Palm Sunday, 2011
Immanuel Community Church
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey!”
These are some of the most confident, commanding words in all of Scripture. God is singing out prophetically to his people with an image of potent humility that nearly defies words. And yet here are the words. Until you understand the prophecy and experience it the way Jesus did, you’ll never really understand Palm Sunday or the really huge thing that happened that day.
Jesus had started the day with his disciples in the house at Bethany where Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus lived. This was where Jesus and his disciples stayed whenever they were in Jerusalem. It is only about five miles out from the City, and while it is a challenging walk, it provided them at least some small amount of privacy and a place to retreat to at the end of a day in Jerusalem as well as a place to pause before going into the City on pilgrimage and rest after the long trip down from Capernaum on the Northwestern rim of the Sea of Galilee.
That’s what they had been doing on this particular Sunday. If the biblical record in Luke is in the correct order, Jesus had spent several days in Bethany after raising Lazarus from the dead, so this was already anything but an ordinary visit. Since no one in Israel would have traveled on a Sabbath, he had waited until Sunday to move his entourage the rest of the way into Jerusalem for Passover week.
They had already arranged a rental hall on the second floor of a house in the main city. That’s where they would gather as a group and celebrate Passover on the coming Thursday evening. Galileans and Pharisees celebrated on Thursday evening because for them, the day of the 14th of Nissan began at Sundown the night before. The Saducees and most Judean Jews celebrated Passover on Friday evening because their day began on Friday at dawn. So much for a consistent calendar! In any case, this strange arrangement made it a whole lot easier on the priests in Jerusalem who, by law, had to slaughter all of the paschal lambs and goats between 12 and 3 pm on the afternoon before Passover. Just parenthetically, what that means is that the priests who were working on behalf of the Pharisees who put Jesus to death were most likely sacrificing the Passover Lambs at the same moment that the Lamb of God was being sacrificed on a cross.
The walk in from Bethany took them from the village at the Eastern base of Mt. Olivet – the Mount of Olives – up a steep set of switchbacks, a climb of over 1000 feet, until they came to just a set of huts… it couldn’t properly be called a village, though it had a name… Bethphage. That’s where scene one of the drama happened.
Jesus had sent two of his disciples, whose names have been lost to history, on ahead of the group to commandeer a donkey and her colt from in front of one of the huts in Bethphage. I’m sure the owner of the older donkey wasn’t surprised that someone would want to rent her. Walking up the hill from Bethany was one thing, but people who came through Bethphage were often tired by the time they got to the top of this last rise, and frankly there was a little money to be made ferrying them down to the Kidron Valley beyond. It isn’t very far from there, maybe another couple of miles into Jerusalem, but sometimes older people especially liked the service.
Two disciples, whose names have been lost to history. God uses little things.
It was Jesus wanting the colt also that they couldn’t understand. “A colt! What does he want with a donkey colt? After what happened with Lazarus there would be huge crowds waiting in Jerusalem. The picture of Jesus riding down into the valley and up to the Temple at the top of Mt. Moriah on a colt! That would make him look downright ridiculous. It certainly wouldn’t be befitting of someone they knew was about to be proclaimed king of Israel.
Two nameless disciples and a donkey colt. God uses little things.
Just as the owner of the donkey wasn’t surprised to find someone wanting to rent his beast of burden, the disciples weren’t surprised when they got to the hut and there actually was a donkey there. These guys had gone in and out of Jerusalem frequently over the past couple of years, and each time they had passed through Bethphage on the way to or from Jerusalem. When they met the fellow who owned the two donkeys all they said was, “The Master has need of them!” They didn’t even identify Jesus by name. That’s because the man who owned the donkeys probably knew them by name even though you and I will never know who they were. And even if he didn’t know who they were, he knew who Jesus was. At this point everyone knew who Jesus was.
The man handed over the two donkeys happily. As the two disciples walked off back down the hillside with two donkeys in tow, I like to think a little smile came across the donkey owner’s face and he shook his head as he stood in bemused wonderment in front of the hovel he called home. I think it was probably this poor man who first thought of the 600 year old prophecy of Zechariah, and chuckled to himself, “Behold, your king is coming to you mounted on a donkey.” The only part of his life narrative anyone would ever remember was that he was the person who let Jesus use his donkeys for a few hours one Sunday morning.
A poor man who eked out a living renting donkeys to passing travellers. Two nameless disciples who went on an errand just because Jesus asked them to. A donkey colt not yet old enough to really be ridden on. God uses little things.
By the time Jesus and his followers reached Bethphage the man had already assembled all of his neighbors, and so the entire village of Bethphage followed Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all the rest of his disciples down the western side of the ridge and headed toward Jerusalem. As they went, the man who owned the donkeys was heard shouting over and over again, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!” He was yelling and crying like a madman, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice, O Daughter of Jerusalem!” But his cries were drowned out by the growing cheers of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!”
One voice lost in a crowd, prophesying a few words first spoken 600 years before by an obscure Minor prophet. A poor man who eked out a living renting donkeys to passing travellers. Two nameless disciples who went on an errand just because Jesus asked them to. A donkey colt not yet old enough to really be ridden on. God uses little things.
At the point where they crossed the top of the ridge of hills called Mt. Olivet and began their decent, Olivet is about 2700 feet above sea level, with the Kidron Valley and the brook that runs through it all that separates pilgrims from the gates of Jerusalem, Mt. Moriah, and the commanding height where the Temple stood. Moriah is 2430 feet tall, and so a natural bowl is formed between the mountains.
About half way down the Western slope of Olivet Jesus paused and just stood there for a long time. At first the yelling and shouting continued, but people in crowds are still aware when one person among them is having an emotional moment. And so it didn’t take any hushing before the sound died out and a profound hush settled over the whole group. Some noticed he was crying, just like he had several days before when he heard his friend Lazarus was dead.
In the relative silence of the moment, one of the Pharisees, whose name has also been mercifully left from the text was insensitive enough to yell out, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”
Jesus had crouched down on the hillside, being so overcome with emotion he could not really stand. Back in Capernaum when he was teaching in the Synagogue they had brought a woman to him who was caught in adultery. He had crouched down this way that day when the Elders of Israel were about to stone her. The last time Jesus was in Jerusalem he had crouched down this way and told the leaders of the Jews plainly that he was the Son of God, and they would have stoned him that day except that they were in the Temple and didn’t want to start a riot. Now he was crouching down and crying. He turned his head slightly and picked up a stone from the ground and said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Suddenly, and so loudly the whole Kidron Valley seemed to shake, Jesus cried out “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Jesus said this around 33 AD. Luke wrote it down around 60 AD. It wasn’t until 70 AD when Jerusalem was sacked and the temple was destroyed for the last time. I have think that someone was probably standing on this same hillside thirty-seven years later, watching the smoke rise from the besieged city, and that that person probably sat among these same stones and wept because they now knew the things that make for peace.
A few small stones. One voice lost in a crowd. A poor man who rented donkeys. Two disciples who went on an errand. A donkey colt not yet old enough to be ridden on. God uses little things.
Jesus finally stood up. Now the action of the riot escalated quickly. He walked back over to where the main body of the growing crowd was. A few of them had thrown their cloaks over the back of the donkey colt. Awkwardly, Jesus got on her back and began to ride the short distance down into the Kidron Valley. All the rest of the way down the hillside, until they reached the brook beyond, people were throwing their cloaks down for the donkey to walk on. A modern observer would be reminded of the scene every spring at the Academy Awards when they roll out the red carpet, something people do for royalty and for presumed royalty. They didn’t have banners to wave, so a some of them climbed some of the nearby palm trees and cut branches off to wave. It was like a poor people’s coronation. All the while, the chorus of “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!” kept being passed back and forth across the crowd. By the time they got to the bottom of the hillside and crossed the river, some of those cloaks had been recycled twenty times, as the cloaks at the back of the procession were passed up to the front to extend the red carpet all the way to the city gate. For most of these people these were the only extra garment they owned. Nights can get chilly in Jerusalem in the spring. By the time they were done with the procession these cloaks weren’t good for anything except to be thrown out. Why do we call it Palm Sunday, when the real sacrifice that day was a gift of clothing, hilariously thrown away to celebrate the Master’s arrival in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t it be called Cloak Sunday? Most of us today have closets, full of clothes we rarely use. Have we given a spare sock to celebrate Jesus? But this day the poor gave their only warm clothes to Jesus just because he was King. Would you and I give our spare clothes to the poor just because Jesus is Lord?
Some cloaks. Palm branches. A few small stones. One voice lost in a crowd. A poor man who rented donkeys. Two disciples who went on an errand. A donkey colt not yet old enough to be ridden on. God uses little things.
The narrative of Palm Sunday ends anticlimactically. Mark’s gospel adds the tag that, after they arrived in Jerusalem and the mock parade had broken up, probably with good feelings all around and people congratulating each other on their part in the whole thing, that Jesus went into the Temple and simply looked around at everything that was there. Mark says, “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” They has spent the whole morning and most of the afternoon getting here from Bethany. Yes, it had been an exciting and emotional day. But there was no coronation at the end of it. There was no stoning by the Pharisees. There was no confrontation with Pilate’s guards. The crowd had simply dispersed and left Jesus and The Twelve to walk the five miles quietly back to Martha and Mary’s house out in Bethany, like members of a marching band in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, who realize they’ve gotten to the end of the parade and their cars aren’t at 34th street and they have to walk all the way back to Central Park with their trombones hanging at their side.
On the way back up Mt. Olivet, they passed over the same path they had come down six hours earlier. Cloaks. Branches. Stones. Voices. Two disciples, assigned to where Martha had some food waiting for them, no doubt. God uses little things.
On April 15th every year, Jama and I go out for a drink. You see, April 15th is not just Tax Day. It is the ironic anniversary of the day in 2002 when her father, who had spent his life trying to find ways to shelter as much of what he had made from the IRS as he possibly could so he would have a gift to pass on to his three children died. Jama’s dad, who always seemed to be working on some form from the IRS died on Tax Day. Jama’s dad was also a 50s-era dad who loved to toast a celebratory moment with an extra-dry martini with a twist of lemon. That is why, two days ago, Jama and I went looking for a quiet bar in a hotel where we could raise a glass and toast dad.
The first place we went to could make us a martini, they said, but they didn’t have the traditional long-stemmed glasses. For some reason they now serve martinis in short glasses. Maybe that is the stylish thing to do these days. Anyway, that’s why we left the more elegant digs of the Crowne Plaza, and went down the street to the Courtyard by Marriot. Could a place like that even make a decent martini?
Predictably, we were the only people in the place. We sat down on a couple of comfy chairs near the bar and a young man named Ryan took our order. He brought a bowl of chips over and presented us with our martinis in long-stemmed glasses. I guess they were good. I don’t really like vodka much and I can’t stand vermouth. But this was the anniversary of the day Jama’s Dad died, on April 15th, Tax Day, and we wanted to toast him.
The Red Sox were in the 8th inning against Toronto, and were behind 6 to 7. That’s what drew us to leave the comfy chairs and sit at the bar where Ryan was washing glasses. As we sipped our drink and watched the Sox lose for the 9th time in two weeks, we struck up a conversation with Ryan about his twin daughters and about parenthood and about the little things parents worry about. And Ryan told us that he was 35 and had almost died from a heart attack last year, even though he is athletic and was in great shape. I had mentioned I was a pastor. He had mentioned that he was Catholic. At one point Ryan pulled out the book he was currently reading by Thomas Merton, the great Catholic mystic. Jama and I recommended some of the writings of C.S. Lewis and we talked about how something like a heart attack can really lead you to the Lord. Ryan affirmed that his heart attack had certainly got him thinking. He said he wanted to know Christ better, but wasn’t sure where to start.
When we parted company, we told Ryan he’d see us again. And he will. Though not for martinis. You see, we now know where to find someone who is seeking God, because Jama’s Dad died on Tax Day and we couldn’t find the right kind of glasses in the first bar and the Red Sox were losing to Toronto and Ryan was on the late shift that night because Ryan had twin four year old daughters and needed some extra cash and Ryan had brought Thomas Merton to work because the bar at the Courtyard is quiet and the customers are few.
Cloaks. Branches. Stones. Voices. Two disciples. A long-stemmed martini glass. A Red Sox game. A heart attack. A man ready to hear “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey!”
God uses little things.