PALM SUNDAY 5TH APRIL 2020
One of the all-time great musicals is the Lerner and Lowe classic Camelot. Based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the story is of Arthur's dream of a kingdom built on righteousness and justice, and how that dream was destroyed by the faithlessness of the two people he loved the most: his wife, Guinevere, and his best friend, Lancelot.
The most poignant scene in the show is the final one. It is the night before Arthur's final battle in which he was to die. It was now clear to him that his dream of Camelot had been destroyed. As he walks through the silent camp, he meets a boy, Tom of Warwick. But in talking to young Tom he realises that the dream of Camelot is not dead. It lives on in this lad and others like him. So, Arthur sings the final song, and in it, the very last words that say, "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot; for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."
Well, today is Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates that remarkable moment when Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem and was hailed by the crowds as their promised Messiah. And if there was ever an occasion for using those words from the musical Camelot, then this was it. It truly was that ‘one brief shining moment.’ One brief shining moment when Jesus declared himself King of Kings and no power on Earth could stop him.
The strange thing about what we call 'The Triumphant Entry of Jesus' is that it was so out of character with how Jesus had been up till then. He had actively discouraged people from trying to proclaim him King, even after they had seen him perform the most wonderful signs. But on this occasion, he seemed to encourage it openly and deliberately. The crowds who had gathered to attend the Feast of the Passover, spread their cloaks on the ground in front of him, waved palm branches and called out: ‘Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
It was exactly what the crowds had called out nearly 200 years earlier when Judas Maccabaeus, one of Israel's greatest heroes, entered Jerusalem after he had driven out the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes. The people saw history being repeated; they were welcoming their saviour.
The religious leaders who watched it happen, though, were appalled. The words the crowd were using were words that rightly belonged to the promised Messiah, and they would not accept that Jesus was he. So, they demanded that Jesus stop the people saying such things. But Jesus said: ‘I tell you, that if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’
The gospels point out that what happened that Palm Sunday was the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy "See your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey." The idea of Jesus riding in triumph on a donkey may seem a little ridiculous to us, but not to those people. In the ancient East a king rode to war on a horse, but when he came in peace he rode on a donkey.
There was great significance in this, but sadly the people didn't seem to get it. They wanted their king to be a powerful leader who would deliver them from their oppressors, like Judas Maccabeus. They didn't want to accept that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of love within us, not political power outside us. But that’s why Jesus chose to make his entrance on a donkey.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a marvellous poem about this donkey telling its story: "When fishes flew, and forests walked, and figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood, then surely I was born. With monstrous head and sickening cry and ears like errant wings, The devil's walking parody of all four-footed things. The tattered outlaw of the earth of ancient crooked will, Starve, scourge, deride me, I am dumb, I keep my secret still. Fools! For I also had my hour, one far fierce hour and sweet; There was a shout about my ears, and palms before my feet."
It's a wonderful poem. Nowadays the donkey is a beast of ridicule, but then it was the beast of kings. When Jesus rode that donkey into Jerusalem he knew, and the crowds knew prophecy was being fulfilled. For one brief shining moment the King had come into his own, and no power on earth could stop him.
Palm Sunday is the pledge of that day yet to come, when, as the scriptures promise: ‘every knee shall bow to him and every tongue confess that he is Lord.’
The great question has always been WHEN? Throughout the ages there have been numerous speculations, and still are. But Jesus said: ‘No-one knows about that day nor hour, not even the angels in heaven... but only the Father.’ Nevertheless, the Bible does refer to various events that would precede the coming of that day. Things like: the gospel being preached to all nations - a great falling away from faith - an increase in iniquity; human wickedness leading to a time of terrible tribulation - the emergence of a person who would personify human wickedness and rebellion against God; called in Scripture the Antichrist - signs in the heavens and nations in anguish.
Many people look at the world we live in and see what seem to be irresistible forces leading us to catastrophe: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the despoiling of our environment, global warming and pandemics dwarfing anything previously known.
It’s a matter of speculation whether these things are what Jesus meant when he said: ‘When these things begin to take place, lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’. But one thing we do know; the King is coming, and Palm Sunday is the pledge of it.
However, there is a tragic drama in the story of Palm Sunday. The people who hailed Jesus as Messiah on Sunday were replaced five days later by crowds that called for his blood, saying: ‘Crucify him... let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children.’ It seems as though many of those who had their hopes raised that Sunday, by Friday had decided a Messiah on a donkey wasn't really what they wanted. So, they turned on him, as crowds often do.
The tragic drama of Palm Sunday and Good Friday is sometimes played out in our lives too. There may well be some of us who secretly feel disappointed that what we expected Jesus to do for us was not what he had in mind.
He hasn't made us quite as happy as we thought he would. He hasn't solved our problems in the way we asked. We prayed for healings that we didn't receive. We asked for guidance which we didn't seem to get - not in the way we hoped. He didn't rescue us from all our troubles in the way some preachers and some of Bible verses imply he would.
Instead he said: ‘Take up your cross and follow me’... ‘Whoever tries to gain his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it.’ He turned out to be a saviour who wants to make us like him. He taught that the way to the crown is the way of the cross. The crowds on that first Palm Sunday were looking for crowns not crosses. I can't help but think that sometimes we are the same.
To a self-indulgent generation, Jesus can seem a bit of a disappointment because the thing he most wants most to deliver us from are not our worldly troubles, but rather our preoccupation with them. So, we cheer him one day and receive him as our saviour and turn then turn back when we realise that our comfort is not his main concern. We are too spiritually dull to realize that it's our preoccupation with ourselves that makes us miserable, and that the only hope of joy for us is in being delivered from that preoccupation.
The path Jesus calls us to is the one he himself trod in Holy Week. It starts on Palm Sunday full of glorious hope, full of promise that all God has ordained to be will be. But it leads on to Good Friday, to a Cross, perhaps even to those dark nights of the soul when it seems that God has hidden his face from us. But as the Apostle Paul reminds us: ‘Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’Because the darkness of the Cross is always followed by the glory of Resurrection.
I remember as a student studying the works of three of history’s greatest psychologists, all of them Jewish and all of them from Vienna. Sigmund Freud thought that human behaviour was determined by the drive for pleasure, whereas Alfred Adler believed it was the drive for power. The third was an unknown young man named Victor Frankl. When World War Two broke out Freud and Adler escaped abroad, but Frankl spent four years in a concentration camp. It was that experience that shaped his contribution to understanding human nature. He saw strong men waste away while others, who were much weaker physically, survived. He knew that it wasn’t Freud’s drive for pleasure, or Adler’s search for power that had kept the survivors going; it was hope. It’s still hope that gives life meaning, and it’s always been hope in God that makes it eternal.
And today, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, we remember again that one brief shining moment that is a pledge of a day yet to come, when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord. And, as the Bible says: we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ…’
Matthew 21: 1-11
21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”