The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”
At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
It all started on the road to Jericho, just outside Jerusalem. It was Passover, the time for revolution and rioting, and there was revolution in the air. There Jesus was, just outside the city gates, riding in on the seat of a donkey, all in accordance with ancient prophecy. His closest followers laying palm branches at his feet and crying “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” straight out of Psalm 118. As he entered the city, throngs of people rushed to him and joined in the adulation. They likely imagined that revolution was imminent, and here was the one to lead it. Here at last was Israel’s King, the one who would lead the people in throwing off the bonds of godless imperial Rome and ushering in the Kingdom of God when Israel would be at the top of the heap and God Himself would reign from their holy city.
Ah, if only they knew. This was a king all right, but like no king the world has ever seen before or since. His donkey was borrowed. His royal robes were placed upon him in mockery. His crown was a crown of thorns pressed into his head. His throne was atop a Roman cross. He went into a holy war all right, not to kill but instead to die for his people and his kingdom.
We have come to Palm Sunday. We are now in the home stretch of the Lenten season, a time known by many as “Holy Week”. This is a special time, a time when all the events leading up to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross come to a head.
It starts today with Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey as his disciples make a royal highway of coats and palm branches and the crowds around pick up the shouts of “Hosanna!!!” (literally: “Save!!!”) But in all probability nobody in that crowd was thinking “Save us from our sins!” Instead they were thinking “Save us from Rome!”
From there we go to the Temple. Here was the place where heaven and earth intersected, where God dwelt with man. Yet in those days it had become a place of bargaining and transacting with God. A crazy religious racket had grown up in support of this. When Jesus showed up he overturned all the tables and drove all the racketeers out. John chose to put this scene at the front of his Gospel, and for that reason many speculate that there must have been two temple cleansings, one early in Jesus’ ministry and one during this fateful final week. But all such speculation is beside the point.
Now we go to a hurried meeting under cover of darkness. Jesus came to his own yet his own did not recognize him. One of his closest disciples betrayed him. Judas, when he saw that Jesus wasn’t exactly on board with the revolutionary program, slipped away to the chief priests and betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. Later, he attempted to return the money to the chief priests out of remorse for the events he had set into motion. But they would have none of it. He went off and hanged himself, an abject picture of unbelief and rejection of the grace that was his. He should have returned to Jesus.
From here we go to a borrowed upper room. Jesus and his disciples are celebrating the Passover. His betrayer Judas is outed, in fulfillment of the psalm that the one who breaks bread with Jesus would betray him. He takes the unleavened bread of the Passover, called the bread of affliction, breaks it and gives it to his disciples as his own body given unto death as a sacrifice for them. After the meal he takes the cup and gives it to the disciples as the cup of his own blood poured out for them for their forgiveness, as the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Now it’s off to a garden in the shadow of the Mount of Olives. There Jesus agonizes in prayer, wrestling with the Father while the disciples sleep, searching desperately for another way yet in the end submitting to the Father’s will. Almost at the very moment he says “Thy will be done,” an armed mob shows up.
Of course the disciples scatter immediately. “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.” Peter continues to follow, but only at a distance. And even then he is so fearful that he denies knowing Jesus to a middle-school girl.
Now Jesus gets whisked away to a tribunal hastily convened under cover of darkness. The Jewish religious leaders find him guilty of blasphemy for speaking the truth and claiming to be the Son of God. Which is, by the way, a pretty blasphemous thing to say if it isn’t true.
So off to Pilate. Religion has had its say and found Jesus guilty; now politics gets its shot. There is a quick detour to Herod, the purported “king of the Jews”. Face to face with the real King of the Jews, Herod is completely and totally unimpressed. From that day on, Herod and Pilate became friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That’s how it works in politics.
Pilate is reluctant to sentence Jesus to death; he knows the protocols of Roman justice and does not wish to go against them. But with an unruly mob on his hands and revolution in the air, he does the expedient thing and sends Jesus to his death, letting a condemned murderer go in his place.
Barabbas was an insurrectionist. He could be trusted to get things going and stir up the revolution to throw off the bonds of imperial Rome. In this moment, that’s who the people wanted.
Right there in Pilate’s court, we have the Great Exchange acted out for real; though probably no one at the time knew the significance of what was happening. Jesus, the Son of God, a perfectly innocent man, goes to die the death we all deserve because of our sin, while each and every last one of us, represented that day in the person of the condemned murderer Barabbas, go free. Jesus receives our sin while we receive his righteousness.
But this is not automatic. We still have the freedom to refuse the grace, righteousness, and freedom which is ours. Judas, as we saw earlier, refused it in most graphic fashion. Let that serve as a cautionary example.
Now we wind our way through the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus is straining under the weight of his cross, so much so that a traveling pilgrim in town for the Passover has to assist. Yet Jesus has the strength to find compassion for women who are weeping and wailing for him. He has pity on them because he knows what is coming upon Jerusalem in just a couple of decades. “If people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31) We know what happened. History has recorded it.
Now we reach Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull”. There Jesus is crucified between two criminals, perhaps cohorts of Barabbas. Perhaps Barabbas was to have been the third. Yet there was Jesus, in what was perhaps intended to be Barabbas’s place. This is worthy of pondering.
All along the way, people jeer him. No more Hosannas from this crowd. Shouts of “Save us” turn to jeers of “Save yourself, if you are the Christ.” Of course he is, but that is not the way of the Christ. Yet over all of them, Jesus speaks the word “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
He pardons a dying thief. Actually, probably much worse than a thief. Rome didn’t crucify thieves. They only crucified people whose crime was so grievous that they had to be made an example of, that they could not be trusted to row a slave ship or work as a slave in some official’s field or kitchen. But tradition has it that this guy was a thief, so we shall go with that.
“Today you will be with me in paradise.” This is Jesus’ promise to the dying thief. And this promise is available to all who have placed their trust in Jesus. Don’t rush by this.
Now the sun darkens at the middle of the day, the earth shakes, the curtain inside the temple is torn in two from top to bottom, and the graves of the righteous split open and they rise with him in what is surely a preview of the Last Day. Jesus speaks his last words: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit”. He trusted his Father completely, right up to the moment of his death.
Now we move to the tomb of a rich man. Though all the disciples have long since fled, a secret disciple has come forward and requested the body of Jesus. A member of the ruling council, no less. He disagreed with the council’s decision to condemn Jesus. God has His people everywhere. We know the guy’s name: Joseph of Arimathea. He does the courageous thing and goes to Pilate to request the body of Jesus. If not for this, Jesus’ body would have been disposed of in a common grave.
And here is where our story ends, with Jesus being laid in the tomb.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!