In many churches, in recognition of the fact that many Christians don’t attend Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, this day is designated not as Palm Sunday but as The Sunday of the Passion, a Sunday that remembers Christ’s suffering and death for us. I prefer to give Palm Sunday its due as a separate day with its own significance.
Besides, if you’re interested in remembering Christ’s passion--His suffering and death--there is a whiff of His crucifixion and death amid the celebrations of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday isn’t all sweetness and light. Don't let the crowds who shouted in adulation fool you about that!
To set the stage for what happens in today’s gospel lesson, which gives us John’s take on the first Palm Sunday, it’s important to remember what comes just before this event. In John 11, Jesus raises His friend Lazarus from the dead, the seventh and final sign John records Jesus performing.
This should have alerted people to who Jesus is. But even miracles from God can be doubted or arouse controversy. In John 11:45, we’re told that some who had witnessed Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life ran off to tell the Pharisees what had happened. The Pharisees aren’t happy, but alarmed. John 11:46 says that, along with the chief priests, they called a meeting of Judea’s religious leadership. They’re all more fearful of their Roman overlords than they are of the God Who is meeting them in Jesus. “If we let [Jesus] go on like this,” they tell each other, “everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (They gave little evident thought to the fact that a Messiah Who can bring people back from the dead might be able to provide them with ultimate protection from an enemy who, at best, could only kill them once.)
In John 11:49-50, Caiaphas, the high priest for the year, upbraids the rest of the leaders for worrying. The solution, he says, is simple: a way must be found to kill Jesus. “You know nothing at all!" he tells the others. "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” In the next verse, John tells us that Caiaphas was the one who didn’t know anything: “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them [Jews and Gentiles] together and make them one.”
So, as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, there’s a plot to kill Him. The plotters, Judea’s religious cream of the crop, are clueless about the the fact that, Jesus, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world,” is going to the holy city with the intention, according to God’s plan, of sacrificing Himself on the cross in order to save the world from more than death in this world. He’s going to die and rise to save all who entrust themselves to Him from sin and from the more lasting and horrible death of eternal separation from God. Jesus could well have said to these leaders what He later told the Roman governor, Pilate, in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
Ultimately, it would be neither Jewish leaders nor crowds nor the Romans who would take Jesus’ life. In Luke 23:46, we’re told “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” Jesus died at precisely the moment when God had decided He would die. The leaders didn’t know it, but they were doing the will of God against their wills.
In our lives, we often think that we’re in control. But, whether we perceive it or not, God is still in charge. We may endure tragedies and heartbreaks, as the folks down South whose lives were upended by tornadoes yesterday, but God is bound to ultimately bring His good out of bad. God will use Good Fridays to bring Easters for those who place their hope in Him alone! In fact, in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther shows us that Good Fridays and Easters are the prevailing pattern of the disciple's life. The life of daily repentance and renewal it commends is nothing other than the daily crucifixion of self so that Christ can give us the forgiveness that brings new life in Him.
Good Friday and Easter loom in the background as Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem at the beginning of our gospel lesson. Please go to it, John 12:12-19.
Verses 12-13: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival [the festival is Passover] heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ [meaning Save or rescue us, Savior] ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’”
The words and the palm branches used to welcome Jesus help us to understand that while the people see Jesus as a king, they want Him to be an earthly king who uses military might to save them from the oppression of the Romans. Among God's people, palm branches were associated with the welcome given to military conquerors.
Jesus is the King--the Messiah, Lord of heaven and earth. But He doesn’t conquer by force of arms, by mob rule, or by using a democratic vote. Jesus’ authority isn’t derived “from the consent of the governed.” As Jesus told the Roman governor Pilate after He was arrested: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Instead He conquers by a servant love that dies for us. And the enemies He conquers are the common enemies that live in every human soul: sin, death, darkness.
Jesus won’t be our king on our terms. We can’t come to Jesus and say, as some people do, “Jesus, I’ll follow You if You do so and so.” Jesus becomes our Lord only when we entrust ourselves to Him, allowing Him to crucify our sinful selves so that our new selves, remade in Christ’s image, can rise.
Verses 14 to 16: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’ At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.”
Jesus isn’t shy about claiming His kingship. He says in John 10:30, "I and the Father are one." And just as foretold in the messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to claim His kingdom on a donkey. God's people generally didn't like horses. Horses were the engines that moved the chariots used by armies that had threatened and conquered them for generations. By contrast, donkeys were seen as noble mounts worthy for a king.
Despite the prophecy and the symbolism though, not even Jesus’ closest followers understood Jesus at this moment.
We shouldn't be too hard on them. Even today, I find Jesus' ways and will difficult to understand. There have been times in my years of following Jesus when it has seemed to me that Jesus has blocked from my life the very things that I thought would bring me happiness. Only in heaven will we more fully understand Jesus and His mysterious ways.
But anyone, Christian or not, who tries to understand Jesus apart from His death and resurrection or apart from His call to follow Him because He is the way to life with God, they are missing the point.
On the first Palm Sunday, some may have understood, though most didn’t, that in meeting Jesus, they were facing God in the flesh. Ignorant or not, they all disregarded His signs and the substance of His teaching, refusing Jesus’ call to follow Him through death to eternal life.
Verses 17-18: “Now the crowd that was with [Jesus] when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.”
Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was seen as an interesting use of power. The crowds hailed Jesus as king because of a sign, not because of what the sign pointed to.Jesus had power; now the people hoped to draft Jesus as king to do their bidding.
But within days, another Jerusalem crowd would demand Jesus’ execution.
People can turn on God when they don’t like the way He does His job as Lord of the universe. A woman I knew years ago became bitter with God because, her mother, in her late eighties, died after long years of illness. “I’m mad at God for taking my mom from me,” she said. I wanted to ask the woman if she would like it if her mother, a believer now free from suffering and in the presence of God, would be brought back to this earthly life by God just to make her happy. I bit my tongue. But it’s questions like these we need to ask ourselves when God disappoints us.
In the midst of the Palm Sunday joys and celebrations, our gospel lesson ends on an ominous note: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’”
Jesus is seen as a threat by the Pharisees. And, in truth, Jesus is a threat to us whenever the things valued by this world--security, wealth, health, family--become more important to us than welcoming Jesus to rule over our lives. Only Jesus and not the world can bring us peace with God, the presence of God with us through all the times of this life, and life with God now and in eternity. The call of Palm Sunday is to trust in Jesus, letting Him forgive us our sins, letting Him guard us from separation from God, and letting Him give us everlasting life with God.
I look forward to being with you on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, so that, once again, we can celebrate Jesus not as the king we want when sin has its way with us, but as the King we need when we let Him reign over us.
As we immerse ourselves deeply into the story of Christ's death and resurrection this Holy Week and remember how Christ did all of this for sinful human beings like you and me, God can incite us to sing the old Lenten hymn with a deeper sense of awe and gratitude and faith: "Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]