Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday. It is a festive occasion. But let us not neglect to note that the scene is fraught with tension. Before arriving at Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples visited their friends Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus in Bethany. Meanwhile the chief priests found out they were there and planned to kill him, because more of the Jews were going over to him and believing in him. Now Bethany is in Judea. The disciples had already warned him about that region. “Don’t you know that your enemies are waiting there to stone you?” Undeterred, Jesus went his way, while his disciples followed in fear.


In his book, When the Body Says No, author and physician Gabor Mate argues that a pervasive sense of fear, uncertainty, and loss of control in childhood are major factors in serious, even fatal illness in adulthood. As a church, we should do what we can, as far as it depends on us, to provide a secure, sheltering place for the children that God sends to us.


But even if we were fortunate enough to grow up in safe and stable homes, we don’t necessarily outgrow our fears. We know that fear and uncertainty were frequent companions to Jesus’ disciples on the way. But when Jesus noticed their fear, he asked them: “where is your faith?” Faith and fear are antonyms in Jesus’ dictionary. Faith is the antidote to fear. Trust in a God that we cannot see is an antidote to the anguish of uncertainty. And about the sense of loss of control, we may ask: are we ever really in control? Control is an illusion, as the saying goes. When we begin to crave control above all else, our world shrinks. We have to make the world small enough that we can control it. But that ends up suffocating us and whoever else we want to have in our little world with us. 


The call to discipleship is a call to venture out. That requires, among other things, that we relinquish control to the one who truly has it. We have to let go of control to him.


The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day invites us to contemplate the one who is in control. It is one of four passages that recounts Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Of course, we cannot miss the significance of this momentous event, which we will consider in due course. But note that our lesson devotes less than half of the narrative to the actual event itself. Indeed, it seems to be more concerned with the preparations, describing them in painstaking detail. Why does the lesson choose to focus on these details? More to the point, what are we to learn from this choice?


At the outset, let us state the obvious. What we are to learn from this choice is that Jesus is in control. He is the Lord. That means, among other things, that the events that are about to take place, unfold ultimately according to his sovereign will, not according to the design of his enemies. To be sure, the forces that his arrival at Jerusalem unleashes will appear to the external observer to be beyond his control. But that is not the case. If it is, then he is not the Lord. If he surrenders to them, then it is on his terms, in conformity with his sovereign will as Lord.


Jesus orders two disciples to locate a colt in a nearby village, which is probably Bethphage, the next stop before Jerusalem. Can we imagine the fear in the hearts of the disciples? Bethphage is also in Judea. And we have already mentioned that the disciples feared that Jesus’ enemies were waiting there in ambush. But Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He is in control of the situation. He tells them they will find a colt, on which none has ever ridden, tied at the edge of the village. He instructs them to untie it and bring it to him.    


The scene is reminiscent of one in the Old Testament. The prophet Samuel has anointed Saul as king. Saul had been wandering in the hills in an unsuccessful search for his father’s donkeys. Samuel then told Saul to go to Rachel’s Tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah. There he would meet the two men who had found the donkeys. It turned out exactly as Samuel said it would.


Now one greater than Samuel is here. Jesus too makes a prediction about the men the disciples will meet when they go to retrieve the colt. It turns out exactly as Jesus said it would. The men ask the disciples: why are you untying the colt? They reply: The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.


The reply is instructive. During the times of Jesus, Judea is under Roman occupation. Roman generals assumed authority to requisition animals that belonged to their subjects. How much more is Jesus as Lord authorized to do the same?


The disciples bring the colt to Jesus, throw their cloaks on it, and Jesus rides on it. One commentator suggests that the animal was so small that Jesus’ feet probably dragged as he rode along. This image stands in sharp contrast to the triumphal parades of Roman conquerors we see portrayed in old movies like Cleopatra. Caesar rides triumphantly on a powerful steed or a chariot, followed by his legions, as well as his captives. Truly an impressive display of power.


Behold your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.


It happens just as the prophet Zechariah envisioned it centuries before.  Zechariah puts side by side “triumphant and victorious” with “humble and riding on a donkey.”   These don’t seem to go together, and yet there they are. The victorious king is a humble king.  It would seem to suggest that the kind of king that Jesus intends to be will be quite different from Caesar and his successors. It is not by the power of the war machine that Jesus will inaugurate his kingdom, but through humility.


But is the one seated on this harmless animal less powerful than Caesar seated on his war horse? But let us not be deceived by appearances. He is Lord. And since he is Lord, the events happened just as he willed, because they are under his control. Parenthetically, it is important for us to bear this in mind as we enter into Holy Week. Jesus, meek and mild, yes! But not weak, not the victim of forces beyond his control. 


The people respond accordingly. Many spread their cloaks on the road. This is reminiscent of how the people of the Old Testament acclaimed Jehu as king. That is to say, by this gesture, the people are acclaiming Jesus as king. Others spread leafy branches they had cut in the field. From these are derived the tradition of the palms for Palm Sunday. The gesture is reminiscent of how the people hailed Simon Maccabee after his defeat of the Seleucid empire in the second century BC. Jesus is the king who enters triumphantly into the city of David, whose throne rightfully belongs to him as David’s legitimate heir.


This is the content of the cries of the crowds. They are chanting Psalm 118, one of the six Psalms comprising the Hallel, which pilgrims recited on their way on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Passover is the occasion for their going up to Jerusalem here. Passover, which, incidentally, Jewish people throughout the world began to observe this weekend, commemorates God’s great acts of deliverance of Israel from Egypt, through a series of events that we know as the Exodus. Each Passover raises hopes that God will act again to deliver his people from their enemies. Hosanna means: “save us now!” Perhaps the people acclaiming Jesus as king are hoping that he is going to be the one to save them by cutting down their Roman oppressors. Was there this great expectation among them? Were they waiting with bated breath to see what would happen next?


But the lesson ends on an anticlimactic note. Jesus enters the temple, but by then the festive throngs had already dispersed. There is no royal welcome for Jesus at the house of God. After looking around in the temple at everything, he and his disciples return to Bethany.


What are we to make of this event? It began with great promise, but it seemingly ends in great disappointment. There is no revolutionary activity or warfare, no royal    enthronement, and no welcome from the Jerusalem priests.


Tradition has been harsh in its judgment on the festive crowds that thronged to greet Jesus on that first Palm Sunday. They move from singing “hosanna” to shouting “crucify him” in the course of a week. But are we so different from them?


Worldly power always exerts a pull on us. It is practical. We have our interests, our values, and we are committed to protecting them. We are drawn to powerful leaders who promise to represent our interests and stand for our values. Indeed, we have this inveterate tendency to attribute to our leaders a sacred calling. This one has been appointed by God to save our Christian heritage. Or that one has been appointed as a kind of new messiah to champion the cause of justice, to redress all the wrongs that history has laid at our doorstep.


But what if Jesus cannot so easily be pressed into the molds we make for our political leaders? Do we not then dismiss him as irrelevant, concluding that the only power he has is “heavenly” and is therefore of no “earthly” use? But all power on heaven and on earth has been given to him. Nowhere in the Bible do we read that he shares this power with a political leader, not even an American one. 


But perhaps the root of the problem is our doubt that Jesus really does have this power. There is nothing to suggest in the days to come that he really has. His authority will be challenged. One of his disciples will betray him to his enemies. The Jewish leaders will condemn him at a show trial. Pilate and the Roman authorities will torture him and then execute him on a cross.


In the eyes of the world, he was– and is–a failed political leader at best. But here we have to recall a point that we have been making repeatedly. Nothing of what will happen to him in the week to come is beyond his control. From beginning to end, he remains the Lord, and so all the events unfold according to his sovereign will. Occasionally, the gospel will remind us of this power. According to Matthew’s account, at his betrayal and arrest, Peter lunges at those who seize Jesus, cutting with his sword the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus responds: “Do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?”


But Jesus does not use this power. If he did, then he would be no different than the rulers before and after him. They have lived and died by the sword. Author Joshua Jipp observes that in the last analysis Mark poses radical questions to us: Do we really want a crucified king, or a king who crucifies his enemies? Do we really want an enemy-loving king—a king who forgives those who crucifies him and demands that his disciples forgive their enemies, or a king who kills his enemies and instructs his subjects to avenge themselves on them? Do we really want a king who embraces and loves strangers, or a king who divides the “good” from the “bad,” the “moral” from the “immoral,” the citizen from the outsider?


But to live in this world as a loyal and obedient subject to this king is hard. In this world, his power will appear as weakness, our obedience will appear as political impotence. That is why we have always to keep before us our conviction: that nothing that happened then, and nothing that happens now, is beyond his control. Once we have this fixed firmly in our minds, we can move through our world in bold confidence, relinquishing control to the one who really has it. That will free us to do those things that are pleasing to him, leaving the outcome to him. That will make us patient to wait for his power to be revealed, trusting in his timing. Now his power is hidden from the world, but later his power will be revealed for all to see.


Let us bring this conviction into the days of holy week, when we will be seeing hard things. Amen.


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