Matthew 21; Mark 11: 1-11
This is Palm Sunday, which means that next Lord’s Day is Easter.
I would suggest that we in Churches of Christ would do well to follow the Christian Year, as do most other churches. It begins with Christmas, the birthday of our Lord, and goes on to Palm Sunday and Passion Week, the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord. Then on to Easter, the resurrection of our Lord. Then to Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ to the gentiles in the coming of the Magi and the baptism of our Lord. Then to Pentecost, the birthday of the church, and on throughout the year. The Christian Year is all about Jesus and Holy Scripture.
That means that on any given Sunday most of the churches in the Tri-State – and around the world – are studying the same topic and often reading the same Scriptures. It is one way to enjoy a measure of fellowship with other churches. We will find that in these grand themes about Christ and his church there will be far more agreement than differences.
Palm Sunday is sometimes called “Jesus Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” A triumphal entry on a donkey! Can you imagine General George Patton, of WW Two fame, entering a German town on a donkey?
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was walking in front of his disciples (Mark 10:32) when they came to Bethphage. Here Jesus sent two of his disciples into the hamlet to obtain a donkey’s unridden colt. Why would Jesus ride a donkey into Jerusalem? He could easily have chosen another way. Five hundred years before it was prophesied by Zechariah that the Messiah would do so. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Your king is coming, humble and just, riding on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). And Jesus was insistent that “all things written in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms concerning me must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus consciously fulfilled this prophecy to the letter, and he in fact exceeded it, for he chose a colt upon which no one had ever ridden. This was because in Biblical culture (and ancient culture in general) an animal devoted to a sacred task must be one that not been put to ordinary use (Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3; 1 Samuel 6:7)
This meant that the Messiah king would be lowly, just and peaceful. So, as Mathew 21 indicates, when Jesus approached Jerusalem he sent for a donkey, mounted it, and road into the city, with the people placing palm branches before him, and crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest” which meant “Save Us”!
They sought liberation from the political oppression of the Romans – and so Jesus might be their king; and they sought freedom from the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees – and Jesus might be their Messiah. They had heard him say, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” and they had heard him say, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest for your soul.” And they heard him say, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” And now he is coming into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Surely he is the Messiah spoken of by the prophets!
But they had no idea that he had come to be crucified at the hands of their own leaders. The Messiah is to come conquering and to conquer, not to suffer an ignominious death on a cross! The message of the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, and to the Gentiles it was foolishness (I Cor. 1:23, 24).
And yet Jesus had told his disciples over and over again – three times in Mark – that they were going to Jerusalem where “the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the gentiles; and they will mock him, and scourge him, and spit on him, and kill him, and the third day he will rise again” (Mk. 10:33-34). But Mark explains that they did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him.
We must not be afraid – or indifferent – to the great revelations of Passion Week. After Palm Sunday came Maundy Thursday – Maundy, from the Latin, means command. It was the night – after the Passover meal and observing the Lord’s supper with his disciples – that he washed his disciples feet and gave them the “First Commandment” – that they were to love each other even as he loved them.
Then came Good Friday, the day they mocked the Christ and executed him as a criminal. We all have our Good Fridays, which are grievous to bear – perhaps a dreadful disease, addiction, the loss of a loved one, a wayward child, a painful divorce, loneliness, despair. Life can become terribly difficult. But thank God that, as with our Lord, Easter Sunday, is victorious over Good Friday.
It is one of those riddles of the Bible and of human nature that no one believed that the Messiah would be crucified, except Jesus himself. And no one believed he would rise from the dead. On Easter morning there was not one person on the face of the earth who believed he would rise from the dead, not even his closest disciples!
And yet the evidence for the empty tomb was so compelling that within weeks there were thousands upon thousands in Jerusalem alone who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the risen Christ, and within a few generations there were millions throughout the Roman Empire who became believers, many of whom became martyrs for their faith. And by the fourth century the emperor himself was a Christian, and the Christian faith was the official religion of the empire.
There are those who declare the resurrection not as a reality but only as metaphor for a new religious experience. Judaism already had a rich language for that. Saying “he’s been raised from the dead” - if he wasn’t it is simply inexplicable historically. John Updike’s perceptive poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” is clear-cut.
“Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
(Telephone Poles and Other Poems, p. 72f)
Paul, himself a witness to the risen Christ, tells us plainly what happened, and verification for it.
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and was buried,
and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and he was
seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by five
hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the
present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James,
then by all the apostles. Then last of all he was seen by me, as by one
born out of due time” (I Cor. 15:3-8).
But there is still more to Palm Sunday. I could also name this article “Jesus Rode a Donkey to Glory,” for he not only entered Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world, but also to be glorified. The gospel of Luke tells us that as Jesus came in sight of the city he wept over it – “if you had only known the way of peace” – Messianic peace – “but it was hidden from you,” and he went on to prophesy the city’s destruction by the Romans, which occurred in 70 A.D.
What a poignant scene – the Messiah on a donkey weeping over the sins of his people. He was not weeping in self pity, but for others. The writer of Hebrews tells us it was for “the joy that was set before him” that Jesus endured the cross. He knew that he was to suffer grievously, but he also knew there was glory beyond the cross.