Palms by Day and Plots by Night

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Good and joyful morning to all Christian brothers and sisters on this the day the Lord has made. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of coffee, or tea, or milk, or whatever is your favorite…. We’re about to slice a piece of the bread of life, the word of God.

And today’s slice comes from John 12:9: When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus.

The next day, the news that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem swept through the city. A huge crowd of Passover visitors took palm branches and went down the road to meet him. They shouted, “Praise GOD! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hail to the king of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, fulfilling the prophecy that said: “Don’t be afraid, people of Israel. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” His disciples didn’t realize at the time that this was a fulfillment of prophecy. But after Jesus entered into his glory, they remembered that these scriptures had come true before their eyes. Those in the crowd who had seen Jesus call Lazarus back to life were telling others all about it. That was the main reason so many went out to meet him – because they had heard about this mighty miracle. Then the Pharisees said to each other, “We’ve lost. Look, the whole world has gone after him!”

Some year ago, before television, there was radio. You know what radio is—television without pictures. Well, before television, one of the most popular daytime radio programs was called “Queen for a Day.” If I remember it correctly (and it was a long time ago!), each day four or five women from the studio audience would tell the host what they would like to have and do if they could be “queen for a day.” And then, on the basis of applause, one woman was chosen, and insofar as they were able, the sponsors fulfilled her wildest desires. She was given a number of valuable prizes and for one day she reigned as “Queen.”

That sounds like what happened to Jesus, doesn’t it? Jesus was crowned “King for a Day” on that first Palm Sunday. The crowds ran after him, spread their garments before him on the street, and waved palm branches. But just a few days later, they were gone. And what we sometimes call the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem turned out to be the temporary triumphal entry. As one poet put it:

They pluck their branches and hail him as king, early on Sunday.

They spread their garments, hosannas they sing, early on Sunday.

Their king wanders hungry, forgotten in the street, Early on Monday. – by Edwin McNeill

From this comes the title of today’s message Palms by Day and Plots by Night

There is symbolic significance associated with a king riding a burro into the holy city. When a powerful conqueror came to crush and overpower a city, he rode a great stallion. But if he came in peace, he came riding a burro, a symbol of that peace. But how did he know where one was to be found? A simple explanation might be found in the possibility that Jesus had traveled this route many times before and had often seen the colt. It was common back then for people to hire out their animals for those going on a journey—sort of a first-century “Avis rent-a-donkey.”

The colt had never been ridden before. It was a special animal set aside for a special purpose. “The Lord has need,” said Jesus’ disciples. And the owner of the animal gave it forthwith. At least a couple of sermons could be preached on the subject of how God needs our cooperation to get his work done in the world; and the immediate response of the animal’s owners to Jesus’ request for assistance. Most of us would have made up excuses. “Sorry, I was planning a trip today. I need the animal myself.” Where are we when Christ wants to use us?

Have you ever wondered why this strong, virile, sturdy man from galilee who had just walked hundreds of miles on foot, suddenly stops and asks for a donkey to ride the last few yards into town?

To understand it, you must understand the messianic expectations of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, as well as the geography. Jesus was making a strong messianic statement. Like the prophets before him, he sometimes acted out his message. He certainly had in mind the words of Zechariah 9:9 As he chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey amid the palm branches and glad praise of the people. As I said, by tradition, the humble donkey was a symbol of both royalty and peace. Here is the king in the form of a servant, regal, yet humble, proclaiming peace by riding a donkey instead of a war horse. But there is more to it than that.

These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him.

Written of him…. Where..? In the old testament text: Isaiah 50:8 Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me.

I am so glad Jesus lived long enough in the flesh to see Palm Sunday. He deserved it; you might even say he needed it. Everyone needs a day like the day Jesus had in Jerusalem. After spending our lives in thankless toil and turmoil, we all need at least one day of recognition and praise.

It might come to you as a mother or father on your birthday, when the family that always seems to take you for granted gathers to give you a special gift and a round of applause – a moment of recognition for all the work you’ve given them during the year. It’s nice to be thanked for all your time and effort.

Columnist Herbert Caen wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle sometime back: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

Brief as it was, Palm Sunday might have felt like that kind of day to Jesus – he who had known such conflict and controversy all his life. Yes, I imagine Jesus felt some satisfaction as he entered Jerusalem. Coming down the mount of olives, he could see people lining the narrow, winding road into the valley. Looking up ahead, he could see them cheering by the city gate – the very place where Israel expected the messiah to come (according to Joel 3:1-12). I imagine Jesus took this moment of triumph and drank it in: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

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