PART THREE: The Last Week
‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 22. Plans Misfiring? Palm Sunday
Jn 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!’
Mt 21:4,5 This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: ‘Say to Daughter Zion, “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey,
A Roller-Coaster Builds: The sabbath has passed. Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem in a provocatively prophetic manner – on a donkey. The synoptics describe how he sent his disciples to procure the donkey. He then mounts it and rides from Bethany to Jerusalem. As he approaches, the crowd build: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.” (Jn 12:12) The word has got out that Jesus is coming. Luke records, “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.” (Lk 19:37) The euphoria builds. John again adds, “Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.” (Jn 12:17,18) The testimony about the raising of Lazarus inflames the excitement. Something is about to happen. Two studies back I used the modern illustration from a Crocodile Dundee film of how these crowds and the accompanying excitement built. And so it is here.
Background Prophetic Fuel: But there is an added ingredient that could act as petrol on an already burning fire – the prophetic dimension that most Jews would have been taught in Synagogue, as Matthew records what was happening, especially in the light of Jesus riding on a donkey, “This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: ‘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.”’ (Mt 21:5,6 quoting Zech 9:9) Zechariah had spoken of a ‘king’ coming to deliver Israel. Thus John records the people picking up on this: “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!” Wow! It’s happening, the Messiah is coming to deliver us! This miracle worker who has power over life and death must be the Messiah and, see, he is coming on a donkey to fulfil the prophecies. So the crowd cut palm leaves and lay a carpet for the conquering king to ride over. This surely must be it! Watch out Romans we’re coming for you!
Anti-Climax: And so he rides into Jerusalem, entering by the east gate. Views differ on the layout of Jerusalem in those days but the crowd expect him to aim for the Antonia Fortress, the barracks of the Roman forces, but instead he enters the Temple precincts. What is happening? Is he going to call on God to come down and deliver them from Rome? The following crowd would be full of expectations, but instead, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mk 11:11) Anti-climax! The euphoria subsides at the end of the day. Both the Jewish and Roman authorities breathe a sigh of relief.
Uncertainties: Everything about this day has been uncertain and it all hinges on what Jesus intends to do. The way he entered the city looked like he was proclaiming himself the royal deliverer, and yet he simply goes in, looks around and then leaves. It seems like the entry was just a prophetic set-piece to set everyone thinking. His followers thought it was the time of delivery, but at the end of the day, it’s just another runup day to the feast. But again it is John who lets us in on what the disciples themselves were thinking about: “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” (Jn 12:16) Hold onto that; they did not understand what Jesus was doing.
From our vantage point we can see that he was just stoking the fire of opposition; they had no such understanding. But what about Jesus himself? He continues to bring teaching – about a seed having to die? We see it, but they couldn’t. But Jesus is not feeling easy with it. There on this Sunday he declares, “ ‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (Jn 12:27,28a) The human side of Jesus echoes what he will pray later in the week, in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is not something to be relished, this thing he knows has got to happen, and because it is so difficult, the Father brings encouragement: “Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” (Jn 12:28b,29) He continues teaching and then, “When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.” (Jn 12:36) He purposely removes himself from the stage, so to speak, and the crowd are left leaderless. Peace descends on the city at the end of the day as darkness comes, but no doubt they were many hushed and not so hushed conversations about the affairs of the day and no doubt, for the reasons we have seen, there were many speculations as to what would follow – and most of them were wrong!
And Us? If the disciples were unclear what was happening and the crowd certainly were, I am sure we would have been as well if we had been there. But we see here something that I believe comes throughout the entire Bible that might be expressed in four propositions:
i) God is an initiator; He is the one who always takes the lead.
ii) He knows everything that is going on, what could happen, and what will happen, and He has plans laid out from before the foundation for the world that will not change.
iii) Those plans involve us, even though much of the time we are uncertain or confused, not seeing the whole picture, jumping to wrong conclusions and so on, and He will use us as much as we are available to Him.
iv) Those plans also involve the rest of the world so He will even make use of the wrong attitudes and actions of unbelievers.
Get those things clearly in your mind and worship Him, especially as we approach this Easter where the certain plans of the Godhead WILL be worked out just as the Godhead agreed them even before Creation. Rest in His sovereign knowledge and wisdom, power and authority, as well as His love, grace and mercy. These are amazing times.