A Palm Sunday sermon shared tonight, based on Mark 11:1-11…
If I were to ask you to place yourself into this story, where would you be?
Would you be in the crowd crying “Hosanna”, taking the cloak off your back and laying it on the road, while your friend next to you is putting down a branch they had brought with them?
Or maybe you would be one of the two disciples that Jesus sent ahead to collect the colt?
Or maybe you would be the colt that no one has ever ridden before?
Where would you be in this story?
Today is Palm Sunday, a day in the liturgical calendar that is associated with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem atop a donkey and with palm branches waving. It marks the beginning of Passion Week or Holy Week, the final week of Lent that leads us to the cross. While the coming services later this week, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will have a decidedly more sombre feel to them, Palm Sunday is seen as a time of joyous triumph, a celebration of the fulfilment of prophecy, that Jesus is king! In Zechariah, one of the minor prophetic writings in the Old Testament, chapter 9 verse 9 reads,
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus’ entry on Palm Sunday is a fulfillment of this prophecy.
Let me go back to that question that I asked before – where would you be in this story? Are you in the crowd? Or have you been given the job of collecting the donkey? Or are you the actual donkey?
Let’s start with the crowd…You’ve taken the cloak off your back and laid it on the ground, while your friend next to you has spread out some branches that they cut out in the field. These are both actions that would be done for royalty. You see Jesus as a king, and the welcome that you are giving him is one fit for a conqueror who is going to shatter and destroy all the enemies of Israel and overthrow the Roman oppression. You cry out “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
But…just wait a minute…do you know what that word actually means?
We might think of it purely as a word of praise, but ‘hosanna’ is a Greek word [that is a transliteration of a Hebrew word] that means ‘help us’ or ‘save us now’. You and the rest of the crowd are crying out and not only praising the king that has come, but crying out with a plea to save them! The Passion Translation describes that the crowd all shouted in celebration, “Bring the victory! We welcome the one coming with the blessings of being sent from the Lord Yahweh! Blessings rest on this kingdom he ushers in right now—the kingdom of our father David! Bring us the victory in the highest realms of heaven!”
You think you understand what’s going on, but maybe you just don’t quite realize the significance of it all. For Jesus didn’t come as a military hero mounted on a horse of war, but he came as a messenger of God’s peace.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard more than one sermon before about how the crowd that are busy crying out to Jesus on Palm Sunday turn against him just a few days later. In fact, I heard that message again just on Wednesday. It can be easy to get swept up by a sense of excitement and to just join in with what everyone else is doing. But I wonder what it means to do so, when, unbeknownst to us, we actually don’t fully understand what’s going on…
I’ve got a couple of poems to share today, and the first is by Sarah Agnew, titled Not a royal entry:
Our cloaks did not
camouflage the donkey,
nor transform it to
a stately horse.
Their branches did not
camouflage the dusty road,
nor transform it to
a path of gold.
The hosannahs did not
camouflage the crowd,
nor transform them into
The hosannahs did not
camouflage the rabbi,
nor transform him into
The crowd thought they understood. They thought they were seeing a king, a conqueror, entering into their town, the one who had come to save them. But in the coming days things will not turn out as they expected…
Or maybe you don’t see yourself in the crowd, but as one of the two disciples that Jesus sent ahead to fetch the colt. Jesus has asked you to go to the village up ahead, untie the colt you find and bring it back to him. Not only that, but Jesus has alerted you to the fact that people are likely to ask “Why are you doing this?” I mean, why would you do that? Yes I know that Jesus has asked you to do so, and we like to think that we have the commitment to follow through on anything that Jesus asks us to do, but really, it does seem like a bit of a random and ordinary job! While those waving their palm branches in the crowd thought that they understood, I would imagine that you just plain don’t understand! And yet you do it, you go ahead to the village, find the colt, and when people question what you are doing, just as Jesus had warned you they would, you respond that “The Lord needs it and will send it back”. It was a mundane, ordinary, boring task that really didn’t make much sense for why you were being asked to do it, but you did it anyway.
The great American preacher and activist Martin Luther King once declared “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
And imagine a couple years into the future, trying to explain the significance of your ‘donkey fetching ministry’. You may have felt confused and not understood at the time, but in hindsight you can see why…
And that’s the thing, it was a mundane task, just something that had to be done, someone had to go and fetch the donkey. Yet even in the mundane and ordinary God can be encountered. Although it might just seem like a stroke of luck, Jesus knew exactly where that colt was going to be found, and with that Jesus turned the event into a moment of revelation of who he was. One biblical commentary (The Bible Speaks Today) suggests that the way that the colt is obtained hints at Jesus’ unusual power and knowledge, that he knew what the plan was going to be, even though it wasn’t apparent to others…
So we’ve had the crowd who think they understand but don’t. We’ve had the two disciples who are confused and don’t understand, but follow through on the directions anyway…
And then there’s the colt, which from various other biblical texts we know was likely the foal of a donkey.
The picture book ‘The Donkey That No One Could Ride’ by Anthony DeStafano begins…
There once was a donkey—young, weak and small,
So weak he could carry nothing at all.
Even when children sat on his hide,
He’d wobble and tumble and fall on his side.
No matter how much he tried or he cried,
This was a donkey that no one could ride.
He couldn’t haul stones;
He couldn’t dig ditches,
Or carry rich men with their big bags of riches.
He couldn’t pull carts
With huge bales of hay;
Just lifting a feather would make his legs sway.
No, this donkey was useless, no good at all,
Too puny, too shaky, too scrawny—too small.
Maybe you sometimes feel like this, you’ve felt “too puny, too shaky, too scrawny – too small”, “useless, [just] no good at all”. And yet, what do we know from this story? The donkey most definitely wasn’t useless, he had a role! There’s significance to the fact that Jesus rode in on a donkey. “In Palestine the donkey was not a despised animal, but a noble one. When a king went to war he rode on a horse, when he came in peace he rode on a donkey.” (William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible) And the fact that the colt had never been ridden before? That was actually appropriate, because for an animal to be used for sacred or sacrificial purposes it mustn’t have been used for any other purpose previously.
My second poem for tonight is by G. K. Chesterton, and is written from the perspective of the donkey…
When fishes flew and forests walk’d
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.
The tatter’d outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scrouge, deride me, I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour,
One far fierce hour and sweet;
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
The donkey wasn’t inadequate. It might have been small and inexperienced but that didn’t matter.
In the book ‘The Donkey That No One Could Ride’ Jesus says the following words to the donkey:
“My help is enough;
It’s all that you need.
It’s all you require in life to succeed.
The weaker you are,
The more strength I give.
I’ll be there to help you
As long as you live.
I know you feel tired and frightened and broken,
But do you believe
These words that I’ve spoken?”
Jesus chose a stinky little donkey, the most humble and lowly of creatures, to be involved in the triumphant fulfillment of his plan. I wonder what that might mean for us when we just feel like the donkey…
So where have you seen yourself in tonight’s story? Were you be in the crowd crying “Hosanna”, thinking you understand and yet about to learn something new about who Jesus is?
Or maybe you were one of the two disciples that Jesus sent ahead to collect the colt, a task that you didn’t understand the reasons for, but that you are going to follow through on all the same?
Or maybe you were the colt which no one has ever ridden before, feeling inadequate, unworthy and not enough, and yet maybe realising that with Jesus’ help you are worthy and enough?
Where are you in the story? And I’d challenge you to continue to ask that question as you journey through this week. And in that, what might you learn this Easter, what might you see differently…
You know us. You know where we are right now. You know if we are like the crowd, thinking we understand but maybe you are waiting for the right opportunity to reveal something new to us, a new way to see things.
You know if we are like those two disciples, feeling confused about why we are doing what we are doing, wondering what the point is when it the day to day feels ordinary and mundane.
And you know if we are just feeling like the donkey right now, inadequate and not good enough.
Wherever we are, open our eyes to where you are in the midst of it all. As we journey through this Easter week may we keep our eyes open to see what there is new to learn, knowing that above all else you love us deeply.
In Jesus’ name we pray,