March 25, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
The Triumphal Entry
A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother. His father returned from church holding a palm branch. The little boy was curious and asked, “Why do you have the palm branch, dad?”
“You see, when Jesus came into town, everyone waved palm branches to honor him, so we got palm branches today. The little boy replied, “Aw shucks! The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday that Jesus shows up!”
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He is going to show up for a parade the week before Passover, the most important Jewish festival of the year. The week is a time of preparation for the huge celebration remembering the time when Moses led the enslaved Hebrew people out of Egypt. Jesus is at the end of a journey which began some nine months before when he purposefully began to zigzag through Galilee, then Samaria, the Perea, and finally Judea. During this final journey, Jesus has ministered in at least thirty-five localities, timing the journey so he will end up in Jerusalem for Passover.
This journey of Jesus into Jerusalem is so important that it appears in all four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is an important story because Jesus not only comes to Jerusalem to commemorate the Passover Lamb that was slain by the Hebrews in Pharaoh’s time to warn off the Angel of Death, but it is also because Jesus himself would become the Passover Lamb slain for the salvation of all people.
Now we know from the Roman census records that Jerusalem had a population of about 20,000 people, just a little larger than Norwalk today. But during the great Jewish festivals, that number would swell tremendously as people flocked to the Temple to offer their sacrifices.
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote about how many people crowded into Jerusalem. Josephus wrote: “Cestius, the Roman governor of Palestine, attempted to impress Emperor Nero that the Passover was an important feast for the Jews, and to do this he ordered the high priest to count the actual number of lambs that were sacrificed at Passover in the year A.D. 65. Cestius quoted the high priest as giving him a figure of 256,500 lambs that were offered for sacrifice.” That’s one lamb per family, so you must multiply that by a factor of two or three. It’s possible there were over 750,000 who came to Jerusalem for Passover. Imagine the crowds, since the Jews who came for Passover stayed for eight full days. Jesus is journeying into this chaos of a festival celebration.
Would you pray with me?
As our story opens, Jesus and the disciples are approaching Jerusalem. They come to the villages of Bethphage and Bethany, part of a circle of villages around Jerusalem that are less than a Sabbath day’s journey from the Temple, a little less than a mile. We know from the scriptures that Jesus was frequently around Jerusalem, because he would visit his close friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And he also had his secret friend, the Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea.
Now Mark doesn’t mention it in his gospel, but we know from the Gospel of John that earlier Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. This sensational news had spread around Jerusalem many times. Therefore, the numbers of those observing Jesus’ entourage has dramatically increased. Most recently, as Jesus journeyed to this Passover, he had healed blind Bartimaeus in Jericho, and the pilgrims moving on before him were enthusiastically spreading the news to everyone.
Now, as Jesus resides in Bethany, great crowds are coming out from Jerusalem to see him and the resurrected Lazarus. The religious leaders are counseling together as to how they might kill Jesus, because so many people are believing in him. There is great tension in Jerusalem. Just imagine, wherever a person would go, in the marketplace, in the doorways, on the corner, in the Temple, almost everyone was talking about Jesus coming to Jerusalem.
The Passover is only a few days away. There are questions on the minds of the people. Would Jesus make a move? If so, when? What would the authorities do? And so, as the pressure mounts, Jesus takes definite, calculated, and premeditated action.
One of these premeditated actions is having a donkey’s colt available. Jesus surely knows what he is going to do and I’m sure long ago he made arrangements with a friend for the donkey. When he sends two of his disciples ahead into Bethphage to get the colt, he sends them with a password that has been pre-arranged – “The Lord needs it now.”
All of Jesus’ actions are deliberate. He wants people to know that he is who he claims to be, the Messiah. So how will people know this? In Zechariah 9:9 of the Hebrew Bible it says this: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
You see, five hundred years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Zechariah had prophesied that the Messiah would come riding on the foal of a donkey. Jesus consciously fulfilled this prophecy to the letter, and in fact exceeded it, for he chose a colt upon which no one had ever ridden. A colt that was never ridden was used for sacred duties, not every day work. There is even further prophecy of this from Genesis 49:10-11 when Jacob announced this upon Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs, and the obedience of the nations is his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes.”
- Kent Hughes writes in his commentary on Mark: “Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, wants us to see the connections here. By riding a donkey, he fulfilled not only Zechariah 9:9, but Jacob’s prophecy to Judah. What is more,” he writes, “riding a donkey was a kingly act which identified him with the royal line of David.”
Folks, the whole impact of this is that the King is coming in peace. When a king went to war, he rode on a horse, when he came in peace he rode on a donkey. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem this day, he claims to be king, but he claims to be King of peace. His action is contrary to everything that the people have hoped for and expected, and this can be seen in the procession into Jerusalem.
On the road into Jerusalem the people are spreading their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they have cut in the fields. The triumphal march has begun. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” These shouts from the crowds show how their thought are running. This greeting is from Psalm 118:26. “He who comes” is another name for the Messiah. The crowds are ready for their Messiah to break forth and save them from the rule of the Roman Empire, from poverty, humiliation, unjust laws, and inhumane treatment.
And the shouts of “Hosanna” are not in praise of Jesus but are Hebrew for “save now!” When the people shout “Hosanna” it is not a cry of praise to Jesus, but a cry to God to break in and save his people now that the Messiah has come. Jesus is seen as the deliverer of his people. Save now. Save us. And the palm branches are a symbol of the Jewish nationalistic desire to be delivered.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Palm Sunday is a reminder that Jesus confronted the people of Jerusalem and Israel with a decision, were they going to believe in him or not. You see, there were those in the crowd who were merely casual observers. They were in Jerusalem for the Passover. They may not have even heard of Jesus and had no idea of what was going on. They were content to stand along the curb and watch the procession go by. The didn’t want to get involved.
And then there were the plotting authorities, watching everywhere Jesus went, everything he did, trying to demean him at every opportunity. The Pharisees and Sadducees and other temple authorities were afraid of Jesus and the power he seemed to have. He was upsetting the norm of obedience to the Jewish faith and therefore subverting Roman governance. These temple authorities had been plotting and working with the Roman authorities to stop Jesus.
And then there were some people in the crowd praising Jesus and thinking he would save them from the Roman oppression. They were sure he would bring an army and overthrow the Roman Empire. But that was not what Jesus seemed to be doing and they were disappointed and discouraged. Later, some of these believers were members of the crowd who cried “crucify him.” They turned on Jesus because he didn’t fulfill their expectations of a real Messiah.
But there were many people following Jesus who believed in Him and knew that he was a holy man. They had searched the scriptures and believed that he was who he said he was and committed themselves wholly to him. They would follow Jesus regardless of how dark the path would become.
Today, on Palm Sunday, Jesus confronts us with the same decisions as the people on that first palm waving day. We can be curious but not committed to Jesus, not wanting to be involved, not wanting to know who he is or how he can change our lives. Or, we can be outright belligerent to him and demean his name, trying to destroy his influence on the very people the church is trying to reach.
Or we can come to Jesus with enthusiasm but then slowly move away from his teachings because we don’t think Jesus fulfills our expectations or we find something better to sooth our egos. Or we can choose to be dedicated disciples who devote ourselves to Christ and his work for the Kingdom of God.
So, which are you? The casual observer, the troublemaker, the half-hearted follower, or the one who believes that Jesus really did bring a new world into being, into thinking, and into living?
During this coming Holy Week, we are given a chance to look at our lives and our relationship with God and his Son, Jesus. We are given time to decide how we are going to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is in control this Palm Sunday. In the circumstances, we might expect him to enter Jerusalem secretly and to hide from the authorities who are out to destroy him. Instead he enters in such a way that the attention of every eye is focused upon him. It is a triumphal entry for a King of an eternal Kingdom.