Happily Ever After...?
Isaiah 50:4-9John 12:12-16
I want to begin with a couple of editorial suggestions. This story from John, of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, is one of the stories that graces all four gospels. Each writer has a different emphasis: a detail here, an Old Testament citation there. But I want to propose a few adjustments that might give the story a little more pizzazz.
First of all, the colt has to go. It is simply too small, too under whelming. For a triumphal entry, we need a larger animal transport. A Clydesdale. An elephant! Something to make an impact on the reader and to show us how important this story and this character Jesus really are. So we scratch the sad little donkey and bring in the grand pachyderm.
The second idea I have to punch up the story has to do with the ending. What a downer! We start with this fantastic parade entering Jerusalem, the ragtag band celebrating their leader. Pretty soon, though, the huge crowds dwindle down to twelve, then eleven, then three when Jesus is arrested. He tried, sentenced, and crucified. Sure you’ve got resurrection tacked on at the end, but that hardly justifies dragging the reader through several depressing chapters! You totally lose your momentum: carpenter’s son becomes a wandering teacher, performs astounding miracles, gathers disciples, builds a following, until he hits Jerusalem during the high tourist season with this impressive crowd. Do you see what I’m saying? After this, we’ve got a chance to build on the emergy.
So let me make my pitch. Picture, if you will: Jesus riding the elephant in through the city gates, gathering larger and larger crowds as he goes. You’ve already got built into the story the backdrop of the conflict with the Pharisees, so there’s tension present. Seizing the moment, with this larger following, Jesus rides up to King Herod’s palace and demands the crown that is rightfully his. Now here, your story has got some options. Option one: Herod, seeing the crowd that has gathered to support this upstart, immediately weighs his options and steps aside. Option two: in order to up the conflict quotient and add a little more suspense to the story, the crowd could clash with Herod’s supporters, eventually prevailing. In either case, Jesus is crowned king, the Romans eventually leave town as well, and the storybook ending comes to be as – you can say it with me – “they lived happily ever after.”
Now that’s a story! What do you think?
We like our storybook endings, our happily ever afters. And for many of us Christians, who live our lives from Sunday to Sunday rather than day to day, this is a perfect time of year for just that. Today, we gather for the waving of palm branches and those great “Hosanna” hymns we get to sing only once a year. Next Sunday, we will return to this place with shouts of ”Alleluia!” and “Christ is Risen!” Two Sundays of the highest celebration in a row: it doesn’t get much more joyful than that.
But in between these two Sundays, between the triumphal entry and the empty tomb, there is so much more at work. We will have several opportunities this week to gather here as a church, to walk the suffering road of Holy Week together. On Thursday evening, we gather for fellowship downstairs and worship in the sanctuary as we remember the Last Supper where Christ broke bread and was betrayed. On Friday, we gather in the chapel to remember that the tomb wasn’t always empty, but held the body of our Lord and Savior.
But most of us miss these profoundly important moments in the life of the Church. Our lives are overwhelming during the week. It is difficult to get away during the day or impossible to go out at night. And so, unintentionally, we end up leaving the parade today and returning for resurrection next Sunday. As a result of this, some churches have changed Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday, focusing more on the stories that fall into the gap: the arrest, the trial, the torture, the crucifixion, the death and burial. There is the natural temptation to jump from one “happily ever after” to another. Switching from palms to pain on the Sunday before Easter is one way to keep us from ignoring that uncomfortable middle which is such an integral part of the story.
But the truth is that there is more than initially meets the eye on Palm Sunday. The point isn’t to come up with our own editorial suggestions. Instead, we are invited into the story for a closer look. Like peeling back the clear overlays in an anatomy textbook, we should go beyond the merely superficial and examine the layers of this story.
First there is the choice of transport, the diminutive donkey. As the hoof beats hit the stones of ancient Jerusalem, the crowds could surely hear echoes of the prophet Zechariah, quoted by John as he tells the story. Zechariah had lived under the period of the Persian Occupation, the people recently returned from exile in Babylon. He urged them to rebuild the destroyed Temple, the center of their religious identity. And he wrote of a future Messiah-King who would come triumphant yet humble, riding not on a noble steed, but on a lowly donkey. And there is Jesus, sitting atop just such a creature.
Then there are the crowds, rushing out of Jerusalem to meet this wandering teacher upon his entry. The scene would have been reminiscent of any scene of triumph at the time, where the victorious king approaches the conquered city, the people coming out to greet him and pay homage in hopes that their pleas would be met with graciousness. And the first act of such a king, upon entering the defeated town, would be to destroy the old religious practices and then establish his own religion as the acceptable practice of the realm. And there rides Jesus, the one who challenged the Pharisees, at the center of the crowd’s attention.
And then we come to the palm branches, cut from the date palms so common from Jericho, just to the East of the city. It was a symbol of righteousness, the tree standing straight for more than 100 feet into the air. It was a sign of plenty, the source of the honey promised to those wandering Hebrews looking for a land flowing with it. And like the olive branch, it was a symbol of peace. Less than 200 years before our story, a man named Simeon had entered Jerusalem with crowds waving palm branches in celebration of driving the Seleucids out of nearby Akka. And there enters Jesus, riding along on these waves of adoration.
There are the cries of the crowd, this curious “Hosanna,” a direct plea for salvation: “Save Us Now!” It was a cry reserved for royalty and divinity. As the shouts reverberate off the walls of the ancient city, the words of the Psalms from which they come resonate with the hearers. This was the psalm sung when the King entered the area of Temple during the feast. And there is Jesus, among the Passover crowds begging him for deliverance.
And finally, when Jesus disembarks, he is not at Herod’s doorstep. With all of the weight of this parade behind him, the donkey beneath him, the Passover crowds surging over him, the royal palms waving around him, the cries and shouts of “Hosanna” echoing through him, Jesus goes straight to the Temple at the heart of Jerusalem. The layered meanings of the triumphal entry going before him, proclaiming him as Messiah, king, savior, liberator, conqueror, Jesus drives out of the Temple those who would defile it, scolds those who would insult it, rebukes those who would pollute it.
And the story builds from there. This Jesus is dangerous. The crowd has turned this conquering, liberating, saving, royal Christ into a political threat to the Roman occupiers and a religious threat to the Pharisaic leaders. And all that happens from there, what we gather to remember this Thursday and this Friday, is no surprise. He will suffer, as Isaiah described in our reading this morning, for his faithfulness.
So where are we in it all? Are we the disciples, the inner circle, pleased that others have come to join and proclaim what we already know? Are we the Romans or the Pharisees, those in power with much to lose? Or are we the crowds, sensing that something wonderful is happening in this ragtag procession centered around the humble Galilean? We may not know what it all means. We may wonder and even doubt at the idea of following this man named Jesus. But on this day of celebration, we sense that something is happening. We rush to join in, grabbing our palm branch, and join our voices with that crowd: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!” Save us now.