Was The Triumphal Entry A Triumph?
I stand before you today rather like the blindfolded discus thrower—he didn’t set any records, but he sure kept the crowd alert! Well, I’m not planning on setting any records today, but I sure would like to keep you alert, and I would like to put you on alert as to what Palm Sunday is all about.
You see most people regard Palm Sunday as a celebration of victory for Jesus. That’s understandable, I suppose, for, after all, we do love the story of this confident, courageous Jesus riding on a donkey (the symbol of one coming in peace), greeted by a mass of waving palm branches (the symbol of welcome for a king), hearing the shouted “hosannas” (which literally means “save us now!”), entering the city of Jerusalem through the golden gate (the gate through which the Messiah would come). It makes for a powerfill, dramatic story. However, this was more than just a parade. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, He knew precisely what was ahead for Him. He knew that just days later He would be hanging on an old rugged cross not far from the place where He entered the city on Palm Sunday. So, while there may have been joy and celebration among the people on that historic day, it is safe to say that Jesus did not share that joy. So Palm Sunday, we must understand, is a day of triumph, yes, but also a day of tears—a day of celebration, yes, but also a day of sorrow—a day of singing, yes, but also a day of sacrifice. Until we understand that fully, we cannot fully appreciate what Palm Sunday is all about. So let’s look at the story again to see if we can plumb the depths of the deeper meaning. It actually unfolds like a three-act play.
Act One: “The Donkey”
Jesus tells two of His disciples to go into town where they will find a donkey tied with its colt. They are to untie them and bring them to Jesus. If someone asks what they are doing, they are to answer, “The Lord has need of them.” We get the feeling from the story that neither Jesus nor His disciples knew the owner of the donkey personally, yet the owner is expected to willingly give his donkey to Jesus. It is quite amazing to think about that. For, you see, all of us, in a sense, have “a donkey.” All of us have something in our lives which, if given to the Lord, would move Jesus and His story further along down the road. Notice this, please; the little things in our lives can make a big difference in the Lord’s work in the world. This fellow with the donkey is just one in a long line of people in the Bible who gave little gifts to a big God and amazing things happened as a result. Let me recall some of them for you: Rahab and her rope, David and his sling, Samson and his jawbone, Moses and his staff, Paul and his bucket, the little boy and his bread and fish, Mary and her expensive ointment, Simon of Cyrene and his strong back. Here are people who viewed what was theirs as the Lord’s, and they made it available to the Lord whenever and wherever He might need it.
There is great power in giving our little gifts to our big God. Case in point. Take the nineteenth century Sunday School teacher in Boston who led to Christ a man who was a shoe clerk. The teacher’s name you have never heard: Kimball. But the name of the shoe clerk he converted, you have heard: Dwight L. Moody. Moody became an evangelist, and he had a major influence on a young preacher named Frederick B. Meyer. Meyer began to preach on college campuses, and, in so doing, he was used of God to bring to faith J. Wilbur Chapman who went on to help found the YMCA movement. Later still, Chapman arranged for a former professional baseball player, turned evangelist, named Billy Sunday to conduct a citywide revival in Charlotte, North Carolina. A group of Charlotte community leaders were so enthusiastic about what happened that they planned a follow-up campaign and invited a man named Mordecai Ham to come and preach the series of services. Under the preaching of Mordecai Ham, a young man named Billy Graham stepped forward and offered his life to Christ. Now tell me, did that Boston Sunday School teacher have any idea of what would become of his conversation with the shoe clerk? Of course not, but like the owner of the donkey, he had a chance to help Jesus ride into another human heart and so he did. He gave his little gift to our big God and amazing things happened as a result.
That’s one of the deeper messages of Palm Sunday. Just as Jesus needed that little ole donkey to carry Him into the city of Jerusalem, so He needs little ole you and little ole me to carry out His work in the world today.
Act Two: “The Crowd”
Jerusalem was bursting at the seams with people. From far and wide they had come to celebrate the Passover. Scholars estimate that there were at least a quarter of a million people in Jerusalem at that time, maybe even more. Now those great crowds of people knew their Bible. They knew that the prophet, Zechariah, had predicted that the Messiah would come riding on a donkey. And, therefore, on that first Palm Sunday, they saw Jesus as the one who would liberate them from the merciless rule of the Roman Empire. Little wonder that at the sight of Jesus on that donkey, they were dancing in the streets and shouting for joy and waving palm branches in their hands. But, you know, as I ponder that scene, I wonder where are our songs of joy and praise today. We are believers in Jesus Christ. We have been touched by His glory. Yet so often we fail to reflect that in our everyday lives. It was the atheist, Nietzsche, who said, “I would believe in the Christians’ salvation if they looked a little more like people who have been saved!” Well, don’t you think that we in the church ought to show more signs of joy and praise for all that Jesus has done for us?
I miss Erma Bombeck. Oh, do I ever. I miss her gift for making us laugh at our own stupidities. I remember when she told that she was sitting in church one Sunday watching a child who had turned around in the pew and was smiling at everyone. The child wasn’t making a racket, kicking the pew, tearing pages out of the hymnbook, or even rummaging in his mother’s purse for candy. He was just smiling. Suddenly, his mother grabbed him, and in a stage whisper that could be heard in the next block said, “Stop that grinning!” Then she popped him on his back side and, as the tears began to roll down his cheeks, she said, “Now that’s better.” Erma Bombeck then wrote, “What must the children think? We sing ‘Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord’ while our faces reflect a sadness of one who has just buried a rich aunt who left everything to her pregnant hamster. We chant ‘If I Have Not Charity, I Am Become a Sounding Brass or a Tinkling Cymbal’ but translated in the parking lot, it comes out and the ‘Same to you, fella!’ Suddenly, I found myself angry. It occurred to me that the entire world is in tears and if you are not, then you had better get with it. So I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about my God, a God who must have had a sense of humor to create the likes of us. What a fool, I thought, here was a woman sitting next to the only light left in our civilization, the only hope, our only miracle, our only promise of infinity, and, if he could not smile in church, then where was there left to go?”
I do miss Erma Bombeck, but maybe this Palm Sunday; we can discover once again the value of joy and praise for Jesus Christ and begin to express it visibly in our lives. Yes, maybe, just maybe, we can start to look and act like people who have been saved.
Act Three: “The Savior”
We read in Matthew’s account these words, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem the whole city was in a turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?”’ Here He is riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, entering the Golden Gate of the Temple as if He were the Messiah, and yet the people are asking, “Who is He, really?” Ultimately, I think, that’s the question each of us must answer as well. Who is He, really?
If you’ve been to Jerusalem, you know that the Golden Gate in the old city wall is sealed up now. Back in the seventh century when the Muslims seized control of Jerusalem, they understood who Jesus was, and so they sealed the Golden Gate shut. It was done in order to keep Jesus from returning. You see, the tradition has it that the Muslims will prevail until Jesus returns through that Golden Gate. So they walled it up and planted a Muslim cemetery directly in front of it hoping to stop Jesus’ return. But, you know, come to think of it, not only Muslims seek to keep Jesus from returning, there are lots of Christians who would just as soon He not return as well. They don’t want to have to deal with Him in their lives. Yes, there are lots of Christians who are not certain who He is and why He came and why He died as He did. But, you see, that’s what Palm Sunday really is all about. For those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and a spirit to comprehend, Palm Sunday tells us that Jesus is a most unusual King—One whose sacrifice and suffering would bring salvation and conquer death. If we fail to see Him for who He really is—the suffering Son of God; the sacrificing Savior of the world; the Lord of all life and death—then Palm Sunday really is just another parade.
In Korea there was an ancient bell famous for its beautiful tone. The bell had been commissioned by a king to show his devotion to Buddha. He had been told by his admirers that creating a huge bell for the Buddhist Temple would secure his nation from foreign invasion. So the best-known bell maker in the land was commissioned for the task. His first couple of efforts failed to produce a great bell, and so it was decided that the best way to produce the desired results was hideous to think about it, but nevertheless this was their decision. It was decided to sacrifice a young girl in order to appease the pagan gods. Soldiers were sent out to a nearby village where they found a poor mother with her small daughter. The girl’s name was Emille. Rudely, the girl was snatched from her mother, and then when the molten lead and iron were prepared, the little girl was put to death. This time the bell maker succeeded and the bell, which was then called the Emille Bell, made a sound more beautiful, it was said, than any other bell ever made. Whenever it was rung, people praised the art which could produce such a beautiful sound. However, whenever the mother, whose child had been sacrificed, heard that bell her heart broke all over again. Her neighbors who knew of her sacrifice and pain could not hear that beautiful tone without feeling her pain as well. Lee Oo Chung, who wrote the story of the Emille Bell, says, “Only those who understood the sacrifice could feel the pain. Others just enjoyed the sound.”
When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, the people sensed the triumph and enjoyed the celebration, but because they didn’t understand the sacrifice of the Savior, they couldn’t feel the pain. I wonder how will it be for us on this Palm Sunday? Will we understand the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and thus feel the pain or will we just enjoy the sound of the parade?