If next Sunday is Easter Sunday, then today is… Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus leads this spontaneous parade into Jerusalem. The story goes that people cut branches from trees and put them on the path where Jesus was riding his donkey. There’s only one verse in the bible (John 12:13) that says it was palm branches, but it makes sense, right? They lay flat. They also show honor. Palms are planted in special places and palm branch designs were used on/in buildings in ancient times.
Anybody here ever marched in a parade? Part of a band, maybe? On Memorial Day, in our town, at the end of the parade, would be kids on bikes. We looked forward to it every year: decorating our bikes with crepe paper and putting playing cards in the spokes so that they sounded like motors. Fun.
And this parade is fun. It was almost two thousand years ago, but you can still go to the place where this happened and get some sense of what it was like. This is where it gets real. This is where the God of the universe comes to save you and me.
The parade starts at the top of the Mount of Olives. It’s a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem and the very first thing you see from that spot is the Temple Mount. When the tour buses come to the Old City, that’s where they like to take you first. You come up the back side of the hill and then suddenly – there it is. They stop and let you take pictures. Today, the Dome of the Rock is around where the Temple would have been – a Muslim shrine. A different view, but the same spot and it’s breath-taking. Today, there’s a parking lot and a guy with a camel who will give you a ride, for a price.
Let’s hear how Matthew describes it…
Matthew 21:1-17. 1 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[b] 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.”
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”
17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
All the gospel stories and all the Jesus movies have this scene. It will help us to watch how this played out. Here’s the first part of that story;
Dani Fair and I were having a conversation about how to prepare for Palm Sunday. What colors should be used on the altar? It’s a thing for older churches. Purple or red? Palm or Passion? Do we think more about the parade or cross? Lots of churches pick one or the other.
At the beginning of that clip, the parade goes by a kind of framework outside the city walls. That’s where the Romans crucified people. It’s a not-so-subtle message about who is in control. As the parade comes near the temple, the Jewish religious leaders are watching. The Romans are watching. Jesus has gotten their attention. What happens next is not for the faint of heart, and you can’t just skip to next week. He is confronting who and what is in control.
When Jesus got to the Temple Mount, he got off the donkey, went up, and overturned the tables of money-changers. These are probably the steps he used (see photo). Years later, the Temple Mount was destroyed and rebuilt and there’s a wall across those steps now, but the money changers wouldn’t have been far from there. This place, this moment in history when your sins died on the cross is real. It wasn’t just a story. he walked up those steps.
So, I have this confession. A few nights ago, Kathy and I went to an R-rated movie. R for the violence. Yeah, it was date night and I know how to entertain my wife! Afterward, we were talking about how hard it seems to be for movie people to tell a story without at least a little bit of bloody destruction – and we’ve all become accustomed to it.
Real violence in the real world is different, though, isn’t it. Some of us have seen things we can’t “un-see.” I only mention that because Jesus, God in human form, came to this literal place on a very real mission to save you and me. And blood was spilled. Somebody died. It was real.
You have to picture people on those steps, walking along with Jesus. Other people at the top, with their arms folded. I don’t know about you, but I don’t handle confrontation well. I confess it. To this point I’ve loved Jesus, but in the moment, it makes no sense.
Jesus isn’t just asking for trouble; he has walked right into the middle of it, in full public view of people whom he knows want to kill him. And then, as if walking into town with a parade isn’t bad enough, walks up those steps and loudly disturbs the peace – he goes after the people selling things and changing money in the Temple courtyard. In the Jesus movies, it isn’t the people he attacks – he goes after the tables. In any case, I thought Jesus was supposed to be bringing an over-powering sense of calm. Irresistible serenity. Bring in the next Jesus please! Let’s try somebody little less confrontational!
I would love to have been there, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t have liked what I saw. On the one hand, I really would like to know what happened – exactly what happened, and how it looked and sounded. On the other hand, the more I learn about Jesus, the more I find out how much he disturbs the peace. He just doesn’t leave well-enough alone; he “opens cans of worms.” He does things that bother me.
This story has always been a problem for Christians. When you get into the details, it doesn’t jive with the mental picture we have of Jesus, which is usually a mild-mannered, medium-built, brown-haired Nordic man with a glassy-eyed, sad expression on his face. It’s hard to imagine Jesus laughing hard, which I’m sure he did sometimes, or getting really upset, which he also obviously did. Today, Jesus has some fire in his eyes, and there are a lot of people watching. Everybody is having a different reaction.
Above those steps, we’ve got the religious leaders trying to keep proper control. Good “religion” means everything is under control, right? Jesus is not fitting their mold and that’s a big problem. If he could only have warned us he would do these things! Communication is the issue! Church people like to say that.
Near those steps, the Romans are watching, waiting for something to get out of hand. For now, the parade’s not a problem. But when there is a problem, they’re ready to settle it. Fast. Just doing their jobs.
Walking up those steps, the disciples, Jesus’ closest friends and followers, who have been walking with him these past two weeks, have an overpowering sense of dread. He’s out of control. There’s nothing we can do. Doesn’t he get how he is setting himself up?
At the top of those steps, we’ve got the people selling things and changing money. The temple religious system is good for them. Hey Jesus – I’m just making a living here! What are you doing?
And walking up those steps with him is a crowd that includes noisy children. Did you catch that the children were shouting in the Temple courts? Jesus is encouraging the children to be noisy in the holy place. On this day, that was the last straw.
Are you brave enough to walk up those steps? I know that I’m thinking, “This is not turning out the way I thought it would.” Too much trouble. Too much tension. It’s all heading downhill. It’s a train-wreck.
On this Palm Sunday, how does Jesus disturb your peace? I believe a lot of people might have this form of religion that doesn’t much involve God. It’s more about us and our needs. We drift into it without even knowing sometimes.
We stand in front of our own personal money-changing table and beg Jesus, “Jesus, please, don’t knock over this one!” And every now and then, he knocks over my table, that thing I have used as a substitute for God. He wants to re-focus my attention. Then, if I’m one of his, he may need me to knock over a table or two on my own. He may need me to do something to “make a difference through the love of Christ” (our church motto). It might mean disturbing the peace somewhere a little bit ourselves. What does our faith call us to do?
By this time next week, there will be an empty tomb. I suspect that will disturb the most peace of all! That tomb is also a real place. He’s alive. Do you believe? The God of the universe is doing this for you and me.
Jesus, this is not an easy thing you’re asking us to do. The walking has been hard and the places you take us are not easy to endure. We thought it would be easy. And it’s not. Forgive us for our reluctance. Give us strength for what lies ahead. We thank you for walking with us, that you never abandon us, and that you are bringing us to new life we so desperately need. Amen.