Its Palm Sunday and we join Jesus on his final journey into Jerusalem. Jesus had journeyed to the capital to participate in the Jewish Passover festival, but also to bring his mission to its climax. The ‘hour’ for which he had come was now just a week away.
One thing that should strike us at the outset is that Jesus is calm and in control. In the opening verses of our reading it is clear that he has planned and prepared for this event, ensuring that a donkey would be available for him to ride. In fact, throughout Mark’s Gospel we have seen Jesus exercise calm control and authority throughout. Nothing has ruffled him. He has come face to face with evil spirits, a violent storm, dangerous enemies, death and disease, and still emerged unscathed.
And over recent weeks Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, and undertaken a journey that he calmly predicted would end in crucifixion. He was truly a man on a mission, a man who had confidence that his heavenly Father was with him. May we all have the same confidence and trust in God. A confidence rooted in knowledge of God’s love for us and his control over our lives. A confidence that is strengthened and sustained whenever we read our Bible and pray. Make quiet times with God part of your daily routine, and you will know a peace and quiet confidence that passes all understanding.
A King who excites a crowd
As well as being a king in control, Jesus was also a king who excites a crowd. Because Jesus was not alone in having made a journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. The city was teeming with thousands of fellow pilgrims from Galilee, elsewhere in Israel and all the other places around the Mediterranean where Jews now lived.
As a result, the population of Jerusalem would soar during the Passover, with many more people in the city than at any other season – like the way that the population of a seaside resort multiplies during the summer months, or how the streets around a football stadium heave with supporters on a match day.
And just like at a football match, the crowd around Jesus would have been excited, noisy and animated. This was not any ordinary Passover celebration, because this year the crowd were welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem – a man who, over the last 3 years, had reportedly said and done some astonishing things. The Carpenter’s son from Nazareth had taught with amazing authority, healed the sick and even raised the dead. And it wasn’t just Jesus’ miracles that made him stand out in a crowd. In his book “Kings Cross”, the author Tim Keller lists some of the distinctive, even paradoxical qualities of Jesus that we see in the Gospels:
- He was unpredictable, yet also trustworthy
- He was gentle, yet also powerful
- He was perfectly good, yet also showed grace to sinners.
- And to those who had eyes to see, he was fully God as well as fully man.
Jesus’ reputation had spread widely, and the behaviour of the crowd that day show that many expected him to become the new King of Israel.
- For example, Verse 8 tells us that some of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus, while others cut down branches from trees and laid them on the ground before him. Just as we lay down red carpet for a monarch, prime minister or president today, these acts were expressions of great respect and reverence for Jesus.
- Mark also records the words that the crowd were shouting as Jesus approached Jerusalem: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna is an expression that means “God save us!” Their heaven-sent Saviour had come.
- The crowd also welcome Jesus as a new King David, as a descendant of Israel’s most famous king. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” they exclaimed. The crowd saw Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promise to David hundreds of years earlier. A promise found in 2 Samuel chapter 7. A promise that one day one of his descendants would reign forever on the throne of Israel.
So by their excited words and animated actions the crowd were welcominng Jesus as a coming king. As a man sent from God to build a glorious kingdom that would never end. A man they thought would save them in some way. But what precisely were they expecting from Jesus? What exactly was the type of salvation they were looking for? Let’s take a step back from the busy road into Jerusalem for a moment, and consider exactly what the crowd’s hopes about Jesus may have been.
The Passover festival commemorated God’s remarkable rescue of his people from Egypt over a thousand years earlier. The Passover celebrated the events of the Exodus. The trouble was, Israel needed another exodus! For the past 600 years Israel had been under foreign occupation, and were now ruled by the Roman Empire. Like any occupied nation, the Jews looked forward to once again being able to run their own affairs. In our lifetimes, a similar hope could be seen in African countries seeking an end to colonialism, and in Eastern European countries before the collapse of the Soviet Union. And of course, as well all know, ‘taking back control’ from the European Union was one of the Leave slogans during the Brexit referendum campaign. First century Jews had similar hopes of freedom from foreign rule. They hoped that the same God who had freed their ancestors from Egyptian oppression at the Exodus, would do something similar again – this time to the Romans.
This then, was the reason for the crowd’s excitement in today’s passage. With the arrival of this remarkable man, Jesus, at the gates of Jerusalem, the crowd believed that they were about to see God’s anointed King assume the throne of Israel. They expected Jesus to forcefully drive out the Roman army and establish God’s kingdom on earth. No wonder they were excited!
A King who serves and saves
But was the crowd right about Jesus? Well yes, and no! And Jesus’ mode of transport should help us see why…
Firstly, the crowd were right to recognise Jesus as God’s promised king. At the start of today’s passage we see that Jesus made careful arrangements to ensure that he would approach Jerusalem riding on a colt, a young donkey. Jesus rode on a donkey not because he was tired and wanted a lift, like we might catch a train home at the end of a long day at work. He rode on a donkey to fulfil what had been predicted by the prophet Zechariah many years before. Listen to what Zechariah had said: “People of Jerusalem, look, your king is coming to you, gentle and riding on a donkey”. So as he approached the gates of Jerusalem, Jesus wanted to show everyone watching that the king promised by Zechariah and other Old Testament prophets had now arrived.
But the crowd were mistaken if they thought Christ had come to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem by force. They were wrong if they thought he was about to lead a rebellion against the Romans. If you were going to invade a city today, you might choose a Challenger tank, a Humvee armoured car or an Apache helicopter. In first century Palestine, the equivalent would have been to ride in on a war horse or a chariot, at the head of a legion of soldiers. But by coming on a donkey, Jesus was declaring that he had come in humility. He had come to serve and to save, not to fight. The kingdom of God that he had come to created would not be born from armed conflict but from self sacrifice:
- Jesus’s path to glory would take him to the Cross on Calvary, not to a royal throne room.
- Jesus had come as a humble king who wore his own modest clothes, not a monarch’s robes.
- A king who was going to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold.
This was not the bid for power that most Jews wanted or expected from their Messiah. It would have dashed their hopes of what Jesus had come to do. For them, the idea of a crucified Messiah, a humble King, would have sounded foolish and nonsensical. As absurd as a square circle or 2+2 making five.
Yet Jesus’s closest disciples should not have been shocked or disappointed by path that Christ chose to take, and neither should we. Because as we have seen in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had repeatedly told his closest friends that his mission would culminate at the Cross. Again and again he had explained to them that he must suffer and die so that God’s forgiveness could become open and accessible to all. As we all heard last week, Christ had known all along that he had come to offer a ransom for many – to die as a willing sacrifice for sin.
You see, God’s plans for his people went beyond political liberation. His first priority was to give them spiritual life and liberty. Spiritual blessings of forgiveness and friendship with him in the midst of our broken, fallen world. Christ was sent to bring spiritual blessings that would endure for eternity, not just limited to a lifetime. And God’s great rescue plan for humanity, extended far beyond the borders of Israel. God’s great plan was to restore his relationship with people from every nation, not just Jews. Jesus went to the cross so that sinners from every country, from every walk of life, could be forgiven through faith in him – even people like you and me, living 2000 miles and 2000 years away.
Make Jesus your King!
So, as I finish, what is the application for ourselves from the events of the first Palm Sunday?
Firstly, I hope we have all joined the crowd in saying “Hosanna” to Jesus. In other words, I hope we have all, at some point in our lives, said “Lord, save me” to King Jesus. Only Christ, the crucified King, can offer us true forgiveness and everlasting life. If we have sincerely said ‘Hosanna’ to Jesus – if we have asked him for salvation in faith – we can be sure we have received it.
Secondly, in the reading today the crowds laid down their cloaks and palm branches on the road as an expression of respect and honour to Jesus. I wonder, are we prepared to lay our time, treasure and talents at his feet? After all, Jesus laid down his life for us on the Cross. I hope we want to serve our Saviour wholeheartedly in joyful thanks for the salvation he secured for us at Calvary. Our gratitude to Jesus should provoke our generosity. Generosity that should affect both our wallets, and our diaries. Our ambition should be to be as sacrificial and servant-hearted as Christ.
At my ordination as a Church of England minister, I had to publicly pledge my loyalty to the Sovereign. Can I challenge us all to pledge our unswerving allegiance to Jesus – our Sovereign, Saviour and King.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you for your great humility – a humility that took you to the Cross for our salvation. Please help us to say ‘Hosanna’ to you, and may we all honour you with our time, our talents and our treasure. Amen.