Palm Sunday Parade
I had the privilege of teaching in the BYKOTA adult fellowship on Sunday. Here is a brief synopsis of what I shared about the Triumphal Entry of Christ:
I love a parade. The Rose Parade is spectacular and so is the Main Street Electrical parade. Parades are always fun events. Even though they are different each year, they are nothing more than an entertaining event, with people who make it happen, people who watch it happen and those who clean it up. After it is all over, we just “repeat” it the following year, but it doesn’t change us. Sometimes we let other celebrations and traditions become events as well. Even coming to church can be that way. We come and study, worship and fellowship, then we pack it all up and do it all again the next week.
Jesus, however, decides to use the event of passover as a catalyst, a stimulus that increases the rate of reaction that actually changes the landscape of the future! Catalysts are the unsung heroes of the chemical reactions that make human society tick. A catalyst is some material that speeds up chemical reactions. And Jesus starts a revolution! This concept might raise some questions for you, such as: revolution? Really?! What exactly are we revolting against? What’s the plan? What does God expect?
This catalytic parade, recorded in all 4 gospels, is shaped by the idea that Jesus launched a revolution and expects us to join in – that is, that God left heaven to do something and we have been recruited to play a part. It is not an event that we are to remember once a year. It is meant to spur us on as a catalyst! We are given assignment to focus while keeping the fact that God wins in the end always before us. There are a variety of ways to talk about this assignment. For the most part, all of them are too small. From time to time I’ll hear people say something like, “God wants us to be nice to others. God doesn’t want us to tell lies.” OK, right. “God doesn’t want us to swear.” OK. Ditto. Check. But that is hardly the point! Those are just minor “rules of the road.” They do not represent the big plan. Companies often have HR manuals that explain policies, but the policies are not the goal, the mission. It’s far bigger than anyone being nice. There are a variety of ways to describe what Jesus left Heaven to do: He came to reveal the Father; He came to teach; He came to be an example; He came to fulfill the Law; He came to die in our place. But the headline used in the Bible – the umbrella statement all of these fall under – is to bring “the Kingdom of God.”
It started when he calls the first followers and then sent out disciples to announce the kingdom: that a new way of living – based on love and grace – was here; that a new King was taking over – with values that were upside down, where the great served and the goal is to be last not first. There is a proclamation piece that pivots around Jesus and who He is and what He does and what He wants; additionally there is a practical piece to care for the real, practical, physical needs of those who are hurting. So the assignment has 2 parts – the great commandment and the great commission. A plane needs two wings to fly. We do not get to edit the assignment. It’s both / and. It’s communicating and caring. It’s Proclaiming the Good News AND Engaging in Good Works.
Jesus has just told the Parable of the Talents among other last teachings where He had challenged people to take some risks. To use their gifts. After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem, where the Passover will take place. This is the celebration of the Jews’ being freed by God from Egypt through a series of plagues. And Jesus is timing his arrival to perfectly line up with the arrival of the Passover lamb – which by this point is all pretty scripted. After 1,000 years they have protocol – you bring the lamb into the city six days before you slaughter it. You kill it at 3PM on the day before the Passover. Jesus enters Jerusalem six days before he will be killed at 3 PM because he is the perfect, innocent, male lamb sent by God to sacrifice his life for their freedom. And like the instructions on how the lamb is to be killed, none of Jesus’ bones will be broken. This claim might be lost on you initially, but it wasn’t really lost on them. In a variety of ways all kinds of events – Abraham tying up Isaac, the sacrificial system, the Temple itself – has all been pointing to this. Jesus is arriving now as the lamb.
As he approached Bethpage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” A. This fulfills a prophecy made in Zechariah 9:9, which reads: 1. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
- Jesus makes a grand entrance. He didn’t have to. This was not the 21st century with 24 hour news channels. Jesus did not have a Facebook page with lots of pictures of he and the disciples hanging out. He paraded into Jerusalem during the Passover. He made a bold entry – which he didn’t need to do! Very few people knew what Jesus looked like. The Romans do not know what he looks like. He could have slipped into town quietly. But he doesn’t. He rides in on a donkey – which sounds humble, but was actually a bold claim to be the king. Solomon had ridden in on a donkey. This is now a reversal of all the Lord had done to this point. Up until now He kept his identity as Messiah veiled.
- When a demon proclaimed him to be son of God he told it to be quiet
- When He healed people he told them not to tell anyone
- Jairus’ daughter – no one should know about this
- Even disciples were told not to tell. Only exception is the Samaritan woman at the Well.
But now Jesus stages a public declaration of Himself as Messiah. They brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. Jesus is getting the red carpet treatment. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is a quote from Psalm 118, which is what the Jews expected to say when their Messiah showed up. It is the last of the Hallel psalms of ascent! It shows they know what is going on. “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Shalom is the term here: God’s peace. (Not just an absence of war but a well-being with God and others.) By the way, this is what the angels were singing back in Luke 2 when Jesus was born.
Passover, the big national holiday and patriotic party where everyone flooded back into Jerusalem to celebrate and remember that God chose them (the Jews) as his people and that against crushing odds he had lifted them out of slavery and made them a great nation. Finally, the Palm branches that were being waved were – in essence – the Jewish flag. Rev. 7:9-10 is the only other time Palm branches are mentioned in the NT – the ultimate triumph of the Lamb
So this was basically their independence day. Two hundred years before JC the Syrians were driven out of Israel and Judas and Simon Maccabaeus’ victory was celebrated with music and the waving of palm branches. The branches were part of the rededication of the Temple. They shouted hosanna (Save NOW) which was part of Ps 118:25-26. This shows that they understood and referenced the Messiah as King! Those who watch that day will make a choice. They will either serve the god of this world, might and power; or they will choose to serve the king of a very different kind of kingdom, the kingdom of God.
So, Jesus has another problem. Of course, his followers and others who get caught up in his entry into Jerusalem think they are choosing to follow Jesus. But by the end of the week, Jesus will have disappointed the crowd at a rate faster than they can stand. They will turn on him. Even those closest to Jesus, the 12 disciples, will either betray him outright, or abandon him in confusion and fear. John 12: 16 says that even the disciples didn’t “get it” until Jesus explained it to them after the resurrection. It is interesting to note that the crowd on that Sunday, proclaimed, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” In other words, they were placing their faith in Jesus that he would restore the glory of the nation to its splendor when David and his son, Solomon, ruled a united kingdom. But by the end of the week they were shouting “Crucify”. A take away here is to make sure we are following Jesus because of who He is and not what he might do for you. Heb. 11:29 ff talks about this so that our faith is not shaken or destroyed when when you contract an illness or suffer loss or your children don’t follow the Lord or your marriage falls apart.
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” They understand what the crowd is implying, thinking everything is getting out of control, and that Jesus is committing a form of blasphemy. He is accepting worship. “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” In other words: He is not hiding who He is; and even the rocks can figure this out by now. This pushes (as a catalyst) the religious leaders to change their plan to wait to kill him after the feast. They were waiting for the Messiah to come as a political savior and Jesus was not who they expected; they were waiting to be ruled by a man like David, a man so committed to God that the Old Testament prophets had proclaimed that the coming Messiah would sit on the throne of his father, David. The Messiah would bring back the glory of Israel, would rid the nation of oppressors, would rule benevolently, and would be kind to the common people.
Jesus had challenged the rulers of Judea already. Not the Roman rulers, but the local rulers. He had said to them that the Temple was not the only way to find God’s forgiveness; and further, that the Temple would be destroyed, with not one stone left on another. Of course, those who made their living from the Temple like the scribes; the chief priest and his priests; the ruling council of the Sanhedrin; and, the religious parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, would all lose their power and prestige if there was no Temple. Or, even if the Temple was no longer the only place where one could be forgiven by God. So, when Jesus miraculously saves the lame man by first saying, “Your sins are forgiven” and then healing him, he challenged the authority of the Temple system. And when Jesus drove the money-changers from the Temple, proclaiming that the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but that the religious leaders had made it a den of thieves, Jesus exposed the corruption of the Temple tax, the scandalous monetary exchange rate, and the dishonesty of those who sold animals for sacrifice. Jesus had disappointed and alienated powerful people. He did so because the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priest, the scribes, most of the Levitical priests, and others who ruled on Rome’s behalf, were part of the same system of oppression and domination that Pilate was part of.
The Romans are looking for him. Everyone is. The city is on high alert for the holidays – the Passover is their independence day. Except they are not independent anymore. God delivered them from the Egyptians but now they are subject to the Romans and they are waiting for someone to lead the revolt. The word around town was that Jesus was the guy. He was the one who could pull it off. And he was coming to Jerusalem. Everyone is waiting for his arrival. But in a move that sets Pilate and the Romans on edge, He engineers his own parade. And he accepts the adoration of the people. He gets the red carpet treatment. He allows them to call him King. And they are waving Palm Branches – their flag of independence. This is everything Rome fears. It looks like he will give orders to pick up weapons and fight. Except once he gets into the city he pivots and goes after the Jewish leaders. The Romans allowed this strange little celebration of Passover but they were always scared that this annual party would get out of hand. There was a bit of irony in having a celebration about gaining your freedom from foreign overlords while being subject to foreign overlords. They are especially fearful this year because of the popularity of Jesus. Jerusalem is a powder keg and Jesus could be the match that sets it off – which is why Pilate, the Roman authority in the area, the one to whom the troops answered was in town – had come into town.
You might not know that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only procession the city saw that day. In the year 30 AD, Roman historians record that the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, led a procession of Roman cavalry and centurions into the city of Jerusalem. Pilate had traveled with a contingent of Rome’s finest from his preferred headquarters in Caesarea-by-the-Sea, to the stuffy, crowded, provincial capital of the Jews, Jerusalem. The Temple would be the center of Passover activity. Antonia’s Fortress, the Roman garrison built adjacent to the Temple compound, would serve as a good vantage point from which to keep an eye on the Jews. Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem was meant to send a message to the Jews, and to those who might be plotting against the empire of Rome. The spectacle was meant to remind the Jews of what had happened the last time of a wide-scale uprising. And, it was meant to intimidate the citizens of Jerusalem themselves, who might think twice about joining such a rebellion if it was slated to fail. Imagine the spectacle of that entry. From the western side of the city, the opposite side from which Jesus enters, Pontius Pilate leads Roman soldiers on horseback and on foot. Each soldier was clad in leather armor polished to a high gloss. On each centurion’s head, hammered helmets gleamed in the bright sunlight. At their sides, sheathed in their scabbards, were swords crafted from the hardest steel; and, in their hands, each centurion carried a spear; or if he was an archer, a bow with a sling of arrows across his back. Drummers beat out the cadence of march for this was no ordinary entry into Jerusalem. Pilate, as governor of the region knew it was standard practice for the Roman governor of a foreign territory to be in its capital for religious celebrations. So, Pilate had to be in Jerusalem. Uprisings were always in the air, but he last major uprising, long before Pilate’s time, had started in a village near Nazareth!
If Pilate’s procession was meant as a show of military might and strength, Jesus’ procession was meant to show the opposite. Jesus quotes from Zechariah 9, where the prophet reassures the people of Judah, called Judea on the New Testament, that God has not forgotten them. And, the king they seek will come to them humbly, not on a steed of war, but on a slow-moving donkey, the symbol of a king who comes in peace, according to Zechariah. The two processions could not be more different in the messages they convey. Pilate, leading Roman centurions, asserts the power and might of the empire of Rome which crushes all who oppose it. Jesus, riding on a young donkey, embodies the peace and tranquility that the shalom that God brings to His people.
SO… Jesus starts a revolution, and before launching his movement – before inaugurating the kingdom of God in order to reconcile all things, right all wrongs – Jesus assembles a team of misfits and malcontents. They were not wise and affluent. They were not powerful or influential. To make matters worse, they did not share the same values, background or politics. They had no earthly reason to be together. But they found a common cause in Jesus and his kingdom. Lots of people promise change and Jesus does as well. He launches something different: a revolution of love grace and peace – not violence!
It’s bigger and better than every other revolution. We as a church have often failed on our assignment – we have not incarnated what Jesus taught and modeled. In spite of this However – Jesus’ revolutionary movement is now the largest oldest and most geographically diverse transformational organization in the world, He spread a revolution bigger than Steven Jobs and Henry Ford! It has spread and done good and continues to. What Jesus started 2000 yrs ago is still going and growing! A parade as a catalyst! What does it mean to be part of a revolution? Gave them a task to push back the night, proclaim the good news and engage in good works. They went out to announce the kingdom a new way of living based on love and grace with upside down values where the great serve and the goal is to be last not first. They went out to announce a new king. Now we have that assignment – and it’s not small. It’s not a Sunday assignment. It’s actually much bigger and grander than most Christian’s think. We are to be part of rolling out God’s kingdom. It affects everything and everyone. But this much is clear,we work on it now – and take whatever ground we can.
There is an aspect of the coming of the kingdom that is gradual – which should motivate us to push ahead.And it’s also clear that we wait for the king to return and when he does lots of things happen then. We wait for that. We pray for that. However, we are to be sitting back and waiting. We are not passive. We are to live today in light of tomorrow. We are to do all we can to attend to the things that matter to God – to care for those who are oppressed – and to invite others to join us.We do this together – as a church. We are called to be a group of people who do our best to live our lives as acts of worship, and in response to Jesus – to be his disciples in community and for the sake of the world. The church is not the end point. It’s a means to an end. The church doesn’t have a mission, God’s mission has a church.
Unlike the religious leaders we have behaved as though it was an event. We are called to serve. We are called to humility. We are to march to a different set of values. Finally, we have to keep our eyes on Jesus. We have to keep reading and rereading the Gospels or we will get this revolution wrong.Everyone and everything matters to God and his kingdom will restore it all.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem may or may not have been planned to occur on the same day as Pilate’s procession through the western gate of the city. Whether it was planned or not, the two processions provided a contrast that was unmistakable. A contrast between kings and kingdoms was on display that day in Rome. We do not look for ways to serve God or advance his kingdom so that we can gain eternal life, we serve out of the joy that we have been granted eternal life. But for one moment, ask yourself, “If I had been in Jerusalem that day, and had seen both processions passing by, which would I have chosen to follow?” Because that is the choice we make each day. To choose power and might over love. To choose “the way things are done” over “they way God intends them to be.” Two processions. Two theologies. Two choices. Which would you choose? What kind of king do you expect?