Palm Sunday sermon, preached at St Barnabas Church, Cambridge (14th April 2019).
On this Palm Sunday, let us pray: True and humble king, hailed by the crowd as Messiah: grant us the faith to know you and love you, that we may be found beside you on the way of the cross, which is the path of glory. Amen.
Have you ever felt disappointed with God?
In 2013, two things happened to me that caused me to re-examine some of my assumptions about life and God: the first was that the church I was going to experienced a painful split and the second was that one of my mentors became unemployed and began struggling with deep depression. I remember at the time feeling a mixture of emotions—anger, fear, a sense of loss—but the deepest feeling of all, was that of disappointment. Disappointment at my church, my family, but most of all disappointment at God. You see, I had thought—with good reason and a fair degree of logic since my existence up until this point had been relatively care-free—I had thought that God would give me an endless succession of the things I wanted. The events of 2013—which seem relatively minor now when I look back—blew that faulty assumption, that illusion, right out of the water.
I use the word illusion here because it captures something deep about the passage before us today. Sometimes we can genuinely feel let down in life—someone, usually dear to us, has reneged on a promise, or failed in some way that directly affects us. We’ve all been on the receiving end of such disappointments, and not too infrequently dished them out ourselves. On other occasions, however, our sense of disappointment can come from wrong beliefs or false expectations about the world and God. The word “disillusionment” carries negative connotations for us. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be”. Supporters of the English football team or the Scottish rugby team know the feeling and know it well.
But at its root, disillusionment means something different, something more positive. It simply refers to the process of getting rid of false beliefs—“illusions”, in this case, about ourselves and God. In my own experience of disappointment, I was eventually led to the realisation that God is not a distant deity who simply parachutes in to give me what I want before parachuting out again; rather, God, in the historical person of Jesus, travels the road of deepest, darkest suffering to meet our deepest, most desperate need—which is, put simply, to know him. Sometimes, we need to have our illusions of God and the world shattered, so that a truer, deeper picture of who God is and what he is doing in our world can emerge.
Those who took part in that first Palm Sunday, in first century Jerusalem, were struggling with their own illusions about God and what he was doing in the world. Wasn’t God going to come and crush the Romans as he had defeated their enemies of old? Wasn’t this the day when their hopes and expectations of a victorious and militaristic Son of David were going to be realised? The passage we are about to read is often known as the triumphal procession, reflecting the joyful throng celebrating the victory of God over Israel’s earthly enemies. I’m afraid that was an illusion—this was a different procession and Jesus was a different king. As we read this passage together, and as we enter Holy Week—that most special of weeks when we journey with Jesus to the cross—my hope and prayer is that we will be led to a fresh, illusion-free picture of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. The passage is Matthew 21, verses 1-11.
21 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” 4 This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: 5 “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
That first Palm Sunday, expectations were high about what God was going to do. Higher, for those golf fans among you, than those hoping for a Tiger victory on the last day of the Augusta National. Up until this point in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has kept the lid on his identity, instructing his disciples to not reveal to anyone who he is. On Palm Sunday, all of that changes. Jesus refuses to tip-toe quietly into Jerusalem. Instead, he sends his disciples to get a donkey for him to ride on. This is Jesus’s grand, public procession, this is his moment. And this isn’t any old procession. For it is nearly Passover—that point in the history of the Jewish people where they recalled their great deliverance from their Egyptian oppressors, when the blood of the lambs was put on their doors to symbolise their rescue from Pharaoh. That oppression continued in Jesus’s own day, only now under Roman rule. Passover week held new resonance as the people hoped for a fresh deliverance from their Roman overlords. And yet, in a curious twist of the tale, very soon, Jesus will become the innocent lamb sacrificed for his people. This is no triumphal procession—Jesus is marching to his death.
Then the Galilean crowd breaks out in song. Jesus hears the refrain from Psalm 118, a Hallel psalm that the people sang on their way to the pilgrim festivals—“hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest heaven!” If you haven’t read Psalm 118, make sure you do so over holy week. It recalls the military defeat of Israel’s enemies: “All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the Lord I cut them down”. It’s bloody, gory stuff. And when you do read Psalm 118, think about what it would have meant to those crowds. Because two hundred years previously, between 167-160 BC, two Jewish rebel-brothers, Judas and Simon Maccabeus—or Judas and Simon “the Hammer” as they were known—led a military campaign in which they defeated their Syrian oppressors in battle. As the Jewish document 1 Maccabees tells us, Simon led a very different procession into Jerusalem. With palm branches waving, the people celebrated the revenge they had wreaked on their foreign enemy.
You see, the Galilean crowds were hoping for regime change, whatever it took. The Romans were preparing to eliminate Jesus as one more in a series of crazed, rebellious messianic claimants that would, without fail, kick off during Passover week.
Fast-forwarding to Jesus’s day, the question asked in verse 10 by the inhabitants of Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday is one that echoes down to our own—“who is this?” Is this the king who is going to parachute in, get behind our agenda and defeat our enemies? Jesus was under no such illusions. Yes, he is king. But, as Jesus teaches earlier in the gospel, he does not lord his authority over his followers like the rulers of the day. Rather, he comes as a king to serve and lay down his life. As Jesus puts it so memorably in John’s Passion narrative, “my kingdom does not operate quite like the kingdoms of the day”. It is worth reminding ourselves that Jesus was probably a massive disappointment to many in his own day.
Jesus steps into this storm of competing expectations and shatters our precious illusions. He is not simply instituting a mere regime change, or backing a new horse in the endless leadership contest—Pilate would come and go, after all, and another Pilate would rise up soon enough. No, Jesus is announcing that this is what it looks like for God to become king—not in military pomp, but with a fierce gentleness—“behold your king comes to you humble and riding on a donkey”. He does not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
The process of disillusionment—of having our false beliefs shattered—can, I have learned, be a painful and uncomfortable one. But we are not left without hope. In place of those false, self-serving illusions about God, we receive a deeper, more real vision. He is not a distant king, or one, thankfully, that simply gets behind our agendas, fulfilling all of our wishes. He is not the king we want. Rather, he is the king we need. He has come to us in his son, the servant king. He walks the path of suffering with us and for us. He comes to take away our sins and the sins of the world. He comes to make this whole weary world new once again. This holy week, may we come to know and love this king, whatever the cost, and serve him more faithfully. Amen.