A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021
Palm Sunday • March 28, 2021
Today is Palm Sunday, an annual celebration with so many memories. In other times, I’ve spent hours planning dramatic worship services. I’ve helped churches gather to parade down the aisle, bought and handed out hundreds of palm leaves. I’ve encouraged people to wave them, throw them, brought clothes in to simulate the things thrown on the donkey Jesus rode. I’ve never actually brought a donkey into a sanctuary but I’ve discussed it and once I even got close to having one ready to go. So today seems a little quiet. But this morning I hope we can look at the meaning and not just the props. Often Palm Sunday seems to be about cheering and greenery. What does Palm Sunday have to do with Jesus? What does it have to do with us?
Image the scene. Jerusalem sits on top of a small mountain with winding paths up the slopes, so it’s the kind of walk that makes you breathe harder. Jerusalem’s walls were crowned with the glittering gold of the temple pinnacle and the white marble temple walls glittered in the hot, bright Near Eastern sun. It’s almost Passover and pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean world are gathering in this sacred place, returning to the City of David to remember their heritage. The city is packed to capacity and religious fervor rises. That fervor often led to riots, spurts of rebellion and the inevitable violent Roman reaction with blood running in the streets.
On this day, the stream of pilgrims walking up the paths is pushed aside by a parade. But it’s not the one we envision with a palm parade. A contingent of Roman soldiers is marching to Jerusalem to enforce the Roman law. They are there to proclaim Emperor Tiberius as the Son of God. For about fifty years, the Romans had seen their leaders as divinities affirmed by their power. Power meant the ability to kill people. Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the Roman answer was violence. From Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman slavery, Roman crucifixion.
Now, up the western slopes of Mt. Zion, the Roman soldiers wind their way with a Roman officer mounted on a big horse and Roman standards held high. It was meant to show off the power of Rome.
Knowing this is going on, knowing this is the main event, we can turn to the other side of the city where there is also a procession. This one is small, this one is unruly, it has no standards and its leader is ridiculous. The Son of Man, a translation of a phrase that means the representative person, the humble person, is coming to Jerusalem on a donkey. Can you imagine it? Can you see it?
I’ve never ridden a donkey, have you? I went online and found directions there for riding a donkey. It says adults are too big for donkeys; so I imagine Jesus with his feet hanging down, dragging along the path. Donkeys have a slow, plodding walk; this procession isn’t going anywhere fast.
Behind Jesus, perhaps around Jesus, are the people who have followed him from Galilee. What were Jesus’ people like? One writer said,,
Jesus came into Jerusalem dragging the world in behind him. He’d spent most of his ministry with what the Pharisees regarded as all the wrong people in all the wrong places. He’d befriended women of dubious reputations, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, done favors for despised Roman soldiers, held up Samaritans as heroes even as he turned Pharisees into villains. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he had all of these folks in tow.[http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2000/mark11PalmSun.html]
It’s a strange group and here they are, slowly walking with Jesus, walking behind the Son of Man on a donkey. On the other side of town, the Roman general is riding a horse, sitting comfortably and grandly up there, with ranks of perfectly disciplined soldiers. Here is Jesus with on a ridiculous donkey with a milling mob of people.
Now that we have the picture in mind, we come back to the story Mark tells and immediately once again to this donkey. What is it about the donkey that’s so important? Jesus makes a point of giving instructions about it. There’s endless argument: does he know what will happen or has he planned it? Does he know the donkey owner? Has it been previously rented by some advance disciple? What is the deal with the donkey?
The donkey is a reminder of the hope of God’s covenant. The prophet Zechariah had said,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. [Zechariah 9:9]
There is Jesus, just as the prophet had said: this teacher comes as the Son of Man, so powerful he can look powerless. The Roman general needs his horse to look important; Jesus IS important. The hope he embodies is also in the testimony of Zechariah,
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
The symbols of worldly power, the arrogance of calling a man Son of God, is marching on the other side of Jerusalem with the Romans. But here comes the Son of Man, riding on a silly donkey; he can afford to be silly—for God is riding with him. The armies of Rome are marching on the other side of Jerusalem, ordered ranks, swords showing. Nervous rulers always need military parades.
But here comes the Son of Man and his followers are all kinds of people: men, women, gentiles, Jews, sinners and they are together shouting, “Hosanna!” “Hosannah!” They are what Zechariah described as the prisoners of hope and they have been released; their cry of joy echoes from the hills. The Son of Man comes on a donkey: the Spirit of the Lord renews the covenant, the new covenant that invites us all.
This is where we come to the second meaning of the donkey: the donkey is a decision. Remember what Jesus says,
Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’Mark 11:2-3
Someone owns that donkey. Someone pays for that donkey, pays to keep it, pays to stable it, someone uses that donkey for work and getting places. Think of it as your car; think of it as yours.
Now some strangers who have a strange accent come and start up your donkey. They have an accent; definitely not from here. Perhaps you saw them when you heard that young prophet from Galilee and you vaguely remember them. When you ask what they’re doing, they say, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you do?
That’s the heart of this story: it all flows from this moment, this decision. “The Lord has need of it.” The challenge of Palm Sunday is this: whatever you have, the Lord has need of it. Like a quilter assembling bits and pieces into a beautiful tapestry, Jesus takes the hurts and hopes of these people he has dragged with him to Jerusalem and makes them a covenant community, a caring community in the new covenant in his blood.
So now we come to our Palm Sunday and like the donkey’s owner, we also are told the Lord has need of what we have: what will we do?
Are you grieving? the Lord has need of it; those who grieve shall be comforted, he says. So bring our grief—his hope is for you, shown to the world in you.
bring him your grief
Are you joyful? Can you see the Lord in your life, blessing you, showing you the beauty of creation, helping you to feel God close and present? The Lord has need of it:
bring him your joy;
Are you guilty? the Lord has need of it: he’s bringing a new covenant, where forgiveness is the gate to go into glory. The Lord has need of it:
bring him your guilt.
Are you doubtful? The Lord has need of your doubts: bring them to him. He never asked anyone to go beyond where their faith would take them. The Lord has need of it:
bring your doubts.
Are you hungry? the Lord has need of your hunger, because hungry people are ready to be fed. He’s already fed thousands and he means to nourish us as well, with the bread of life. The Lord has need of it:
bring him your hunger
This one man, whose donkey the Lord needed, became the doorway to a procession we remember down the ages. No one but historians remembers the Roman soldiers. This donkey the Lord needed is remembered when the general and his horse are just a footnote.
The Lord has need of it: someone heard, someone said yes, and the donkey became a platform from which the Son of Man proclaimed the fulfillment of God’s covenant had come to Jerusalem. Every day time, the Lord says about us, about our lives, our whole selves, the good parts and the bad, the hurts and the hopes, that the Lord has need of it. When we give him the reins, the same thing happens. The cries of Hosanna are heard; the procession goes forward. And the words of the psalmist come true: the king of glory comes in.