Palm Sunday

TEXTS: Zechariah 9:9-12 and Matthew 21:1-11

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matt. 21:5)

That, of course, is verse five of chapter 21 of Matthew’s Gospel—quoting the prophet Zechariah, and referring to his portrayal of the coming Messianic King. But—if you recall the preamble to this “triumphal entry”—Jesus has apparently made arrangements in advance, for he sends two of his disciples ahead, telling them, “Go into the village … and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say … ‘The Lord needs them.’  And he will send them immediately” (Matt. 21:2-3).

And why? “To fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet.”

This was a very carefully staged event. Every Jew in Jerusalem would certainly have been aware of Zechariah’s prophecy. This was how the Messiah would announce himself. This would mark the beginning of his reign, and the coming of God’s Kingdom, and the liberation of Jerusalem.

“When you see the Messiah astride a donkey’s back, you will know that the nation’s deliverance is at hand!”  That’s what everyone thought. That’s what the crowd thought. That’s what the Pharisees thought. That’s the imagery the chief priests and scribes were familiar with. Even if they doubted that Jesus was the real deal, they would have understood the statement he was making by acting out the prophet’s words.

Every Jew who saw Jesus that day would realize he was claiming Messiahship for himself. He knew that some would believe this, and rejoice. He knew that some would see him as an imposter, or a fake, or a lunatic. And he knew that nobody would really understand what he was doing—not even his own disciples.

See … All of them understood the Messianic imagery. But, apparently, none of them had paid attention to the rest of Zechariah’s prophecy. Did you notice it?

“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey …” So far, so good. Here comes the king—the long-promised Messiah. And not a moment too soon. Jerusalem—and all Judea—has been under the heel of Rome far too long. It’s about time the Lord sent his Anointed One to save us. To raise an army and drive the Romans out.

So far, so good. But what about the other part? Where it says: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations …?”

Yes. That part. Jesus is not coming as a warrior Messiah. He’s not going to raise an army, or wield a sword. And the only “driving out” he’s going to do is turning over the tables in the Temple courtyard. Caiaphas and Pilate have nothing to worry about … but the adoring crowds are going to be hugely disappointed in him.

Jesus knows all of that, too. The political and religious authorities misunderstand him as completely—and as utterly—as do the throngs of well-wishers lining the streets and waving their palm salutations. And they are all going to end up shouting, “Crucify him!”

How has it come to this? Why did no one see this coming?

Well, actually, someone did. Jesus did. He’s always known that donkey would be carrying him to his death. How many times, already, has he tried to tell us this? Just listen to these passages from earlier in Matthew’s account.

A week before his Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1), and just after revealing his Messiahship to them, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21).

After that, as they were preparing to leave Galilee for Jerusalem, he told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matt. 17:22-23).

And on the way to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last Passover with them, he took his disciples aside and told them that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (Matt. 20:17-19).

But somehow, they don’t believe it. They think it won’t really happen.

Peter thinks all Jesus needs is a pep-talk: “This won’t happen to you! God won’t let it happen. You’re too good a player to take out of the game. And, besides, you’ve got us! Better than that, you’ve got me! Together, we’re unbeatable.”

Peter seems to think his rabbi is simply going through a crisis of confidence. He just doesn’t get it. None of them gets it. They don’t want to hear it. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ words make them “greatly distressed” (Matt. 17:23). Mark says, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32).

Afraid to ask him? Ask him what? What part of “They’re gonna kill me!” don’t you understand?

Denial. It’s not just a river in Egypt. Out of that band of 13 men, Jesus appears to be the only one who’s not in denial. He knows—perhaps he has always known—what lies ahead for him.

Why are the male disciples so dense?

I ask that question because—from the gospel record—it’s clear that at least some of Jesus’ female followers understood where things were going. Like Martha’s sister Mary, who—a whole week before his crucifixion—anointed Jesus in preparation for his burial (John 12:1-8).

But, I digress. A better question to ask on this day is: Why did Jesus go through with it? Living in Roman-occupied Judea, he would certainly have seen men die on the cross. It was the Empire’s favoured method of execution. It was agonizingly painful, and wretchedly slow. The sweet relief of death took many hours—sometimes even days—to arrive. Jesus knew all of this. He knew, also, that from the moment of his high-profile entry into the city, he would be a marked man. As he rode into Jerusalem that day, the spectre of the cross had to spring—vividly—before his mind’s eye. The cross. His cross. His personal cross. His personalized cross—complete with a nameplate above his head, reading: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

So why did he do it? I remember having a conversation about this with someone who thought the answer to that question had to do with Jesus’ awareness of the eventual outcome: “He knew he was going to be crucified, sure—but he also knew he was going to rise again. So, of course he went through with it. Knowing that, wouldn’t you?

Wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I gladly be flogged and beaten and nailed to a cross and left to die, if I knew I’d only have to stay dead for two days?

Uh … truthfully, I think the answer is, “NO!”  There’s not anything on that list that I am hankering to experience. I would love to be able to tell you that I might consider going through that hell if it meant I could save the world as a result … but I know that I don’t have anything close to the necessary courage.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I think I’m exempt from the call to suffer—or to die for my faith. Or lay down my life for my friends.

I’m just saying I hope I never have to find out whether I’ve got what it takes to do that … because I’m afraid I already know what the answer is … And that’s why I am so in awe of this man riding the donkey.

Why did he do it? Because—as he explained later to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world” (John 18:37). He was, as the Book of Revelation refers to him, “the Lamb that was slaughtered from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

Jesus believed that he was living out his Father’s plan; a plan for the reconciliation of the world; a plan to bridge the deep abyss between God and his children—a plan to end the estrangement between creature and Creator. It was a plan that could only take effect as humanity and divinity were reconciled in the person of Jesus the Christ—the one in whom we see “God revealed as one of us.” And for it to mean something—for it to mean anything—this person … this divine and human person … had to live an authentic human existence. Otherwise, he would not truly be one of us.

Here’s the really astonishing thing, for me. He had a choice. Jesus could have opted out. He could have grabbed the only lifejacket. He could’ve swam for shore. He could’ve changed his mind. We know he thought about it. His prayer in Gethsemane, after all, was this: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me …” (Matt. 26:39).

The Son of God was also a Son of Man. This was a real human being, and he was terrified. He wanted to bolt and run. I would have! God’s plan or not, I would’ve been past the other side of the Kidron Valley long before Judas arrived with the cops.

But Jesus stayed put. In the end, for him, it came down to this: “Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:42).

“Not what I want, but what you want” (Matt. 26:39). “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

That, my friends, is radical obedience. The kind of radical obedience that Jesus demonstrated throughout his life. Absolute, uncompromising devotion to the will of God.

But today … today, as he approaches the city gates … as he realizes this plan is about to come together … as he contemplates everything that means … today, it gets real. Today, the final leg of his journey begins.

Welcome to Holy Week.

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