Palm Sunday: Jesus Defies All Logic and Expectation
*The following sermon is from Palm Sunday 2021. Last Sunday (April 10th), Daniel shared a kid and family friendly Palm Sunday message and did not create a manuscript for his message. Here instead is another sermon on the same passage:
Pastor Kevin DeYoung observes that if you were to study our culture, or travel around our country today, you’d be sure to find a bunch of different understandings and interpretations of Jesus, each carefully created and crafted to fit a variety of beliefs and preferences, values and convictions. For example, he identifies a handful of them:
There's Therapist Jesus—who helps us cope with life's problems, heals our past, and tells us to not to be so hard on ourselves.
There's Spirituality Jesus—who hates religion, churches, doctrine, and would rather have people out communing in nature.
There's Republican Jesus—who is against tax increases and a staunch defender of family values.
There's Democrat Jesus—who is against big business and champions the fight against climate change.
There's Touchdown Jesus (we all know him, don’t we?)—who helps Christian athletes fun faster and jump higher and helps determine the outcomes of Super Bowls.
There's Platitude Jesus—good for Christmas specials, Hallmark greeting cards, inspiring people to believe in themselves.
And finally, there’s Hippie Jesus— meek and mild, flowing hair, and walks around barefoot, wears a sash, and though born in the Middle East, somehow manages to look Scandinavian.
Look around and you’re sure to find a few different Jesus’s out there, each meant to comfort us in different ways, or to strengthen our argument or position at just the right time.
Now of course, it’s worth mentioning, not all of these understandings and interpretations of Jesus are wrong in every way. Rather, many are based on half-truths, in fact, much of what makes each of these understandings of Jesus somewhat appealing is because they have grains of truth within them. Nevertheless, we often elevate and accentuate the characteristics and values of Jesus that align with our own desires and preferences and conveniently dismiss the rest, in effect creating a Jesus conformed in our own image.
However, and not surprisingly, the real Jesus, the biblical Jesus, doesn’t seem to fit all that neatly into the boxes we try and squeeze him in or always meet the hopes and expectations that we place on him.
And that is, in many ways, one of the central truths surrounding our story today, as we reflect on the events that took place some 2,000 years ago on Palm Sunday. The crowds who lined the streets that day had a particular understanding of Jesus, particular hopes and expectations that they had for this Messiah, their promised King. But yet, as Jesus entered Jerusalem that day, his arrival signaled that he was a different kind of King, who came for a different and surprising purpose, one that would defy theirs and maybe even our expectations of him.
As we’ve highlighted a few times now, today is Palm Sunday, it’s a day celebrated and recognized by Christians around the globe. It's a central moment in Jesus’s ministry, the beginning of Holy Week and all the events leading up to Jesus’s death and resurrection.
And if you’re one of those one or two people who are disappointed that we won’t be studying the last passage of James this morning, do not fear, I promise we’ll get back to that sometime come late-April.
And so instead for today, I thought it would be wise for us to dive head first into this Palm Sunday narrative in part because it’ll help us set the stage and allow us be better emotionally and mentally and spiritually prepared for Easter next Sunday, and in addition, I was trying to remember earlier this week what we did last Palm Sunday and you might recall, we didn’t really have one. Remember a year ago, when we were worshiping on the radio and on the radio only? It was a season when Callie and Noah and I would pile into the car and go for a drive, making our way south towards Clark Canyon, because it was and still is the only radio we’ve got. And so in the midst of missing last year, all the more reason it seems to focus on this old and familiar story once again.
All that said, let’s dive in: There are two central things that I want you all to see in our story today. First, what the crowds show us about their expectations of Jesus, both in terms of his character and mission, and secondly, what Jesus’s entrance shows us about his character and mission, and the disconnect between the two.
So, first, as for the crowds that lined the streets of Jerusalem that day, what did they believe about this Jesus and what were their expectations of him? Well, we’re given a few clues:
First, we’re told that the crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Now, people don’t do this for just anybody, they don’t get their cloaks dirty for your average person. This is the kind of thing you do for a king! Because that is who he is and who they believed this Jesus to be. He’s the Messiah, the promised King, the promised one who has come to fulfill all the Old Testament promises and prophesies. In fact, they almost certainly would have known this obscure prophesy from the prophet Zechariah from 500 years before, which Matthew conveniently quotes for us here in our passage today. The promise that “their king is coming for them, humble and mounted on a donkey.” And when they see this Jesus, riding a donkey, riding into Zion, which is a title referring to the city of Jerusalem, well that checks all the boxes. This is the king they’ve been waiting for. And so they give him the best red carpet entrance they could, an entrance fit for a king.
In addition, we learn that the crowds were shouting this peculiar chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David … Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s probably not a word you used at all this past week. Oddly enough, it’s a word that only comes up in the various gospel accounts of this Palm Sunday narrative. And the word hosanna is simply a Hebrew word that means “to save.” It’s a cry for help, meaning “Save us!” But yet, of course, this begs the question, save us from what exactly? What exactly did the crowds hope Jesus would save them from?
Truth is, this is where their expectations, and maybe our expectations of Jesus, were flipped on its head. Though the narrative doesn’t make this explicit, we have every reason to believe that the kind of saving the crowds were hoping for in that moment was one of a political or military kind. More explicitly, the crowds, which were full of Jewish people, were hoping that Jesus would save them from the Roman empire, the dominant political and military power of the day, who had seized power over their people and land. For the crowds that day, their hope and every expectation was that here comes Jesus, their warrior-king, who would enter into Jerusalem, overthrow the Roman empire, save them from Roman oppression and restore peace and prosperity to their people.
In fact, those palm branches, here described plainly as “branches from trees” elsewhere described as “palms” weren’t simply decorative or festive pieces, functioning like a garnish at a fancy meal, but rather, palms back then symbolized Jewish nationalism and victory. They were celebrating a political, national, military victory that they believed was sure to come.
All put together, this gives us a glimpse of the hopes and expectations that the crowds had of Jesus – a powerful King, sent to save them from the Romans. But of course, Jesus’s mission would look radically different.
Let’s briefly look at the second thing we need to see within this Palm Sunday story, and that is, what Jesus’s entrance shows us about his character and mission. You see, in a sense, his entrance gives us a glimpse of his exit, his entrance into Jerusalem is a preview of the kind of death he will face in the week ahead.
Our passage began with Jesus sending his disciples away on a fun little errand, out to find him a donkey that he could ride in on. After all, in every parade, every participant has to ride in on something, and for Jesus, in fulfillment of the scriptures from long ago, he rides in on a donkey. And this is a huge detail, as Jesus’s very method of transportation gives us a preview of what’s to come.
If Jesus truly were a kind of warrior king, bringing his kingdom and defeating the Roman empire with power and force, you would think that a horse or a stallion would have been more symbolic and appropriate for the moment. Think Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Something like that.
But no, here comes Jesus, riding in on a lowly donkey. It’s less of a scene out of Braveheart and more like a scene from Winnie the Pooh with Eeyore by his side. This would be like picking up your prom date in a ’92 Honda Civic, 4 cylinders, 200K miles on it with no hubcaps. (And apologies to Honda Civic owners everywhere, nothing wrong with them, in fact, they’re very reliable, just not very flashy.)
This lowly, unflashy mode of transportation tells us that Jesus, though certainly a King, comes as a king unlike any other, and defies all of our expectations as to what a king truly is and does.
He’s a humble king, which makes him a walking, or in this case, riding contradiction. 19th century pastor Jonathan Edwards described this as the paradoxical excellencies of Christ. That in Jesus Christ, we see, infinite glory and lowest humility, infinite majesty and transcendent meekness, absolute sovereignty and perfect resignation, absolute self-sufficiency, yet perfect trust in God.
But yet, even more than this donkey simply offering a glimpse into his character, consider what a donkey says about his mission, his purpose. In a potential battle or war, where everyone else might have a horse, the one who rides on a donkey wouldn’t stand a fighting chance. It would make you a sitting duck in battle.
As we’ve said, his entrance is a preview of what’s to come, and how just a few short days later, this humble king would lay his life down, by dying on a cross.
In the end, just like us today with our representations and portraits of Jesus, the crowds long ago got it partly right, yet not completely right when it came to Jesus and who he is and what he came to do.
They hoped that Jesus would save them. And he did, just not as they had expected. As he didn’t come to save them from the Romans, but rather to save them from themselves, to save them from their sin.
They hoped that Jesus would bring peace. And he did, just not as they had expected. As he didn’t bring them peace in the sense of the rest and security that would come having their enemies defeated, but rather the peace and rest and security that happens within, a peace with God.
He’s a king alright, but comes not to wear a crown of gold, but rather a crown of thorns.
He’s a king alright, but comes not to sit on his throne (at least not quite yet), not before first being nailed to a cross.
Enter stage right, into Jerusalem that day, was the Jesus they didn’t expect, but rather the Jesus they needed.
So friends, as a way to remember Holy Week and really mark this moment in the Christian calendar, this week I’m going to create short videos, 3-5 minutes or so, for each day of the week ahead Monday through Saturday, where I’m simply going to share with you what happened on that day of Holy Week in real time, things like Jesus cleansing the temple on Monday, the last Supper on Thursday, his crucifixion on Friday, and in each video I’ll share a question or two that you can discuss with your spouse or kids or a friend. For example, here are a couple discussion questions for today:
First, the question I asked our kids today. What mode of transportation would you take to school, or for our purposes, let’s say work tomorrow morning? Here, I’ll go first. Personally, I’d like to travel in a hot air balloon. Never done it before, sounds like fun.
And secondly, maybe ask, what hopes or expectations do you have of Jesus that are different from who he really is? Again, personally, I confess, I sometimes relegate Jesus to this role of consultant, where it’s kind of like, “Hey Jesus, I want to run this idea by you, I’d like to get your thoughts on it, but ultimately I reserve the right to make the final decision.” But yet, if he truly is King, and a humble king at that, then I can and should obey and trust him at every turn.
So there you go. Two questions for the week ahead. In addition, parents, one of my long term goals is to sync up what the kids are learning down in Sunday school with the sermon passage we’re studying up here, so that on the drive home, you can have a shared conversation, having both learned and reflected on the same passage. And that’s true of this morning on this Palm Sunday.
As we journey through this Holy Week together, may we each encounter the Jesus, not of our expectations, not the one conformed in our own image, but rather Jesus for who he truly is, the Jesus we need.
All that said, I’ll finish with this:
Years ago I served as a mountain guide as part of a Young Life ministry in the coastal mountains of Canada, we’re talking like the middle of nowhere Canada, where throughout the summer we’d take groups, mostly high school students on these week long backpacking trips. And these students were almost always coming in blind, with no idea of what they were in for or what to expect, which meant that there were always a ton of questions for us as guides – everything from ‘How many miles are we hiking today? Are we there yet? What’s for dinner? Are there grizzly bears here? What time is it? Is the water ready to drink yet? Where do I go to the bathroom? “Wait, how do I go to the bathroom? So. Many. Questions. Like a make-you-go-crazy amount of questions.
And then, most nights, after dinner, we’d have a bible study, where we’d ask questions of far greater importance, until we finally got to the most important question of all. The same question the whole city of Jerusalem was asking on that Palm Sunday so many years ago:
Who is this? Who is this Jesus?
For the people in Jerusalem long ago, they weren’t quite sure. Here comes the Messiah, who defies all logic and expectation, riding on a donkey, yet being cheered for and welcomed like a king. Here comes the Messiah, joyfully ushered into the greatest city in all of Israel, yet one who comes from the humble town of Nazareth of all places.
Who is this, Jesus? Though they weren’t completely sure, at the very least we know this, they were asking the most important of all questions.
Friends, who is this Jesus to you? It’s the question of all questions. My hope and prayer is that as we journey through this Holy Week together, that we would see him for who he truly is and all he came to do.