The Conquering Hero

Palm Sunday 2019

BREXIT – it’s an event of stark contrasts and huge misunderstanding. The conflicting statements we get from our politicians lead us to believe that no deal will be absolutely fine because everyone wants to trade with us or a complete disaster because no-one will want to trade with UK outside the EU.  The only way to solve the problem is to crash out, extend the deadline for a few months or a year, to stay in or to have referendum. Courting Jeremy Corbyn is a disaster or he will be saviour – depending on your politics. We are being humiliated by the EU or they are being very generous to a parliament that can only say what it is against.

I have reached the stage of ‘Que será, será.’ Whatever will be, will be. That may sound fatalistic, but to be honest, no-one is going to listen to what I think and I can have no impact whatsoever on the final outcome.

However, I am not fatalistic about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, its significance and purpose. How we respond to Jesus when he comes to us is of huge significance both for now and eternity. The Palm Sunday event was also one of huge contrasts and misunderstanding. At the time, did anyone apart from Jesus really understand what was going on?

We look back with hindsight and post resurrection, believing we understand what was happening in the light of Easter; but then not everyone agrees with us. There are many interpretations of this event, prominent amongst them are that Jesus made a miscalculation on the political front, and in any case his messianic cause was bound to go the way of the many claimed messiahs who had preceded him: execution. The Roman authorities were too much in control to allow any rabble rousers.

However, we don’t read it that way:

Ride on, ride on in majesty,

in lowly pomp ride on to die:

bow your meek head to mortal pain,

then take, O God, your power and reign!

Is what Henry Milman wrote as he reflected on Palm Sunday. And in these four lines captures the contrasts and confusion of the event. Let’s look at things in a little more detail.

Prior to Jesus riding into Jerusalem, Jesus had warned his disciples that this was going to be an occasion of arrest, suffering and death, but it wouldn’t end there. Luke 18:31-34:

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.’ The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

Mark records three occasions when Jesus predicted that he would suffer and die, and the disciples didn’t understand or take it on board. It just didn’t fit with their expectations. On one of these occasions Peter gets cross with Jesus and Jesus puts him right in no uncertain terms. But why should they have understood any differently? They experienced the popularity of Jesus and the adulation of the crowd. The miracles and the teaching all pointed to God’s anointed and now the entry into Jerusalem – it all fitted.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!

Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry;

O Savior meek, pursue thy road

with palms and scattered garments strewed.

Let’s consider the contrasts created by Jesus’ descent from the Mount Olives. Clearly there was a sense of occasion, because the disciples threw their cloaks over the donkey and others spread theirs on the road, as if laying down a red carpet. But the real symbolism began when they reached the road going down from the Mount of Olives. This place had messianic associations.

From here the people looked for the coming one who would bring salvation to the nation. In Zechariah 14 the prophet talks about a day of the Lord, when he will fight against the nations that are oppressing Israel and his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives. Just as Isaiah prophesied great earth movements in preparation for the coming of the Lord, so here the Mount of Olives is split and a great plain formed. It talks of a time when the Lord will be king over all the earth; there will be one Lord and his name the only name that is worshipped.

As Jesus reached the Mount of Olives there was a sense of history, and more than a hint of prophecy fulfilment. Everyone was confident and felt secure in what they were doing. They appeared to be thinking of this prophecy from Zechariah 14 which talked of victory over the nations.

But there is also a contrast here with the prophecy from Zechariah 9. In Zechariah 14 the Lord comes, and goes out in battle; goes out in strength; goes out to defeat and be victorious. It is a judgement scene. As Jesus set out on his messianic path, he was on a colt. This is not a warrior coming to do battle as perhaps the disciples are expecting, but someone coming in peace, represented by the donkey. In Zech. 9:9, it talks about the king coming, righteous and having salvation, but gentle and riding on a donkey, bringing peace to the nations. It talks about his rule over the earth, the fulfilment of the covenant, prisoners being set free and restoration. As we read this account in 21st Century, we see the expectation of the crowd and of the disciples that this was going to be a momentous occasion, and they were looking forward to the glory of victory. James and John had already tried to book their place as Jesus’ principle advisors. As Jesus rode from the Mount of Olives on a donkey being hailed as king, links would have been made with the line of David.  Solomon, when he was anointed king, was placed on David’s mule. As he rode along the people shouted, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ and there was celebration. This was a significant act that Jesus chose to do, and its symbolism and meaning would not have been lost on the disciples or the religious authorities.

The disciples and the crowd looked forward to the glory of victory and Jesus looked forward to the glory of the cross. The crowd looked for a crown of gold and Jesus was going to receive a crown of thorns. The crowd looked for Jesus to sit on the throne and Jesus knew he was going to sit on the throne of the cross. The crowd, if they remembered the prophecy of Zechariah 14 would know it talked about the Mount of Olives being split in two creating a great valley and the people fleeing to safety through the valley. What was shortly going to happen after this triumphal entry, was the temple curtain being torn in two, the way to God the Father opened and people able to flee to him for grace and mercy.

To add to the sense of occasion, the disciples took up the traditional pilgrim greeting, drawn from Psalm 118:26, 27. They were going up to Jerusalem, to the temple. There was a sense of expectation and excitement. To the Jews, the word ‘Kyrios’ or ‘Lord’ would have meant coming in the name of YHWH. That’s what they would have heard and it all added to the symbolism of the occasion and the prophetic backdrop to what was taking place. And as the crowd gathered round the disciples as they praised Jesus, there were some Pharisees. ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ they shouted as the messianic verses were called out in praise of Jesus. Not everyone was pleased with this parade.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem the tone changed, and this is where I think we look upon this story with rose tinted glasses and so are left with a sense of an exciting, happy occasion that is unblemished in any way.

It is only Luke who records Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and prophesying its downfall, and there is no record of the response of the crowd around. Jesus, the one we recognise as Messiah, descends from the messianic mountain in a prophetic way, but he will be rejected by the city to which he came. Jesus wept and pronounced judgement on God’s holy city. The celebration would come to an end in a few days with the crucifixion and the celebrations of the temple would come to an end forever.

The judgement Jesus pronounced is the judgement of covenantal unfaithfulness and echoes Isaiah and Jeremiah. The curses and blessings of the covenant are spelled out in Deuteronomy 28-32.

  • In Isaiah 29 we see the description Jesus uses concerning the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • In Jeremiah 21, where the prophet brings the word of God to Zedekiah, there is graphic description of the destruction that will come at the hand of a foreign nation.

This changes the tenor of the story. Yes the Messiah is coming, but it is not good news for those who reject him. In a short while the disciples would fall away and their confidence vanish; the crowd whipped up to call for the death of Jesus and he will be crucified. Jesus knew this as he rode down from the Mount of Olives acclaimed by the disciples and those who joined in the occasion; and so for Jesus this was a time of extreme emotions. A time full of significance and full of tragedy.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!

The angel-squadrons of the sky

look down with sad and wondering eyes

to see the approaching sacrifice.

Luke tells us that it was the disciples who instigated the praise and worship of Jesus, because of the miracles he performed. The crowds loved the miracles, but the religious leaders didn’t. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that miracles will convince people. This is illustrated clearly in John’s gospel. In chapter 9, a man blind from birth is healed. The Pharisees can’t deny the healing and all they can do is abuse the man and throw him out of the temple. After this event, we read in John 10:24-27

Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. The Jews who were there gathered round him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

Then Jesus raised Lazarus and this was the response of the Pharisees:

What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’ Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ John 11:47-50

In that response we see the ultimate concern of the religious authorities. The miracles did not convince them; Jesus teaching did not convince them. They were concerned about maintaining the status quo.

So Jesus entered Jerusalem. Was he the conquering hero or deluded or a usurper? We get two perspectives in the Palm Sunday accounts. The first is that of the disciples. They saw the promised King riding to bring in his kingdom. With all the symbolism that had gone before, with Jesus’ reputation and charismatic character, how could it fail to happen?

The second was that of the religious leadership, who rejected the claims of Jesus which they saw as exaggerated and even blasphemous. We look with the hindsight of time and from a Christian perspective and believe both were wrong.

Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, adopted the role portrayed in Zechariah of the king riding humbly on a donkey. The contrast is with expectations of the disciples who saw him as a conquering hero and the Pharisees as an imposter usurping the messianic role. There is also a contrast with the entry of Roman authority that would come with trumpets blazing and a show of force.

But the significance of the prophecy and Jesus action is this: the king comes righteous and having salvation, dependent upon God. The king of Zechariah 14 only comes because of the power and might of God who has saved and will protect and sustain the kingdom. Jesus entered knowing that he was vulnerable and would become powerless, depending entirely on the Father to be able to fulfil his mission. He entered Jerusalem dependent entirely on the Father for vindication through the resurrection.

And so the unexpected hero arrives in his capital city, behaving as he has always behaved. He doesn’t come and lord it over people. He doesn’t come and command allegiance, cutting down opposition. He does come with a deep concern for God’s honour and glory and a desire to do God’s will. This is shown through the outrage Jesus felt as he entered the temple and drove out the stall holders. He clearly pointed out the judgement that woukd come as a result of rejection. But this unexpected hero was willing to walk the path of extreme pain and suffering in order to bring about God’s victory over sin and death.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die:

O Christ, thy triumphs now begin

o’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die;

bow thy meek head to mortal pain,

then take, O God, thy power, and reign.

Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868)

Listen to these words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Jesus, who being in very nature God… Phil 2:5-11

How do we respond to the conqueror who didn’t conquer as the world even today understands and wants to do to others. The nations want to show their might and authority: ‘Let’s make the nation great again!’ is being expressed right across the world as governments seek to assert themselves. The chosen one of God walked the path of obedience. Whom are we following? Jesus’ example to us is that of the suffering servant, dependent upon God and not the strength and ability of humankind. It is the example of obedience to the point of death. Not the usual kind of hero.