March 29, 2015 - Palm Sunday
He waved as he slid
by. One of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire books starts with the story of how a
grandfather finds himself being dragged along behind a 1968 Oldsmobile
Toronado. He was up on a roof clearing a chimney and had tied himself off with
a safety rope draped over the peak. The other end of the rope was attached to
the Oldsmobile. But his grandson’s girlfriend didn’t know that. She came out
and got in the car and drove off to the convenience store in town.
She didn’t even
realize grandpa had been pulled up over the top of the roof, down the other
side, dropped briefly into a snow bank, and was skidding along the icy, snowy
road a hundred feet behind the car. Several passing drivers called 911 and a
sheriff’s deputy finally pulled her over. Johnson writes that if she hadn’t
been stopped, “the seventy-two-year-old man would have made the most impromptu
arrival into the town of Durant, Wyoming, in its history.”
We could say that
Jesus made one of the more impromptu entries into the city of Jerusalem in its
history. You and I tend to see this event through centuries of Christian
experience and worship that has made Palm Sunday into a rather grand and
glorious parade. We’ve brought together elements from all the other Gospels,
the palms which are only mentioned in John, the two donkeys described in
Matthew, and the multitude of disciples, complaining Pharisees and
celebration of Jesus as king which Luke tells us about. But none of those
features appear in Mark’s account that we are reading today. Mark wants us to
see this event differently. It’s not triumphant. It’s low-key. It’s
Harry helped me put
this together when I complained to him about our palms this year. Two weeks ago
I discovered that the outfit from whom we’ve bought palms for the last twenty
years is no longer selling them. So off I went to a florist to order some for
which we paid more and got less of a type we’ve never used before. I was
griping about this to Harry, worrying about handing out some scraggly, ugly
palm leaves, when he said, “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? They didn’t
grow or order perfect, beautiful palm branches for Jesus. They just used
whatever they found.” Exactly. That first Palm Sunday was a whole lot less
impressive than we typically imagine it.
To start with there’s
the donkey. Mark doesn’t even say it’s a donkey, just a colt, and an unbroken,
unridden one at that. But Mark pays a lot of attention to the critter. Count it
up. Mark takes 6 out of 11 verses about Palm Sunday to tell us how Jesus sent
two disciples to find this animal, borrow it from its owner, and bring it back
for Jesus to ride. This Gospel wants us to get the impression of Jesus bumping
along on an unruly ride, the beast so young and small that His feet were
probably dragging on the ground.
It’s a borrowed ride.
See how Jesus in verse 3 tells the disciples to explain to the owner that they
will send the donkey right back when He’s done. The disciples didn’t have any
animal of their own. They didn’t have enough luggage to need a beast of burden
to haul it around with them on their travels. So when Jesus wanted a lift into Jerusalem, He had to borrow whatever was available.
Matthew and John
explain the donkey for us. They quote our Old Testament lesson this morning,
Zechariah 9:9 speaking to Jerusalem, which says, “Lo, your king comes to you,
humble and riding on a donkey…” With that connection we can see that Jesus was
arriving in God’s city as the Messiah, the king. But Mark doesn’t explain it.
He wants us to feel as confused as the disciples and the other people there
along the road to Jerusalem that day. What’s He doing this for? Why is Jesus
riding into the city instead of walking in like all the other pilgrims coming for
Within Mark’s limited
perspective all we can see is Jesus arriving unimpressively, and in peace. Ancient
kings rode horses to war, so anyone riding into the city on a horse was a
conqueror or the agent of a conqueror,. Pilate probably arrived in his horse-drawn
Roman chariot. Alexander the Great likely rode into Jerusalem in 329 B.C.
astride his famous white horse Bucephalus. But those rulers who came in peace
in times of peace rode a beast of burden, a donkey.
Jesus didn’t come in
noisy, impressive triumph. He came quietly and humbly to bring peace to a city
which badly needed it, a city which still badly needs peace today, as we prayed
this morning. And He wasn’t going to bring that peace by invading with force.
He brought peace bouncing along on the back of a little donkey.
A church father named
Ephrem talked about Jesus’ willingness to associate with the lowest and
humblest people on earth, even with the lowest and humblest animals, the
animals that carried loads. He said, “He began with a manger [where a donkey
might eat] and finished with a donkey, in Bethlehem with a manger, in Jerusalem with a donkey.”
Mark spends 6 verses
to make sure we’ve got the picture of Jesus on that young donkey firmly in our
minds. He makes it clear all along that Jesus directed His disciples to the
donkey. Verses 2 and 3 are Jesus’ orders on how to find it. Verse 6 tells us
that they said just what Jesus told them to say. Jesus wanted to ride a
donkey. He wanted to look unimpressive and humble. Verse 7 shows us Jesus
deliberately sitting down on the beast He requested.
Verse 8 might give you
the impression there actually was somewhat of a show then, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. People laid down their coats and spread branches along His path down into the Kidron Valley and up into the city. It feels a little like rolling out the red carpet as we
do for visiting dignitaries or for film stars walking into the Oscars, with
everyone crowding around to get a look at the famous person now arriving.
The fact is that what
they did for Jesus was the same as what was done for any group of pilgrims
showing up in Jerusalem for Passover. Everybody got welcomed that way, with
branches on the ground and as verses 9 and 10 say, with shouts of “Hosanna!”
We’ve got the notion that “hosanna” was some sort of praise for Jesus, like
that the other Bible word we’re not saying again until Easter, the one that
also starts with an “H” in Hebrew. But “hosanna” was not a shout of praise, it
was a cry for help.
Look again in your
bulletin at our psalm for today, 118 verse 25. Those festival greeters were
shouting bits of that psalm verse. Read on down and see how verses 26 and 27
fit the whole picture of pilgrims arriving at the altar in the temple in
Jerusalem with branches being waved and spread before them. They said these
words for anyone coming up the road to celebrate Passover. It wasn’t some
special shout of praise for Jesus.
Now look at how
“hosanna” is translated in Psalm 118:25. It literally meant “Save us, we pray!”
But folks in Jesus’ time had forgotten the literal meaning. People’s everyday
language was Aramaic. Some Hebrew words were more about the feeling they
expressed than about what they actually meant. Like people saying “Gesundheit!”
when you sneeze or “Voila!” when they show you something, that Jerusalem
welcome committee had little idea what “hosanna” meant in its original
language. It just made them feel good to say it.
But Jesus just
accepted all that. Jesus wasn’t trying to make a statement that would impress
everyone at that moment. He simply arranged things so His disciples and you and
I could see the significance later, could remember what had happened in the
light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s what Matthew, Luke and John are
doing when they tell us about Palm Sunday, explaining the reference to Zechariah 9, having the crowds actually call Jesus king, having the Pharisees worry that
Jesus was attracting too big a following. But Mark wants us to know just how
ordinary and unimpressive and pretty much like everyone else, except for the
donkey, Jesus came into Jerusalem that day.
Even if that group of
well-wishers along the road had totally and completely understood and acknowledged
Jesus as Messiah and king when He came to Jerusalem, it still wasn’t that
impressive… for Him. Augustine says that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was “a
condescension, not an advancement for the one who is the Son of God, equal to
the Father, the Word through whom all things were made, to become the king of Israel. It is an indication of pity, not an increase of power.”
Do you get it? Jesus
was God, the king of the universe who with the Father and the Spirit created
everything and ruled over it from eternity. So an announcement that He has
arrived as king over a tiny country in the backwater fringes of the great Roman empire doesn’t really amount to much from His own perspective.
It’s like making a big
deal out of the fact that Bill Gates has bought and is now CEO of some tiny
startup tech company or celebrating the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is the star
of a little film being shot by college students. It might mean a lot to that
company or those students that these famous people would pay attention to them,
but in the lives of Gates or Lawrence this is no great honor or advancement.
It’s only by pity,
through compassion and concern for His people in Israel and ultimately for us,
that Jesus came to Jerusalem and let Himself be celebrated as king in this
unimpressive, almost unnoticed way.
Jesus didn’t come to Jerusalem to ascend the throne and become the king. He came to Jerusalem to ascend a cross
and become the Savior. He came as an answer to that shout which the shouters
didn’t even understand when they cried “Hosanna!” He came to save them, to save
us. So even though He was truly and rightly and completely their king, no one
knew it or really understood it. He had come to die.
In case you are still
worrying about Grandpa in the Longmire story, he made it through his wild ride
pretty much O.K., just a dislocated shoulder. But he died later in the book as
a murder victim. And that’s pretty much how it went for Jesus. He arrived in Jerusalem unimpressively but just fine, only to die later as the murder victim of the
whole human race, nailed to the Cross by the very people He came to save.
So the first thing to
take away from Palm Sunday is the deep, deep compassion and love of Jesus. He
put up with, even partially arranged, that whole silly, unimpressive Palm
Sunday show for our sake. Jesus humbled Himself to a donkey ride that hardly
anyone noticed or cared about for us, for you and me. That’s a love and care we
can trust. That’s a Savior who truly wants to save. I hope you will believe and
trust Him to save you.
Then the next lesson
from Mark’s telling of Palm Sunday is Jesus’ example. We’ve been talking all
Lent about how to follow Jesus, even to the Cross. How do we pick up our own
crosses and get behind this Man who doesn’t care about making an impression,
who isn’t too concerned about getting acknowledged or praised?
The only way I can see
to follow a Savior like Jesus is to work at being unimpressive, at not drawing
too much attention to ourselves, at letting go of all our ambitions and desires
for making a big entry into this world.
It’s a lesson even for
pastors. I remember a person who attended Valley Covenant over 20 years ago. He
was a minister in another denomination who came to our church with his family
for awhile before heading off to be a pastor. He told several of us how he had
his career path all planned. He would pastor a church of a couple hundred for a
few years. Then he would be “promoted” by a call to a larger congregation of
several hundred, and finally end up as a denominational leader of some sort.
ambitions got off to a good start, but derailed a bit when he ended up
divorced. But the troubling thing for me was that I could see myself a little
in him. I’d never say what he said out loud, but I had my own fantasies of
pastoring big churches and writing best-selling books. Now I see very clearly
that that’s not how Jesus did it and not how I should do it either. Jesus’ way
to ministry is unimpressive.
Jesus did make some
slightly more impressive statements there in Jerusalem that week before His
crucifixion. As Mark shows us, He went and cleansed the temple the next day, on
Monday. He got in arguments with the leaders and authorities. He finally
attracted quite a bit of notice, a lot of it unfriendly. But look at what He
did late in the afternoon on Palm Sunday in verse 11.
The disciples and Jesus
did not have accommodations in Jerusalem during Passover. They were too poor
for that. They were staying with friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany about two miles outside the city. So He couldn’t stay late, probably not after
dark there in the city. So verse 11 says that Jesus simply, “went into the
temple… and looked around at everything.”
I’m going to suggest
that’s the Palm Sunday task for you and me, to take a good look around at the
“temple” of our lives where God wants to be worshipped. Jesus saw the money
changers and animal sellers who needed to be chased out of the Lord’s house of
prayer. You and I may need to whip some distractions out of our own hearts so
that we can pray better.
But you can also take
a look at all the ways you try to make an impression on others, all the ways
you seek attention and praise and reward for what you do. Then look for the
Jesus road to Jerusalem, the unimpressive entry into the kingdom of God. Do something for the Lord or for others that no one will ever notice. Give up some reward
or honor or even a word of thanks in such a way that nobody knows you gave it
Many of you have
already traveled the unimpressive road. You know it well. You do little acts of
service here at church behind the scenes, not asking for attention. You give
faithfully and regularly of your finances with some extra when it’s really
needed, never expecting to be noticed for it. You help each other quietly, even
anonymously, letting Jesus take the credit. You’ve got it. That’s the way to Jerusalem, the road to the city of God. It’s the unimpressive, humble path which follows
Jesus. Just keep going.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj