I guess it wouldn’t have been unusual for the crowds to gather near Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Especially in the days leading up to one of the great festivals, people would come out of their homes to welcome the pilgrims. There would have been lots of pilgrims on the road, making their way from the little towns and villages, going up to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.
For many it would have been a long journey, something for which they had planned and anticipated, perhaps for years. They walked with their families and friends, camping beside the road, and sharing provisions with others that they met along the way.
When the pilgrims got to Bethany they knew that they were almost there, and the excitement was palpable. Those who lived nearby came out to greet them, almost as if they were in a parade. And I imagine the people singing as they walked, singing the joyful pilgrimage psalms written especially for occasions such as these: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
And so Jesus came into Jerusalem. He and his friends joined in the procession and were greeted by the singing and cheering crowds as they went up to Jerusalem to celebrate God’s mercy and love at the Passover.
But as the Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they tell us in various ways that this was no ordinary procession. This was a parade like no other because it was Jesus who was the focal point of all the attention.
Mark’s version of the story describes the parade only briefly. But first he goes into great detail about getting the donkey for Jesus to ride on. Jesus sends two disciples ahead into the village, and he tells them where they will find a young donkey (a colt) tied up. Maybe it was at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, Jesus’ friends from Bethany. If anyone asks why they are taking it, the disciples are to respond, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”
There are a couple of interesting things about that. First: Why did Jesus need the colt? Not because he was tired of walking, but because it was a symbolic action to ride in on a donkey. Riding, rather than walking, was a sign of royalty. Riding a donkey, rather than a big horse, was a sign of a king who came in peace rather than war. Riding on an animal that had never before been ridden was a sign of a great honour.
And Jesus was starkly contrasted from the Roman authorities of the day by the fact that he promised to return the animal right away. Roman commanders would have marched in and taken what they needed without thought for the people who depended on the animals for their livelihood.
And so, in such a simple action of riding into the city on the back of a donkey, Jesus casts himself in the role of the King of peace who is above all, and yet shows respect and care for his people.
And as he approaches, the people do something special, something they wouldn’t have normally done for the other pilgrims. They take off their cloaks and spread them on the roadway. They cut leafy branches and put them down on the road where he will soon pass by.
And like in any religious procession, they sing praises to God: “Hosanna! Hosanna to the King! Hosanna! Hosanna to the King!” But now these words have added meaning, for Jesus is showing himself to be the one for whom they have been waiting. Jesus is the ancestor of David, the long-awaited King of righteousness and peace, the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited to place ourselves within the crowds on that festive day. We can imagine ourselves taking off our coats and spreading them out on the dusty road. We don’t care if they get dirty and dusty. We just want to give praise and honour to Jesus our Lord. But we must also ask ourselves, as Matt asked the children this morning: What can we do to honour Jesus today?
Of course, we can sing our praise to him. On Palm Sunday, indeed on every Sunday, we can dedicate ourselves to worshipping God in Jesus Christ. We can sing out loud (no matter what our voices sound like) and praise God like we mean it. And in our music God will be glorified.
We can honour Christ is quieter ways as well. When we set aside this time on Sunday mornings and at other times throughout the week to pause and to acknowledge God’s presence and power, we also honour Christ. When we remove ourselves from the rush of our daily lives, and we give our attention to what God might say to us today, we honour Christ.
Many Christians discover other ways to honour Christ through the ministries of the church. They dedicate time and attention to visiting the sick, teaching the children, praying for those in trouble or grief, giving to missions and ministries within and beyond our congregation, and using their gifts of hospitality to serve one another and the wider community. When we do all these things, we honour Christ our Lord.
As we discussed in our “Growing God’s Gifts” program, discovering our spiritual gifts and talents is just the first step. It’s when we begin to make use of our gifts to serve God and our neighbours that we truly praise and honour Christ.
When you use your gift of listening to care for a neighbour or a colleague who is hurting… you honour Christ.
When you use your gift of hospitality to welcome newcomers to Canada and help them to feel at home… you honour Christ.
When you use your gift of leadership to orient a new staff member or to encourage your company to make good, ethical decisions… you honour Christ.
When you use your gift of prayer to bring comfort and encouragement to someone who is feeling alone… you honour Christ.
When you use your gift of social justice by working with the poor, or advocating for the oppressed, or voting to care for those who are in need, rather than for those who have more than they need… you honour Christ.
When you use your gift of evangelism by sharing your faith in word, in action, and by example… you honour Christ.
These are things that so many of you are already doing week by week and day by day. And so, we simply pause to give thanks for all these gifts of the Spirit and all these efforts to put our gifts to good use for the glory of God.
Palm Sunday is a critical moment in our faith. It’s a moment when we raise our voices to praise Jesus our King with our songs and with our lives. But we are also so very aware of what follows the triumphal entry for Jesus and his friends.
The voices that sang out so joyfully and loud are silenced. The feet that ran and danced beside him on the road are scattered away. The praise and honour that was so freely given is quickly retracted when following Jesus becomes so dangerous.
One reflection that I read on this text suggested that the people had “fallen in love” with Jesus, but they hadn’t yet learned to LOVE him. The author said that “falling in love” is about that wonderful feeling you get in your heart – the flutter, the excitement, the wonderful anticipation… But learning TO LOVE is something different. It’s the faithfulness and commitment to relationship and care that may well begin with falling in love. But then it grows, and settles, and becomes steady and sure. And no matter what happens – the good, the bad, the predictable, and the unexpected – love remains, love stays by your side, love is there.
I know… not everyone comes to the special worship services that we have during Holy Week. Perhaps they seem like something extra for those who are especially “in love” with Jesus. But really, they are for everyone… for everyone who has experienced the faithful, steady love of God in Jesus Christ, and for everyone who seeks to respond to his love by loving in return.
As we journey through this week, we will walk with Jesus past the cheering crowds and into the difficulties that will follow. We will allow him to love us by washing our feet and serving us a holy meal. And we will stay with him through the agony of betrayal, denial, abandonment, and death. We will share in his suffering, as so often he has shared in ours. And then, on the third day, we will share in his joy and gladness as well.
As the people once spread their coats on the roadway to honour Christ the King, let us also do all that we can to praise and honour our Lord – with our songs, in our lives, by loving him and walking with him all the way. Amen.