See the Conquering Hero: Some thoughts on Palm Sunday

Nearly every city in the world has statues of men on horses in central squares or parks. Usually these dudes have ridden to the rescue of the city or their country in time of war commanding great armies. Now they are immortalised in stone or bronze often with a fountain nearby. May be today, you wish there was someone on a dashing white charger who will rock up and clear all Covid 19 away!
Today is Palm Sunday and we remember someone else who rode to rescue his city. Yes, this is Jesus riding into Jerusalem, but not on a handsome war horse but a donkey, a plodding beast of burden. Jesus has come to the end of his ministry. His time of teaching and healing people across Galilee and elsewhere is over. Now, with his followers, the twelve disciples and others, he approaches Jerusalem. It is nearly time for the Passover, the great religious festival when the city was alive with Jews from all over the world celebrating God’s great rescue of his people from the hands of the Egyptians, when he allowed the angel of death to ‘pass over’ them. How might we celebrate when the virus has passed over us?
Jesus and his band follow the road up from the Judean desert to the east, through Bethany where Jesus had special friends and approach Bethphage from where the pilgrim route would take them left down the Mount of Olives to Gethsemane and then into the city itself. Jesus pauses. He sends two of his disciples ahead into the village to get a donkey (along with its foal according to Matthew). He’s clearly planned this out beforehand. It’s all been arranged. It’s so important to him. When they come back with the donkey, they put cloaks on it in place of a saddle, Jesus mounts the beast and as he starts off towards the city, the crowd spontaneously grab branches from beside the road including palms and wave them shouting ‘Hosanna (a Hebrew word of praise meaning to save or rescue) to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matthew 21.9)
That’s the story we all know. That’s why we have crosses made from palm wood. It’s the happy bit before the grim events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem and the crucifixion on Friday. But what is the meaning of this? Why did Jesus plan it this way and how might it be significant to our lives today?
The first thing to note is that Jesus chooses a donkey and not a fine specimen of a horse. The point to make here is that Jesus comes to his city in gentleness and peace. As Isaiah had predicted many years before about God’s servant: ‘he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick.’ (Isaiah 42.3) Jesus does not come with shock and awe like Tyson Fury. He makes this plain as he rides the donkey an animal called upon to help in the unglamorous everyday tasks. He does not come to pick a fight. He is using an everyday car rather than a tank or an armoured personal carrier. Some of his followers might have wanted to see it differently, to see Jesus as a rebel raising an insurgency against the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and wider Israel, but as he rides the donkey, Jesus comes in humility and above all love.
Secondly, there is a deeper meaning underlying Jesus’ actions. Those who knew their bibles; their old testaments well, would remember that there was a prophet called Zechariah who had talked about a king coming to Jerusalem riding a donkey. Matthew quotes part of the prophecy for us: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21.6 after Zechariah 9.9) The prophecy goes on to speak of this king bringing peace to the nations; that ‘his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.’ (Zechariah 9.10) As we’ve already said, at least some of Jesus’ friends and many in the crowd who waved the branches would have hoped Jesus would begin an uprising which would see the Romans in Jerusalem overthrown. That was too small a vision for Jesus. As he takes to the donkey, he’s wanting to say clearly that he is the king who will bring peace to the nations; that his rule extends throughout the world. That’s an amazing statement to make. Nothing in the world is beyond his power and control. At a time when all our worlds are upside down, may the peaceful rule of Jesus and his kingdom find a place in all our hearts. May we be assured that nothing we may encounter in this world, even death itself is outside the control of Jesus.
Yet, there is one final layer to the Palm Sunday story that we do well to take on board. Again, we need to look to our old testaments to find it. The true king of Israel, of Jerusalem, of Zion was none other than God himself. It is a thought often echoed in the psalms. Jerusalem is described as the ‘city of our God’, ‘His holy mountain’ (Psalm 48.1). Jesus himself describes it as the ‘city of the Great King’ (Matthew 5.35) Isaiah speaks of messengers on the mountains crying out ‘Your God reigns’ as the Lord returns to Zion. (Isaiah 52.7-8) Is not Jesus tapping into this tradition as he makes his way down the Mount of Olives on the donkey with the palm waving crowds? Is he not saying in effect now the moment has come when God comes into his city?
In Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus weeps over the city. His heart is heavy because people simply don’t recognise on this day the things that make for peace. (Luke 19.41-42) Many of his followers did not get it. They wanted Jesus to start a rebellion. The Jewish leaders did not understand either. Surely God would not appear in his holy city in the humble gentle disturbing form of the carpenter’s son from Nazareth in Galilee?
Many people who were there at the time, witnessing the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion did not understand what was happening, what the full impact would be either for future history let alone in God’s scheme of things. That’s a theme that members of the Wrexham clergy team will take up in daily bible studies throughout this holy week on face book and other platforms at 7.00pm each evening. But the challenge for us is this: Do we recognise what was going on? What difference does it make for you?
We have benefit of hindsight, of the Holy Spirit and the witness of the apostles, yet we can still be slow to understand just who Jesus was and is and the how walking with him affects every part of our lives. Jesus came to us in great humility. If Coronavirus had spread across first century Israel, he would not have been immune, but as the true king riding into the city, as God visiting his capital, there is no way in which the virus could ultimately master him. As we own him as our Lord and Saviour, may we experience the true hope that comes from the assurance of his victory in this crisis. After the example of Jesus, this should not be smug or glib just the confidence in Him, all shall be well.

Rev Jonathan Smith

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