This week the world witnessed a dramatic procession for a famous king. The mortal remains of King Richard III were paraded through Leicestershire before an internment ceremony at Leicester Cathedral. It was quite a spectacle, with medieval costume and much pomp and ceremony. I gather the crowds were so big that some had to queue for up to four hours to catch a glimpse of King Richard’s coffin. Today’s Bible reading from Mark’s gospel also features a procession, a king and a crowd. But a king who rode a donkey into Jerusalem, not a monarch who died in battle at Bosworth.
Because on Palm Sunday we join Jesus on his final journey into Jerusalem. He had journeyed to the capital to participate in the Jewish Passover festival, but also to bring his mission to its climax. The ‘hour’ for which he had come was now just a week away.
Jesus is not alone in having made a journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. As well as his own disciples, the city is full of thousands of fellow pilgrims from Galilee, elsewhere in Palestine and all the other places around the Mediterranean where Jews now lived. As a result, the population of Jerusalem would soar during the Passover, with many more people in the city than at any other season - like the way that the population of a seaside resort multiplies during the summer months, or how the streets around a football stadium heave with supporters on a match day.
And just like at a football match, the crowd around Jesus would have been excited, noisy and animated. This was not any ordinary Passover celebration, because this year the crowd were welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem – a man who, over the last 3 years, had reportedly said and done some astonishing things. The Carpenter’s son from Nazareth had calmed storms, fed five thousand and even raised the dead.
An excited crowd
Jesus’ fame had spread widely, and the words and actions of the crowd that day show that many expected him to become the new King of Israel.
- For example, Verse 8 tells us that some of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road before Jesus, while others cut down branches from trees and laid them on the ground before him. Just as we lay down red carpet for a King, Queen or other important person today, these acts were expressions of great respect and reverence for Jesus.
- Mark also records the words that the crowd were shouting as Jesus approached Jerusalem. As he rode on a donkey they shout: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna is an expression that means “God save us!”
So by their words and their actions the crowd were identifying Jesus as not only as a coming king, but also as a man sent from God, a man on a mission to save them.
But what exactly were they expecting from Jesus? What was the salvation they were looking for? Let’s take a step back from the busy road into Jerusalem for a moment, and consider exactly what the crowd’s hopes about Jesus may have been.
The Passover festival commemorated God’s remarkable rescue of his people from Egypt over a thousand years earlier. The Passover celebrated the events of the Exodus. The trouble was, Israel needed another exodus. For the past 600 years Israel had been under foreign occupation, and were now ruled by the Roman Empire.
Like any occupied nation, the Jews looked forward to once again being able to run their own affairs. In our lifetimes, a similar hope could be seen in African countries anticipating the end of European colonial empires, and in Eastern European countries before the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in recent years, we have seen the people of many Middle Eastern countries seek greater freedom and self-government – the so-called “Arab-Spring”.
First century Jews had similar hopes of liberation from authoritarian rule. They hoped that the same God who had freed their ancestors from Egyptian oppression at the Exodus, would do something similar again – this time to the Romans.
But God’s plans for his people went beyond political liberation. His first priority was to give them spiritual life and liberty. Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Daniel and Zechariah had promised that God would one day liberate his people from all sin and suffering. On that day God would bring in his Kingdom, his rule, and pour out spiritual blessings of forgiveness and new life on his people. God’s great plan was to restore and renew his relationship with his chosen people.
Those same Old Testament prophets had also said that God would send a human King, a Messiah, to initiate this great kingdom, to instigate God’s great rescue mission.
This then, was the reason for the crowd’s excitement in today’s passage. With the arrival of this remarkable man, Jesus, at the gates of Jerusalem, the crowd believed that they were about to see God’s anointed King assume the throne of Israel. They expected Jesus to forcefully drive out the Roman army and establish God’s rule on earth. No wonder they were excited!
A humble King
So was the crowd right about Jesus? Well yes, and no! And Jesus’ mode of transport should help us see why…
Firstly, the crowd were right to recognise Jesus as God’s promised king. At the start of today’s passage we see that Jesus made careful arrangements to ensure that he would approach Jerusalem riding on a colt, a young donkey.
Jesus rode on a donkey not because he was tired and wanted a lift, like we might catch a train home at the end of a long day at work. He rode on a donkey to fulfil what had been predicted by the prophet Zechariah many years before. Listen to what Zechariah had said: “People of Jerusalem, look, your king is coming to you, gentle and riding on a donkey”. As he approached the gates of Jerusalem, Jesus wanted to show everyone watching that this long-promised king had now arrived. (He was also mimicking the way that Solomon, the first son of King David, had arrived to assume his throne in 1 Kings 1:33).
But the crowd were mistaken if they thought Christ had come to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem by force – if they thought he was about to lead a rebellion against the Roman authorities.
If you were going to invade a city today, you might choose a tank, an armoured car or a military helicopter. In first century Palestine, the equivalent would have been to ride in on a war horse or a chariot, or at the head of a legion of soldiers. But by coming on a donkey, Jesus was declaring that he had come in peace and in humility. The kingdom of God that he had come to initiate would not be created through conflict with the might of Rome, but another way. A way of self-sacrifice and humility. A way that would take Jesus to the Cross on Calvary, not to a throne in Jersualem.
This path to power - this victory via the Cross - was not what most Jews expected or wanted as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. It would have dashed their hopes of what the Messiah would do and achieve. For them, the concept of a crucified Messiah would have sounded foolish and nonsensical, like the idea of a square circle or 2+2 making five.
Yet those who were closest to Jesus should not have been shocked or disappointed by the humble path that Jesus chose to take, and neither should we. Because throughout his ministry, Jesus had repeatedly told his closest disciples that his mission would culminate at the Cross. Again and again he had explained to them that he must suffer and die so that God’s forgiveness and God’s kingdom could become open and accessible to all. He had come as a humble king, as a suffering servant, to be a willing sacrifice for our sin.
Making Jesus our King
As I finish, what applications for ourselves can we draw from the events of the first Palm Sunday?
Firstly, I hope we have all joined the crowd in saying “Hosanna” to Jesus. In other words, I hope we have all, at some point in our lives, said “Lord, save us – save me” to Jesus. Only Christ, the crucified King, can offer us true forgiveness and everlasting life. If we have sincerely said ‘Hosanna’ to Jesus – if we have asked him for salvation – we can be sure we have received it.
Secondly, in the reading today the crowds laid down their cloaks and palm branches on the road as an expression of respect and honour to Jesus. Are we too prepared to lay our time, treasure and talents at his feet, in obedient service to him? Jesus laid down his life for us on the Cross. I hope we want to serve him wholeheartedly in joyful thanks for the salvation he secured for us there.
At my ordination as a Church of England minister, I had to publicly pledge my loyalty to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. As Christian men and women here today, I trust we have all already pledged our unswerving allegiance to His Majesty, King Jesus.
Thirdly, and finally, if Jesus is your King here today, then I hope you are moved to praise and adore him. When Jesus entered Jerusalem his companions wanted to sing his praises. I hope you want to join with the crowd, and praise King Jesus yourself – with our lips and our lives.