A day of Jesus' choosing--Palm Sunday
Before we get started, let’s pray:
Lord, as we remember your journey to the cross, help us to understand both what you did for us and how in affects us today.
In your name, Lord Jesus, Amen.
When I first moved overseas, to Japan, it was a very long and tedious process, with sudden flurries of activity.
I was laid off from my first job, in Brisbane, and, less than a week later, I was on a plane to Singapore and Japan for an interview for the job in Japan. I started that week without even a birth certificate (let alone a passport, let alone a visa), and I picked up my days-old passport from the Japanese consulate on the way to the airport. I ended the week in Singapore, in a five-star hotel, completely overwhelmed.
After flurry of a couple of days in Singapore and five or six in Tokyo, I returned home to wait. And wait.
It took three months for my working visa to be approved. I spent much of that time with my family up in Charters Towers.
When the visa finally came through, I didn’t start packing until the night before I left. I don’t remember a thing about the actual flight, except that I only took a couple of suitcases to start my new life in Japan. It was February 1991.
Given such a lengthy and drawn out process, it is interesting to ask: when did I make the decision to move to Japan? Was it when I accepted the interview? Was it while I was over there on the interview? Was it when I stepped onto that flight in February?
Now, from my internal perspective, I know that I made the decision while I was in Tokyo on the interview trip. For the last few days of that trip I was left to my own devices, to explore what would be my new home. I found it daunting and difficult, the food was weird, I could hardly read a thing since English was very rare back then, and everything was crowded, noisy, smelly, and small. But I decided then that this would be my home for the next few years, and God would use it to discipline me—to mold me and shape me into a better disciple. And he did!
But you could say that it wasn’t until I set foot on that plane in February that I really made the commitment. I could have pulled out at any time up until then, with minimal effort and cost. I learnt later that it was not uncommon for expats in Tokyo to bail after a few months in the city!
In a way, Passon Week, the almost-week between Palm Sunday and the cross, is similar. It is a process where Jesus is moving towards his final destination, the cross, but its beginning—the triumphal entry to Jerusalem—demonstrates the finality of his decision to pursue the cross.
I want to talk briefly about why Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem the way he did—what he was doing in that process. And I want to talk about how we face the same sorts of points in our lives. If you’ve been doing the Tuesday Night Bible Study, some of this will sound familiar, because Hebrews offers precisely the same challenge: to stand up for our faith despite the possibility of persecution.
The Events of Palm Sunday
The Events of Palm Sunday
But first, let’s get the events of Palm Sunday straight in our heads. In the morning, Jesus joins potentially tens of thousands of pilgrims on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Jerusalem was often host to two to three million people during the Passover festival. Jerusalem’s normal population was around 80,000, so millions of Jews came from around the diaspora every year. Many made there way to Jerusalem via the Jericho road.
Now, on the way out of Jericho, Jesus encountered, and healed, the two blind beggars, as we read in
29 As Jesus and the disciples left the town of Jericho, a large crowd followed behind. 30 Two blind men were sitting beside the road. When they heard that Jesus was coming that way, they began shouting, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
Now, the trip up from Jericho to Jerusalem is about 21km, but it’s all uphill. A long way uphill. In fact, one thousand and twenty-five metres! This is a compressed cross-section, so you can see how it’s just a constant climb from 220m below sea level at Jericho, to 825m above sea level at the Mount of Olives.
For local reference, imagine climbing up to The Best of All Lookout at the southern end of Springbrook over a 20km walk. In this photo, the coast is about 30km away, so Jericho would be near this hill, but at sea level. That’s what Jesus, the crowd, and probably the two blind men did.
Apparently it would take people of that time eight to nine dusty, tiring hours. The countryside there looks like this. That’s modern Jericho in the distance, obviously.
Now, once they got up to Bethphage and Bethany, on the same ridgeline as the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples in to get the donkey colt and its mother. Then, riding on the colt, Jesus headed down into the Valley of Kidron, that separates Jerusalem from the Mt of Olives, and as Mark records,
9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
The Pharisees weren’t too happy about this:
39 But some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, “Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!” 40 He replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!”
And Luke adds,
41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.”
Finally, according to Mark,
11 So Jesus came to Jerusalem and went into the Temple. After looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples.
It is likely that the surrounding villages were filled with people, and, as John reminds us, Jesus had a welcoming place to stay with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany.
Given the context, it is not hard to understand why Jesus got to the temple and merely looked around before heading to Bethany to rest.
Luke jumps straight to the cleansing of the temple, but Mark and Matthew clarify that it was the next day.
So those are the facts. But how do we understand Jesus’ motives? Luke’s account gives us two clues, both in his response to the Pharisees and his response to the sight of Jerusalem.
When Jesus saw Jerusalem, in all its festal glory, he didn’t rejoice. Instead he mourned. He knew that salvation would not come through this great temple, but that it was doomed for destruction.
Nonetheless, Jesus understood that something great was happening. Something so great that even the natural world was somehow aware of it. As he tells the Pharisees,
40 He replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!”
We find what that was in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul says,
19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.
You see, in entering Jerusalem in this way, Jesus was beginning the harvest of those first-fruits Paul talks about: he had begun his final steps to the cross. Jesus’ blood on the cross sets our spirits free from the law of sin and death—this is the first-fruits of Jesus salvation of the whole world. And, furthermore, Jesus resurrection, three days after his death, is the first-fruits of a new creation, set free from its bondage to corruption. Jesus’ resurrection, and the redemptive power of his spirit in our lives, is the down-payment, the evidence, that this re-creation will happen to all of us.
That is what the stones would have cried out: our saviour, Hosanna, blessed is he who comes as God’s servant!
And we understand even more of Jesus’ motivation from the book of Hebrews. It says,
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.
What was the joy set before him? To serve God by reuniting human beings with their creator.
That was the purpose that Jesus set his face towards on that dusty day two thousand years ago. As he climbed the long road from Jericho to Jerusalem, one desire beat in his heart: to set his people free from the bonds of sin and death.
Why a colt of donkey?
Why a colt of donkey?
So why did Jesus choose a colt, and a colt of a donkey, to ride into Jerusalem?
The answer is fairly simple, but it has rich historical connections. You see, a donkey is a beast of burden, not just in the Middle East, but all around the world. Conquerors ride horses, not donkeys. Kings ride donkeys only when they are in danger of losing their kingdom, such as when King David fled from his son’s rebellion down this same road to Jericho a thousand years before Jesus came up it.
Jesus was the king of the universe, the king of kings and Lord of Lords. Why ride a donkey? Even more extreme, why ride the young colt of a donkey!?
The answer is simple. Jesus was not here to conquer. Jesus was here to die. At the end of ages Jesus will indeed come as a conqueror, and all evil and wickedness will flee from him. But first he came as a sacrifice, as a humble lamb to be slaughtered so that the rebels might become children. That’s us: we are the rebels who have been made children by Jesus’ humble sacrifice.
God didn’t have to do this. He could have destroyed us all. He could have prevented us from even existing. But, instead, he killed his own son so that we might receive his life into us.
So, when you see a donkey, think of that: the all-powerful, eternal, majestic son of God, riding on a tiny colt of a donkey because he wanted to lay his life down so that you could receive life.
What “entrance” does God have for us?
What “entrance” does God have for us?
So, we come to the question: what sort of decision does God have for us to make? Where does God want us to point our faces and climb to? And, once we understand that, how do we make sure that we remember what our purpose is? Do you think that, while I was waiting for my Japanese working visa to come through, that I forgot what my decision was, what my future was going to be? Of course not! It was an ever-present reality for me, for months before I made it to Japan.
And for Jesus, he came to die. He never forgot that. He never let anything distract him from that.
For us, we must remember,
17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”
This Easter, this year, this lifetime, let us remember that we have the ministry of explaining to the world that Christ has reconciled them to God, himself, through his death on the cross.
Lord Jesus, we thank you for choosing to see the joy beyond the cross, and humbling yourself, even to death, for our sakes. Fill us with your Spirit so that we, too, might serve our Father, as we too look forward to joy beyond our lives here on earth.
In your name, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.