We are nearing the end of our Lenten journey. As one friend on Facebook observed, this Lent in many ways may feel like “the lentist lent we have ever lented” Today turns the calendar to the beginning of the most holy week of our Christian faith. Once again we will hear the familiar stories of Christ. Stories of palms. Of crowds yelling hosanna. Stories of disciples procuring a donkey and a colt. Stories of a humble king, riding on donkey and colt, with eyes fixed on the cross. A story of crowds gathering, some waving branches, some curious onlookers asking, who is this?
Friends, we know the stories- we know the one riding in on the donkey and colt, the best kind of troublemaker- the one whom we worship and adore. Our worship may look and feel different this year. We may remain physically apart, yet the one entering into Jerusalem remains the same, and binds us all together in His immense love. In spite of our communal worship leaving the church building, we are still the church. We are still the people of God sent out into the world. We are the church still as we worship in our living rooms, outside on our patios, or around our dining room tables. Palm Sunday looks and feels different but the story and the words of scripture are unchanging.
So as we once again turn to the story of Palm Sunday, I invite us all to take a collective breath and close our eyes during this pause and reading. As I read I invite you to imagine yourself in the crowd. What do you see? What do we hear? What do we feel? Hear now these words from Matthew 21:1-11.
21 When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.
8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus, is our Lord and Savior, and the best kind of troublemaker. His triumphal Entry was not a spontaneous event, it was very calculated and planned. Jesus entered Jerusalem’s chaos knowing things would be stirred up and the cross was on the horizon. Jesus was not the passive recipient of impromptu adoration. Though worship might have happened, it was not the point.
In their compelling book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that two processions entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry. You see, every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west. Why? To be present in the city for Passover — the Jewish festival that swelled Jerusalem’s population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000. The governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate an ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to. But real, present-day resistance (if anyone was daring to consider it) was futile. Jesus’ triumphal entry was holy resistance; Jesus is a Holy troublemaker, riding into Jerusalem’s chaos on a donkey.
Compared to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, here is Borg and Crossan’s description of Pontius Pilate’s imperial procession, loud and showy. “A visual of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.” It’s important to remember that according to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the Son of God.
Enter Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the true Son of God and the best kind of troublemaker. While there were two entries into Jerusalem that day, there was only one humble King. He is the one who comes to be with the people, not to oppress them. He comes on a donkey and colt, not an imperial stallion. He comes to fulfill ancient prophecies, not appease his ego. He comes to save us, maybe not in the way we think we need, but in the way we truly need to be saved. He comes into our midst, eyes focused on the cross, no matter where we are.
Jesus tends to draw crowds. He tends to stir things up. The Greek word seio, meaning “stirred up” is only found five times in all the New Testament. Three of the five times occur in the gospel of Matthew. All of the three occurrences are related to Jesus’ Passion and resurrection story. Jesus enters into our stirred up and chaotic world.
As Jesus entered the scene, crowds gathered and shouted, Hosanna! Or Save us! Things were stirred up. Some in the crowd, ask who is this person? While palms and cloaks are place on his path, Jesus’ ears rang with cries of Hosanna, cries of people asking to be saved. Cries of those who were sick and lonely. Cries of those who were in need.
What does this familiar story mean for us this day? This year we will wave our palms in our homes and not on the beautiful streets of Old Town Winchester. Yes, our celebrations will without a doubt be simpler, quieter, and certainly less demonstrative than gathering with our friends on Old Town Mall. However, these quiet offerings of celebrations will not be stopped. The Son of Man enters into our living rooms no less lovingly than he rode into the streets of Jerusalem. Friends, nothing can stop Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. All our anxieties, concerns, grief, cries, all the things that stir up our souls and cause us to tremble- none of those things, can ever, EVER, prevent Jesus from being with us in our midst. COVID-19 or not, Jesus enters fully into the stirred up city of Jerusalem.
Our losses are real, even as God in Christ meets us in them. They are still hard. As author and pastor, Jill Duffield writes, “As we grieve what is lost this year- the waving of palms, the swell of the organ, the handshakes and hugs- we can be assured Jesus meets us exactly where we are, no matter how we are. Jesus will not stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem or on the fringes of our lives. He enters fully into the city knowing what’s to come. He enters fully into our lives, knowing our doubts, failings, denials, betrayals, misunderstandings and disappointments. He comes humbly toward us, accepting whatever we offer, a palm branch or tattered coat, exuberant praise or mumbled hope, knowing that soon he will go to the cross for our sake.”
So friends, as we begin holy week differently than we may have anticipated, know that you are loved. Know that our Lord and Savior is with you no matter where you are. I’m going to close a little differently than I might have if we were meeting in person today. I’m going to close by asking you to reflect on two questions. These are some questions I read in the Presbyterian Outlook this week. I would encourage you to take some time after the service to chat about these questions with your families or friends.
- What are your favorite Palm Sunday memories? Think about how you can incorporate the meaningful aspects of this Holy Sunday in your day today.
- What do you have to offer Jesus this week? What metaphorical palm branch will you wave or coat will place down? How can you be the church this Holy Week wherever you are?
Friends, as you discuss these questions, remember and know nothing can prevent the best kind of troublemaker from entering into the stirred up places of your life and being present with you. Nothing can prevent Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. And all God’s children said, amen.