02 APR 2023 – Palm Sunday
Good morning, my name is Gary and I am so glad you’re here with us as we go into the Word together. A huge shout out of gratitude to our wonderful service teams that makes these hybrid Sunday worship services possible. And a big shout out to you if you’re joining us for the first or second time whether you here physically with us in church, joining us live online right now, or watching this sometime later in the week. We are so grateful you have made the time to join us to worship and receive the ministry of the Word together, especially at the start of Holy Week.
If you are joining us this morning live, I would like to invite you to contribute to this sermon using menti.com. If you have your phone or a computer with you, would you scan the QR code or enter in fcc.li/menti and that will take you to menti.com where you can follow along and contribute anonymously to this sermon.
Today we begin with a reading from Matthew 21:1-13 –
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”[a] 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
12 Then Jesus entered the temple[c] and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Friends, will you join me in a Word of prayer as we give this time to God –
“Dear God, thank you for each and every person here today. I pray You will speak to each one of our hearts today, in the way we need to see You and receive You as we encounter You in the gospel story this Palm Sunday.
God, as we gather today and shout, “Hosanna, save us!” Help us to recognize it is by following what You are teaching us through the person of Jesus that we help to save ourselves and participate in Your saving work in the world.
Let Your living Word today come alive in our hearts and enable us to see You clearly, and be open to Your work in our lives today. I pray that through our time together in this service, we can all say that we have encountered the living God. In Jesus name we pray, amen.”
Today is Palm Sunday. You know I have always loved Palm Sunday. It’s always been one of my favourite Sundays of the year. When I was younger and growing up in church, it was one of the more exciting Sundays where we would take a break from our regular Sunday service and we gather outside with the palm branches we had cut from our homes or honestly – some of the trees around the estate and we joyfully brought that into the church waving these palm branches and that would mirror what was happening in the text.
When I was younger I envisioned Palm Sunday playing out like this – that as Jesus was coming into Jerusalem everyone in the city came out of their houses and they all grabbed palm branches and waved them jubilantly in the air and they worshipped Jesus together. That’s the way I pictured it – the whole city out there worshiping Jesus.
But what do you think is the point of Palm Sunday? (menti)
It was not long ago that I thought the point then was that later in the week all of these people that praised Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had turned against Jesus and shouted for His crucifixion. That everyone deserted Jesus like Peter did, and left him to die to atone for the sins of humanity.
Today I understand Palm Sunday a little bit differently and that’s mainly because of
what I have been learning about Palm Sunday.
But let’s see what you think is the point of Palm Sunday. (review menti)
Today I want to retell a story everyone thinks we know all too well but I think, like me, don’t seem to understand it well.
In preparing for today I have been reading this really illuminating book that situates the events around Holy Week in its historical context. It’s called “The Last Week: the day-by-day account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem” co-authored by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. And if you want an analysis and fresh revelation of the blow-by-blow events of Holy Week, I highly encourage you to borrow this from the National Library, or get it for your Kindle or from Kinokuniya.
I think so many of us conceive a Palm Sunday in the way that I did when I was younger and I think that’s the vision that most people in the church and outside the church have as well.
But I think that is an inaccurate description of what really went on that Palm Sunday.
As you know Jesus and His followers were Jewish and so they had come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. And in those days Passover was a pilgrimage festival — which meant that you were supposed to come to Jerusalem if you could.
For Jesus and His followers that meant traveling about 150 kilometres from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem would have been filled with people ready to celebrate. There would have been a strong Roman presence there too. Pontius Pilate, the Roman appointed Governor of Judea would have been there. He would have travelled from Caesarea Maritima to ensure that the Roman presence was known.
Now the Romans were at all the festivals to ensure that things didn’t get out of hand but they made a special show of force and power on Passover because do you remember what Jews were celebrating during Passover?
Yes, it was God’s liberation of their people from Egypt!
Well Rome knew that and didn’t want them to get any ideas thinking that God might be liberating them from another oppressive power — the Roman empire that was occupying Judea at the time.
And so this played out on Palm Sunday because in the book “The Last Week”, Borg and Crossan reminds us there were actually not one, but two parades going on at once on Palm Sunday.
On the east side of town was one parade. That was the one we read in Matthew 21 with Jesus, His disciples and a crowd of followers.
Jesus comes riding in from the town of Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, which actually isn’t even a real mountain. It’s kind of a hill that overlooks the city and this town of Bethpage was located on it about a kilometre from Jerusalem.
In this parade, Jesus comes in riding on a borrowed donkey, and if you look carefully at Matthew’s account, he makes a specific reference to the prophecy by Zech 9:9 which reads, and I have put it side by side here with Matthew 21:5 here –
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
But in Matthew 21:5 the gospel writer tweaks this to read –
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The first thing I want to point out is that Matthew wanted to emphasize that there was not just one donkey but two donkeys. The rest of the gospel accounts only emphasized the donkey that Jesus rode in on, but John Dominic Crossan proposes that Jesus intentionally wanted these two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, because there is such great symbolism in it.
In this parade, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey; not even just a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.
For further emphasis Matthew drops part of the prophecy “of triumphant and victorious is he” when he quotes from Zechariah 9.
And then the prophecy in Zech 9:10 goes on beautifully to support how the one who comes riding on a humble donkey into Jerusalem will non-violently bring peace –
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations.
That is the type of king God is sending to the people. Not the warrior king some in that crowd were probably expecting.
Who was this crowd? We know at least some of them. Some of them were the disciples and Jesus’ followers. We know two of the followers were among those Jesus had healed on the way in from Jericho, and others who had experienced His miracles and healing.
As they approached the city, this crowd grabbed some palm branches, took the cloaks off their back and throw them on the ground to make a sort of a makeshift carpet. It wasn’t the glorious triumphant victorious event that most of our Bibles have in their section heading and like the way I had pictured it when I was younger.
It was just His followers making a path for Jesus to enter into the city while calling out to Jesus, “Hosanna!” “Save us”, and praising and honouring Jesus as He rode into the city, with all their limited understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus’ intentions really were.
Because on the exact other side of town, at the west entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus knew that there was a different kind of parade going on. And that would have been the event and spectacle that everyone would have wanted to see. It wasn’t a bunch of peasants grabbing palm branches to lay down before a man riding in a little donkey. No, this parade was the procession of the Roman imperial army.
The central figure is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria. He wasn’t on a borrowed donkey. He would have been at the head of hundreds of Roman soldiers and calvary. There were chariots and war horses there. There were soldiers with their helmets, amour and swords and spears at the ready. They were carrying banners with the symbols of Rome. There were drums beating and whips snapping at the ground and dust circling in the air. This was the proclamation of the power of empire.
Now this is the parade the Romans wanted to make sure the citizens were coming out to see.
Can you imagine that on one side of town you have a display of imperial power, and on the other side of town you have a middle eastern Jewish peasant coming in on a borrowed donkey and her baby?
You see, the Roman parade wasn’t just about power. It was also about theology, because according to Roman imperial theology, it was Caesar the emperor who was the Son of God, Lord and Saviour. And everyone was fine as long as they were willing to confess that.
But the people on the other side of town were saying that it was Jesus who was the Son of God. It was the reign of God, the kingdom of God to where their loyalty was. Not with the Roman empire but with Jesus who they claimed was their Messiah, their “Christos”, their anointed one.
And at that time the anointed one that they were praying and hoping for was supposed to be a warrior king who would overthrow the occupying empire.
But this Jesus is a huge contrast to someone like Pilate. And His intention that reflected the heart of God and God’s ways was nothing like the kind of violent revolution of might. He was talking about a non-violent revolution of the heart where people open their hearts, learnt in His example, paused and thought about the way they lived their lives and made decisions and acted to create a more just and peaceful world.
I hope you can see the point of Palm Sunday now – it was a strategically planned political demonstration by Jesus against the Roman empire where people were confronted to choose who they were going to align with, which parade would they go to. No wonder the Matthew records in verse 10 that the entire city was in turmoil asking, “who is this?”
“The Last Week” puts it like this. “Jesus’ triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon (or criticism) of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission.”
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He didn’t stop on Sunday. o
We read in Matthew 21:12-13 that the next day Jesus went into the temple. In those days, the temple was not just the destination of the pilgrimage, it was the epicentre of religious life – the dwelling place of God, the mediator of forgiveness through sacrifice, and the centre of devotion.
Jesus kept talking about how people needed to be less concerned with the letter of the law and more concerned with the spirit of the law and He felt like people were getting too distracted on the wrong things.
Like how an animal sacrifice had turned from being a sacred gift or meal offered in worship to God to being made a substitution for the forgiveness of sins for the ones offering it.
Like the idea that worthiness and blessing was based on the quality of the offering and sacrifice that one brought.
Like how the temple was the only place where one could be mediated by the priests to be in God’s presence.
And so Jesus goes into the large outer courts where the money changers were. You need to know that the money changers were not there to change foreign currency to local currency; they were there to change your denarii into temple currency.
This currency was essential for worship in the temple because people needed to use this currency to buy animals and burnt offerings. You wanted to make sure that you got your animals from the temple because then only you could be sure that it was an acceptable offering to God.
And the exchange rate was controlled and priced in the overheads of the temple and the margin that the moneychangers, Jewish elites and temple leaders would keep, plus the tribute that needed to be paid to Rome.
But Jesus goes and says this isn’t what God is about and this isn’t what God cares about.
You don’t need an intermediary between you and God. You don’t need some kind of animal to die to substitute for your sins. You don’t need to be part of this constructed system of economic exploitation and religious oppression. And so Jesus goes and overturns the money changers tables. He literally shuts the Temple system down.
So you see what happens here on Palm Sunday is Jesus confronts the political establishment head on. And then on Monday he goes and confronts the religious establishment head on. Is it any surprise that the week ended up the way that it did?
I think that so many of us miss the point of Holy Week.
You may not agree with me on this but I don’t think the point of Jesus’ life was to die. So many Christians think that that the point of Jesus’s life was to die to atone for humanity’s sins. I used to think that way too.
But today I don’t think that is the reason why Jesus lived. I think that Jesus lived His life in such a way that led to His death. He confronted the principalities and the powers at every turn and that led to his inevitable death.
And so you see, Palm Sunday is the crux of what it’s all about because it is the day when we choose whether we’re going to join Jesus’ parade or the world’s parade.
Now if we join Jesus’ parade we know where it leads right? We know that it leads to the cross.
For Jesus it was a literal cross and but for us while it may not be a literal cross, there are plenty of different figurative crosses which we must confront in our lives when we follow the path of Jesus — the path of compassion and selfless love for the other; when we die to ourselves – our comfort and our convenience.
I would like to invite you to share some of the different crosses that you are confronting in your life today. (menti)
Are you confronting the crosses of racism, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, ableism, sexism?
Are you confronting the crosses of workplace exploitation, economic exploitation, environmental exploitation? Maybe the cross you are confronting is at a more personal level where you are confront the cross of fear, unworthiness or your own ego?
We’re called to confront different crosses each and every day of our lives. A lot of times that can seem so abstract for us, or we can wonder exactly what that means for our own lives.
I think it begins with being curious and being open to learning. Learning about ourselves and learning about how we interact with the world. And being curious and open to learning is foundational especially in the time of Lent as we are invited to repent – to pause and think about it, and confront these crosses.
And often if not always, learning and confronting our crosses will require courage because it comes with a different degrees of discomfort, doesn’t it?
It will be uncomfortable to learn the role that privilege plays in our life and begin to confront that it. It will be uncomfortable to learn how we have marginalized others in our life.
It will be uncomfortable to have to make changes in the way that we commute and consume for concern for the environment. It will be uncomfortable to sit across from someone we disagree with to understand their perspective. It will be uncomfortable to we recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth or to recognize the truths of others can be equally valid.
That will all be uncomfortable.
But you know what I’ve realized, at least in my own life? That it is often at the times of greatest discomfort that I’m growing the most.
It’s the times of greatest discomfort that God’s Spirit is at work in my life, en-couraging me to do differently, to be better, to grow.
And when we can lean into that discomfort and see it as a gift from God, is an absolutely incredible way to become more compassionate to ourselves and towards others and have the courage to engage in the work of love and justice for all.
I wonder how many of us have committed to join Jesus’ parade? What does it mean for you to join Jesus’ parade? (menti)
For me it is first and foremost letting go of looking to the world to inform how to live my life. But at the same time it is not running away from the world, it is a commitment to reflect on the experiences that I have gone through, to discern which crosses in my own personal life I need to confront that prevent me from living more authentically into who I am created to be while on one hand while being in greater alignment to who God is calling me to become. It means to discern which crosses systemically I am being called and anointed to confront. And to be in relationship with community, this community, who will encourage me and support me on the path in following Jesus.
Friends, today is Palm Sunday. “Hosanna!” “Save us!” “Blessed are we when we come in
the name of our God.”
I pray that we will all commit to Jesus’ parade and recognize that just like that humble donkey, we are all called to carry Jesus’ message into all the world and break in God’s kin-dom of shalom. And in doing so, we save ourselves and the participate in the saving work of God in the world. Amen.