The Rev. Barbara M. Russo
Resurrection Anglican Fellowship
Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018
The great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord -- the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. (John 12:12-16)
For most of my childhood, my family was not church going, but I do remember being in church on Palm Sunday when I was about ten years old. Along with all the little girls in our Sunday dresses, I was lined up on the sidewalk outside the church, followed by all the little boys. One of the church ladies handed us each a palm frond and told us that our job was to march into the church waving the palms and to shout Hosanna -- whatever that meant. I had no idea and she didn't explain. All the adults sat in the pews and smiled at how cute and sweet we were. Back then, processing with the palms was just for little kids. For me Palm Sunday was a reminder that in seven days there would be Easter candy, a new Easter dress and the start of spring break. I was in college before I learned that Palm Sunday is not really cute or sweet, and has nothing at all to do with spring break.
On Palm Sunday, nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus mounted a colt and entered Jerusalem like a victorious King. Nowadays, people think of the donkey as a humble mode of transportation, not noble or kingly in the slightest, so it's easy for most people to miss what Jesus was up to. But the crowd on that beautiful spring day outside Jerusalem knew their Bibles and knew their history. They weren't thinking how modest it was of Jesus to come on a donkey. They were remembering King Solomon riding a donkey to his coronation, and they were remembering the prophet Zechariah predicting that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem "Triumphant, riding on a young donkey, a colt" (Zech 9:9)
For six hundred years, God's people had been waiting for Yahweh to come and throw out the foreign rulers and set things right, like he had done more than one thousand years earlier when the whole Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea. For centuries, the Hebrew people had been subjugated, first by Babylonian armies, then Persian and Greek armies. Then, when Jesus' grandfather had been young, the Romans had taken over. Anyone who saw a man ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, like King Solomon had done, exactly the way Zechariah had predicted, would have know what it meant.
And if that man was the healer who had been teaching about the Kingdom of God for three years, it couldn't mean anything except that deliverance as finally here, this was it. All around Jesus, people begin to shout, "Hosanna, Hosanna -- save us, Save us" and "Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord," the ancient cries of welcome for the King of Israel. The people waved palm branches, a symbol of the nation of Israel, and a sign of victory for every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. The crowd laid their coats down under Jesus' feet the way we lay down a red carpet for visiting celebrities. For the strangers in the crowd, it might have been just a moment of national pride, an in-your-face acclamation of Jesus as King, rather than Caesar. Which is why the Pharisees said to Jesus, 'make them stop, before the Romans come crashing down and hold us responsible for what you are doing!' But Jesus knew there was something far more important going on than national pride; far more important than anyone's wish to placate the Romans and keep the Sanhedrin in power. Those things were at the very bottom of Jesus' priority list. He knew the most important thing at that moment was to demonstrate to the people there, and for all time, before his crucifixion, who he really was, who he knew himself to be.
Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem that day to preach or to heal, but mostly to die. His ceremonial entry occurred on the very day the Passover Lambs were selected for slaughter. He knew that the religious leaders were itching for an excuse to get him out of the way, and that his actions would provoke a charge of blasphemy. He mounted the colt anyway.
He knew that entering the city as a triumphant King would give the Romans all they needed to execute him for treason. He mounted the colt anyway.
He did not have to do it. He did not have to set himself up for arrest and execution, he could have avoided it, gone back to Capernaum, married a nice Jewish girl, and died in his sleep. He knew that once he got on that donkey, his fate was sealed. But he knew it was the right place, he knew he was the right person, and he knew it was finally the right time. Dreading the agony of the cross, he mounted the colt anyway.
Only Jesus knew that the celebratory parade was also his funeral procession. He knew the crowds bursting with national pride were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. But no matter. While everyone was cheering and laughing as if everything from here on out would be easy and fun, Jesus bore the terrible truth alone. He mounted the colt.
The crucifixion of Jesus was not an accident, a terrible mistake, a plan gone wrong. Months earlier, Jesus had said to his disciples, "No one takes by life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." (John 10:18) He had carefully planned and arranged this entry into Jerusalem, knowing exactly what would happen, knowing exactly what it would cost him.
Why in God's name, would anyone do that? Why would anyone willingly choose to suffer the physical, emotional and spiritual horror of scourging and the cross?
Like a mother throwing herself in front of an oncoming truck to save her toddler, Jesus bore the full force of evil and separation from God, so that we do not have to experience it. As Jesus hung on the cross, Satan and the powers of evil threw at him everything they have on us. He died, but by the mysterious and paradoxical capacity of God, Jesus turned the tables on evil, and guaranteed evil's ultimate defeat. We serve a God who wins by losing.
His choice of the cross opens the door for each of us to have a relationship with God that is full and life-giving, and intimate. Jesus died for me, Jesus died for you. If there had been any other way to do what was needed, and to hold onto you and me, God and Jesus would have found it together. There was no other way. Jesus knew it. He chose the cross. He mounted the colt.
God alone is capable of holding together celebration and grief, tragedy and triumph, and of empowering us to do the same. We don't have Easter without the cross, nor the cross without Easter. This Holy Week, we invite you to walk the final week of Jesus life with us, to enter into the pain and the glory, to arrive at Easter Day next Sunday with more than candy and springtime in your hands. Jesus is inviting all of us to learn to be people of the God who wins by losing.
Copyrighted by Barbara M. Russo, 2018