This past Sunday was celebrated by many millions of Christians worldwide as Palm Sunday, the day in the church year marked as the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem for the last week of his life. When he did, the common people were ecstatic; their Saviour had come to make right all their wrongs. From their understanding, he’d enter Jerusalem, set Israel free from Rome, sit on his throne and usher in the golden age of the Messiah. It all made sense and the timing couldn’t be better to proclaim himself king and throw off the shackles of Rome.
But the problem for these bright eyed fair weather followers was that a short time later Jesus was standing before Pilate saying, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36
Not what they had expected, not what they had planned for their Israel. And because of this, only a few short days later, another parade of sorts took place – this second one was to crucify their king. And this time instead of shouting Hosanna, they spit on him, mocked him and shouted, “Crucify Him!” Roughly translated as, “You didn’t live up to the hype, Jesus!” “You didn’t fulfill my idea of the Kingdom!”
Why all the hype?
The Passover was a huge celebration that represented the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but more importantly it was related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. The name “Passover” refers to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt.
Also it must be remembered that the last time Israel had been independent was a hundred years before, when Judas Maccabeus had led them to victory over the Seleucids and became king. He had adopted the palm branch as a symbol of his victory and put the image of a palm branch on his coins to use them in temple feasts to celebrate their victory.
Palms were signs of victory and of military achievement by the Romans as well. The Romans gave palms to the victors in the Roman games and emperors gave them to their subjects following their military conquests. So when we read that the crowd rushed to get palm branches for this occasion, it wasn’t just because they were convenient. It was hugely symbolic – it was a big deal.
The palm branches are certainly significant, but I think that the cheers of the crowd are noteworthy too. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna in the highest!” -Matthew 21:9 The word “Hosanna” is a Latinized transliteration of a Hebrew phrase that means “save us!” We see it in Psalm 118 as “Save us, we pray, O Lord. O Lord, we pray, give us success!” in verse 25 followed by. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” in verse 26, which interestingly enough, was commonly used in their worship at the temple as well as a popular greeting shared between people on their way to Jerusalem for the festival.
The point is that all of this wasn’t something that was spontaneously made up that day. There was deep meaning behind it and was immensely significant to those who participated in welcoming their King. The crowds obviously believed Jesus was the “King,” the Messiah who had come to establish Israel’s independence from Rome, to liberate them in a very real way as a political hero. It all seemed so perfect and hopeful.
What was the problem?
The only problem for their victory party was that Jesus isn’t that kind of Messiah, symbolically declaring that fact by riding into town on a donkey. Any history lesson would tell you that a conquering king would have ridden into the city on a warhorse, or in a magnificent chariot, but Jesus rode on the back of a donkey. Why is this so significant? Because of what Zechariah said. “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – Zechariah 9:9
The symbolism wouldn’t have been lost. Jesus knew his scripture, as did the crowds, and he (as they) would have remembered that when Solomon, King David’s son had become king, he rode his dad’s favourite donkey during the inaugural procession into the royal city of Jerusalem. Now here Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, the city of David as a far greater ‘son of David”.
He accepted the title of “king,” but refused to become the military messiah that the people – even his disciples – wanted and expected. It’s no wonder then that just a week later, when these would-be followers realise Jesus’ goal is not in line with theirs, they stop shouting “Hosanna!” and start shouting “Crucify Him!”
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How should we respond?
It’s easy for us to criticise those people in the crowd that day. How could they not have recognised Jesus for who he truly was and claimed to be? But based on our track record today, in most of our lives, I’d be afraid that we would be more comfortable in the ‘Crucify him’ crowd than in the ‘Hosanna’ crowd. Think about it for a moment. What do we expect from our Messiah? Is he invited into our lives in order to meet all our expectations as we understand it should be? If our wish list isn’t fulfilled as we think it should, do we get pouty and quit shouting Hosanna and instead join the crowds in rejecting him? We may not call out to have him crucified but do we reject him in other ways? Living for self, pride, disobedience, doubt, etc.
What was hard for the crowds, Jesus’ disciples initially, and even us folks today to understand is that Jesus’ victory parade that day had a much deeper meaning behind it then a temporal militaristic campaign. The fact was that Jesus didn’t come to bring us liberty from earthly enemies or immediate problems, though we may experience some of that from him. Jesus instead came to liberate us from the source and root of our problems: sin, evil, and death itself! This is the triumph behind the triumphal entry!
The question is, how do we respond to Jesus’ entry into our very own lives? Do we choose to follow Jesushim wherever he leads, or do we allow ourselves to be swept along with the masses who shout Hosanna one minute and reject him the next because he wasn’t what was expected?
In the book by C.S. Lewis, ‘The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe, Mrs. Beaver says to Lucy, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
We may not know where King Jesus may take us, we might not fully understand his purposes in any given time and place of our lives and his kingdom may look way different from what we might think. But if we follow him, he will transform us, we will be changed and he will use us as he has done with any who have committed to follow their king down through the centuries. But is it safe? Of course it isn’t safe but he is the King – and he is good.