When I was at school the first poem we had to learn by heart was “The Donkey” by G.K. Chesterton. It goes as follows:
“When fishes flew...
With monstrous head and sickening cry
The tattered outlaw of the earth
Fools! For I also had my hour”
I hope that begins to help you see the oddness of Palm Sunday. If you have been in church a while, you will probably have heard many Palm Sunday sermons. Yet as I looked at the story again, what struck me was just how odd it is.
Some aspects are quite straightforward. Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem was a clear claim to be the Messiah. The prophet Zecariah says this is chapter 9 verse 9 of his book:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus was absolutely clear on what he was doing. And it seems the crowd was also aware of what was going on too, as they sang and praised him. Yet at the end of this passage, when Jesus leaves Jerusalem only the Twelve go with him. The crowds have disappeared. If Jesus was truly the Messiah, you would have thought the crowds would have followed him everywhere. Yet there is no sign of them. When we look back a bit, to chapter 10 verse 32 of Mark's gospel, we see why this might be the case:
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise."
You see, Jesus had told the Twelve his reasons for going to Jerusalem. The crowd had no idea. And even though the disciples had been told they were pretty slow to catch on as well. Jesus is the Messiah, but the salvation he brings comes through his suffering and dying.
The second odd thing is that there is no opposition from the authorities. You would have thought that with such a clear statement from Jesus that he was fulfilling Messianic prophecies that there would have been some reaction. Yet when Jesus is put on trial, this event is not even mentioned as evidence. It is as if Mark is saying, “You think the Messiah is going to throw out the Romans? Wrong. You think he is going to go along with popular opinion? Wrong.”
In fact, what is clear is that the only person who knows what is going on is Jesus. He knows where the donkey is, he knows what the people will say when the disciples take it, he knows why he is going to Jerusalem.
The third odd thing is the sheer anticlimax of the whole story. After a long journey, Jesus finally enters Jerusalem with the praise of the crowd ringing in his ears. He enters the temple, looks around and then... goes home. Because it is late.
There's part of the film Forrest Gump when Forrest decides to run across America. So he reaches one coast and decides to turn around and run to the other. He reaches that, turns around and keeps on running. Gradually a little group begins to follow him. Finally there's a scene in the desert where Forrest slows down and stops. He turns round and says to the group: “I'm quite tired, I think I'll go home now.”
There's a similar sense of anticlimax here. After an epic journey, Jesus turns around and leaves almost straight away. But what Mark is saying is that there is more to come. Jesus is not finished. Palm Sunday is just the beginning.
So what can we learn from these three odd things: the disappearing crowd, the lack of reaction from the authorities, the anticlimax of the story?
Firstly, being in the crowd does not mean we know what is going on. Easter is always a reminder of how quickly we can change our minds. From celebration to crucifixion only took a few days. So let's be wary of trusting the crowd.
Secondly, remember that in the middle of everything, Jesus was the only one who knew what he was doing. That's still the case. But also be encouraged that we are not expected to know it all. Jesus told the disciples many times that he would die, yet none of them got it. Yet he still took them with him and kept explaining. If you're not sure exactly exactly what happened at Easter or who Jesus is, keep following and asking.
And finally, remember that this is only the beginning of the story. There is plenty more to come in Easter week – I encourage you to come to Celebrate at 7 this evening to fill in the gaps between today and Maundy Thursday! And as we move towards Easter, be prepared to challenge your assumptions. Look for the unexpectedness of the Easter story.