How many palms did the people use to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday? Two, one on the right and one on the left!
Palm Sunday works on all kinds of levels. The children like waving the branches, and if we manage to get a donkey too, well that’s brilliant. And why not? When the Pharisees complained about noise in the temple, Jesus said that if the children were silent, the stones would cry out praise to God.
At the symbolic level there’s the blessing of palm crosses. My Gran always had one pinned to her dressing table. It was renewed each year, and I guess it was a reminder as she got ready in the morning. A sacramental symbol of God’s love taken into the home, Jesus’ sacrifice for me.
And then of course Palm Sunday has the bitterness amidst the joy, the fickleness of the crowd who at the beginning of the week hail their king, but barely a few days later are bawling for his blood.
What we often forget is just how political Palm Sunday is. It’s much more than just a festival procession. The reason the children were singing and dancing is because that much loved prophet from Galilee had come to be their King. It’s not just ‘Jesus is here’, it’s ‘King Jesus is coming to reign.’
And that’s what Jesus intended. He really did claim to be God’s chosen King. Today many people think of Jesus as a Middle Eastern prophet, a religious visionary, a healer and all round good egg. Decent, ethical and loving, perhaps a bit hippy/radical, but basically harmless.
If that’s what Jesus was really like, how did he manage to get himself crucified? Why would anyone bother crucifying someone who was that innocuous? No, the reason the Romans executed Jesus is that they saw him as a threat. The Chief Priests said ‘This man claims to be a king’.
The charge against him, nailed to the cross above his head, was ‘The King of the Jews’. That’s why Jesus was killed – because everyone around him believed he had claimed to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews.
It won’t wash either to say that Jesus was misunderstood – he had plenty of chance to deny it if he wished to save himself. To argue that Jesus was misunderstood we’d also have to believe that Jesus was a spectacularly bad communicator. Which clearly isn’t the case.
No, on Palm Sunday Jesus deliberately set out to enter Jerusalem as the Messiah. Look at our reading: in verses 1-3 it describes at some length the elaborate preparation Jesus arranged. He didn’t just grab a random donkey because he was feeling tired. He set it up in advance. He intentionally fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah quoted in verse 5: ‘Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.’ Jesus reveals himself as God’s chosen King.
This matters to us because it means that Jesus is a much more significant figure than just a prophet. If anyone says to you that Paul reinvented Christianity or that the church made Jesus into a God, here is the answer: Jesus himself claimed to be God’s Messiah. And it also means that Jesus is a much more political, more radical figure than we often imagine. He’s not just Lord in the spiritual realm but in the physical one too.
Of course, that kind of claim brings expectations, which can be hard to fulfil. Anyone seen Donald Trump’s approval rating recently? The graph goes like this…He promised the earth to those who felt left out, that his own brand of deal-making would change everything, and when he didn’t deliver in the way they expected, the crowd began to turn against him.
That’s the way crowds work. In first century Palestine rumour and news spread by word of mouth. Nowadays we have the internet. Mark Zuckerberg’s boast is that no two people have the same experience of Facebook. Which is exactly right.
My feed is full of left-wing news articles and quizzes to find out ‘Which famous Anglican theologian are you?’ Chantal’s news feed has adverts for children’s craft resources and videos of animals doing amusing things. That’s not at all her though, and mine’s not really me.
It’s due to our friends. The computer guesses the kind of stuff we might be interested in based on who our FaceBook friends are. And the danger of that is, depending on how wide your circle of friends, you can end up in an echo chamber, only seeing things which confirm your own point of view.
This isn’t an obscure point – experts reckon that the way social media works makes politics more polarised and makes it harder to respect different opinions. We all need to have friends with whom we disagree – perhaps we should even confuse the computer by clicking on links for opposing points of view!
Disappointing the crowd on social media is dangerous. A real live crowd more so. The Jewish people were oppressed, they wanted a military deliverer, and they latched on to Jesus. From their point of view, he was a let-down, he didn’t deliver what they wanted. But Jesus had constantly told them that the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again. They hadn’t wanted to hear the true meaning of the Messiah.
It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps we could pause and ask if we ever misunderstand Jesus? Do we want him to deliver something he has never promised to do? I’ve quite often met people who have given up on God because they feel he let them down. Life has been harder than they hoped, but they’ve never stopped to ask themselves were those hopes realistic? God doesn’t promise to protect us from hardship when we follow him – but he does promise to go with us through the challenging times.
Nor does God promise to sustain us in our Christian faith without effort from ourselves. He showers means of grace upon us – he gives us prayer, the Bible, church and the encouragement of other Christians.
But we’ve got to use them: pick up that Bible, make the time to pray, join with worship, put yourself in the place where God’s means of support can do you good. He gives us his Spirit if we will only open our hands to receive! Otherwise we end up like the crowd on Palm Sunday: singing ‘Hosanna’ but asking ‘Who is this?’ They haven’t really understood the Messiah, and Jesus needs to make it clear how he meets their real need.
To do so, they have to recognise their false solutions. The Romans wanted more possessions and power. They sought security by eliminating threats. Invading other nations for wealth and stability, they instead spent more and more on armies to quell rebellion. The Jews sought identity in their land, rather than in God who is everywhere. Longing for freedom, they thought their problems would be over once the enemy was defeated. Instead they fell out among themselves.
Don’t we see the same today? Seeking security in economic and military might? Blaming our problems on others? Jesus overcame all this by teaching that we are all sinners who need God’s love. None is better than another. All alike need forgiveness. Dying on the cross, he forgave Jew and Gentile together. He bore their sin and division, he reconciled them with God. When he rose again he called them together as children of God. He invites us to find a new identity in him. When we are secure in being loved by God we don’t find our ultimate validation and security in other things which can’t bear the weight.
Rooted in that firm foundation we can then share in God’s work of transforming the world by the way of the cross. Changing the world through following Jesus’ example is not about imposing solutions by power – it’s about sacrifice and self-giving, generosity and love.
That may take longer, it may feel tougher, but will lead to real reconciliation and progress. God has promised to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can build his Kingdom. It grows here on earth and will one day be fulfilled when King Jesus comes in his glory. Today on Palm Sunday we’re called to follow Jesus in the life-giving, world changing way of the cross. Amen.