As you know by now, today is Palm Sunday. This is the day we celebrate Jesus’ joyous welcome on the road to Jerusalem around the time of the Passover Feast when many pilgrims would have been coming to Jerusalem. As you know, Palm Sunday is always the Sunday before Easter. The use of the term “palms” in the story is a little misleading. The Gospel of John, in the NRSV of the Bible, is the only one that mentions the branches strewn before Jesus were from a palm tree. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t mention branches at all and the Gospels of Matthew and our reading for today from Mark mention leafy branches. Mark specifically explains that those branches were cut in the fields.
We Christians have become accustomed to remembering Jesus’ triumphant parade into Jerusalem with the crowds of people throwing palm branches before him as he sits on his borrowed donkey. The tradition of waving palm branches, as mentioned in the Gospel of John, may have arisen from celebrating the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles using palm branches and too, while celebrating Hanukkah in the fall, palm branches were utilized in the rituals. The climate in Israel is rather harsh for Palm trees so that, according to Wikipedia, other leafy branches were likely used such as olive, box or willow branches. In the past, for some, this Sunday had been referred to as Branch Sunday. Christians may have borrowed this concept of palms, thrown before Jesus, from the ancient Roman practice of throwing palms before a king entering a city in triumph after defeating an enemy. Whatever the explanation, Mark’s story informs us that Jesus rides to Jerusalem in triumph.
Mark is different from the other Gospels which reference “multitudes of people” or “great crowds” used for a huge amount of people lauding Jesus. Mark may be downplaying a multitude of people present referring only to “many people” perhaps setting up a more intimate scenario. The people there were shouting “Hosanna!,” a Hebrew phrase meaning “Save, we pray” or “Save, now.” Their shout of hope and praise is based on Psalm 118, parts of which we read responsively earlier in the service. Verse 26 of the Psalm proclaims: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” which was used in our Call to Worship this morning. Many of the people likely thought of Jesus as a victorious king riding on the road to Jerusalem to save them from the great oppressor, the Roman Empire. For Jews, the Messiah was thought of as a triumphant king after doing battle with the enemy. There is an interesting combination of images here for Jesus rides on a young donkey, a “colt” as the author calls the animal. This is a reference to the Old Testament prophetic book of Zechariah chapter 9, verse 9, speaking of a Messiah figure as God explains: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo (meaning look or see), your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah’s prophecy continues with “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He (the messiah king) will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
For the author of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is fulfilling prophecy as Jesus rides on this colt along the road. The people go crazy with hope, envisioning their salvation from the cruel Romans. “In the ancient Middle Eastern world, leaders rode horses if they rode to war, but donkeys if they came in peace. First Kings 1:33 mentions Solomon riding a donkey on the day he was recognized as the new king of Israel,” coming in peace.
When Zechariah proclaims “God takes away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem,” that is an image of peace. This image of Jesus riding to Jerusalem on a donkey depicting peace is also taken from a prophecy in the book of Isaiah, chapter 9: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We read that verse during our Christmas Eve service. As Jesus rides in his Palm Sunday parade, he is thought to be the Prince of Peace or the King of Peace, in this case. That image is such a contrast to the people thinking of Jesus as the mighty Messiah King who would overthrow the evil empire but, they don’t seem to be aware of that contrast at this point in the story. Riding the donkey would likely have symbolized that Jesus was proclaiming the time of peace and love soon to be at hand.
Notice that Mark has this group of people praising Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, not going into Jerusalem quite yet. He is traveling that road to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives at the base of which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, we remember this Thursday. In Luke, Jesus first weeps over Jerusalem before he enters Jerusalem. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus went directly into Jerusalem and this is the image that we seem to have for the Palm Sunday story.
Summarizing, in Marks Gospel on Palm, or Branches, Sunday, there is fulfillment of prophecy, a messianic king figure riding on a colt of a donkey in recognition of a peaceful Jesus, and the people present filled with great hope viewing Jesus as a triumphant king as they shout, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” while they throw their branches and coats before him. That is Palm Sunday, or is it?
At times, we may call Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday or call it both, Palm and Passion Sunday. The reason for this is that too many people choose to go from the celebration of a triumphal entry into Jerusalem straight on to a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The problem with doing that is, that jump misses the whole passion of the Last Supper, arrest and death of Jesus parts of the story. Therefore, pastors may refer to or preach on the passion, the suffering and the crucifixion on a terrible cross, of Christ on Palm Sunday too.
I read you two stories that happened on Monday of the week of passion, Holy Week. First Jesus commits a rather bizarre act of getting angry at a fig tree for only have buds on it and not fruit at a time of year there would only be buds on it. He curses the tree and on Tuesday of Holy Week, we read that tree withers all the way to the roots. This does not seem very Jesus-like but many scholars think of it as a symbolic gesture predicting the devastating fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. It may also be viewed as Jesus’ own life withering on the cross of his crucifixion.
Secondly, there is the cleansing of the temple which was also in stark contrast with the Prince of Peace image of Jesus riding on a donkey. Yet, we may likely understand that Jesus was angry at the misuse of God’s temple. The Temple was a huge complex and Jesus chasing out the money changers would have merely happened in one small part of it. Still, it is an important part of the story for Jesus was exerting his authority in the Temple, usually reserved for the Sadducees and priests. Jesus is revolting against the common practice of selling sacrificial animals for the Jewish practice of purification required of believers. Often, over-charging was a typical practice and the poor paid what little they had for a dove to sacrifice. Jesus knew this was not how God’s Temple was to be used in the shady practices of money changing. As Holy Week progresses, we know the story eventually gets to the Last Supper and the horrific events that happened afterwards.
There was a young farm boy who lived on the outskirts of town. One day when he was coming home from school, he saw some men putting up a poster on a fence. He was very curious about it so he stayed around until they finished, and then he went over to read it. In a colorful way, it told of a real live circus coming to town; one that had animals and everything! With great excitement, the boy rushed home and told his father and, in haste, asked if he could go. The father knew they didn’t have any money to spare, but told his son he could go anyway. Come the day of the circus, the boy hurriedly finished all his chores and changed into his Sunday clothes. Then he went to his father and again asked if he could go. His father smiled and handed him a dollar. That was more money than the boy had ever seen. The father told his son to have a good time and be careful, and off he trotted to the circus.
When he got to town, he saw the whole town standing on either side of the road. Suddenly, down the road he heard joyous circus music! His heart raced and his eyes got big as the band played their instruments, walking past him on the road. Next, to his wide-eyed amazement came many animals in cages. Some of them were scary but, he stood his ground and watched them in amazement. How exciting this was, he thought! Next in line were various kinds of neat, unusual people and things, all part of the circus. He waited patiently for this part of the parade lasted for the longest time.
At the very end of the long procession was a clown, happily walking all by himself and waving to the crowd. He had the traditional clown garb on, complete with painted face and big floppy shoes. Happily, the boy ran to the clown and gave him the dollar. Then the boy went home satisfied for even though he had actually only seen the parade, he thought he had seen the whole circus. He missed all the incredible circus acts that came after the parade.
That tends to be how many Christians view Holy Week. They go to the parade but miss what happens in-between that and the end of the Easter story. They start at the beginning of the story but jump to the end without anything in the middle. Yes, it is true that there is much suffering in this world and we have our own problems and pains. Why would we look for more? Yet, there is a spiritual richness to the passion that happens between Palm Sunday and Easter which spiritually prepares us for the true meaning of the resurrection. If one jumps from one celebration to another, one misses the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. Yes, we know it happens this week but do we really feel it and internalize it so making the Resurrection that much more meaningful? Do we make sure we remember the horrible, pain-filled events that happened to Jesus reminding us of what he gave up to eventually accomplish the resurrection? Or do we merely go about our week as we usually do? In grateful response to God’s great gift of boundless grace, we are offered the opportunity to acknowledge what has been accomplished for us before God and also the faith community by attending at least one other service during these passion weekdays. Surely we can better prepare our hearts and minds for the joyful event we commemorate next Sunday.
I encourage you, as much as possible, not to be like the boy who really missed the point of the circus. Instead, include not only today, the “beginning,” and next Sunday, the “end,” of the Holy Week story; also add the “in-between” parts too.