Spring is finally upon us. Okay, we had a few cooler days this week, but we also enjoyed some temperatures in the mid 70’s, so I’m a happy camper. I even had the opportunity to mow my yard this week. And yes, I enjoy mowing in April, but I’ll admit that story will likely change by July.
The warmer temperatures have also meant that I have had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite outdoor activities. No, I’m not talking about sports, biking, or hiking. I’m talking about grilling. Think about it, grilling combines fire and meat. Who doesn’t like that combination? I may not be all that handy in the kitchen, but send me outside with some raw meat and vegetables and all at once I become Julia Child.
Two summers ago our family made a big switch in the world of outdoor cooking. I grew up with and have never known anything other than grilling with propane. Turn a few valves, push a button, and instant heat. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. But there is just something about cooking over charcoal. Charcoal gives food a smoky, earthy taste that compliments most food.
So I fire up the charcoal grill this spring, lighting the coals in a charcoal chimney, and allowing them to burn down until they get that nice ashy look. I spread out charcoals and allow them to heat up the grill as I prepare to create some culinary masterpiece. I put the cast iron grate back on the grill directly over the charcoals. Then, knowing that the grate would probably be a bit sticky, I reach for my nonstick cooking spray. I keep this spray right next to my grill in a little Rubbermaid storage building where I also house my lawnmower and other automotive accessories. I grab the cooking spray, shake it a few times, take off the cap, place my finger on the spray nozzle, and prepare to discharge the contents onto the grilling surface. It was then that I looked closely at the can and realized that I had not grabbed the cooking spray, but had instead grabbed something that looked a lot like the cooking spray. I grabbed a can of starting fluid; ether.
That simple and understandable mistake could have changed everything. Rather than enjoying a smoked pork shoulder, I might have suffered from a smoked pastor shoulder…and the rest of my arm! A simple case of mistaken identity, or more accurately, mistaken purpose, could have led to a major issue and disappointment.
What I want to do today is walk through the story of Palm Sunday and Holy Week again, a story that you have probably all heard many times. And I hope to remind us all how quickly things heated up in Jerusalem, and how a misunderstanding led to betrayal, denial, and disappointment.
The story of Palm Sunday is recorded in all four of the Gospels, so we cannot ignore this text. There is something important here! And it becomes quite clear that Jesus is trying to make a statement. Jesus is walking toward Jerusalem and he sends two of his disciples ahead to get a donkey who is tied along with her offspring so that Jesus could ride into town. And of course, we know that he then rode into town on a donkey, or maybe a colt, or maybe a foal of a donkey. The translation is a little choppy, and Matthew’s account almost makes it sound like Jesus rode in on two different animals, kind of like Aquaman rode two dolphins.
There is a good reason for why this isn’t as clear as we would like it to be. Remember that the Gospels are interpreting a passage from the Old Testament, where the prophet Zechariah uses Hebrew parallelism to make a point, and it doesn’t quite translate smoothly from Hebrew into Greek and then into English. Here is the quote from Matthew 11:5: “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.’”
The presence of the foal, the baby donkey, isn’t to suggest that Jesus rode on both. But as some have said, it makes the contrast all the more significant between what is expected and what is reality. A king is expected to ride into town on a great steed, a magnificent horse, powerful and intimidating. But Jesus rides in on a donkey. A female donkey with a nursing foal.
Now let me ask you, do you think that this was intentional? Was Jesus trying to make a statement by riding in on a donkey? I think so! Where else do we read that Jesus rode an animal? I don’t that all at once he just got too tired to walk. I can’t go another step, you guys. Go get me a donkey to ride. No, Jesus knew that prophesy from Zechariah, and he was making a statement about who he is. Jesus is the king about whom Zechariah foretold. Not your typical king, but a king nonetheless.
Jesus clearly knew what he was doing and who he was claiming to be. But how did the people interpret this donkey ride into Jerusalem? Did all this go over their heads? Well, Jesus had entered Jerusalem a number of times before, probably several times a year for the religious festivities. I don’t think he ever was welcomed in this way! They see him riding in on a donkey as a statement, and the respond appropriately.
We read that the people laid their cloaks down as Jesus rode by. This is an act of respect for the one who was passing by. The waved palm branches, which were used as a sign of victory and triumph. Before the Romans had overtaken Jerusalem, the Hebrew people issued their own coins with pictures of palm branches on them. Palm branches were also used as a part of the annual Festival of Booths. The people would wave palm branches as they recited Psalm 118:25-26, “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
And what do the people say as Jesus enters Jerusalem? In Matthew 21:9 we read, “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!’”
Hosanna means “Save us!”
Jesus knows what he is doing. The people know what they are doing. They are welcoming their king. Remember, this happens during the Passover Feast, when the Jewish people remembered God delivering them out of Egypt. Now, it would seem, God was about to lead them out of captivity once again. This time, God would deliver them from the Romans.
Today we would say that the Jewish people had the wrong understanding of Jesus’s role as king. But regardless of how they understood his role then, or how we understand it today, it was clear that those who waved palm branches, laid down their cloaks, and shouted “Hosanna in the highest” understood Jesus to be a king, a descendant of King David.
This brings me to the challenge of Holy Week. We come to church on Sunday and we hear these Hosannas, we wave our Palm Branches, and then we come back one week later to find an empty tomb and shouts of “He is risen.” Indeed, the empty tomb is reason to celebrate! But we miss so much when we go directly from Palm Sunday to Easter.
Close to 1/3 of Mark is dedicated to Holy Week. John spends eight chapters talking about this seven-day period. But what always amazes me is not only how much happens during Holy Week, but how much the people change. And they change, in large part, because of the actions of Jesus.
The first thing this king does when he gets to town is cleanses the temple. Later he talks about tearing it down and raising it again in three days. The people heard this as blasphemy, and many start to turn against him! He was seen as a threat to the religious system and he was seen as a threat to the Romans. So in less than one week, we go from a group yelling “Hosanna” to a group yelling “Crucify him!”
We don’t know if the same people who welcomed Jesus into town on Palm Sunday were the same who gathered and called for his crucifixion. But what we find in today’s lesson is how quickly people can turn away from Jesus.
It was Judas, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, who went to the chief priests and offered to turn over Jesus. He approached them and offered to turn over Jesus. Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’s closest disciples, his inner circle of disciples, couldn’t be counted on to pray with him without falling asleep. I can connect with this one. But Peter would even deny knowing Jesus three times later that night just to save his own skin. All of the disciples, except maybe John, run, scatter, and hide when Jesus is arrested.
So why do some many of Jesus’s followers turn their backs on him, perhaps even going as far as to deny knowing him, perhaps even going so far as to betray him? How do you go from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him” in less than one week?
I think it all comes down to expectations.
If you begin with expectations of what a king should look like or what a king should do, you will very likely be disappointed with Jesus. But instead, what if we let Jesus show us what a king should look like?
In Jesus we find a king that will leave 99 behind to go find one who is lost. In Jesus we find a king who spends time with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. In Jesus we find a king who loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him. In Jesus we find a king who washes the feet of his followers, even the one who would betray him. In Jesus we find a king who restores the one who denies even knowing him and gives him the keys to heaven. In Jesus we find a king who did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but instead humbled himself, becoming a servant, obedient even to the point of death. Death on a cross.
If you have been disappointed by the kind of king Jesus is, perhaps that is because we take our cues on how a king should be from others rather than listening to Jesus when he tells us the kind of king he is.
Like Judas, Peter, and so many others, our wrong expectations can lead to disappointment. Misunderstanding Jesus can be like grabbing the wrong can and spraying the contents onto hot coals: it can blow up in your face, leaving you hurt, leaving you disappointed.
As we move from Palm Sunday to Easter, let us not move to quickly from “Hosanna” to “He is risen!” Let us slow down this week to focus on the King revealed in the scriptures, for if we move too quickly, we may find ourselves tempted to cry out “Crucify him” ourselves.