Palm Sunday Message – Sitting on Young Donkeys

The songs we sang this Sunday morning were a crucial part of how the morning was shaped. We sang these three songs to start.

  • I’ll fly away
  • Chariot by Page France
  • But for you who fear my name by Welcome Wagon

Does anyone know what day it is today?

Today is Palm Sunday. For whatever reason, my childhood was completely absent of things like Lent, Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday and the like. Evangelical churches have generally lost their connection with history and so many of the traditions of the church have been discarded or scoffed at as meaningless rituals. But today is Palm Sunday. So we can either throw it away and pretend that it’s just a nice name for a day, or we can dig a little deeper and try and figure out why we call it that, why the church finds it significant and how it might be important for us today.

John 12
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”

What the crowds were expecting a normal Passover. Roman governors would come into Jerusalem for Passover, this was a regular custom for them. As they would provide a visible and strong presence of their military to prevent any kind of uprising. This was a time where uprisings and crucifixions were happening all the time. So here you have an entire group of people who are having their major festival and are used to having the governor of the nation that they live in, who is oppressing them, showing up and flaunting his strength and basically saying “you don’t want to mess with me.” Pilate would have shown up into Jerusalem from the west at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. It would have been an exciting, powerful and lavishing experience specially created to impress everyone about their nation’s power. Horses, soldiers, armour, helmets, massive statues, gold would have been marching through the city, all designed to show off power and intimidate anyone who would dare to revolt or challenge the direction of the nation.

Then, on the other side of the city, down from the Mount of Olives, coming from the north, came Jesus. On a donkey. He came from the outcasts, peasants and had his ragamuffin band of disciples with him. Maybe his mother comes with him, or some of the sick people that he healed. Either way. He’s on a donkey. I don’t know how much more hilarious this can get. If Jesus hasn’t made his point thus far that he isn’t here to fight a war, to free from Roman oppression, to kill the enemy, to make a spectacle, to work himself into places of power then we’ve missed what Jesus is doing. This is one of the last ditch efforts that Jesus goes through to announce his upside-down kingdom. While the powers that be, the empire walks into the city powerfully ready to crush anyone that would oppose with their governor riding a strong horse, Jesus comes into town on a donkey with a few friends who are all completely confused and skeptical about what is happening. Horses are for war. Donkeys are for peace. It puts power and peace against each other, but they fight in very different ways.

This was leading up to an accumulation as two kingdom’s come head to head. Two different kings. Two different kingdoms. Two different Saviours. Two different sons of God. The Romans were making a statement, but so was Jesus and by the looks of it, there was people who believed him and were celebrating. As everyone is shouting for joy and shouting “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” they weren’t just making a statement that they wanted to invite Jesus into their hearts. This was more than a personal cheer. This was political. This was the very uprising that Pilate was there to prevent. Jesus was there announcing a different way of living. A different kingdom to follow. This kingdom was non-violent, peace-seeking, liberating, poor-loving and went after the outcasts. This kingdom stands in direct opposition to Rome and Pilate. This kingdom stood in direct opposition to the power loving Pharisees. Anyone who depended on or loved the empire wanted nothing to do with Jesus. He is not on their side. He is not helping keep them in their places of power and wealth.

Palm Sunday is about this collision. It’s about the colliding of two kingdoms and realizing what side we land on.

Q: What is the difference between the two kingdoms? What kingdom are we part of? Which side of the city do you feel like you would be on?

Jesus finally does lead his disciples into Jerusalem. Still yet, many of his followers didn’t get it. Even his own disciples didn’t get it. Remember, his followers thought they were walking into a fight of sorts. They were following a Saviour, someone who was going to free them from Roman oppression. Jesus coming into the city was symbolic. In a way he was stating his kingship. I can kind of picture what is happening on this day. You have a lot of Jews who are milling around and they are sick and tired of being oppressed and seeing Rome flaunt their power. So they jump behind anyone who looks like they are going to stand up to this power play. In this case it just happens to be Jesus. They will look past the whole donkey fiasco and that there doesn’t seem to be any weapons, after all, God has done it before without weapons. So they follow him blindly half expecting a fight, half expecting a miracle, either way they are following him because he offers freedom. Finally someone to stand up to the powers, someone to put them in their place.

So what does Jesus do? He bypasses the Roman parade completely, ignores the other power and starts attacking the temple. If he knew what he was doing, he would have went and confronted the Romans and told them to leave. But he didn’t, he goes and starts making enemies with his own people. He attacks the temple, the Pharisees and all the systems that were in place in the Jewish culture. The only life that the people following him would have known, that’s what he attacks. This is like me running as the Green Party, a party that doesn’t get any votes and only has a few supporters and then when I finally get up to the podium to make my speech I don’t say anything about my opponents and just rip into the whole structure of the Green Party. It’s backwards. In everything he did he was giving a big middle finger to the way that the temple worked whether it be rebuilding it in three days (even though it took them years upon years), healing people outside of their rituals or driving out the money changers (who happened to be known to collaborate quite conveniently with the Romans).

Jesus is coming in alone on this one. Not only does he stand in direct opposition to the way of the empire and Pilate and come in peace. He calls out the very people that are part of his history and tells them that they are no different. They play the same games but just hide the antics with a religious mask.

Q: Why did Jesus not attack Rome and Pilate? Why did he seem to only have things against his own people and the way they ran things?

Palm Sunday is not a day of triumph for Jesus, it was a day of temptation. Temptation that ties all the way back to Jesus wandering in the dessert. It was the temptation to act on the demands of the people, even when they seemed legitimate to me the kind if Messiah and Saviour that people were hoping for. It was the temptation to control the situation and give himself power. They had anticipation, hope in Jesus to free them and be the kind of Messiah they wanted.

So Jesus marches into Jerusalem like a king, never confronts the Roman authority, goes to the temple, looks around and then leaves.

Jesus didn’t give them anything he wanted. Jesus came and completely dashed the hopes of everyone who had certain expectations of who he should be and what he should do. He does not install himself as king, he just heads outside of the city and hangs out with some friends. He then pronounces judgment on the temple and Jerusalem. The cheers we read before were the cheers of a crowds who thought God was coming to give them what they wanted, satisfy their needs. The crowds slowly go quiet because Jesus isn’t coming through for them as much as they thought he should.

He isn’t here to just give us what we want, take us away and solve all our problems. No. Anyone who thinks that. Anyone who rejoices with this kind of focus is bound to be upset, is bound to crucify. Christ came to dash our hopes and realign our lives better with what God’s promises, not our wants. We are set free from our childish hopes and longings and our selfish and misguided direction. He isn’t just another pawn of our selfish longings. He is calling us to live radically different. To change our direction entirely, not just get a new leader to help them win at what they are already doing. So I want us to sing some different songs this morning. Songs that better symbolize what Christ was doing. Christ was on his way to die and he was inviting all his followers to go with him. I thought that we would kind of shape this morning’s service to go through the ups n downs of the emotions of the crowds that would have followed Jesus. So the first songs we we sung were rejoicing songs of victory, we win, we are right, we come out on top, we don’t have to worry anymore because Jesus saved the day. They are all fine and dandy when understood in context but they are very easily manipulated to mean something else. Very quickly we can make it about what we get, how much money and power we have and how God obviously wants us to have all this. So as we come off this high of singing praises to Jesus, let us follow the direction of where Jesus actually went after the crowds sang songs to him.

Then we sang these three songs.

  • Causes me to Tremble (Were you There)
  • Up on a Mountain by Welcome Wagon
  • He never said a mumblin word by Welcome Wagon

John 19

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”
But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement. It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

Jesus hints a lot that he is going to die. No one believes him. That’s just a ridiculous proposition. The messiah, dying? What? But when people start to get the idea that maybe he is actually not going to do anything. Maybe this is another failed Messiah. Maybe this guy just got our hopes up, because he hasn’t done anything for me. There is still Romans around. Besides, it’s not that bad living with the Romans, they are the strongest and the biggest and they keep us safe and comfortable. We can’t complain that much. Wow. What a switch from hailing Jesus as King to the last lines of this verse.

Q: When in your life have you seen that you’ve stopped following Jesus life these crowds? Any personal examples of when you’ve gone from cheering for his team to wanting him to die?

This is the lesson of Palm Sunday, which will hopefully prepare us for Good Friday. Christ did not come to give us what we want. Christ came to die, and we are to die with him. If we have certain expectations about our faith, this church, our God and they aren’t met then we will be like the Jews in this case and turn on him instantly. To a point where the church becomes indistinguishable from the world. They both want the same thing, and they thought Jesus was going to give it, so that’s why they followed him.

“The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.”
– N.T. Wright

God’s new world looks different. It does not parade around on horses of power and flaunt its wealth in the faith of its enemies. It does not move forward in violence and stop on those in its way. He hasn’t rescued us from our oppressors. God’s new world that we are invited into is a world where we can live oppressed and yet still be free. In God’s kingdom that is unveiled in Christ we live a life where peace, love, grace and forgiveness are our markers. Eventually, these kinds of qualities, lead to death. Death is the life that Christ invites us into. Death to an old way of doing things. Death to our own wants. Death to our selfishness. If we don’t want to die, and the crowd here did not want to, then we will eventually crucify Jesus with the rest of them. If you don’t want to die, then you will inevitably kill. It’s easy to want to be on the winning team and hoop and holler when Jesus walks into town like a king and you think he’s going to come out on top. Most of us would get on his side. It’s a different game when he doesn’t follow your rules and then starts attacking your way of living and ripping into your traditions and comfortable lifestyle. No wonder he got crucified.

Many of us want to be on the winning team, but do we really want to live the kind of life that is demanded from us? When Peter Rollins was asked if he believed in the Resurrection, this was his answer.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what s
ome people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

– Peter Rollins

Palm Sunday leaves us with a choice. Right before us we see both kingdoms, and we can choose which one we will follow. We can choose the powerful, wealthy, controlling way and try and conform Jesus into our will so that we get what we want and he blesses every decision that we make. Or we can choose the way of death. Death to ourselves, death to our selfishness. What will it be? Depending on what we choose will determine the kind of significance that Good Friday will have for us. It is either frustrating because Jesus’ death means that you didn’t get what you want, he didn’t take away that sickness, he didn’t get you that job, he didn’t make you happy, he didn’t heal your marriage, he didn’t fix your kids. Or it can be a known and accepted direction. You buy following Jesus know that death is inevitable. Good Friday is no surprise. It comes as a relief because you know you need to die anyway. So I want to end by reading this prayer I wrote. The prayer follows the shifting of the crowds and helps us relate to what they were going through.

Today we remember when you walked into Jerusalem on a donkey. We get excited because in many ways this means we have won. This is a sign of victory and you are our king. So we yell with the crowds ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ and ‘Blessed is the King of Israel.’ You came to crush our enemies and validate our lives and our longings. We are there with them watching Jesus ride in on a donkey and completely missing the point of the entire charade. Jesus is our King and finally everything we hoped for and he is riding in and taking a hold of that title.
Lord, we wait in expectation with the crowds.
God, we have been longing for so long.

The donkey. The outcasts. The prostitutes. The disciples. The shepherds. The tax collectors. We see it all. We see the spectacle. We just don’t get it. We don’t get your stories. We don’t get your grand illustration. But we join in with the crowds and lay the palm branches anyway. Everyone tells us you are the one to free us. Our parents raised us to believe you are the one that will finally fulfill our yearnings. We wish you would move forward but you keep stopping to have conversations with weird people. Move along Jesus, you have work to do. Address the powers. Remove Pilate from his powerful throne. Free us.
Lord, we expect big things.
God, we hold our breath.

Now you are really throwing us off. Why didn’t you go to address Pilate? Why haven’t you gotten yourself a horse by now? Why are the Roman soldiers still here? Also, can you take it easy on this whole criticizing the temple thing? Our ancestors built that with their bear hands and it took them years. Stop pretending you aren’t that big of a deal, as if you are just going to go off in a corner and die and not tell anyone. It was frustrating when instead of taking your rightful place as king you went off into the fields and hung out with your friends instead. We feel like you aren’t taking this as seriously as you should be. It’s making us a bit angry.
Lord, please hurry up, we can’t wait much longer.
God, we are really starting to question this whole thing.

Now we are among the crowd and you are up in front, still not saying much. So you know what. Screw it. You didn’t do what you said you would do. You didn’t save us. You didn’t free us. We are still here and now you have become an outlaw. You’d be better off dead. You’ve built up everyone’s hopes and now they are dashed. I don’t want to follow you into this. I don’t want to change what I’m doing day in and day out. I just want to be saved. And you didn’t do it. You deserve to be crucified.
Lord, we’ve given up on you.
God, enough is enough.

Now may you go in the uneasy peace of knowing that the way of Jesus, is hard and not that attractive. Yes we can cheer that Jesus is coming to be king, but to do that he must die, and we must follow him there. So that is where we will meet next, on Good Friday, the inevitable end the journey that begun today on his march into Jerusalem on a young donkey.

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