Welcoming with Palms and Praises

Published: Monday, 21 March 2016

This is the sixth sermon in the ‘Welcome’ series during Lent and was given by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 20 March 2016. More about this study series can be found at this link. Specific questions for personal and group study for this second study can be found at this link. You can listen to the podcast for this sermon at this link.

palm and donkey GP 0316a

Reading: Luke 19:28-40

We used to live and work in a valley in the New Zealand city of Dunedin.[1] The streets draining down into the valley are the steepest streets in the world.[2] People normally descend their street to walk or catch the bus along the valley floor to go into the city.

Every year on Palm Sunday at twilight the churches would combine for a Palm Sunday extravaganza. Crowds of people would come down onto the valley floor to enjoy the spectacle. Some waved palm branches, a dedicated few threw coats on the road and children would take it in turns to ride the donkey.

For a mile or two, we’d walk down past the kindergarten, the churches, the primary school, the doctor’s surgery and the shops by the Botanical Gardens. There was organization but the procession had a chaos of its own. At certain stages there was hilarity. At other times the atmosphere was sombre. Then we’d end up at the School Assembly Hall for songs, reflections and hot cross buns.

I love the way Palm Sunday invites us to reenact a biblical event. It calls us to express our faith in the open air and remember that much of the Gospel story took place outside.

George Macleod reminds us of this when he wrote:

“Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves, on the city rubbish heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. At the kind of place where cynics sneer and criminals curse and soldiers gamble, because this is where he died, and that is what he died about and that is where his followers ought to be and what they should be about.”[3]

 

So this year we live again into the Palm Sunday event as reported by Luke, who sets the scene in chapter 19:28

19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

The phrase Luke uses is: he journeyed on ahead. The word ‘journey’ is a favourite of Luke’s. He uses the word ‘journey’ nine times. After Jesus circled around Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem that began in Luke 9:51 is nearing its conclusion in chapter 19:45.

Some of us have been raised on the concept of making a decision for Christ.[4] That’s great but the decision must develop into a journey of discipleship. Unlike footy there’s no ‘off season’. Every day is game day. Following Jesus is an everyday journey.

At v29 the journey continues:

19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples [into the city]

When we’re going into Melbourne city by train it’s easy after changing at Camberwell to let the movement of the train lull you to sleep, but when you hear over the public address system that the train is nearing Burnley, East Richmond and Richmond we know we’d better stay awake for we’re almost at Flinders Street Station.

Similarly Luke mentions Bethphage and Bethany as geographical markers. Readers know that these are the last two stations before the terminal.

Just as with the arrangements for the Last Supper there’s lots of transport preparation described here, which indicates that this procession was not spontaneous but carefully staged. The next five verses indicate Jesus had been in touch with his followers to arrange a donkey, two are sent ahead to find the colt and they’re given the password which was not “abracadabra” but “The Lord has need of it.”

Luke says it happened just as it was meant to:

19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?"

 

19:34 They said, "The Lord needs it."

19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus;

It’s fascinating that the word for ‘owners’ (of the colt) is kurios meaning ‘lord’ and there’s a play on words here. They might be lords of the colt but when they’re told that “The Lord has need of it”, they recognize that his lordship trumps theirs.

Karl Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday he had cause to look back on his life.

He said to the gathering:

“A real donkey is mentioned in the Bible, or more specifically an ass…. It was permitted to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. If I have done anything in this life of mine, I’ve done it as a relative of the donkey that went its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time, just as I was, in spite of all the things, the disagreeable things, that quite rightly are and will be said about me. Thus I was used…. I just happened to be on the spot.”[5]

What a challenge, to be available when the Lord has need of us. To be useable, to carry an important burden, to do a significant work for Christ.

Luke is keen to portray Jesus as the long awaited Messiah and the King. The first century Jews who knew their Bible would know from the book of Zechariah 14:4 that the Messiah would approach Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. As he does—TICK!

The colt has royal associations. Zechariah 9:9 is quoted by Mark in his Gospel and says:

“Look your king, comes to you triumphant and victorious is he; humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The Greek version of Zechariah specifically says a new colt—one that hadn’t been ridden. This is what he had—TICK!

The miracle here is the way this detail perfectly fulfills Zechariah’s promise about the coming Messiah.

Perhaps this colt, which had never been ridden before, highlights the uniqueness of Jesus as the Messiah. It’s a new colt because no one had emerged throughout history who had the qualities and qualifications to be God’s promised messiah.

In my teenage years I went to an island camp[6] run by ISCF—the Inter Schools Christian Fellowship.[7] One of the attractions on the brochure was donkey riding but these donkeys were only ridden at holiday times and they got rather astute at bucking off their riders. If you did manage to stay on they would take you so close to the Boxthorn hedge that you’d have to fall off or get your leg pricked and punctured by hundreds of thorns.

So to ride a colt that had never been ridden, one that had probably never been in a public noisy procession was also part of the miracle. Doesn’t it also say something about the composure and control of the rider?

The mention of the cloaks as a makeshift saddle and the cloaks on the path are further signs of royal acclamation. In 2 Kings 9:13 the spreading of cloaks was a sign of greeting for a king.

Furthermore when Luke says:

19:35 … after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

The two disciples were asserting Jesus’ kingliness. They’d followed lots of his orders but placing Jesus on the colt was their initiative. By setting him on this furry, mobile throne they were acknowledging Jesus as King!

Have you noticed that in Luke’s account of this Palm Sunday story there are no palms? Maybe Luke was a conservationist! More likely he thought that palm waving had no regal associations and he strips away everything that would distract us from seeing Jesus as king.

There’s also no ‘hosannas’ in Luke’s story but hear them hail Jesus as king v37:

19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,

 

19:38 saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

There’s so much joy in Luke’s report. All the multitudes of the disciples are rejoicing and praising. They spontaneously sing Psalm 118: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord” but Luke tweaks the quote to read: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In Mark, the people cry: “Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is coming.” Luke changes this to: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.”

Isn’t this the song the angels were singing at the announcement of his birth? “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace, goodwill to all humankind.” Luke 2:14

The difference here is that peace hasn’t yet come to the earth. In the next few days we’ll see how far away we are from this reality of peace.

With such claims of kingship and effusive joy the Pharisees come onto the streets to reprimand the one riding the donkey:

19:39 … "Teacher, order your disciples to stop."

To stop singing? To stop moving? To stop the procession?

Here we go again. Right throughout our ‘Welcome’ series we’ve seen these twin themes. Wherever Jesus does his work there is both great joy and great grumbling. A good church is never one that’s as smooth as a millpond. If we’re doing the work of Christ, if we’re extending his wide welcome there’ll always be those who express great joy and those who express great grumbling.

The teacher calmly gives his response:

19:40 …"I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

If you manage to muzzle them, if you try and put the cork back in the bottle the pressure of praise and the force of joy would burst out of the most unlikely throats.

The stones that seem so hard, so resistant to God, so silent and so unresponsive will be those who one day will let out the most fulsome shouts. What a prophetic word! What a reassuring promise!

When God has something really vital to say, God says it in a language that requires no translation. God says it in a way that all people everywhere can understand.[8]

For example, the veil of the temple was ripped in two. Last week we saw Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiping those feet with her hair. Another wordless sermon.

This week we’ll see Jesus take up a towel and wash the disciples’ feet. The most powerful messages are semaphored through gesture and next Friday we will ponder the silent eloquence of the cross.

Today as we remember those clogged streets of Jerusalem we see a highly symbolic and provocative act. This triumphal inauguration as King was a parable.

It was street theatre that dramatized his countercultural mission.

Jesus didn’t ride a donkey because he was too tired to walk. This was a planned demo, a send-up of the imperial parade in ridiculous contrast to what the people knew. There could have been two processions on that day.[9]

Can you imagine Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, entering from the west of the city, with all the pomp of state power? He’s coming to ‘keep the peace’ during the turbulent Passover. Can you see this warrior entering the city, riding a war horse? Can you hear the thunder of hooves? He has legions of soldiers on their horses, with weapons and flags showcasing Rome’s military might, power and glory.

Then can you see in contrast from the east down from the Mount of Olives, Jesus rides a borrowed donkey accompanied by a rag tag bunch of peasants. No gleaming armour. No great army. Their vision that was sung at the beginning and now at the end of Jesus’ life is one of peace with God, peace with one another and peace with one’s self. Their manner is one of meekness, humility and servanthood but he and his followers speak up against the oppression that puts ordinary people in the gutter, they cry out against exploitation, when the religious leaders say, ‘God wants things done this way—tell your people to stop’ they show a contempt for the status quo.

So we’re invited today to join this public procession, to follow with our praises and actions this King seated on a donkey and to admit how fickle we are when we hear the shouts to ‘crucify him’.

Will we stay with him? Will we go all the way?

What happens this week changes the world. Stay alert. Clip-clop-clip-clop.

The most surprising king of all is on his way. Clip-clop-clip-clop.

Thanks be to God!

Prayer

Loving God thank you for the memory and the miracle of today’s story, the reminder that inside church isn’t the only place where the holy happens. That sacred, sacramental moments can occur at any time, at any place and to anyone, even to a donkey.[10]

So help us to see you this week in the streets, to be thankful for finding you in the words of Scripture but to recognize and understand those wordless actions that come to us on this day and will come to us aplenty in this Holy Week.

Help us to understand who you are, to reflect more deeply on our relationship as subjects to the king and to know more sharply how your way of love differs from the way of force. May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.[11]

As we’re urged to journey with you when tested to deny, to betray and to reject.

Fill us with your compassion.

Strengthen us with endurance.

Help us to watch with you and pray.

AMEN

 


[1] North-East Valley.

[2] Baldwin Street, Wikipedia.

[3] George Macleod was founder of Iona. His quote is used with slight adaptations.

[4] Billy Graham was a great exponent of the ‘decision’ emphasis and had a radio and now programme called the ‘Hour of Decision’.

[5] Karl Barth, “Karl Barth’s Speech on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday Celebrations,” in Fragments Grave and Gay (London: Collins, 1971), p. 112-17.

[6] Ponui Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.

[7] ISCF, Wikipedia.

[8] This thought comes from F W Boreham and it appears several times in his writings including the Hobart Mercury, 20 August 1955 and in this blog post.

[9] The thought of a second and contrasting procession is suggested and described by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book, The Last Week.

[10] This thought is enriched by Frederick Buechner’s article on ‘Sacrament’ in his book, Wishful Thinking. It is also located on Frederick Buechner’s website.

[11] This thought comes from Nelson Mandela, ‘May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears’, sourced from Goodreads.