It is a story of a hero’s welcome, with Palm branches waving as a king
comes riding into town. There are the shouts of hope as people pray for change
in their lives, and the amazing promise that this king is one who can actually
deliver them. It is like a parade, and a party, and a word of hope all in one,
so the scriptures of the day have all of the elements of a huge celebration.
And yet, in the back of our minds, we can’t really celebrate with
because we know what is about to happen. We know that the crowds of today
become the crowds of Friday, and their words are very different. From Hosanna,
people’s cries change to crucify. So it is hard to celebrate this palm branch
welcome because it feels so temporary, with the people in it so fickle.
Some people have trouble believing this change.
There are those who say that people don’t change their minds this quickly.
That it couldn’t have happened this way. That there is no way that crowds
welcomed Jesus so happily early in the week, and then demanded his crucifixion
later in the week. Even the gospels
struggle with that a little bit, saying that the people were stirred up by
those who opposed Jesus to cry out for his death. You could go so far as
suggesting that the leaders played on mob mentality and with a few carefully
placed people in the crowd riled them up. At least that is probably what people
would claim today when a crowd gets angry.
But here is the thing, I don’t think we are supposed to hear the story that
way. I don’t think you are supposed to read it as a great conspiracy against
Jesus. Rather, this is a story of human infidelity to God. One minute we love
God, the next we turn our back on God. It is a story about how temporary our
You see, many of us live in this fickleness of life. One day everything is
fantastic, one day we are celebrating, and the next is tragedy. One day hope
seems to shine eternal, and the next it looks like hope is dead. As one person
said, “Even though nearly 2000 years have passed since the events recounted on
this day, for many the story is as real and as present as if it were being
reported in real time. On the one hand, these are historic events, but on the
other hand, in a very real way they are a description of the life we live each
Look at the news this last week. Children struck by chemical weapons, bombings in Egyptian churches. In one moment, those people's lives changed.
Ruth Johnson tells how, in five minutes her life was turned upside-down
when her schizophrenic adult son killed her mother as she was eating breakfast.
Never before had he raised a hand in violence, but a hallucination that his
grandmother had tried to kill him brought a drastic change in him.
Life and people can be fickle.
It can happen when a person we love violates our marriage vows, or when
alcohol or drug addiction changes a person’s personality. It can happen when a
community gets caught up in blame and targets a person or family to turn into a
scapegoat for their problems. For some people, they have no problem believing
the crowd changed without calling it a conspiracy. It seems far too familiar to
their daily life.
It makes me wonder what Jesus thought that day
as he rode into town. He knew what was coming, he had foretold his death in
Jerusalem many times. Yet on this day the people cheered him. He knew that
there was a change of tone yet to come, and that their loyalties would not
Father Henri Nouwen found a sculpture of Jesus on a donkey in the
Augustiner Museum in Frieburg. He says, it “is one of the most moving Christ
figures I know. I have sent many postcards of it to my friends, and I keep one
in my prayer book . . . The fourteenth-century sculpture originally comes from
Niederrotweil, a small town close to Breisach on the Rhine. It was made to be
pulled on a cart in the Palm Sunday procession.”
“Christ’s long, slender face with a high forehead, inward looking eyes, long
hair, and a small forked beard expresses the mystery of his suffering in a way
that holds me spellbound. As he rides into Jerusalem surrounded by people
shouting “hosanna,” “cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in his
path” (Matthew 21:8), Jesus appears completely concentrated on something else.
He does not look at the excited crowd. He does not look at the excited crowd.
He does not wave. He sees beyond all the noise and movement to what is ahead of
him: an agonizing journey of betrayal, torture, crucifixion, and death. His
unfocused eyes see what nobody around him can see; his high forehead reflects a
knowledge of things to come far beyond anyone’s understanding.”
"There is melancholy, but also peaceful acceptance. There is insight
into the fickleness of the human heart, but also immense compassion. There is a
deep awareness of the unspeakable pain to be suffered, but also a strong
determination to do God's will. Above all, there is love, an endless, deep and
far-reaching love born from an unbreakable intimacy with God and reaching out
to all people, wherever they are, were, or will be. There is nothing that he
does not fully know. There is nobody whom he does not fully love."
As wonderful as Nouwen’s reflection is:
He forgets to mention that Jesus also knew that his death would not be the
end of the story. Not only does Jesus predict his death, he also predicts his
resurrection. Although his death would be awful and painful, he knew that
Easter Sunday would follow. So add that additional emotion to the face of
Christ, and it is no wonder his face is so reflective.
And it is also no wonder that on a day like today we experience a weird
contrast of emotions. What should we do? Should we celebrate the coming of a
king? Should we mourn what is about to happen? Should we look forward to next
week? Or should we simply stand in awe at the unfolding events and how God used
them to rescue us from the pit of despair, and the finality of death? Should
our face look like that image from one artist who caught a moment of
reflection, or should we think and feel something else?
I for one, think we should take the time to celebrate the true king – even
if the events to come will bring sadness—today is a day to recognize Christ as
the ruler of heaven and earth. It is a day to welcome him into our presence,
and giving thanks for his saving work done on our behalf. Today we should
cheer. But if we do, we cannot skip the rest of the week. We cannot skip the
pain of a Thursday betrayal by Judas, and a denial by Peter. We cannot forget
the Friday crucifixion. We must shed tears for these things when it is their
time, otherwise our celebration today fails to recognize the fickleness of life
that we often face. This week we must allow our hearts to be rushed through the
emotional whiplash of a hero’s welcome, a touching meal with friends, a
horrible death, and ultimately the hope filled resurrection.
So celebrate today. Remember that Jesus is a king that brings hope, shout
to him for his saving grace and power, wave a branch of a palm to honor him.
Recognize his leadership and lordship. But I understand if it is hard to throw
yourself completely into it, because it is hard for me as well. Just as Jesus
knew, we know what the future holds for him, and it can make today hard to