Mark 11.1-11, Philippians 2.5-11, Psalm 31.9-16, Mark 15.1-39 (Year B, 2021)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The more we read and study the Bible, the more we discover the multiple layers and depths of God’s work in the world. We begin to see how Jesus regularly subverted the religious norms. He was confident in challenging the religious authorities and undermining the political establishment. He overturned the tables, both figuratively and, in the case of the moneychangers in the Temple, literally.
And yet, as we have seen in Matthew’s Gospel over and over again, His actions, by reflecting back on the Hebrew Bible, fulfil the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the fulfilment of all that God promised throughout the ages, but probably not in the way people were expecting.
Palm Sunday is a perfect example of this, so let’s unpack the scripture.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem the atmosphere must have been intense. The people were getting ready to celebrate Passover, the feast when the Jews remember the day they escaped slavery in Egypt through God’s power. The paschal lambs were slaughtered and their blood spread on the lintels to give a sign that to the Angel of Death that they were not to be touched. Jerusalem was held under a new oppressive regime, the Romans; and Jesus was already being hailed as the saviour, the Messiah, who would free them. If Jesus was the Messiah, he was fulfilling the prophets, but definitely not in the way that was expected. He was not a political rebel leader or warrior. His leadership was subversive.
His arrival is both fulfilling and subversive. A king would be expected to ride a great war-horse, powerful and imposing. Jesus used a donkey. In Zechariah 9, we read, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea.” (Zech 9.9-12)
Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when he rode in on a donkey. He claimed his own understanding of being the Messiah. Maybe this it what turned the crowds against Him. They were shouting ‘Hosanna’, meaning ‘Save now!’ Such high hopes were being dashed, the people even embarrassed, as they realised Jesus was not going to raise arms against the Romans.
Instead Jesus subverts their understanding of the Messiah because as the true Messiah he was able to see the even bigger picture, the one where we are all held under the bondage of sin and death. That passage from the prophet Zechariah goes on to say, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” Jesus fulfils the Laws of Passover, and the Prophets’ words regarding the Messiah, but not in a small-scale, time-limited freeing of a nation from an oppressor, but in a timeless, eternal breaking of the victory of death.
We can still shout ‘hosanna’, ‘save me’, but we shout it with confidence, not desperation; for salvation has already come. The passage from Philippians, and the Passion reading, go on to lay out how this salvation took place: God emptied out for us, humbled and obedient even to the point of death on a cross.
Even now it can be hard for us to understand this topsy-turvy world of Jesus. Look at today: the triumphant victory of Palm Sunday which looks like a defeat, but actually really is the true victory. If we try and squish Jesus into what we think God should have done or do for us now, we will always struggle and perhaps feel let down, even embarrassed. If instead we let the scriptures and the Holy Spirit through our prayers reveal Jesus to us, we will discover someone far greater than any king or leader we can imagine.
Jesus fulfilled the promises and prophecies made in the Bible, often in unexpected, surprising, subversive ways. This Holy Week I invite you to walk with Christ and discover just how He turned the whole world upside down.
(Artwork: ‘The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem’ by James Tissot)