READ : Matthew 21:1-11
What can we learn from the story of Palm Sunday? It would have been great to be part of
the crowd that welcomed Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But then, maybe not.
Crowds are notoriously fickle.
Listen to the story of Palm Sunday from Matthew’s gospel:
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage . . . 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, and 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 . . . 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.”
Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem for the last time. It is a Sunday morning, just a
few days before the Feast of the Passover, and a post-Sabbath festival atmosphere hangs
over the city as pilgrim throngs from Jewish communities across the ancient world crowd
into Jerusalem to celebrate. Only Jesus knows that this will be a Passover unlike any
other. It will be the true Passover, of which all the hundreds of Old Testament
celebrations were merely shadows. All the thousands of lambs whose blood had been shed as
the Passover sacrifice were symbols of the one true Lamb of God who would now be offered
to take away the sins of the world. So the Lord Jesus enters the city of David with royal
ceremony and dignity.
We usually refer to the story of Palm Sunday as the Triumphal Entry. But in some ways,
it was an odd sort of triumph for Jesus; almost, we might say, an antitriumph. Look at a
few of the details of what he did.
First, did you notice how deliberately Jesus acted? As you listen to the story, you
can’t help but noticing a sense of careful planning about the whole day. There was that
business with the animals at Bethphage. Jesus and his disciples had probably spent
Saturday night with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at their home in Bethany.
Bethany was on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, over the hill from Jerusalem. And
in between Bethany and Jerusalem lay the tiny village of Bethphage. As they headed towards
Jerusalem on Palm Sunday morning, Jesus sent a couple of disciples ahead into this village
with instructions to secure a certain donkey for him to use. If anybody objects, says
Jesus, just tell them the Lord needs it. And wouldn’t it be great if we could all secure
the resources needed for ministry just that easily!
At any rate, there was nothing accidental or slapdash about these arrangements. Jesus
had a definite plan in mind for how he wanted to enter the city, and he very carefully
managed the details.
I don’t think the disciples realized the significance of every one of Jesus’ actions on
this day and throughout this holy week, but it struck them afterwards. They remembered all
the little things he said and did, every word, each gesture, and what especially impressed
them looking back was the air of deliberateness about the whole business.
Peter, preaching in Jerusalem after the resurrection, said that Jesus died “according
to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). That’s one of the remarkable
things about Christ’s suffering and death. It’s all done according to plan — not his
enemies’ plan, but God’s plan.
With tragic human deaths we have a sense of avoidability, a sort of “if only. . .”
feeling. If only Lincoln hadn’t gone to the theater that night; if only Kennedy had
changed the motorcade route. But there is no “if only” feeling about the crucifixion of
Jesus Christ. It was all undertaken by him deliberately, and according to plan.
The next thing to observe is that Jesus’ triumphal entry was a highly symbolic act.
This was a royal entrance, carefully staged to emphasize Jesus’ identity as the true King
of Israel. The key sign was the animal he chose to ride (the only time in the gospels, by
the way, that we read of Jesus riding any animal).
Now we might think of the donkey as a humble animal, but in fact, it was a royal animal
in the context of the Old Testament. This is brought out by the prophecy Matthew quotes
from Zechariah: “Say to the daughter of Zion, `Behold, your king is coming to you, humble,
and mounted on a donkey'” (v. 5). So Jesus’ symbolic action revealed his real identity. He
is the king, the Son of David. But he chooses to be a humble king, a peace-loving,
He’s riding a donkey, not a warhorse. He’s not just another worldly conqueror coming to
replace one violent system with another. He’s not a revolutionary who will overthrow Rome
and then replace one set of corrupt rulers with others just as bad. No. Jesus is a king
whose crown is made out of thorns, whose coronation comes by way of crucifixion, who is
exalted by being humiliated, who ascends his throne by means of a cross.
Finally, the triumphal entry was a public act — dramatically so. And this is a big
contrast to the way Jesus had previously behaved. Throughout his ministry he was always
trying to keep the lid on his identity, almost trying to hide it. Often, you may recall,
when he healed people Jesus told them to keep quiet about it. When the crowds wanted to
proclaim him king he ran away from them. But now Jesus goes out of his way to make a big
splash, carefully choosing the time, the place, even the manner of his entry into the city
so as to draw maximum attention to himself. You get the feeling, don’t you, that the time
for secrecy is past. Now that the hour of his sacrifice has arrived, Jesus the King wants
all eyes focused upon him, upon the cross.
So this is the theme of the story of Palm Sunday. It’s all about Jesus’ actions in
entering Jerusalem: deliberate, symbolic, public. But the reaction of the crowd is also
significant. It must have been everything that Jesus was hoping for at first. The people
responded enthusiastically, favorably. They acclaimed him, welcoming and cheering him as
their king. They got the message, and they reacted accordingly. They spread their clothes
in his way to make a royal carpet for him to ride over. They waved palm branches, a
universal symbol of triumph, joy, and honor. They shouted praises to him: “Hosanna,” they
cried, which was originally a Hebrew prayer meaning, “Save us now,” but which popular
usage had turned into an exclamation of praise. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is
he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!” (v. 9).
But you can’t help hearing even now on this day an echo of the very different cries
that would come from the crowd just a few days later. The people — and many of them must
have been the very same ones — went from “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Palm Sunday to
“Crucify him! Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar” on Good Friday. Don’t you wonder
how that could that have happened in the space of five days?
You know, reflecting on this question is profitable for us. In the first place, it’s
obvious that many who were shouting praises on Palm Sunday didn’t really mean it. They
didn’t really understand what they were saying. You know how it is. A buzz of excitement
starts spreading through a crowd, and then a few people pick up the shout, and pretty soon
everybody is yelling their heads off. Excitement is contagious. But afterwards people are
puzzled. “What were we shouting for, anyway?” (see vv. 10-11). Those who are just going
along with the crowd never have a very deep commitment. And crowds, you know, can be
notoriously fickle; just listen to how the cheers turn to boos for athletes who disappoint
us. It was crowd psychology that took over, both on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday.
Here’s something else to remember. People will say and do things in a crowd that they
wouldn’t on their own. It’s frighteningly easy to deny or betray Christ; all you have to
do is run with the wrong crowd. But remember, it’s also easy to acknowledge Christ just by
going along with the crowd. Some people only go through the motions of the Christian
faith. They attend worship, listen to sermons, maybe sing the songs, but it’s really just
imitative behavior. If you confess faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, be sure you know
what you’re talking about and mean what you’re saying. Do it, by all means; your salvation
depends upon it! But do it on your own, for yourself, not just to please your spouse, or
because your parents expect it, or to go along with some crowd or other.
Remember, there is another, and greater, triumphal entry yet to come. That will happen
on the day Christ returns to earth to reign in glory and majesty. Once he came to the
sound of cheers that quickly turned to shouts of rejection; but he is coming again with
the cry of command and the sound of the trumpet and the angels of God, and those who are
his will greet him with everlasting joy. Be sure not to miss that day!