Palm Sunday: The Wrong King
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, 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, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 22:1-11)
(You can find the other readings for this Sunday, as well as the collects, at the end of this email).
Here’s a question: why are the crowds so excited when Jesus comes in to the Jerusalem? There is a sense that Palm Sunday is an entirely underwhelming affair - man rides into city on donkey - yet it is clear from the response of the crowd that there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Now, it's true that Jesus has quite a reputation by this time. The stories of his teaching and miracles had reached throughout Israel, and had brought with it much opposition from the authorities. And there is nothing like ruffling establishment feathers to make you popular with the public! But there is more going on. All this language of the ‘Son of David’, and ‘coming in the name of the Lord’ points to some deeper idea. And then there is Matthew’s comment about the ancient prophecy.
King David was the greatest of the kings of Israel. Ruling around one thousand years before Palm Sunday, he conquered Jerusalem and brought peace to the nation. He was a gifted military general, and the borders of Israel had never been larger. He was a great monarch but was equally remembered as a great man of God. After all, in 1 Samuel 13:14 we read: “The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people”. This is the man who composed so many of the Psalms, and this is the man whom God set upon the throne is Israel with the words:
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever.’”
“For ever!”. And oh, how the Jews longed for another like David to come, throw off the Roman yoke and sit on that throne! Oh, how they wished to once more to have an Israel free from foreign occupation. How they hoped they would live to see a ‘son of David’. And here comes one of the descendants of the great King, riding into the capital on a colt, bringing to mind those hallowed words of prophecy:
‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
No wonder they greet Jesus as a king, spreading palms on the road and crying out “hosanna”! No wonder they called him “blessed”. No wonder the whole city was “stirred up”.
And what a great disappointment Jesus must have been: no insurgency, no revolution. I wonder if some who cried ‘hosanna’ were in the crowd which a few days later cried ‘crucify’? I wonder if some who cried ‘hosanna’ were there forty years later when the Temple itself was demolished by the Romans?
We all want our knights on white chargers. We all want instant solutions. We all want things to be the way we want them to be. In the end, we all want to be in control.
Yes, God could have sent Christ to reign over the citizens of Jerusalem, but what a small vision that would be compared with the countless millions who have become citizens of heaven! Yes, God could have given a fresh lease of life to a beleaguered Israel, but what a small vision that would be compared to granting eternal life to those who follow Jesus!
So much of the Bible deals with people trying to understand God’s actions from their own perspective. And spectacularly missing the point. No wonder God has to remind us:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
A King did ride up to the gates that first Palm Sunday, but it was not the King they were expecting. The population were right in laying out the palms and greeting the “son of David”, but they did so for the wrong reasons. God’s vision was larger and broader than they had imagined. He was not ‘King of the Jews’ only but rather the ‘Lord of Lords and King of Kings’. An eternal King with an eternal Kingdom.
Just as had been promised to King David one thousand years earlier.
Oh Christian take comfort from this. We have a saviour who is all powerful, and who reigns over all. We don’t hope in a weak God who might let us down, but “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). Those wonderful promises of God are made by one who can keep them.
Think ye it a small honour to stand before the throne of God and the Lamb? and to be clothed in white, and to be called to the marriage supper of the Lamb? and to be led to the fountain of living waters, and to come to the Well-head, even God Himself, and get your fill of the clear, cold, sweet, refreshing water of life, the King’s own well? and to put up your own sinful hand to the tree of life and take down and eat the sweetest apple in all God’s heavenly paradise, Jesus Christ, your life and your Lord? Up your heart! shout for joy! Your King is coming to fetch you to His Father’s house.
(Samuel Rutherford, 1600-1661)