Psalm 118: 25: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Up the dry, dusty road come the sounds of trumpets, flutes and drums, the steady, rhythmic tread of marching feet, the squealing and squeaking of wheels, the snorting and the clip-clop footfalls of horses, the deep, throaty voices of men singing, and the cheers of the crowd lining the road.
No, it’s not the circus come to town.
Looking down the road, through the cloud of dust, you see glints of sunlight reflecting off armor, helmets, spear points, and the decorated bridles and saddles of officers riding horses. Then you see the bright colors of regimental banners and flags, waving and bobbing, rippling and snapping in the breeze.
It’s an army marching home, after a victorious campaign.
After the soldiers pass, then come wagons bearing booty taken in battle, like statues and other priceless artwork, exotic animals in cages or on chains, chests of treasure, full of gold, gems and pearls, guarded of course by soldiers. Then come people, chained together, shuffling along, heads bowed, dejected and dirty, unkempt and uncared-for: enemy soldiers taken prisoner, plus women and children, all destined to be sold into slavery, or sent to death for sport in the Coliseum of ancient Rome.
At the end, as though he is driving forward this procession of conquerors and the conquered, victors and victims, comes the proud, victorious general in a horse-drawn chariot, wearing an official laurel leaf of victory upon his head, bestowed by the Emperor, with the agreement of the Senate. But lest the victorious general get any big ideas, there is with him in the chariot a slave who whispers over and over in his ear: “Remember that fame is fickle, and that you are mortal.”
That’s what ancient Romans would have called “A Triumphal Entry.” Lest that sound outdated and irrelevant, I can’t help think of such cruelty and cynicism, such brutality, idolatry and excess today, whenever I see images of grandiose military parades in North Korea, China, Moscow and, next November, Washington, D.C.
How contrary is that with who and what we celebrate today, on Palm Sunday? And in keeping with yesterday’s marches against gun violence, we need to “disarm the charm” of such raw, arrogant worship of death. So different is what Jesus did and stood for on this particular Sunday, 2100 years ago, we may need a different name for it, something other than the “Triumphal Entry.”
Or again, maybe not, according to some of the people who cried, “Hosanna!” And “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They were responding to Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem with words from Psalm 118. That Psalm is a litany, or liturgy, for the triumphal return of King David from victory in battle. Many people lining that road into Jerusalem also expected Jesus to fight, destroy and humiliate the Romans and their lackeys in the same way David did to the Amalekites, the Philistines, or other Canaanites, like that recorded in Psalm 118: “All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. 11 They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. 12 They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns;in the name of the Lord I cut them down.”
Jesus, the Son of David, is indeed entering Jerusalem every bit as much the warrior and the conqueror as his ancestor David, to every bit as much a celebration of victory as that recorded in Psalm 118. That should not surprise us. Whenever Jesus speaks of the Bible as his script, and says, “It is written about me…” most of the time he is referring to the Psalms. As I’ve said before, it is Jesus whom we meet walking and praying through the Psalms, as “The Righteous One, The Afflicted One, the Son of God, the King and Warrior, and The Son of David. That’s one reason why I’m teaching and preaching through the Psalms this Lenten Season, because there we also meet Jesus.
Another reason to hear from the Psalms this Lenten Season is because they express so powerfully, personally and faithfully all the aspects and experiences of a living, personal covenant relationship with our covenant-making God. And that’s what this Lenten season theme, “Between You and Me” is about: a covenant relationship with God, rather than a mere contractual arrangement for the exchange of goods and services. The covenant relationship experience reflected in Psalm 118 is celebration, or praise, joy and thanksgiving. Joy is heaven’s calling card, God’s thumbprint on the soul.
But there is another Old Testament passage in the minds of many who are cheering Jesus at, that of the Hebrew prophet, Zechariah: chapter 9: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Zechariah says that this is how Israel’s long-promised and long-awaited king will come to them, just the way Jesus came, detail by detail, down to the donkey. In which case maybe we could call today’s event “The Royal Entry.”
Except for one problem: the donkey. Kings, especially victorious warrior kings, ride home from battle on warhorses, on spirited stallions, big and bold enough to strike fear into the hearts of enemies, and not yearling donkeys, small enough to leave the rider’s feet just inches above the dirt. The warhorse conveys fearsome might and majesty. The donkey is a symbol of peace, humility and vulnerability. That’s what Zechariah wanted to convey with the words that follow: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.”
So maybe we should call this, “The Humble Entry.” Or maybe “The Vulnerable Entry.” How about “the Peaceful, Nonviolent Entry?” Or even “The Anti-Violent Entry?”
Or, how about “The Assertive Entry?” Jesus is now being open, public and assertive about his claim to being the Messiah. Before that, he was somewhat selective and even sometimes secretive about who he was.
“You say that I’m the Messiah, Peter? Right you are. And don’t tell anyone until the Son of Man has been killed and risen from the dead.”
But here, in this Palm Sunday parade, Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah is in the open, serving notice to even the Romans, the rebels and the religious leaders of the day. And in such a way as to disturb, disappoint and dismay them all. To the anti-Roman rebels, Jesus’ way of entering into Jerusalem, would have been like a poke in the eye. He’s openly claiming to be king, in place of Caesar, and yet he comes unarmed and unprotected, on a donkey, not a warhorse.
For the Romans, Jesus’ mode of entry would have also been unsettling. He’s riding into town right under their Roman noses, in the shadow of their fortress, in full view of their sentries, in range of their spears and arrows. But riding in on a donkey, unarmed, to the acclamation of defenseless peasants and children? Should they feel relieved by that, or insulted? Is this some sort of satirical political street theater, at their expense? They wouldn’t understand, or trust, this symbolic offer of “peace to the nations.” When, on Good Friday morning, the Roman beat Jesus, and mocked him with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, they were mocking his peaceful, vulnerable Palm Sunday claim to kingship.
To Israel’s religious leaders, this would be, “the worrisome entry.” “How many times can he pull the Roman lion’s tail before we all get eaten?” they’re wondering. One more reason, according to the high priest, that the Nazarene must die, if his country is to survive.
For us who know the rest of the story, all this celebration takes on a poignant, pointed and painful flavor. The victorious conquering general has returned, to get not the victor’s laurel wreath, but a crown of thorns, not to execute the most important of his captives, but to be captured and executed himself. And he knew that was coming. He even predicted it, many times. Maybe we should call this, “The Tragic Entry.”
If so, then isn’t all this Palm Sunday celebration and spontaneous joy irresponsible at best? Or needlessly, dangerously provocative at worst? By this celebratory entry into an armed and hostile city, was he not just begging for a brutal backlash? Therefore, shouldn’t we call this entry not triumphal, not celebratory or royal or assertive, but The Foolish Entry, or an irresponsible, self-defeating, self-destructive entry, one guilty of raising false hopes and provoking his own death? Weren’t the Pharisees right when they told Jesus and the cheering crowds to cool it, and act more responsible, restrained and respectable?
Well, we do enough of that already. We don’t need a special Sunday of the year to remind us to moderate our expectations or turn down the volume of our cheers, to curb our enthusiasm, hunch our backs and look over our shoulders while we wait for the other shoe to drop. Such wisdom, so-called, is already embedded in many of our proverbs, like the one that the Romans overlooking this event would have known: “Whom the gods would destroy they first make happy.” Or the ones I grew up hearing: “There is no such thing as a free lunch…Trust in God but keep your powder dry… “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”
But the joyful, celebratory nature of this first Palm Sunday event is for real. It’s not just theater to score points against the Romans, the rebels and the religious leaders. Nor are Jesus and his friends and followers delusional. If we look back at all that transpired in those three previous years that Jesus taught, healed, and responded to human need, that alone merits some kind of parade. He has done his heavenly Father’s will, spoken his heavenly Father’s words, reflected his heavenly Father’s nature and character faithfully, perfectly and sinlessly against the opposition and provocation of enemies both hellish and human. And he has done so the while enduring and enlightening patiently, lovingly, his confused and resistant friends, family and followers.
Ancient Israel knew and named their God as, “a warrior.” And the three years of ministry by Jesus bear some striking similarities to the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, to the conquest campaigns of Joshua, his namesake, and of David, his ancestor, but with the giving of life, not the taking of life. Some would call the campaign through Palestine of the Son of David, “The War of the Lamb.” That kind of warfare required of Jesus even more courage, endurance, risk, sacrifice and sweat than what his ancestor David ever had to show in battle. It involved even more danger in the face of even greater enemies, than anything or anyone his namesake, Joshua, ever faced. And this war of the Lamb more faithfully reflected the nature and the warfare of Israel’s God, and ours.
A verse of the hymn, “At the name of Jesus,” beautifully expresses the combat and the victory that this Palm Sunday parade celebrates: “Humbled for a season to receive a name, from the lips of sinners unto whom he came; faithfully he bore it, spotless to the last, brought it back victorious when through death he passed.”
That mission was not yet finished on that first Palm Sunday. But there was still enough then and there to stop, take stock, and celebrate, however much courage it required to celebrate, right under the noses of all his adversaries and opponents, on the eve of worse things, and harder battles, yet to come. So, now I would argue for calling the event we celebrate today, “The Courageous Celebrative Entry.” Not just because of the courage those three years of ministry required to fight sin without sinning. I call it “The Courageous Entry” because of the courage it took to celebrate, right then and there, in the face of all that danger, opposition and certain death.
In this life, and in this world, it often takes great courage to celebrate. Whatever we do, whatever we accomplish for God and for good in this life is never complete, never perfect, never without struggle, complications or opposition. That might make us think that any celebration, praise or thanksgiving is premature at best, or irresponsible at worst.
So, was Jesus irresponsible for encouraging and welcoming this Palm Sunday celebration, just days before his crucifixion? Sadness, sorrow and suffering do not go away just in the face of denial. They must have their tears and laments. But even in those most heart-rending Psalms of Lament in our Bible, where David or others weep over their sufferings, sorrows and losses, often those Psalms include the words, “Yet I will praise the Lord.” As if to say, “Honestly, I’m having trouble thanking and praising God right now (Can we identify with that?); yet I dare to believe that the time will come when I will do so fully and freely. And then I won’t let anything, or anyone stop me from celebrating what there is to celebrate.”
In fact, there come times when it is unhelpful, even unrealistic, not to let loose and celebrate. Times when the sorrows and the struggles, the difficulties and the dangers of this life can only be faced because we have stopped to celebrate the gifts and the graces that have sustained us on our walk “through the valley of the shadow of death.” Who knows how much this first Palm Sunday celebration may have fortified and strengthened Jesus for the trials of the following days? He was fully human, as well as divine.
Our very presence here this morning, in this sanctuary, for this worship service, attests to our courage to celebrate what we can, and when we can. We are here, today and every Sunday, to celebrate what God has already done for us, in spite of the losses, struggles and sorrows of life. We are here to celebrate what God is doing for us, even through the darkness of these days, as chaos, cruelty and corruption, as manipulation and polarization increase in the worlds of politics, economy and culture. We are here to celebrate what God will do for us, at the next Courageous, Celebrative Entry.
For the Courageous, Celebrative Entry that we remember today was but a trial run, a dress rehearsal, for the Triumphal Entry yet to come. Yes, Jesus is planning another entry, an entry in triumph, like but unlike, the Roman version. The Apostle Paul wrote about it to his friends in Thessalonica who were wondering, Did Jesus return already? Did we miss his Second Coming?
Paul told them, No. When he returns, you’ll know because, in I Thessalonians 4: 16, he writes, “ For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
I don’t read into that a pre-tribulation rapture that will leave our unoccupied cars running off the road. Paul is simply saying that when the worldwide mission of Christ is complete and he returns for the crown and the throne that are rightfully his, his people will greet him and celebrate as he comes, like the children and so many other people did outside the gates of Jerusalem, and like the Thessalonians would have done for any victorious, conquering hero coming home.
Christ’s next Triumphal Entry will also feature his defeated captive enemies. But, oh, the difference! His defeated captives will be violence, injustice, sin, disease and death. “With these words,” Paul goes on to say, “en-COURAGE one another.” En-COURAGE one another with the courage to celebrate.
So, in those times when every day of our calendar seems to be Good Friday, because there’s a cross to bear, a cross of chronic physical or mental illness, our own or that of a loved one, a cross of constant temptation, a cross of grief and loss, a cross of estrangement and broken relationship, a cross of opposition and conflict, and there’s no quick fix in sight, we need courage. Palm Sunday tells us that celebration, praise and thanksgiving are often the most courageous and responsible things we can ever dare to do.
For such courage, remember and celebrate the grace and goodness of God, which will resolve and redeem our Good Friday crosses into Easter resurrections in God’s good time. For such courage, remember and celebrate the graces and the goodness of God in the past and the present that have helped us thus far, which have at least permitted us to remain standing and on our feet, with help and hope.
If ever we’re not sure how we’re going to make it through the days and months and years ahead, Psalm 118 reminds us that, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” So go ahead, receive such gifts and graces of each day; look for them; give thanks, praise and celebration for them. It’s the responsible thing to do. It’s not delusional: it’s courageous. As Jesus was courageous, celebrating before the gates of Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday.