This morning we are reflecting on an event which has possibly become familiar to us. But it is an event which has complex and symbolic significance for us as we seek to understand the message that Jesus brought to our world. It is an event which led St Paul to write to the early church in the city of Philippi reminding them of the words of a hymn the early church used to sing about the nature of Jesus as their King. The hymn went like this:
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
What is it that led the early church to see Jesus in this way .. a King who humbled himself and was then exalted by God?
Palm Sunday is the event which embodies this message most fully. It is the event that leads the church to understand the kind of King Jesus came to be. What really happened on that day ..
It was the feast of the Passover. Politics and rebellion were in the air. The Jews we allowed to celebrate this feast with the permission of the Roman Emperor but the soldiers were out in force because it was renowned for being volatile. Rebellion was usual with the Jewish Zealots, the Jewish terrorists, always ready to plan something. To rouse the crowds against Rome. There was theatre with the Emperor releasing prisoners and with the Jewish minds reflecting and celebrating on another great enslavement of the Jews .. this was what the Passover was all about .. God freeing the Jews from Egypt .. God would bring freedom again they believed.
And this year there was a rural Galilean who had been drawing crowds in the villages and towns .. telling the Jews God wanted them to be free .. claiming to be their Messiah. What was going to happen when he came to Jerusalem. Would he come?
And Jesus did go.. Despite his great anxieties and predictions of his death. Jesus entered Jerusalem in this melting pot of unrest and religious and political hopes. The crowds came out to meet him. But he was riding a donkey.
This had a complex and symbolic message. Firstly it referred the Jews back to a promise made by the prophet Zechariah. In the middle of a great prophecy about God’s liberating the Jews he writes:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
In this act Jesus sends a message which stirs the crowds. He points them back to a Messianic prophecy. Encouraging their hopes and dreams of a coming messiah. Reminding them of God’s promises. Yet at the same time he challenges their assumptions about what this would involve. It would not be a military coupe, it would not be an uprising. For see he comes humble and riding a donkey.
What an event. In the very same act Jesus confirms his claim to be messiah and yet turns on its head what the Jews were expecting from this figure. Jesus was their leader , yes, but not of the sort they were hoping for. There were cries of Hosanna, yes, hosanna meant God save us and free us, this was the saviour. Cloaks were laid down , just as in the Jewish book of Kings, where we are told “Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.”’ 13 Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare[c] steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’
The Palm leaf was the symbol of the Jewish nation and spoke of their independence from Rome, and these leaves were waved as Jesus entered Jerusalem the Jewish capital.
The kingship was there to be taken up .. the basis of a military and political rebellion was on offer for Jesus to embrace .. and yet his message on riding this donkey was one of servitude. The donkey was a symbol of humility and peace to the Jews. It was also an unused donkey which the Jews knew had religious significance drawing their attention to the true meaning of the passover and the salvation of God.
And so in this great event the early church found the theology for their hymn of praise. Their song of worship which St Paul reminds them of tells of a Messiah who came from God with all the potential for power and majesty, the Hosanna’s, the cloaks, the Palm leaves, all heralded his royalty, and yet he did not grasp on to this. He went instead no to a throne but to the cross. And this attitude was retold at a cosmic level .. here is a Messiah come from heaven to earth to show us the way of salvation. A way of serving others and not personal power. A way of embracing the symbols of religion and giving them their real meaning. Jesus in the act of the Triumphal Entry said to the Jews .. here I am the true Messiah .. enthrone me in your hearts and not in your nation .. crown me with thorns and not with gold .. see in the promises of God salvation not only in this world but in the next also. I come as the King who leads you in humility .. even in death. For in this Jesus takes on the Glory of God the Father and not his own glory.
Why is this so important to us today .. because St Paul’s reminding us of the great hymn of the early church is in order that ..your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
Be humble, be fearless, serve others and not yourself, be obedient even unto death .. in such things is eternal life.