At the start of Holy Week – I am blogging my Palm Sunday Sermon, because this one was actually written down, so it is easy to blog!
The children were singing in the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” A small verse, often overlooked. Yet an immensely powerful verse, and one which brings this Palm Sunday right into the twentieth century. A verse that speaks of life as we know it. The children were singing in the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Jesus gets onto a donkey at the village of Bethphage – the limits of the city of Jerusalem and rides in triumphant procession through the gates of the city. People are cheering and waving, singing psalms and decorating the way with palm branches and with their cloaks. The procession moves further into the city, and towards the Temple. Near the Temple is the Antonia garrison. A legion of Roman soldiers is standing ready. There is always trouble at Passover. Being posted to Jerusalem at Passover time was (for those old enough to remember) like being posted to Northern Ireland during the parade of the Orange Men.
Some of those soldiers – most of them – are conscripts from all over the Roman Empire. Many of them would have been young men – perhaps teenagers – who had already witnessed the bloodshed and violence that could be unleashed when people opposed Rome. They don’t really want to get involved in that.
As the procession gets closer, the soldiers get nervous and jumpy. Their knuckles turn white as they grasp their spears. The crowd sees the soldiers and some melt away into the backstreets. They nervously drop their palm branches, cover their faces with their cloaks, and all silent. As they reach the outer courts of the Temple only the children are singing. They are told to by the adults, the adults give them the words and push them forward. You see, the children won’t be arrested.
If you recall news footage that you have seen of the Middle-East over the last 20 years, isn’t it often the children who throw the stones at the army vehicles through the clouds of teargas? Some things never change. The Palestinians assumed that the children wouldn’t be arrested (though quite often children are shot at and killed). Demonstrating against an occupying power can be a very dangerous business you see. Just as the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today demonstrate against the occupying might of the Israeli army, so the Palm Sunday procession led by Jesus was seen as some kind of demonstration against the occupying might of Rome.
Jesus was walking a dangerous path, and he knew it. There were other Palm Sundays. On one occasion Theodus of Jordan marched into Jerusalem and led hundreds of followers out into the hills where he claimed he would repeat the miracles of Elijah. On that occasion the soldiers rode out and slaughtered 400 of Theodus’ followers. They brought back his head and stuck it on the Garrison wall as a lesson to all would-be Messiahs. Jesus knew he was walking a dangerous path.
“Hosannah, hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” These were words that every Jew knew well. They are from psalm 118 if you want to look them up, verses 25 & 26. This psalm was always used at the feast of Tabernacles and the feast of Passover. At both these festivals the Jews praised God for setting them free from slavery in Egypt. After they had been conquered by other nations, these festivals became times of prayer for freedom. Prayer that God would act again in a mighty and spectacular way – plagues, pillars of fire and smoke, parting of the sea, miraculous food in the desert, water from a rock – and set them free again. In Jesus day the fervent prayer was for freedom from the Roman empire, the occupying power. Freedom from crippling taxes and all kinds of oppression.
“Hosanna ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” By shouting this, the crowd are saying, “At long last, here comes the one who will lead us in rebellion against the Romans.” You see, the Jews were looking for a Messiah under every rock and stone. At Passover time they were whipped up into a frenzy of excitement. They were ready to follow a leader, they were ready for God’s mighty act of salvation. The Romans were finally going to get what was coming to them.
The palms that they waved were a long-standing symbol of Jewish Nationalism. The Romans knew this and they were jumpy. Things could have got very nasty. Jesus only had to say the word, and a bloodbath would have ensued. At that moment he held in his hand the power of the mob, the power to unite a mixed crowd against a common enemy. I wonder if he cast his mind back to his time of testing in the wilderness when he was tempted to tread the road that led to power and might and military strength. He rejected it in the desert, he rejects it now.
Can you imagine the confusion, the disappointment, the frustration of those cheering, excited followers, when Jesus is led from Pilates palace in chains and with the skin and muscle torn off his back, too weak even to carry his own cross. Maybe some of those who had cheered on Palm Sunday joined in with the soldiers’ mocking and jeering. It must have been a relief to them to see this potential rabble-rouser and trouble-causer now so humble and weak. At least they wouldn’t have to spend the week quelling a riot or a rebellion.
They jeered and spat in derision. “Call yourself a Messiah? What use is a Messiah in chains? Call yourself a prophet? Go on then, tell us who hit you.”
How easily human hope is extinguished. How easily adoration becomes hatred. It might have been easier if he had gone down fighting, if he’d argued in his defence, if he had pulled off some amazing escape, if he had called down legions of angels to free him from his captors. But who respects a man who marches submissively to his death, with no rousing deathbed speech, seemingly with no stomach for the fight? The disciples and the crowds were crippled with disappointment.
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And then more directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had blurted out, “You are the Messiah.” At the gates of Jerusalem the crowds took up Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, Hosanna in the highest.” And yet all along that long and arduous walk to Jerusalem the disciples had bickered and argued about which among them would have the best seat in God’s coming kingdom. Jesus trod the road weary and disillusioned, he was about to leave God’s work in the hands of a few social misfits who displayed no understanding of the teaching he had given them over the last three years.
Maybe his silence was a silence of resignation. Maybe he had had enough of trying to bring God’s word to a people who would not listen; a people who did not have the ears to hear or the eyes to see this spectacular demonstration of the love of God. His disciples had deserted him in his hour of need. Peter who had promised never to deny him had denied even knowing him. Judas had sold him for thirty pieces of silver. He had no-one in the world to turn to, nobody understood who he was or why he was. He must have been filled with a hollow, empty loneliness. The crowds that had cheered as he entered Jerusalem had melted away, and were probably already out looking for another popular hero to save them from the Romans – what about Barabbas, he’ll do.
And is it so different today? How quickly the words of adoration that we sing here fade away when we encounter life as it is. How soon our words of faith and commitment melt in the heat of difficult circumstances. Who are the Barabbas’s that we turn to to bring us a quick fix, an easy life? Is God confident to leave his work, his mission in our clumsy hands?
Palm Sunday can bring for us a moment of decision. A decision to say yes despite all the doubts; a decision to make Christ count in our lives, in your life; a decision to stand back from the crowd and respond as individuals to the invitation offered to all of us to live as God’s children. As this Holy Week unfolds, watch as the characters play their part. Then be still for a moment and decide how you will respond to this Jesus who came riding on a donkey.