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Luke 19:29-40; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, the beginning of the end of the Grand Drama that is the mission of Christ in his earthly ministry. Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king, riding through the gate to the cheers and praises of the people of the Holy City.
The triumphal entrance, as it is called, is the fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy. In Zechariah 9:9, we are told that the king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and victorious, riding a colt. While it is not explicitly mentioned in Luke 19, or any of the accounts of this incident, readers of this who know the Old Testament and its messianic prophecies would see the connection. God’s anointed, the Messiah, would come in this humble way, entering the Holy City on the way to claim victory.
Jesus enters the city, to the acclaim of all. The palms, the branches laid out, mirrors the same done for the fifth Hasmonean brother, Simon, on a triumphal occasion in I Maccabees 13, where he reclaimed the citadel of Jerusalem from foreign invaders. The branches, in other words, are signs of praise made towards one who saves God’s people from their enemies.
That is what the people who saw Jesus enter must have believed in that moment: This person has come to save us! The Messiah is here to defeat the enemies of God’s people!
But that is the deep irony of this week. What begins as a triumphal event, a time to say “Hosanna!” (meaning, “save us!”), very quickly turns; on Thursday, Jesus will have the final meal with his disciples; on Friday, he will be murdered by a state execution; on Saturday, he will remain in the grace, God enfleshed suffering death; and on Sunday, he will rise again as the one whom death could not hold. And many of the people laying branches out of reverence, would call for Jesus to die those few days later.
The people of Jerusalem expected the triumphal entry would be followed by the normal, human signs of victory; perhaps the gathering of an army, the striking down of the enemy, the political independence of the Jews. But God subverts our expectations. While we clamor for the strong, the boastful, the rich, elevating wealthy tycoons and blustering celebrities to seats of power, Jesus Christ washes the feet of his disciples and goes to the Cross. He subverts power, showing that God’s people are saved, and God’s kingdom spread, through humility, self-emptying, sacrifice.
Yet, Jesus still accepts the praises of the people. Because the humility of Jesus does not mean he ceases to be God, to be the one who holds all creation together and defeats all the powers of death. Jesus Christ was and is king, and so the praises showered on him were true; it is only the people who were inconstant.
Which raises for us, at the end of Lent, a time of reflection, confession, and lament, the question: Do we honor Jesus as the king the world desires, or as the king he actually is? For if we expect that the purposes of God are to be accomplished through wealth, accomplishment, and strength, then we are fools, and will be just as disappointed as those who abandoned him at his crucifixion. For, following Jesus requires not only the laying down of branches to pave his way, but also the taking up of crosses to follow him. To submit to the King means to suffer as he did, and to follow through darkness to reach the light. Any other expectation is naive and false.
And so, I urge you to prepare the way of the Lord in your own minds, hearts, and bodies; declare him King, and lay down branches along his way. Prepare yourselves for the Grand Drama that we will reenact and participate in this week, following Jesus through death into life, achieving the place of celebration and joy only through lament and sorrow first, especially over our sin that required him to go to that Cross. Declare him king, but know what that means. Here, at the end of Lent, at the end of the season of waiting that mirrors our own waiting for the return of Jesus, remain vigilant in your devotion to the end, as he will come like a thief in the night; but also, when Easter comes, rejoice with great celebration at the Victory of God in the person of Jesus, through whom and by whom we are saved. Amen.