Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and our theme was confusion. I realise that may seem an odd choice. Surely celebration would seem more appropriate. Well there was certainly an element of celebration in the reading we heard from Matthew 21:1-11, but there was a sense of unease too. Hosanna had become a cry of praise, but it was originally a cry for help meaning something like 'save us', reminding us that all is not well for the crowds who greet Jesus. And we hear that when he arrives in Jerusalem the city is stirred, a slightly ambiguous word that suggests he may not have been met with unbridled enthusiasm.
That’s confirmed in Luke’s telling of the triumphant entry, as the crowds cry peace, and yet the religious leaders tell Jesus to quiet them, seemingly fearful of a mass disturbance. And so we see in this story a glimpse of the confusion that followed Jesus. Some embraced him, others rejected him. Some thought he would be their salvation, others feared he would bring Rome down upon their heads.
This tension is perhaps never clearer than in the closing verses of John 6. Jesus teaches that his flesh is the bread of life which he will give for the world, and then we read that On hearing [this], many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And a few verses later, we learn that From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Many of Jesus’ teachings are hard. Hard to understand, hard to follow. And yet they are the words of eternal life. It’s not surprising that confusion surrounded him, indeed continues to surround him. And so it’s important that we acknowledge that confusion, that we make space to ask questions and allow others to ask questions, that we take time to reflect on our own responses to Jesus.
Some embraced him, others rejected him. What do we make of him? What do we do with him? We can only answer that if we meet with him, and so on Sunday morning and again here, rather than trying to dismiss or resolve confusion with easy answers, I wanted to create opportunities for us to meet with Jesus, first with an imaginative piece of writing based on the entry into Jerusalem, and then with a video that speaks powerfully of him as king, and finally with space for your own contemplations.
I’ll never forget that day, as long as I live. The heat of the sun, the press of the crowds, the shouts of hosanna, the breeze of the waving palms, the patchwork of coats along the road. But more than that, the sense that something was happening, and we didn’t know if it would lead us to hope or to hell.
Of course I’d heard rumours about the man at the centre of it all. We all had, that’s why we’d lingered. Normally everyone is in such a rush to get into the city that you can hardly see the gates for the dust, but the word had gone out that he was on his way, and after all the stories we’d heard, we couldn’t help but wait around to see him. All this fuss for a carpenter’s son, and from Nazareth of all places! It’s hardly the centre of the universe. I’d be surprised if it even showed up on a map. But then King David started as a shepherd from Bethlehem, so I guess you never can tell.
And the stories, they were quite something. They said he’d fed a crowd with a basket of food, just because they’d stopped to hear him and he didn’t want them to go hungry. They said he’d healed lepers and blind beggars, that he’d healed on the Sabbath, as if he just couldn’t stop himself from helping others, even if it got him into trouble. They said he’d wept at the tomb of his friend, then called him out in his grave clothes and embraced him.
Such extraordinary, incredible, miraculous things to do. But most wonderful of all, it seemed to me that they were all done out of love. My brother thought I was being over sentimental when I said that, but I couldn’t think of any other reason. He wasn’t getting anything out of it, no wealth or power, just a whole lot of grief from the teachers of the law.
And by all accounts, he talked a lot about love, which he seemed to think was the whole point of the law. Loving God, loving neighbours, loving enemies. That was a brave thing to say. Imagine loving the Romans! But then, the prophet Jeremiah did call our ancestors in exile to pray for the shalom of the city they had been taken to, so perhaps it was not so radical after all. Perhaps the law has always been about love, and we just needed a reminder.
He talked a lot about the kingdom of God too. Lots of folk started talking a though he was planning to start a revolution, to overthrow the Romans and establish a new kingdom. I’m not so sure though. I heard that he talked about the kingdom of God as being like a hidden treasure and a tiny mustard seed. That doesn’t sound like revolution to me, or at least not the sort of revolution that happens with swords and clubs. That sounds like the sort of revolution that happens in a thousand small ways that no one expects. The sort of revolution that happens when we love even our enemies.
Not everyone liked what he was saying, especially not the religious leaders. In all fairness, he was quite rude about them. I heard he called them white washed tombs, which would be enough to get anyone’s back up. And he didn’t help himself much, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, taking illiterate fishermen as disciples. It just wasn’t respectable. It sounds like the teachers of the law took every chance they could get to have a go at him, asking difficult questions and accusing him of blasphemy.
He had his followers though, and not just the fishermen and the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He was always surrounded by huge crowds, all sorts of folk desperate for a miracle and hanging on every word. And from what I hear, a dozen of them were practically inseparable from him. They must have dropped everything to travel with him, to hear him teach and see him work wonders and learn to live as he did. Perhaps being respectable doesn’t matter as much as we think. Perhaps there is something better, and perhaps they found it with him.
But I’ve digressed. I started talking about that day. I was making my way into the city, when a wave of rumour washed over us. We heard that some of the men travelling with this Jesus were pushing through the crowds, saying they had been sent for a donkey for him to ride. I’m no scribe or scholar, but I remembered the words from the prophet Zechariah, about the king riding on a colt. It had always stuck with me because it seemed such a funny image, and when I heard that Jesus was going to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, something within me said just maybe I was going to see that image in the flesh.
So I stopped and found somewhere to rest and wait. It felt an age before we saw three men and a donkey going the wrong way out of the city, but excitement really began to build after that. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t the only person who had stopped to see Jesus arrive in the city, and we knew that if the donkey was on its way to him, he would soon be on his way to us.
And the suddenly there he was, riding towards us on a donkey. It may have been a showy thing to do, but he didn’t look like a showman. He looked like a man on a mission. It was the first time I had ever seen him, and yet somehow he seemed familiar. Perhaps it was only that I had heard so many stories that it was as though I already knew him, but as he looked across the crowds, there was something about his gaze that felt like an embrace.
The crowd started to cry out, and I found myself crying out with them. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The words just seemed to tumble out of our mouths, and I’m not sure we really understood them. Hosanna had always meant save us, and that was part of what we meant, but it was more than that too. We weren’t just asking for help, we were praising because we knew that help would come.
I don’t know who started it, but suddenly people were taking branches down from the trees, and throwing them on the ground in front of Jesus. Others couldn’t get to the trees, so they took off their coats and threw those down instead. He may have been riding on a donkey, but there was no doubt that he was a king, and he deserved all the honour we could show him.
Some said afterwards that we betrayed him, that the crowds that shouted hosanna were the same crowds that shouted crucify him, but that’s not true. Perhaps some changed their minds, caught the fear of the religious leaders, got carried away in the madness of what came next, but not everyone. Not me.
I’ve already told you that he was unpopular with some, and there were plenty who were unhappy that day, who were already planning to get rid of him, or at least shut him up. I saw a group of Pharisees break through the crowd to stop Jesus, telling him to keep control of his disciples and quiet the crowd. They were lucky not to go under the hooves of the donkey, the way they launched themselves at it, but Jesus kept it calm. He stayed pretty calm too. I couldn’t hear what he said to them, but someone told me afterwards that if we did not praise, the rocks would cry out. What a thought! He was so worthy of praise that creation would step in if we failed.
I don’t know how long it took him to pass into the city. He can’t have been moving quickly, not with all of those crowds hemming him in, but still it felt too quick. I wanted more time to see him, to talk to him, to ask him why I had been so fascinated by this strange man and the strange rumours I had heard that I had wasted half a day just to catch a glimpse of him. The things he said and did were unbelievable, and yet somehow I did believe them. He created such confusion, and yet as I looked at him I felt such certainty.
I’ll never forget that day, as long as I live. The heat of the sun, the press of the crowds, the shouts of hosanna, the breeze of the waving palms, the patchwork of coats along the road. But more than that, the sense that something was happening, and now I’m sure it was leading us to hope.
After listening to the monologue about Palm Sunday, we watched the video above, set to a sermon by Dr S M Lockeridge. It’s known as That’s My King, and it’s a wonderful and passionate description of Jesus. After you have watched it, I invite you to spend some time reflecting on all you have read and heard about Jesus, and what you have to say about him. He was a strange man who did and said strange things, so it's okay to be confused at times, but it's also good to hold fast to what we believe and have come to know.