Psalm 118:1-4, 19-29
When Palm Sunday comes around each year, we buy some palm branches and we re-enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The crowds sang, “Hosanna” and hailed him as the king. They shouted out their praise, laid their cloaks along his path, and waved palm branches in the air.
Some congregations gather outside their church buildings on Palm Sunday. They pass out the palms, and everyone parades down the street and up into the church. In other churches, I have heard, they have someone dressed as Jesus, and someone with some farm animals offers a donkey for Jesus to ride on. In one congregation that I used to attend, we got up part way through the worship service, and had a parade around the neighbourhood. Some people played their instruments, we all sang lots of “Hosannas”, and we witnessed our faith in Christ to the people who heard and saw us pass by.
But no matter how elaborate our rituals become around Palm Sunday, I always have the feeling that we’re not as enthusiastic or as excited as the crowd would have been on that day when Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Some might say that it’s because we’re Presbyterians. Even on Palm Sunday, we tend to relate to Jesus more intellectually than emotionally. We’re not used to waving our hands around as we worship — let alone waving palm branches and marching along.
Sometimes I envy the youngest children among us — or perhaps the newcomers — for whom the “palms” and the “hosannas” are something fresh and new. I long for that feeling of anticipation — that joyous expectation that something really wonderful is about to happen — perhaps even something that the minister didn’t plan!
For many of us, the excitement of a parade is a secondhand, vicarious experience. We go to parades to watch others, especially children, enjoying the parade. But the parade that occurred as Jesus entered Jerusalem stirs emotions that should not be denied. The crowd on that day was definitely excited, and it wasn’t just the children who were singing, shouting, laughing and dancing as Jesus arrived.
It was a moment filled with possibility. The thought of “what might be” exhilarated all who followed Jesus. Might this be the king who would deliver them from the Romans? Might this be the Messiah who would usher in the blessing of the age to come and the return of all the children of God who had been scattered abroad?
This was the moment on which the wheel of history would turn. Either God’s kingdom would be established on earth, or the people’s hope would be forever shattered. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was brimming with hope, expectation, and anticipation… so much so, that Jesus said, “even if the people were silenced, the stones would shout out!”
In Luke’s Gospel, this scene is the high point of the whole story. The tension has been building for many chapters.
Jesus has been going about his mission… “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour.”
A significant number of people have heard his teaching, experienced his power, or at least heard about his wonders. He’s been on his way to Jerusalem for a long time now — the place where he’ll really be able to make a difference — and everyone is thinking that finally, Jesus is going to make his move. He’s going to lead the People of Israel to freedom! With a crowd behind him, he’s going to knock those Romans out of power and take over!
He’s going to fulfill his mission! He’s going to be the Messiah! He’s going to be the King!
The way Luke tells the story, compared to the other evangelists, really emphasizes Jesus’ kingship. Just one chapter earlier, Luke tells a story about Jesus healing a blind beggar near Jericho, and he has the beggar calling out to Jesus and calling him the “Son of David” — an obvious title for a king! Next, Luke inserts a parable about a nobleman going to a new country with the desire to take over and become king. The man is greedy and vengeful, taking advantage of his slaves and slaughtering those who do not want him to be king.
The parable serves as a contrast to what is about to happen in the next chapter. The coming of the kingdom of God is quite different from the typical pattern of the establishment of a political kingdom. The greedy and vengeful king is an antitype for Jesus as he enters Jerusalem as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Then Luke’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem continues the theme of royalty. At its high point, Jesus is hailed “king” by the people, a title that Luke adds to the quotation from Psalm 118, verse 26: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Entrance processions were a familiar ceremony in the first century. Numerous kings and conquering generals had entered Jerusalem over the years, and they were typically welcomed into the city very much like Jesus was welcomed in our story. The characteristic pattern of an entrance procession included the conqueror or ruler being escorted into the city by the people. The procession would be accompanied by hymns and acclamations. Various elements in the procession would symbolically depict the authority of the ruler. And, the entrance would be followed by a ritual of appropriation, such as sacrifice, which took place in the temple, whereby the ruler symbolically appropriates the city.
The historian, Josephus, described Alexander the Great entering Jerusalem in this way: “Then all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him… [then] he gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city. Then he went up to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest.”
Jesus’ entrance follows the same pattern. Crowds of people meet him and escort him into Jerusalem. They call out acclamations that he is king and praise him with the words of a psalm. Then they spread their cloaks on the ground in front of his path. That’s exactly what the people of Israel did when Elisha anointed Jehu to be their king — and it’s a clear sign of his royalty. And then, Jesus’ too goes up to the temple. He weeps over the fate of Jerusalem. He declares that the temple will be destroyed, and he drives out the merchants from the temple area.
What is strikingly different about Jesus’ entrance procession is that he rides in on a donkey. A political king or a conquering ruler would have been riding a war horse. Instead, Luke has Jesus riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Jesus’ preparation for the entrance procession — sending two disciples to bring a donkey on which he can ride — is reported in unusual detail. Luke probably emphasizes the securing of the donkey as he does in order to convey Jesus’ foreknowledge of these events. The point is that everything is unfolding according to God’s foreordained redemptive purposes — as will all that follows.
And, the donkey is significant because it’s also an allusion to a prophetic text from Zechariah:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The choice of a donkey instead of a horse signals Jesus’ humility. But it’s also a sign that Jesus will be a bringer of peace. He will not be a warrior king. Like Solomon, who also rode on a donkey just before he was crowned king, Jesus is the anointed one who will bring a kingdom of peace.
The way Luke tells of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, it is clear that Luke’s community thought of Jesus as a king. But he was definitely a different kind of king. He didn’t march into the city on a war horse. He didn’t take it by force. He didn’t even try to overthrow the Roman Empire. He didn’t act like the king of a great city or nation. He was the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, blind men, demoniacs, and cripples. The cloaks thrown on the road that day were not expensive garments, but tattered shawls and dusty, sweat-stained rags. Jesus was the king of the oppressed and suffering.
In fact, as Jesus entered Jerusalem that day, God was about to do something powerful and wonderful — but the disciples and those in the crowd were not looking for a different kind of king. Their imaginations anticipated a far more limited kind of kingdom. They thought he was going to be a political ruler, someone who would overthrow the Romans and win freedom for the people of Israel. But God had a different way.
Over the next week or so, as it’s told in the Gospel, those who cheered for Jesus as he entered the city, quickly turned away from him. As he was arrested, tortured and killed on a cross like a criminal, he didn’t seem much like a king to them anymore. After his death, some of his original followers, who were now heading home disappointed and confused, would say: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
You see, they still didn’t understand how different Jesus’ kingship really was. They didn’t realize that in everything that Jesus did, he was redeeming Israel. No, he didn’t overthrow the Roman Empire. No, he didn’t conquer the enemies of Israel and gain power and prestige for his people. But he redeemed Israel, and all people, by turning us back to God. He showed us in his life and his teaching that God cares for the least and the lost. He drove the merchants out of the temple and made God’s house into a house of prayer for all people. When he was hanging on a cross dying, he prayed, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” He showed us with his entire being (in life and in death) how to live for others — and when people chose to follow in his way and live by his example, he truly became their king, and his kingdom began to grow and to flourish.
For a time, Jesus’ disciples were confused. They had expected something else, and they were disappointed. They had hoped for a redeemer, and now he was dead. But what they would soon learn — what Luke’s community knew for sure — was that Jesus was the king. He was the king who comes in the name of the Lord. He comes to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. He doesn’t come on a war horse or with a sword in his hand, but still he is victorious. Because he proves to all the world that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Though he was dead, he is risen, and he is the king.
May we praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that we have seen. And may we watch with excitement and anticipation for the wonderful things that God is going to do in and through us who call him king. May God’s kingdom come in its fullness. Amen.