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Palm Sunday, 2023. Matthew 21:1-11
This week we celebrate Palm Sunday. In many churches, Palm Sunday is celebrated with waving palm branches, songs of joy and praise and a big celebration. I’ve been in churches where someone actually rides a donkey down the aisle; I’ve seen camels in church (excerpt from building committee minutes “…discussed how to remove camel dung from carpeting in narthex…”) and just big Palm Sunday productions in general. I think Palm Sunday appeals especially to American Christians. It’s loud. It’s super-sized. It’s positive and fun. It’s a big ol’ church party.
Picture it. A swarming, wiggling mass of humanity has gathered near Jerusalem, to celebrate the Passover in the Holy City. The crowd struggles to squirm through the ancient gates. This is Christmas, only better, because it’s a week long. Some of the out-of-towners are telling stories about a man they’ve seen out in the countryside, near their homes. They tell that this man, named Jesus, borrowed a little boy’s lunch and fed 5,000 people with it. Some of the people in the crowd had personal contact with this Jesus character, and were healed of various diseases and ailments. One man in the crowd claims he was leper until Jesus healed him – some of the people move uneasily away from that one.
Now some of these country folk meet up with people who live nearby, in the town called Bethany. They recount how one of their own hometown boys, a guy named Lazarus, recently died of an illness. They buried him, naturally, and four days later, along comes Jesus, and raises Lazarus from the dead.
Soon a good portion of that boisterous, loud, pushy crowd is shouting back and forth snippets of gossip about Jesus. And then suddenly, from the middle of the crowd, the yelling rises above the usual raucous level. People ask their neighbors what’s going on. Soon the word comes back.
“That Jesus guy is here. He’s riding a donkey over there. Look at him!”
“He’s got a kingly bearing.”
“Who but God’s chosen messiah could do the things he’s done?”
“Praise God! The messiah is here! Alleluia!”
The shouting catches on. The crowd sees a few Roman soldiers nearby and yells even louder, in defiance of their oppressors. Soon the whole crowd is cheering in one sustained unquenchable voice. The excitement grows. What a King Jesus will be! He’ll end hunger and poverty – after all he fed the 5,000. He’ll end sickness and disease – he’s done it before! And when we fight the Roman oppressors and kick them out – well if any of us get killed by the soldiers, Jesus will just bring us back to life and we’ll go on. With him as our King, we’ll be unstoppable! And so the crowd cheers. They cheer because it seems like God is about do something for his people Israel, once more. They cheer because they want their lives to be better, and for the moment, it seems like it is about to become so. They cheer because their neighbors are cheering. They cheer because they are stuck in this big hot crowd, and it relieves the boredom. They cheer because it gives vent to inarticulate passions that gnaw unfulfilled inside them. They cheer because they hate the Romans.
But in all that great thronging mass there is one man who is not cheering. He doesn’t rejoice with the crowd. The excitement and noise utterly fail to touch him. Their desire to overthrow the Romans doesn’t even begin to move him. The man who seems so different from the rest of the crowd, so disconnected from their excitement is right there in the middle of it all, even so.
He is the man on the donkey. Jesus.
Because he is a man of infinite compassion, Jesus, when he saw people who were hungry, fed them. Because he cares more deeply than other being that exists, Jesus healed sick people when he was near them. Because of his great friendship with Mary and Martha, Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead.
But he didn’t come into the world mainly to heal people and feed them. He didn’t come to raise people from the dead and place them back into this mortal life of pain, sin and suffering – a two-edged resurrection if ever there was such a thing. And so, in the middle of that rollicking crowd, he’s the only one who truly understands that he is entering Jerusalem not as a King, but as a sacrifice. He came for something better than temporary healing, more satisfying than temporary food and more eternal than temporary resurrection. He came to give these people life that was far greater, deeper and permanent – life far more wonderful than what they are cheering about.
Lloyd Douglas, in his excellent novel, The Robe describes how a fictional Corinthian slave named Demetrius made eye contact with Jesus on “palm Sunday.”
The eyes calmly appraised Demetrius. They neither widened nor smiled, but in some indefinable manner, they held Demetrius in a grip so firm it was almost a physical compulsion. The message they communicated was something other than sympathy, something more vital than friendly concern, a sort of stabilizing power that swept away all such negations as slavery, poverty, or any other afflicting circumstance. Demetrius was suffused with the glow of this curious kinship. Blind with sudden tears, he elbowed through the throng and reached the roadside. The uncouth Athenian, bursting with curiosity, inopportunely accosted him.
“See him – close up?” He asked.
Demetrius nodded; and turning away, began to retrace his steps toward his abandoned duty.
“Crazy?” persisted the Athenian, trudging alongside.
“No,” muttered Demetrius soberly — “not a king.”
“What is he then?” demanded the Athenian, piqued by the Corinthian’s aloofness.
“I don’t know,” mumbled Demetrius in a puzzled voice, “ but – he is something more important than a king.”The Robe, Lloyd Douglas
I think that often, I am like that Palm Sunday crowd. I cheer for Jesus because of what I think he will do for me – provide for me financially, or heal me, or get me out of the mess I’m in, or squash the people I don’t like. I am often interested in Jesus because he can make my life more comfortable right now. But Jesus — on that first Palm Sunday, and today as well – is interested far more real, eternal, life for me. That life starts right now – not when I die. But that doesn’t mean I automatically get to be more comfortable here. It’s sort of like asking him to get you an air mattress for the tent you live in next to the city dump, when all the while, he’s building you a 3 million dollar house in the countryside. The difficult part is, you have to give up the dump before you can move the country, before you can even see what the country is like. And you might have to go without the air-mattress so you can learn to want a feather-bed.
Jesus knew that to get that life for the crowd, he had to die. They thought he was coming as a king. He knew that he was coming to die a gruesome, ignoble, humiliating death. That Sunday was the same day that most people drove the lambs into Jerusalem – the Passover lambs that would be killed to remember God’s deliverance of his people. Jesus came into town like them – not gentle and fearful like a lamb – but like a Passover lamb in just this one respect – he was a sacrifice that would save all people from death and deliver us from our slavery to sin and grant us a new life.
There is indeed a lot to cheer about here – but it is not the stuff we most often dwell upon, or think about yelling for. As we celebrate Jesus today, let’s celebrate not so much the earthly, temporary things he could get us, but rather the eternal, unbreakable life, and forgiveness that he won for us, riding a little donkey toward his own painful death.