash with the authorities? As we read Matthew, we see many opportunities for Jesus to escape, both verbally and simply by leaving, but he did not.
In 1994, a policeman heard a commotion in the Salt Lake City Public Library, he realized that an armed man was taking hostages. He blended into the conference room where the hostages were being gathered and surprised and overcame the gunman. In the same way, Jesus knew that humanity was being “held hostage” by death, and he entered into the city ready to confront that. The disciples missed it. As their joyful procession progressed into the city, they saw it confronting the authorities on many levels. As the famed preacher Henry Sloane Coffin stated, Jesus confronted these ills of society: religious intolerance (the Pharisees), commercial privilege (the Sadducees), political expediency (Pontius Pilate), pleasure loving irresponsibility (Herod Antipas), unfaithfulness (Judas), mob spirit (the crowds), and public apathy. Yes, he confronted all of those things. But what he really confronted was exponentially more.
There was a lot more to that joyful procession confronting those societal ills. We can address those things from the outside. But Jesus wanted us to begin inside out, to begin with our hearts, not outside it, beginning with what we perceive as going wrong in the world. Jesus wanted the people to be filled with God’s saving grace that would spill over into the rest of life. First we must confront that big picture, God’s grace tearing down the barrier between death and eternal life. Once we realize that fact, we are ready to think about the rest of life with a stronger perspective, filled with faith. It was only after the resurrection that the disciples realized that there is nothing bigger than our eternal goal of heaven. Looking back after the resurrection, they must have remembered that Palm Sunday and realized how their expectations were totally off base. They realized that the joyful procession was heading not just to solve the problems of the day. It was on its way to life everlasting.
An image of what Jesus was bringing was described in Isaiah 65: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem, a rejoicing, and her people, a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” The disciples had heard Jesus talk about something bigger than their expectations, but they could not understand what was happening. The Gospel of Mark states that a few days before Jesus told the disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” Most likely these words were far from their minds as Jesus rode into town surrounded by cheerful pageantry. Or if they were considering what he had said, we can imagine how confused they might have felt.
They were hearing the crowds shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “This is the prophet.” The New Interpreter’s Bible states, “They use the right words, but they still missed the point. They have all of the notes and none of the music. They have the theology straight, but they will end up rejecting Jesus and calling for his death. Matthew is striking a familiar note: knowing the truth is not the same thing as doing the truth. What one social psychologist said of university students is also true of the kingdom: it is possible to make an A+ in the course on ethics and still flunk life.”
That is what the joyful procession was all about on that day. It was the beginning of life defeating death. It set the stage for the eternal significance of the resurrection. It was so much more than a political, social, cultural, ethnic revolution that was unfolding. It was an invitation for perpetual rest with our Creator that was being written in a language we could understand and accept. It is no wonder that Matthew described the city as shaking internally. Whether they knew it or not, those voices that welcomed Jesus into the city of Jerusalem were cheering for the greatest victory of all. In the little Joyful Noise Chapels, the children sing several songs again and again, and when a song begins, they recognize it as their favorite and shout out, “that’s my song!” Maybe it is This Little Light of Mine, or Jesus Loves Me, or Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man, the children feel as if the song is a part of them. That is so heartwarming, isn’t it? In the same way, hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the song that was sung on that first Palm Sunday, is our song. It is the song for you and for me. It shakes across the ages, and when you hear it, you’ll know, “that’s my song,” because it is the song that saves your life.
As you know, I grew up in Alabama, and I would like to conclude this sermon with an illustration from Bear Bryant, greatest football coach who ever lived, because it really sums up what Palm Sunday is all about. This probably happened many times and in many different games because Coach Bryant was known to be strict and demanding of his players. And I have heard this story told many ways since I was young, but once near the end of the game the Alabama quarterback decided to do something against what Coach Bryant had asked. The quarterback was known to be the slowest player on the team. Instead of running the ball up the middle as the coach had called, the quarterback knew that it would be a total surprise if he threw the ball to the wide receiver right off the line of scrimmage. The other team would not expect Alabama to do that. The Alabama players in the huddle argued against it. There was no way that could happen since the coach wanted a handoff up the middle. The quarterback smiled and assured them, “The coach won’t care when it is a touchdown.” Somehow a player on the other team, who happened to be the fastest sprinter on their team, read the Alabama quarterback’s move, intercepted the pass, and went streaking down the sideline toward the end zone. But the Alabama quarterback caught him before he got to the goal line and scored. It is said that after the game the reporters asked Coach Bryant how the slowest player on the Alabama team was able to catch from behind the fastest player on the other team. Coach Bryant answered, “It’s simple, their player was running for a touchdown. My quarterback was running for his life.”
The disciples didn’t grasp that this joyful procession wasn’t just on its way to another rebellion in the world. It was not just another social reform. It was not a new political movement. It concerned the most significant and important thing that we can imagine – the explosive, ground shaking victory of life over death. As we continue through this holy week, let us be mindful of what this joyful procession is really all about, and be thankful to God for the gift of Jesus Christ as he leads us all to our heavenly home.