When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead 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, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were
saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This week I watched the difficult interview of the choral director in the state of Washington whose choir had rehearsed together just as word was beginning to break about the coronavirus. The group of sixty assembled, all appearing healthy, and enjoyed the comradery of singing together. Within a week forty-five of those were diagnosed with having the virus, and two eventually died. The choir director was distraught. Although he had done nothing wrong and had even warned the choir members to take all the precautions known to be necessary at that time, it was heart-wrenching to witness how quickly the songs of praise turned into cries of lament.
The same could be said of those good people who gathered on that first Palm Sunday to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. They were singing songs befitting the occasion, songs from the Psalms known as the Hallel, songs of praise punctuated by refrains of “Hallelujah.” These songs were often sung at Jewish festivals, and most surely Passover. But their songs of their praise for the entrance of Jesus soon caught in their throats, because Pontius Pilate’s parade from the other side of the city was beginning to make its presence known. His parade was not to induce praise, but the obedience of submission. How quickly the songs of praise became muted, and even more dramatically would transpose to ominous tones and overtones by Friday. Jesus’ entry was mere prelude to the somber reality of Roman occupation.
Palm Sunday is an interesting day for Christians. We tend to do to Holy Week what we do with Christmas. We take the separate stories of the Gospel and homogenize them into one story. But doing that means that we lose some of the meanings intended by each of the Gospel writers’ own unique perspectives. For instance, we call this day “Palm Sunday,” but the only Gospel writer who mentions palms is John. How interesting… However, with that noted, we will not seek to do an academic investigation of the nuances of each Gospel writer’s perspective, but look in a general sort of way at the event(s) of each day as a spiritual guide for our own pilgrimages to Easter.
Today is Palm Sunday, a day that beckons us to pay attention to what we are looking for. Frederick Buechner remembers being in Rome one year on Christmas Eve and going to St. Peter’s Square, waiting in that enormous crowd for the Pope to arrive to give his Christmas blessing. What struck Buechner the most about that amazing night was the entrance of the Pope, Pius XII, being carried in by the Swiss Guard in a most grand way. Buechner says Pius XII looked like the tired old man he was, small and shriveled, stooped over, gray-skinned, but what caught Beuchner’s attention was the Pope’s eyes. There was an intensity of his stare, peering out into the crowd as if he were looking for someone, someone in particular.
In thinking about Buechner’s observation I can’t help but wonder about that first Palm Sunday and what Jesus was looking for. Did he view the crowds with the conflicting understanding that their euphoric enthusiasm today would turn into dashed hopes by the end of the week? Did he have a feeling of cynicism, questioning the loyalty of those who seemed so devoted on this day, but whose dedication would evaporate like a summer shower in the desert when He was put on trial? Would they be the ones in the crowd at the end of the week yelling “Crucify him” rather than “Hosanna”? Did He worry about whether or not these would-be disciples ever really understood what He was doing? What was He thinking on that ride into Jerusalem?
From another perspective, I wonder what the disciples were thinking. Were they caught up in the glory of it all? Had they forgotten what he had told them on the way to Jerusalem, those unsettling words about his impending death? Had their fears dissipated, the ones that had been so evident just a week or so ago when He had made the decision to go to Jerusalem, the fears they had of the danger lurking there? Were they captivated by the crowd’s unabashed adoration of Jesus? Were they perhaps envisioning a bit of success and fame for themselves? What were those disciples looking for?
Finally, I wonder what the crowds were thinking. They had expected a warrior messiah, someone akin to Judas Maccabaeus, someone who would return them to those thrilling and victorious days of yesteryear. What did Jesus look like to them on that day, that fateful day when He came, not on a powerful war-horse, not in a royal entourage, but perched on the back of a lowly donkey? The crowd broke branches off the trees and bushes and waved them as signs of welcome, hailed Jesus as King; but were their voices sarcastic, laced in comical irony… King? Some king, bouncing on the back of a donkey. Did he look like a king to them? I wonder what they were looking for.
Of course, this all comes current today, because Jesus seeks to come among us, looking for us, seeking to help us pay attention.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and a most gifted preacher. In her book, The Preaching Life, she tells the story of how Jesus came looking for her. One afternoon, when she was a sophomore in college, she was sitting in her dormitory room minding her own business when someone knocked at the door. She opened it to two young women clutching Bibles to their hearts. Barbara’s heart sank. With her parents’ help, she had avoided organized religion most of her life, and these two—with their gleaming eyes, earnest faces, modest plaid skirts and sensible shoes—these were just the sort of people she had hoped to continue avoiding as long as she could. The Holy Spirit had sent them, they said. Could they come in? While Barbara was thinking of a suitable reply, they did come in, and she was a goner. They sat down on her bed, opened their Bibles, and began to ask her questions, “Are you saved?” one of them asked.“Well,” Taylor said, “it depends on what you—” “No,” the other one said, writing something down on a pad of paper.“Do you want to be saved?” the first one asked, and both of them gleamed at Barbara while she thought how awful it would sound to say, “No.”“Sure,” she said, and they leapt into action, pulling her down to sit beside them on the bed, one of them began reading selected passages of Scripture while the other drew an illustration of her predicament on her pad.“Here you are,” she said, drawing a stick figure on one side of a yawning chasm. “And here is God,” she said, drawing another figure on the other side. “In between is sin and death,” she said, filling in the chasm with dark clouds from her pen. “Now the question is: how are you and God going to get together?”“I don’t have a clue,” replied Barbara, and they both looked delighted. Then the one with the pen bent over her drawing and connected the two sides of the chasm with a bridge in the shape of a cross.“That’s how,” she said. “Jesus laid down his life for you to cross over. Do you want to cross over?” “Sure,” Barbara said, and the look in their eyes was like one of those old cash registers where you crank the handle and the little “Sale” sign pops up. They told Barbara to kneel by her bed, where they knelt on either side of her and instructed her to repeat after them: “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and I ask him to come into my life. Amen.” Then they got up, hugged Barbara, gave her a schedule of campus Bible study, and left. In reflecting on her experience, Barbara writes: “The whole thing took less than twenty minutes. It was quick, simple, direct. They did not have any questions about who Jesus was. You are here. God is there, Jesus is the bridge. Say these words and you are a Christian. Abracadabra. Amen. “It is still hard for me to describe my frame of mind at the time. I was half-serious, half-amused. I cooperated as much out of curiosity as anything, and because I thought that going along with them would get them out of my room faster than arguing with them. I admired their courage in a way, but nothing they said really affected me. Most of it was just embarrassing, the kind of simplistic faith I like the least, but something happened to me that afternoon. After they left I went out for a walk and the world looked funny to me, different. People’s faces looked different to me; I had never noticed so many details before. I stared at them like portraits in a gallery, and my own face burned for over an hour. Meanwhile, it was hard to walk. The ground was spongy under my feet. I felt weightless, and it was all I could do to keep myself from floating up and getting stuck in the trees. Was it conversion? All I know is that something happened, something that got my attention and has kept it through all the years that have passed since then. I may have been fooling around, but Jesus was not. My heart may not have been in it, but Jesus’ was. I asked him to come in and he came in, although I have no more words for his presence in my life than I do for what keeps the stars in the sky or what makes daffodils rise up out of their graves each spring. It just is. He just is.”
Palm Sunday is a day to help us begin to learn how to look.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How much of what you believe about God is inherited, and how much is first-hand experience? Ask God to help with the way you look.
- Has there been a time(s) when something was said or done that changed the way you thought about God? Thank God for those times.
- Can we be honestly courageous enough to ask God to come among us now, seeking to help us see the Kingdom in new ways?
- Who is it that helps you look? Can you thank God for them?
A Guide for Prayer: Ernest T. Campbell
O God, you who have endowed faith with power to overcome the world, increase our faith. Help us at the beginning of this holiest of weeks to examine again our commitments, assumptions, and loyalties. Let the figure of Jesus Christ stand over us in mercy and in judgment, measuring our sin and point us to grace.
Illumine the way of all who are confused.
Quiet the troubled heart.
Deliver those who are captive to mean and unworthy purposes.
Companion the bereaved and comfort the dying.
Expand our horizons, O God, lest the trial of the moment close us in to despair and shut us out from the certainties to all who love you and look for your appearing. And as these mercies come, we will turn with thanks to you the giver.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.