Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 1. Acclaimed & Anticlimax
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!”
Easter is approaching. We are just a week off and I want to put aside everything else for this week and simply meditate on the wonder and reality of this time, considering some of the key aspects of this all-important week. It is what we call Palm Sunday and it is exactly one week before Easter Sunday. Between now and then some of the most terrible things ever seen on earth have yet to happen. I love the Christmas story; it is so full of the miraculous and wonderful and full of joy. Easter is always a mixed bag. Part of it is full of anguish as we watch Good Friday approaching, full of dread at the awfulness we know is about to happen. But then the outcome is triumph, joy, rejoicing as the Son of God is revealed as the Resurrected One. It is a roller-coaster week, ups and downs and it starts here on Palm Sunday.
Of course it has started before this because just recently Jesus has been to nearby Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha, to the wake of their brother Lazarus, who Jesus comes and raises from the dead. As a result of that, the word has spread that this miracle worker is in town. Of course he had been doing this sort of thing for the last three years up in Galilee but now he’s just done this most amazing thing on Jerusalem’s doorstep, so to speak (Lazarus had been dead for a number of days).
Israel was in a particularly fraught political position, having been overrun by the Romans and now under their rule for a number of years, and there were many political factions who wanted to rise up against their oppressors. Add to this the shadow of a Messiah spoken of a number of times in the Old Testament prophetic writings, and with the coming of their first prophet for over four hundred years, just three years ago, they are primed to believe the time might be right for the overthrow of the Romans by their possible Messiah. It was the apostle John who remembered this aspect of that time when, after the feeding of the five thousand, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (Jn 6:15)
Now, not long after the incredible raising of Lazarus from the dead, and shortly before the coming Feast of the Passover, when literally hundreds of thousands of visiting Jews would be there at and around Jerusalem, Jesus chooses to enter the city on a donkey. (We are following Mark’s version of events). The imagery is not lost on the crowd. No doubt he would have been seen from some distance off, and the crowd would grow exponentially as he neared the city. The word would have gone out: “Jesus, the miracle worker, the one with power over death is coming – and he’s coming on a donkey, just like Zechariah (one of the last prophets about four hundred years back) has declared: “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.” (Zech 9:9). He’s coming to claim his crown, he’s coming to overthrow the Romans with his power. There is an immense sense of festivity, of coming triumph, of possibilities and the crowd are up for it! The crowd gets bigger and bigger and louder and louder as they enter the city gates. Come, they probably think, let’s go with him and watch as he turns up the road to the Fortress Antonia, the barracks of the Roman garrison, to throw them out!
But he turns the other way, he takes the roads up to the Temple, that gloriously restored temple of Herod, and he enters it and looks around the market there, that the temple money-changers had set up over the years, where pilgrims were expected to buy their sacrifices. What is this? He looks around and leaves. That’s it? That’s it. And therein is the story of the whole of the passion week and its outcome; it confused people because God was not doing what they expected. He has come to do something utterly out of this world, so big that that world would never be the same again, but big because it would affect the standing that mankind had before the holy God. That was what the Son of God had come to do, not bring about a political revolution.
And that is the thing about Christianity, it is full of surprises, things we were not expecting, things we find difficult to believe, things which confuse us. Oh yes, this Palm Sunday is not just about rejoicing at the welcoming of the Son of God, it is also about priorities. God’s priorities are so often different from ours. Centuries before, Isaiah had prophesied, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:,9)
The Lord comes to us with the challenge: it is not the state of the economy nor the state of politics, who is in power, what their policies are, that are all important. Yes, they are important but not THE most important. THE most important issue in the whole of your life is how you can possibly stand, as a sinful human being, before the almighty and holy God. That is what this week is all about.