Donkey, Palm Crosses, Hosanna.
We all sort of know what happened on Palm Sunday, even if it’s just having gone through Primary school. If yours was anything like mine, we all stood and sung (to the tune of ‘what shall we do with a drunken sailor’), the words ‘We have a King who rides a donkey.’ Your seven year old self could be forgiven for a moment of pondering. Kings riding on donkeys and people throwing bits of tree at him and shouting Hosanna (whatever it means)? What the flump is that all about?
As far as Christianity goes, the death and resurrection of Jesus and what it means to us is the core belief of the faith. Everything else; his birth, life and other things that people think he might have been (married with kids etc), is well and truly secondary to it. Jesus’ entire reason for being here was to give people the opportunity to come back to God after the regrettable piece of fruit in the garden incident some years earlier -well, we all make mistakes. He was also here to demonstrate how to live as people of God, because we weren’t all that good at following rules.
Over the next seven days I’ll be posting seven short pieces, looking at what went on during the last week of Jesus’ life and what it means in more practical terms.
First off, Easter isn’t a word I’m comfortable with. That’s entirely to do with my irritation that somebody a long time ago thought it was a really good idea to sell Christianity to the locals by bolting it on the top of existing Pagan beliefs. Thanks guys, just thanks! I’m sure it was very well intentioned and logical at the time, but it’s created an unhelpful mish mash of two main focal points: His birth (Christmas) and his death and resurrection (Good Friday and Easter Day). While I have absolutely nothing against chocolate eggs, lambs, bunnies and the new birth of springtime, I find myself wanting to drop kick the whole lot out of the way to clear the ground for a simple wooden cross. In Jesus I do have new life and yes, it can be expressed in the potential of an egg; but it means so much more than a pleasant taste in my mouth or the joy of seeing teeny little yellow chicks emerge from the real thing. Being an April baby, springtime is my favourite time of the year and I adore being outside and marvelling how the earth comes back to life year after year. That is a completely right thing to celebrate, it’s wonderful to see. But oh that they hadn’t sought to combine the two in a ‘helpful’ way. Keeping it separate would have helped enormously. But these are only my foibles about it and they’re not shared by many other Christians.
Regardless of what we’re calling it, the last week of Jesus life takes up a disproportionate amount of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Rightly so, because this is the key that unlocks the rest of it.
It begins on what we’ve come to call Palm Sunday. The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah, but they weren’t looking for someone to save them from their sins, they wanted someone to aid them in their cause to overthrow the oppresive Roman occupation. But it had clearly been stated what Jesus came to do and what eventually came to pass, it was right there under their own noses in the Scriptures. Where the New Testament is all about the life and death of Jesus and getting to grips with how to live our life as one of his followers (disciples); the Old Testament is equally full of him. He’s there, right from Genesis onwards. He may not have the name Jesus, but once you get your eye in, the book’s literally stuffed with stuff about Jesus. The circumstances of his birth were no accident, far from it.
But back to Palm Sunday. At the top of the page are three words which most people will associate with Palm Sunday. There’s Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, surrounded by his disciples and being feted by the crowd. But what’s he doing on a donkey of all things?
At this point in the year the Jewish people are gathering to celebrate Passover in a few days time. There would be a lot of people arriving in the city from the surrounding area, and doing so on foot. Choosing to arrive on a donkey was deliberate, it made him stand out. Again, no accident, no happy coincidence, it’s right there in Zechariah’s prophecy written 500 years earlier:
Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey— riding on a donkey’s colt.
Zechariah 9:9-10 (NLT).
Jesus was telling them that he was exactly who they thought he was, but he hadn’t said a word about it. But right there, in the simple act in riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was him literally shouting from the rooftops to both the people and those in charge, exactly who had arrived in Jerusalem.
We often get the impression that Jesus is some meek and mild person who would never say boo to a goose. But that’s not so, that’s a Jesus we’ve invented; we’ve dumbed him down and neutered him. In the pages of Matthew he is glorious and to the High Priests in the temple, very, very dangerous! They’d heard rumours and reports for three years now; him wandering about in the surrounding area, teaching and preaching and being a bit of a threat to their authority. And now here he was, as bold as brass, pitching up in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Who does he think he is, the Messiah?
So into Jerusalem Jesus comes. The crowd thinks he’s there to save them and they shout Hosanna – which means pretty much ‘save us!’ And he will… but not the way they think he will.
From their high places the priests look on, as down in the streets Jesus gets off the donkey.
Welcome to Jerusalem in Passover week. It’s all about to kick off… Big Time.