Do we understand Palm Sunday? What does God want to speak to us today through this story?
That's where I have to begin as I read this story again, asking myself those questions. And I must admit that when I came to this story again this year, I thought I understood Palm Sunday better than I did. And I was surprised in some ways with what I found in this story, and what perhaps God would want to speak to us through it.
I'm reading the story of Palm Sunday from the Gospel of John, chapter 12. In John, the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem is very closely tied with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, which is told in chapter 11. That amazing miracle had a huge impact on the people in the area surrounding Jerusalem (and rightly so, people don't get raised from the dead too often). Lazarus lived in Bethany, which was about two miles from Jerusalem.
At the beginning of chapter 12 Jesus is in Bethany having dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Mary has just anointed Jesus with very expensive perfume (to the dismay of some of the disciples, especially Judas) and Jesus makes a statement about this being an anointing for his burial.
This is the story from John 12:9-19 (NIV).
I'm not too much into politics, but I do know that when a new political leader comes into prominence, people put their hope in them. People look for change. They hope for better times. Right now in the US, Obama might be this kind of figure for some. He's showing some potential.
(9) Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there (in Bethany) and they came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. (10) So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, (11) for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (12) The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. (13) So they took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the King of Israel!
(14) And Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, (15) "Do not be
afraid, O Daughter of Zion, see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt." (16) At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him. (17) Now the crowd that was with him had continued to spread the word that he had called Lazarus from the tomb, raising him from the dead. (18) Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. (19) So the Pharisees said to one another, See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him.
He's getting some people excited. They're saying, "Maybe this is the President we've been waiting for." People are cheering. People are hoping.
When Jesus strolled into Jerusalem a week before the Feast of Passover, the people were excited. They were cheering for Jesus. They were proclaiming him as King. They were crying out, Hosanna, which is a Hebrew word simply meaning, "Save us!" They were saying to each other, "This is the one we've been waiting for." "Maybe he's the one who will save us from all our problems."
And these people had problems -- their biggest problem was the Romans. These people desperately wanted freedom, political freedom, freedom from the oppression of the Roman government. They wanted a king who had power, the kind of power that could overthrow the Romans. And Jesus had power, incredible power, power to raise the dead. And these people thought, "This is it! He's the one! This is the man that God has sent to conquer Rome. This is the man who's going to set us free."
So the crowd is cheering for Jesus, but the question is, do they understand him? They're proclaiming Him as king, but do they understand what kind of king He really is? Crowds of people cheering, but where were they all a few days later when Jesus hung on the cross, dying? They weren't cheering anymore. A Crucified King didn't fit their expectations, their hopes. Jesus was not the political Messiah that many in Jerusalem were hoping for. He wasn't there to rally the troops and conquer Rome, he came to Jerusalem to die and in dying to conquer sin. Jesus was a king, but it seems that these people had a wrong idea about what kind of king He was.
This was a problem that Jesus encountered a lot during his ministry. That's why so often He was reluctant to be called the Messiah, and he often warned His disciples not to tell people. WHY? Because people didn't understand Him or the true nature of His mission.
In John 6 we have an example of this. This is right after Jesus has fed the 5000, it says in v.14, "After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, 'Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.'"
The people start to get excited about Jesus, but for the wrong reasons, they have wrong motives.
Then in v.15, it says, "Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again into the hills by himself."
Jesus was not the kind of king that the people were hoping for. He knew it. The people didn't.
Later in John chapter 18, when Jesus is talking with Pilate, Jesus admits to him that he is a king, but he's very clear about the fact that ... "[His] kingdom is not of this world" (v.36). It's a different kind of kingdom.
This is why the donkey is important in this Palm Sunday story. That donkey helps explain in some ways what kind of king Jesus really is. The donkey is linked to a prophecy from a passage in Zechariah that talks about a king who comes to Jerusalem in gentleness and humility and who comes to bring peace not war. This is a different kind of king, a humble and gentle king,
a servant king.
The full passage in question reads like this,
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, yourJesus' mission was to proclaim peace to the nations. But these people during Jesus' time are enamoured by his power. They're impressed with his miracles. So they're cheering for him, but they don't seem to understand his mission as a Servant King.
king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a
donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from
Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He
will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and
from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zechariah 9:9-10).
What about us? Are we cheering for Jesus? We spend a lot of time in our churches singing his praises, but do we understand him? We have proclaimed him as our King, our Lord, our Saviour,
but do we understand what that means? Do we understand the path that he had to take to secure our salvation?
We're not unlike the people of Jesus' time. In some ways, we also want a king, a king who will give us what we want, when we want it. Sometimes we think of God like that. It's easy to cheer for God when everyone else around us is cheering. We tell him how awesome he is. We sing songs about how great he is. But often times, what we're really interested in is what he can do for us. Sometimes we're just as earthly-minded and self-centered as those people in Jerusalem.
Their praise of Jesus didn't match their understanding of who Jesus was, and it didn't seem to match their commitment to follow Jesus. They hoped he would bring them a better life, but he ended up dying.
What about us? Does our praise of Jesus match our understanding of who he is? Does it match our commitment to follow Him? I hope it does. I hope that our praise comes from our hearts.
We see Palm Sunday from the other side of the Cross. We know that Jesus is worthy of our praise, that He is King of kings and Lord of lords. We know that when we cry out, "Hosanna! Save us!", that that's exactly what Jesus accomplished at the Cross. We know that his mission was to set us free from sin.
Palm Sunday is a celebration for us, and it should be. But we need to understand what we're celebrating. For Jesus, in some ways, Palm Sunday was a glimpse into the future, when he would rule and reign as King of kings. But Jesus understood his mission. He knew that the path to victory and triumph would be a path of self-denial and suffering and death. Jesus came to Jerusalem to die. His triumph only came as a result of his death on the cross. Palm Sunday is a day to celebrate the obedience of Christ.
Paul writes in Philippians chapter 2, that, "Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross." Then it says in vs.9-11 of chapter 2:
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that isAs we draw near the end of the Season of Lent I hope it has been a valuable time of self-examination and self-denial, and that you are more ready to celebrate the victory that Jesus won at the Cross, more ready to bow before our Humble Servant King, Jesus Christ.
above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and
on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is
Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
We noted earlier that before this passage about the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is talking about his death and his anointing for burial. As well, right after the passage, still in John 12, Jesus is again talking about his death, but not only about his death but about ours as well. He says in v.24 of ch.12,
"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, itJesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to lay his life down for us. He also invites us to lay our lives down for him. Palm Sunday is a day to not only praise Jesus with our lips, but a day to surrender to Him our very lives.
remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who
loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will
keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my
servant also will be."