Palm Sunday: John 12:12-13Palm Sunday is a day that we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s a day of joy as we and our children wave palms, celebrate and sing songs of praise, recognising the Lordship of Jesus. It’s right that we do this, and even Luke tells us that if people didn’t, nature itself would cry out in praise (Luke 19:40). All of creation has been groaning in bondage, waiting for its redemption, and today, Jesus is recognised as the promised one who will bring salvation. Hosanna!
But Palm Sunday also carries with it a warning about our particular visions of the Jesus we celebrate. In the midst of our own struggles and sorrows, our hope of redemption can become far too small. In today’s reading, the words and images paint a picture of God acting in a way that is radically different than what people were expecting. The words the crowds are shouting are quotes from Psalm 118. Hosanna (meaning “he saves”) comes from v25. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, follows in v26. But what comes next, “Blessed is the king of Israel” is not in the psalm. For those with ears to hear, we know that something is off. The hope of creation is being reduced to redemption for one group.
The symbols in the picture reveal an even clearer picture. The branches from date palms had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism. During both wars with Rome, images of palms were stamped on coins minted by the rebels. What John, and the other gospel writers, are at pains to show us, is that the crowds are expecting a national liberator, whereas God has come to bring salvation to all the nations (“For God so loved the world…”).
By riding in on a donkey, Jesus is showing that the way he establishes his Kingdom is going to be different than other kings. The donkey is in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. The triumphant king is “gentle and riding on a donkey”. He is not a man of chariots and war horses, swords and bows (Zech 9:10), but one who will bring peace to all nations. His Kingdom brings life, not conquest.
As the week goes on, we are going to see that the people’s expectations of God and of what they thought God’s Messiah would do, and ought to do, is radically different than what happens. We’ll see the scope and cost of redemption are both far greater than we could ever imagine - requiring a love of enemies that extends even to the point of dying for them. By the end of the week, instead of “hosanna”, the croud will call out “crucify him,” and rather than “blessed”, will consider him cursed. They will choose Barabbas (which literally means “son of the father”) as the image of God they prefer, over Jesus, who is the true image of God. They fail to rightly judge the true character of God and what God is doing.
It’s easy to look back and criticise, but we can still be the same today. Our expectations for what God will do, and how he should act are often quite different than reality. Our understanding of Jesus is also sometimes formed by cultural expectations, and hopes and dreams that have become small in scope, and far less than God’s promised - restoration and renewal of all of creation.
The new observation for me in this text this week was regarding the palm branches. The people “took them” from the tree. My mind went back to Genesis and the first garden, where the people “took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. In taking from the tree they ignore God’s word, and judge for themselves what is right and wrong. In taking from the tree in this passage, the people are right in judging Jesus as King, but as we’ll see during the week, fail to rightly interpret the scriptures, and therefore fail to rightly judge what God was doing in Jesus, and how he would save them. In the coming weeks their own smaller hopes will have to eventually die in order to give way to God’s greater plan, which liberates them, and us, from the true enemies of sin and death. God’s original blessing was for all of creation, and so salvation must also come not just for one nation but all of creation.
It struck me that this is the symbolic journey of our palms on Palm Sunday. Symbolically we wave them at the beginning of the week in hopeful praise, then turn them into crosses to carry for the year, before finally they are burned on Ash Wednesday, and used to impose crosses on our foreheads - reminding us of our mortality, and our greatest need - resurrection and the forgiveness of sin.
This Palm Sunday, what palms of misplaced cultural hopes and dreams do we hold that may need to be placed before the feet of King Jesus, become shaped by the cross, and finally, be purged in the holy fire of God’s Spirit and love, in order for God’s Kingdom to come more fully in our lives?