Read: Matthew 21: 1-11
One of the great challenges with a reading like Matthew 21 is how well we know it. Along with the other 3 gospels Matthew tells us the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and for those of us who have heard this story many times before, we will probably be able to tell others the reason why he does this. This is the moment when God’s salvation plan reaches its climax and the hearers of this story are left in no doubt that Jesus is coming as a king to establish God’s reign on earth and to transform the earth to the desire and design of God’s heart. Jesus comes into the heart and seat of earthly power, to challenge its beliefs and assumptions, and in so doing to turn power on its head.
But of course none of the above is how we remember the story. Today is a celebration where we remember Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and is greeted with great affection and the waving of palm branches by the adoring crowds. It’s a day when our hearts are filled with hope and joy, and we identify that in the messiness of our lives God is control. All may feel as if it is crumbling around us, the mood of the nation might be tense and uncertain, but into that uncertainty we get this glimmer of hope that all is not as bad as it seems and there is someone in control who can transform lives and change hearts. The simplicity of the act of riding a donkey into Jerusalem fills us, like the crowds, with joy and celebration and with a spring in our steps we join in and literally dance.
But overfamiliarity can trip us up and has the potential for us to skip over this momentous moment in the history of our world without giving it a second thought. When I started preparing for this reflection on Palm Sunday my heart sank for two reasons. Firstly, I realised it feels like a déjà vu moment time and that we wouldn’t be gathering together in a church building to celebrate this festival again and because of that I felt quite disheartened by it all. After all again we wouldn’t be going through our usual practice of giving our palm crosses to each other and waving them aloft as we sang together hymns like “Make Way” or “We have a king who rides a donkey” and although some of us might have kept our palm cross from past years, it’s not the same thing as receiving a new one and connecting with Christians in other parts of the world who have lovingly prepared them for us to share together. Secondly, as a preacher, because of overfamiliarity it’s very hard to say anything new and it’s even harder to be disciplined to read the story again without skipping over it and saying “I know what happens already! I don’t need to study this too hard!”.
But if we do this we miss some very interesting and unique things within Matthew’s telling of the story. For example, did you know that Matthew takes Zechariah’s prophecy literally? According to Zechariah 9: 9 – 11 there are two animals mentioned – a donkey and a colt. The other gospel writers get round this by combining the two animals together, but Matthew wants to be authentic to prophecy, so Jesus sends the two disciples to go and get both animals and to lay their cloaks on them. Matthew then says that Jesus rides on them both. It’s a strange image – almost comedic – but the point is that for Matthew Jesus is fulfilling prophecy and he can only do that when he faithfully does what Zechariah says God’s promised king would do. The point of telling you this is that reading and study of scripture is a life long thing and no matter how often you read a story and retell it to others there is always something new to learn.
And it got me thinking about the story of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem about how over familiar we actually are. The crowds and the disciples knew there was something momentous and significant in Jesus’ actions. They knew their scriptures well and because of the atmosphere at the time of these events, they were filled with expectation and excitement. Many would-be Messiahs had captivated the hearts and minds of small pockets of people and perhaps like Jesus had enacted the prophecy of Zechariah themselves. So when Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem the inhabitants of the city are interested in what they witness. They ask the disciples what the reason and purpose of this celebration is. They ask what makes this event different from others. And some of them join in when they hear the answer. But even in an atmosphere as electric as theirs there are many doubters and sceptics and they continue on with their day without giving Jesus’ triumphal entry a second thought. Scholars have said of this passage that the disciples and the people of Jerusalem know their scriptures and they know what is supposed to happen but there is a difference between knowing and doing something about it.
And that is what I think we should focus our minds and hearts on this Palm Sunday in 2021. Do we really know the story and are doing something about it in our lives? Or are we simply going through the same motions as we did last year? If the answer to the second question is ‘yes’ I think we’re in good company because its clear that the disciples and the crowds really didn’t know what Jesus was up to on that first Palm Sunday. They probably believed that the time had come for Jesus to fulfil his ministry along the lines of what they expected, with great fanfare, military power and might, and the overthrow of the status quo. Never did they believe in their wildest dreams that Jesus in a matter of days would be handed over to the Roman authorities to be tried and executed as a trouble maker. And if they struggled to know the difference between knowing the truth and living the truth we can be forgiven for this too.
The important thing for us is to place our faith and trust in God’s hands and to know in our hearts that although we might not understand the truth of these events God still has a place in his heart for each one of us and is working his plans and purposes out for our salvation anyway. In a matter of days the events of Palm Sunday were over shadowed by Jesus’ death on a cross, but then even more so by the miraculous event we celebrate next week with Jesus’ resurrection.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t fully understand what Jesus was doing on that first Palm Sunday, as long we journey with him through the next few days and witness sacrificial love poured out for us that we might be changed and live with hope and the promise of new life as a result of what comes.
It might feel like the darkest night right now, or we might feel confused and anxious about what is going on, or we might simply pass over the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week without a second thought. But this is the moment when everything changes so let’s grasp it and go forward into the light of resurrection.