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Palm Sunday 2024 - War Horse or Donkey?



John 12:13 - They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”


This is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Holy Week, the day that Christians for generations have celebrated as the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. When I was a child attending the Presbyterian Church, I would be part of the procession of boys and girls carrying palm branches as church began. It was exciting, and we all were smiling; the parents were smiling. 


As we look upon Palm Sunday several themes appear: courage, hope, joy, and of course, love. When we read about Jesus, we see how approachable he was. He never rejected anyone who came to Him, regardless of their background or status. People from all walks of life approached Jesus, including outcasts, children, Jewish leaders, and Roman centurions. His love was active and genuine, and he met people where they were. Jesus’ kindness and gentleness made him a beacon of hope and compassion for all. People were drawn to him.


Palm Sunday is all about a particular Passover celebration in Jerusalem around 30 AD. This was an annual celebration of the Jews and this year there was some thoughts of unrest floating about. Outside of Jerusalem, a rabbi known as Jesus, was gaining more and more popularity. He was approachable, likeable, trusting, accepting, and loving. Jesus’ ministry was primarily north of Jerusalem, in and around the distant town of Galilee, so the people of Jerusalem would not have seen him. But the stories about him had spread, so many had heard of him, and many came to see him and honor him.


Yet, some of the stories that arrived in Jerusalem concerned its governor, Pontius Pilate. He saw his job as controlling the Jews who arrived in throngs to this event and temper the political tensions between the Jews and the local Romans. With the whispers that Jesus was “The King of the Jews,” and that he had claimed to be the Messiah, and that a blindman was healed, tensions were on the rise and Jerusalem had become more heated than usual.


This Passover of 30AD was a festive occasion for many, but not for everyone who attended this religious festival.  For the Jewish common folk – yes, they were excited. But for the Roman guards and centurions who monitored activities, and the local religious and political leaders, there was extreme apprehension.


There had recently been unrest in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. Fresh rumors of turmoil floated through the community, so Pilate decided to demonstrate control and headed an imperial procession that embodied the power, might, and glory of the Roman empire. It emphasized pageantry, military strength, authority, and control. History reveals that Pilate entered the city from the west entrance with soldiers of all kinds, warhorses, footmen, archers, drummers, and banners waving, reinforcing the dominance of the empire.     


The intention was to send a message, to intimidate, create an atmosphere of awe and dominion. He wanted to inform those who may be plotting against the Romans that any disturbance was intolerable and would be dealt with decisively. Also, Pilate’s pageant underscored the Roman theology that Emperor Tiberius bore divine titles, such as “Son of God”, “Savior”, and “Lord”.  


Then Jesus arrived, and a second procession, a ‘counter-procession’ began at the east entrance to the city. This would be a procession of common people, simple peasants. Although Jesus had been keeping a low profile, when the time arrived, he chose to make a very public entry into Jerusalem. He asked that his disciples acquire the foal of a donkey and as he entered, the people became jubilant.


There was a combination of reverence, awe, mystery, curiosity, and honor in their shouts and the waving of their branches. The people were so excited that in John 12:19, “The Pharisees took one look and threw up their hands: ‘It's out of control. The world's in a stampede after him.’”  All of life felt the elation and joy of Christ’s presence… for when the Pharisees ordered Jesus to control the crowd, we are told in Luke 19:40 that Jesus exclaimed, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.


These two processionals demonstrate the contrasts of kings, kingdoms, ideologies, theologies, motivations, and intentions. They are metaphors for the choices we have today: do we follow the way of the world with its emphasis on power, violence, glory, and ego-based actions? Or do we follow the way of Christ, with an alternative vision, one of peace and love. Do we follow the dictator who rides a war horse or the king who rides a donkey?  It is our constant choice: the way of the ego or the way of Spirit.


Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. It was an intentional reminder that there is an alternative to what the world offers. How are we making our decisions? Are we making decisions in our life because we are being drawn to them by love, or are we being coerced and intimidated into our decisions?


Christ came to rescue us from the darkness of our inner selves and open us to the light of God. He wants us to drink from the ‘living waters’ of Spirit and not from the temporary well of the world.  We always have the choice from which waters we will drink.


The people on that Palm Sunday in 30 A.D. had the choice of which procession they would attend: one led by a donkey or a war horse. It has always been and always will be our primary life conflict: to take or give, choose the dark or light, good or evil, to love or ignore. Each of us makes our own decision. Is our choice based upon the approachability of Christ or the deception of our ego’s fears and desires?  


Once we make our decision, do we persevere on our course, or do we fade in our enthusiasm? As the Holy Week continued how quickly people changed as they realized that Jesus was not the type of king they expected or wanted. As he rode into Jerusalem voices shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.” But soon those words turned to, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him.” At the beginning, the crowd called out, “King of Israel.” But just a few days later it was, “We have no King but Caesar.”


The procession began with people offering their own clothes for him to walk upon, but by the end of the week they were stripping him of his clothes and casting lots to own them.


Palm Sunday invites us to join the crowd who chose the procession of peace, to wave our palm branches, and to recognize Jesus as our Savior. This Sunday challenges us to go beyond the celebration and follow the irony of the palm fronds waved by the people when Jesus first entered Jerusalem. Palm branches are symbolic of victory, peace, and eternal life. Although their faith in Jesus failed, it is the palm fronds that lead us to embrace the humility of the King. Jesus confronted faced the political and religious hypocrisy of his day with humility, yet fierce commitment.


It is my prayer that we walk on those same palm leaves as Christ, and follow him to his supreme destination – the cross, and ultimately on to victory, peace, and eternal life.


May this week be a time of reflection, repentance, and renewal as we prepare our hearts for Easter.


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