Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever. Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.” Let the house of Aaron say: “His love endures forever.” Let those who fear the Lord say: “His love endures forever.” In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and He answered by setting me free. The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; He is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I cut them off. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the Lord I cut them off. They swarmed around me like bees, but they died out as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off. I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The Lord's right hand has done mighty things! The Lord's right hand is lifted high; the Lord's right hand has done mighty things!” I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done. The Lord has chastened me severely, but He has not given me over to death. Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you. The Lord is God, and He has made His light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give you thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you. Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of His disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, He sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “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!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
For centuries, this last Sunday before Easter has been set aside to commemorate the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We know it as Palm Sunday, but there is such a stark contrast between what happened on that day, and the apparent despair and defeat at Calvary the following Friday.
You can still walk the route which Jesus followed from Bethany to Jerusalem. Most visitors to modern day Jerusalem will walk the Via Dolorosa, which follows the route Jesus walked on Friday, as He was being led to Golgotha, but I wonder how many tourists also walk the traditional route He followed on Palm Sunday, when He was being praised and proclaimed as the King of kings?
The story of Palm Sunday really is amazing, and like most important dates on the Christian calendar, it is very easy to miss some of the deeper messages. Let’s start with the donkey. What is the significance in Jesus insisting that the donkey He was to ride into Jerusalem should be one which had never been ridden before?
In the Old Testament, in the book of Numbers, the Jews were instructed to sacrifice a red heifer that had never been used for ploughing – for ‘normal’ purposes. In fact it was a requirement that no-one had so much as even put a yoke on it. This heifer was to be used for a sacred purpose, and the same principle applied to the donkey used on Palm Sunday. Donkeys were important in the first century, and there were plenty of them around. Horses were expensive, so for most people donkeys were their only mode of transport, so it would have been quite a task to find one which had never been ridden before, but finding this particular donkey was important: It was an animal which had been set apart for sacred use. Even finding such an animal was not easy, but God provided it, and we can hear an echo of Abraham’s words to his son Isaac in Genesis 22 here: “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied. ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered, ‘God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’
Within a week of the Lord intervening and providing a specific donkey for a sacred purpose on Palm Sunday, the Lamb of God, the only Son of the Father would be set apart for a sacred purpose of infinitely more importance on a cruel cross.
There is also significance in the welcome which Jesus received. He was seen as the conquering hero (the people though, missed the point of what type of hero it was they were welcoming, but more on that later). The traditional welcome when royalty and other people of importance arrived was to lay a carpet of clothing and palm branches on the road. This would protect the VIP’s from getting their feet dirty on the dusty streets, and in a sense it was the ancient parallel to rolling out the red carpet.
Verses 9–10: “Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘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!”
The words used here are important, in that they weren’t just random phrases. Rather, they are a mixture of two ancient Jewish traditions.
When Israel finally entered Canaan after 40 years of living in tents in the desert, God was concerned they would forget His faithfulness during the exodus through the desert, so He gave them the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. During this festival the entire nation would cut branches and built temporary shelters. The whole nation went camping, as it were, as a reminder of God’s grace and provision. After this they would take the branches and march in procession to the temple, singing Psalm 118, focusing particularly on what we know as verses 25 and 26 of the Psalm: “O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.”
Hosanna isn’t just an expression of praise - it’s a prayer to God in which they prayed ‘O Lord, save us.’
The other festival which the people referred to on Palm Sunday was the Feast of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication. It was an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple. As Jesus rode into the city, Biblical scholars believe that the people were remembering another person - Judas Maccabeus. 200 years earlier, the Jewish nation was under Syrian oppression. Finally in 163BC the Syrians were defeated, and Judas Maccabeus rode into Jerusalem in triumph. There was a huge procession and he was welcomed into the city with shouts of praise while the Jews waved palm branches. They basically rolled out the red carpet for him.
Maccabeus had ridden into Jerusalem (possibly using the same route as Jesus would many years later, but that’s mere speculation), and he overthrew the Syrians who had occupied and oppressed the Jews. Maccabeus was the conquering hero who led the revolt, and was the main character in the rededication of the temple.
We need to remember that during Jesus’ time, the Jews were under oppression again, this time from the Roman Empire. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead, so it is quite possible that the people were thinking that if this man could bring a dead man back to life, just imagine what He can do to the Romans.
So the crowds were caught up with powerful images that day. They were a proud nation, and they knew their own history very well.
Three specific cries rose from the crowd.
Firstly, “Hosanna! Lord, save us.” There was a recognition of their need, and a clear understanding that God must do what only He can do. So rather than shouts of praise, in reality it was a prayer of desperation. Roman oppression was particularly cruel, and the Jews were desperate to get rid of them.
Secondly, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” During the Passover, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world came to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. When they arrived at the Temple, they would greet each other, saying: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This was the official greeting at the temple, and it had messianic implications. In other words, when they greeted each other, they were looking in hope to the coming of their promised Messiah, the one they believed was going to overthrow the Romans.
And then the third cry. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David. Hosanna in the highest!” The prophets had foretold that the Messiah would reign on David’s throne forever. During this Passover, unlike previous ones, there was a real hope that maybe this Jesus was the one who was coming to sit on David’s throne, so all of these remarkable circumstances combined led to real sense of hope, anticipation and celebration that day.
Now we might look back today to Palm Sunday and say what a wonderful moment of triumph it was, but that is not the true picture. Not that the fault lay with Jesus – the problem was with the people. It was a bit of triumph, and we do need to give the crowd some credit because they recognised their need, and they knew where to go to have the need met.
But the tragedy is that they had the wrong kind of Messiah in mind. Their problem was not Julius Caesar, but rather sin – their own sin. This is what I meant earlier when I said the people missed the point as to which type of hero it was they were welcoming to Jerusalem. Jesus was rightly welcomed as Messiah by the crowd, but He was not the warrior most people wanted. Within days, the results were not as hoped or expected.
They wanted and thought they were welcoming a war hero, but the first clue that all was not quite what they had expected is in how Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day.
A donkey is an animal of peace, while a horse is an animal of war. Revelation 19:11-16 gives us a vivid picture of what is still to come: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns. He has a name written on Him that no one knows but He Himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and His name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following Him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of His mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron sceptre. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.”
We’re still waiting for this day, but we do know that it is coming. When Jesus returns not on a donkey, but on a white horse, He will come not to overthrow the Roman Empire, but to bring final and total victory over satan and sin.
On Palm Sunday though, Jesus was not coming to sit on a throne, but to die on a cross. The celebration soon changed to confusion, and ultimately to anger. In the Old Testament, Zechariah 9:9 contains this prophesy of Palm Sunday: “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.”
So what does all of this mean to us? In which ways do we fit into the story of Palm Sunday?
I suppose the best way to answer those questions is by asking another question: What kind of a Jesus are you shouting about and celebrating this morning? Social justice is one of the buzzwords in the modern Church, and yes, absolutely, the Church has always had a role to play in speaking truth into oppressive societies sand situations, just like the Roman Empire. We have a Biblical mandate to be the voice of conscience. In Luke 4 Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.”
In our own country we have seen huge changes in the last 20 or so years, but the stain and evil of racial hatred and intolerance remains. As the Church we should be in the front line of the battle against this blight on our society, but the danger is that we end up speaking about a ‘social Jesus’, or a ‘political Jesus’, and not much else.
He is those things. God cares deeply about greed and oppression in whatever form it manifests itself, but Jesus is ultimately a saving Jesus. Again, what kind of a Jesus are you shouting about today?
As the Church we have work to do. You’ll remember James 1:27 from a few weeks ago: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Today we have tangible evidence that we are at least doing something as a congregation for orphans and prisoners, but we must never forget just who Jesus really is, why He came in the first place, and that the world needs to know that truth above all others.
He came in humility that I, a lost sinner who deserves to spend all of eternity in hell, could be forgiven and find peace with God.
Is that your Jesus? Are you doing things for the poor and oppressed because it’s the right thing to do, or are you doing them out of gratitude to the King of kings and Lord of lords who loves you so much that He surrendered His life on a cross for you?