Sometimes the big crowd is all excited about Jesus, but for the wrong reasons. We aren’t aware of, or we don’t accept Jesus’ real agenda.
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Download Palm Sunday 2012
Palm Sunday, 2012 (Luke 19:28-44)
Most of us are familiar with the story of Palm Sunday: Jesus sends his disciples to get a mysteriously available young donkey. He gets on the donkey and rides to Jerusalem. As he does so, people start throwing down cloaks and branches to create a kind of “red carpet” as he goes along, and they all start cheering and praising him.
But have you ever wondered, why? What was the point of it all? Why is this story preserved for us in the Bible? First of all, we haven’t named it well. It isn’t “palm” Sunday at all – palm trees don’t even grow near Jerusalem, so the branches they cut were from other kinds of plants. But most importantly – why did Jesus do it? What was it all about?
One startling thought was that maybe Jesus wanted to ride the donkey because he was tired. Jesus and the disciples walked everywhere they went (except when they were in Galilee, where they occasionally rode in boats). Maybe he wanted to sit down and experience the entry into Jerusalem without thinking how much his feet hurt. This isn’t as flippant as it sounds. Jesus was God in human flesh, true. But he did have a human body too – just like yours and mine until his resurrection. Sometimes we forget that, but I guarantee you, he didn’t.
I think it goes beyond that, however. Jesus must have been familiar with the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which says:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I don’t know if he was going out of his way to fulfill this prophecy or not. He certainly had no control over whether the crowd shouted, or what they said. But in any case, this procession into Jerusalem fulfilled a prediction about the messiah.
The symbolism of the donkey is somewhat important too. In that culture, when a leader entered a city as a conqueror or military hero, he rode a horse or in a chariot. When a leader came on a donkey it was an indication of peace and mercy for the people. Riding a donkey conveyed a promise of graciousness and mercy from a ruler. It was not a challenge or a military assertion.
So, he was tired. He was fulfilling prophecy. He was also conveying his intention to offer people grace and mercy. But I think there is also one more thing going on here. If you are familiar with other parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you may remember that often times, when Jesus did miracles, he told people to keep it quiet (for example, the leper in Mark 1:44). He was reluctant to turn water into wine (John 3). When Peter said that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God, Jesus told them all not to tell anyone else (Matt 16:20). When he fed the 5,000, the people wanted to make him king, but he slipped away. He always seems so modest and humble, like he wants to keep his power and his identity a secret. But now suddenly, he is perfectly willing to be the cause of a big uproar at the beginning of the most crowed week of the year in Jerusalem, the capital of the region. It seems almost out of character. He spends three years, mostly away from Jerusalem, almost like he is hiding, and now in one day he blows his cover.
I believe Jesus allowed the crowd to go wild, in order to create the pressure on the Jewish leaders that would ultimately lead to his crucifixion. What I mean is this: Before, the time was not right. He was still training his disciples, and it wasn’t yet time for him to die. But now, this week, this “palm” Sunday, he is coming to Jerusalem in order to die. In fact, his mission on earth would fail if he does not die. So he allows the Jewish and Roman leaders to be confronted with who he really is – knowing full well that they will do what they can to eliminate him as a threat to their power. In other words, by riding in a royal procession, surrounded by a cheering crowd, he is deliberately provoking the leadership of Jerusalem into having him executed.
Luke gives us a few verses that shed a little bit of light on Jesus’ attitude toward this triumphant procession.
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:39-44)
I think we can learn two things about Jesus’ attitude from this. First, he fully accepts that it is good and right for the people to praise him the way they were doing. You see if Jesus really was God (as Christians believe he was and is) then it was not wrong or blasphemous for people to praise him and worship him. He didn’t stop them. He never stopped anyone from worshiping him before either, but on previous occasions he tried to keep his identity quiet. So at this time, he feels that the cheering crowd is entirely appropriate. In fact, he implies that as Lord of creation, even the rocks owe him their worship.
Second, even while the crowd is doing the right thing (praising Jesus), Jesus can see that they are doing it for the wrong reasons. What he says indicates that they do not understand what is going on, or what he is all about. He says Jerusalem will be destroyed “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” So even though they are praising him and that is good and proper, they do not understand his mission, or why he is there, or what it means. And they don’t accept it.
So at the one level, his triumphant entry is good and right – he is the messiah, after all, God in human flesh – and he deserves the adulation of the crowd. But at another level, the cheering crowd really doesn’t connect with why Jesus is there. They don’t accept that he has come to defeat sin and the devil – they are more concerned about food in their bellies and freedom from Rome. They want victory and excitement, but they know nothing about the coming crucifixion, and would be repulsed by it if they had known it. They certainly didn’t hang around the cross when Friday came.
What does all this mean for us, two-thousand years later? Well, maybe we just need to be reminded that Jesus experienced the same things we experience as human beings. It might be a comfort to know that he got tired and had sore feet sometimes. Or perhaps you needed to hear how Jesus fulfilled a four-hundred year old prophecy when he rode down the path on that donkey with people shouting and singing all around him.
For me, one of the big applications is how the crowd was doing the right thing, praising God for Jesus, and yet they totally missed the priorities and goals that Jesus had. By coming on a donkey, he was implying that he came in peace – but they ignored that, and still wanted him to militarily overthrow the Romans. Even more telling, they were caught up in excitement and busyness and noise, and because of that, they missed out on how God was really working. The whole, time, what Jesus was really doing was coming to die. They missed that in all the activity.
I think we can miss the point of Jesus sometimes also. Jesus does want to fulfill us, because he made us to be vessels of his grace and glory, and when are fulfilled in him, it brings glory to him. And maybe we get excited and praise God for the things he can do for us, to make our lives more comfortable right now. But he also wants to crucify our flesh. We often forget that. The real reason to praise God is because he has delivered us from ourselves, from sin, our fallen flesh and the devil. And sometimes, he is riding in to town so that the parts of us that are still in rebellion to God can be crucified. Let’s not miss that point, like most of the crowd did that day. We need to be in tune with His mission, not our own goals or comforts.
There’s another temptation for churches and Christians in America today. If we can create lots of busyness and excitement and action, it appears that we are really participating in the kingdom of God. But I think when we gravitate to action and excitement, for the sake of those things in themselves, we often miss out on what God is really doing. I think sometimes he works more through the quiet, unrecognized ways than through the really splashy programs. He’s often at work when a few friends get together for breakfast or coffee to pray and read the Bible. He’s at work when we talk to our kids, and the friends of our kids, about Jesus. He’s at work when take time to make a phone call and see how we can encourage someone else in faith, or when we spend a minute or two praying for someone else. He works in our small groups.
So, it’s good and right to praise Jesus. It’s even better to praise him for the right reasons, and accept that his mission is far greater than our temporary comfort on earth. I’m not saying he won’t do anything for you in the here and now. But when Good Friday and the cross came, this crowd didn’t understand, and for the most part, gave up their hope in Jesus. But for Jesus, the cross was the whole point of the thing in the first place. So let’s remember that, and praise God while accepting His mission in our life is to crucify our flesh, use us to glorify Himself and bring us to eternal, joyful life in the coming new creation.