At first it was rather disappointing.
I am sure the disciples had some sense that things were moving toward a dramatic conclusion. All the miles they had walked, all the miracles had they witnessed – the way this Jesus connected with people, understood something about them, perhaps more deeply than they understood themselves. After the transfiguration up on the mountain, Jesus’ teachings had become more difficult, as they moved towards the city. He confronted the religious authorities with their hypocrisy, told the crowds that unless you change and become like a little child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Forgive not 7 times, but 7 times 70. He has stern words on divorce, on honoring those we are in relationships with. He blesses children and sends a rich man running when he says, "Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor…then come follow me." He had warned them that the son of man must suffer and die, 3 times in the last 3 chapters.
And here they were, near Jerusalem, at Bethphage, on the side of the Mount of Olives. The Mount was really 4 hills – all about 2700 feet above sea level – about 250 feet higher than Jerusalem, on the east.1 They were there, near Bethany, a place they knew, and Jesus turns to 2 of his disciples. Hey, guys. Head down into the village and, when you get there, you’ll see a donkey. And a colt. Untie them and bring ‘em up here. When they looked at him a bit funny, Jesus said, "If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately." This didn’t really help, but they had seen Jesus do enough strange things to just go along with it. Then an interlude – Matthew makes it a point to quote first from Isaiah and Zechariah, then later on from today’s Psalm. Matthew wants us to know how thick the air is with continuity, pointing the disciples, and us, to Jesus as the One for whom we have been waiting.
The disciples hike down the hill, doing just as Jesus said. There isn’t much surprise here…they go get the donkey and the colt, bring them back, lay their cloaks on them. A very large crowd, Matthew then says, a group of some size, most of the folks who are there on the outskirts of the village begin laying their cloaks on the road. We sense something is to happen, but its still deeply moving to think about this man, Jesus, working his way up on the donkey and, as it begins to amble down the hill, a man takes off his cloak….a woman lays hers down. Then another, then another, watching Jesus, stepping back out of the way as he passes. First things get quiet, as a few palm branches get laid down. This makes me think of the quiet that sets in when you are walking with a family out to the memorial garden, as we did for Shan Wiley’s family on Monday. You begin walking and the silence is heavy. Coats, down. Branches, down. Then a few begin to wave them, someone says something, then the voices break out. A bit of anxious excitement, then someone says, "Hosanna!" Then someone else catches on, a woman on the right quotes the whole line from the psalm, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" Others chime in, so much that by the time they tumble down the hill people notice. Folks at the city gates notice, in the marketplace. Folks right there at the entrance to the temple notice, religious leaders scratching their heads, guards passing word on to their superiors. By the time he entered the city it was in turmoil, Matthew says, shaking, trembling, the greek is the source of our world, seismic, to measure earthquake activity – the ground shifting beneath them. What is this? They ask. "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
All of this really got me thinking about what that was like for those disciples, for Jesus, in those moments. Part of this, I must confess, is affected by Luke’s version of this story, in which Jesus, in the heart of the crowd, is weeping for the city as he enters Jerusalem.2 Matthew’s version feels flat to me: Jesus gives instructions, the disciples do what he says, Matthew makes sure we know it was supposed to happen this way. Yet in a text that feels without emotion in its first 8 or so verses, all of the sudden the crowd comes alive! Which, I imagine, brings a mixture of feelings for the disciples, first – wondering how all this happened so quickly, wondering what this means. They felt, as they approached the holy city, Jerusalem, the heart of their universe, that SOMETHING was to happen. Jesus, I tend to believe, knew a bit more. He might not have had the details of the week scripted out, but he had some sense of the pain that was to come – he had just told them 15 verses earlier that he was to be mocked and flogged and crucified.3 "Here we go," I imagine him muttering to himself, along with a prayer. "If this is what is to come O God, Abba, Father, give me courage."
It was a point of no return, no going back, a break between what WAS and what WOULD BE. I knew of Richard Lischer, who taught at the Divinity School at Duke for 30+ years, and met him at lunch, right across the street at Rick’s, a few weeks ago. He has preached here a couple of times. He wrote an amazing book not long ago about the death of his son. He begins the account this way:
Seven years ago, on the thirteenth day of April [today’s date, coincidentially], my son called to tell me his cancer had returned. He was a grown man, but he told me his news like a boy. He said, "Hey, Dad, where’s Mom?" You would have thought he had just put a dent in the family’s new car or failed a final exam. He might have been in a little trouble and wanted his mother to buffer the rough edges. He said they had found tumors in quite a few places….Then he asked me to come to him. And that was all. I was not expecting the call. But then you never are. You are never adequately braced with feet planted and stomach muscles clenched. A phone call from your son. A familiar voice emerges from a piece of inexpensive black plastic. The voice has no body, and yet it makes claim as firm and authoritative as flesh. It says, "Hey, Dad" with an end stress on Dad that has always and in every circumstance meant trouble. "Hey, Dad," and ordinary time stands still and the room begins to turn while you wait for the rest of the sentence to do its work.
"Why don’t you come over," it says. The ruin in his voice becomes the new truth in your life and your old life, the only one you’ve ever known or wanted, simply vanishes.4
While Jesus was sure to embrace his calling, into the suffering of this week, I also must believe that the human side of him was afraid. That he knew as he rode, awkwardly, on the back of that donkey down the rocky hillside, that there was no going back. Maybe you have had one of those seasons, when the C word, cancer, is said to someone you love, when the phone rings, when a job falls apart, when something happens with one of your kids, and there is all of the sudden, as Lischer writes, a break between your new life that your old one, the one you thought you had. And the happy waving of palms leads us to bring them down, clutching them as the tension builds.
That is, at its heart, the gift of Holy Week, and of this Palm Sunday story – it brings us into real time, real emotion, with Jesus in his final week as a man in the world. And for the only time during the year we get to walk with him. In your insert you can find a list of a couple of texts for each day, so you can experience some small bit of what Jesus experienced, as best we can tell, each day. This is so important. Especially moving into Maundy Thursday – Palm Sunday and Easter don’t really work without Maundy Thursday – as we live and relive Jesus’ last days.
"What lies ahead is heated and pressurized. Old adversaries will yet test Jesus; new ones will team up to come at him from all sides. As for Jesus, his parables will become more pointed and his behavior more provocative, but never at cost to anyone but himself." 5 And we will walk with him – better yet, we are invited into His story, God’s story for the world. Even in our points of no return, when life deals to us what it will deal and there is a break between what has been and what will be, we can know that this larger story welcomes us in. That we walk towards the cross, with Him into the suffering, the beatings, the nails driven into his wrists. But that, on a lonely, quiet morning three days later, we will rejoice.
May God hold us as we walk these holy, holy, days, together. Amen.
1. Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, The Bible Journey.
2. Luke 19:41.
3. Matthew 20:19.
4. Richard Lischer, Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son, (New York: Knopf, 2013), 88. I was first pointed to this passage by Mark Ramsey of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in his article, "Preaching Psalms in Lent," in the Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXVII, Number 2, Lent 2014, pages 33-37.
5. From Liz Goodman’s "Preaching the Lenten Texts," in the Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXVII, Number 2, Lent 2014, pages 2-10.