I’m doing the short ‘adult talk’ in an all-age service this Sunday. That is, we believe ‘all age’ is for all ages and not just a children’s service where adults are ‘entertained’. Here it is.
Several churches have their traditions for Palm Sunday, in addition to giving
out palm crosses. Here I’ve learned it’s to parade around the building singing ‘We
have a king who rides a donkey’ to the tune of ‘What shall we do with the
drunken sailor’ (very Methodist choice of tune, there). We’ve had to improvise
this year with the building expansion, of course. Parading inside isn’t quite
parish church to my main church in the last circuit also had a regular
feature every Palm Sunday. Live in the sanctuary each year was a donkey – Dave The
Donkey. I was so glad I wasn’t there for them to associate the name. Especially
as Dave The Donkey had a reputation for impersonating a famous Blue
Peter elephant of years gone by.
However, the donkey is not a figure of fun in the Palm
Sunday story. The colt is there to show us that this is the king who is
arriving in Jerusalem. Jesus sends his disciples to find ‘a colt that has never
been ridden’ (verse 30), because you can’t give anything second-hand to the
king. The entry into Jerusalem invites us to see Jesus as king, but we see a
very different king from normal expectations.
What kind of king has to borrow a donkey? Not your usual king with the
trappings of wealth, power and attendant minions. Jesus has no wealth, his only
earthly power is his influence on the crowds (and that will disappear in the following
few days) and he has an unreliable group of followers.
It’s not exactly like our cult of celebrity, is it? He doesn’t
quite compare with overpaid, underperforming footballers who struggle to get by
on £100,000 a week. He doesn’t compare with those who are famous for being
famous (step forward, Jade Goody). We don’t know whether he had the looks that
would have guaranteed a television career today with associated coverage in
And we are lured by similar approaches in the church. We feel
that unless we have the latest thing we can’t compete as a church. So you’re
nobody unless you’ve been to the latest conference, read the latest book or
installed a video projector. I’m not against conferences, books and video
projectors – indeed I enjoy all three – but by making the latest and greatest
the focus of our attention we forget the primary approach of Jesus, which is
that he accomplished his mission with simplicity and in poverty. His poverty
calls us back to priorities, the priorities of sacrificial love.
What kind of king has to borrow a donkey? One who by the end
of the week would also be in a borrowed tomb. Take away the trappings and look
at the core.
Jesus the king enters on a donkey, not a charger. According the prophet
Zechariah that was a sign of a peaceful,
victorious king, not a warmongering one:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
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.
Perhaps you recall the story of James and John asking Jesus
to send down judgment against villages that rejected Jesus. Not for nothing
were they nicknamed the ‘sons of thunder’ – first-century Hell’s Angels, if you
like. However, Jesus said ‘no’ to that approach, however much he warned of the
consequences of rejecting him. Jesus was the king who would conquer in peace,
not by threats and violence. He would not take life; he would lay down his own
And you know what? Jesus’ peaceful reign even transformed
the sons of thunder. James himself would die a martyr’s death (Acts 12:2). John
would become ‘the apostle of love’, writing his entire first epistle around the
theme of love.
The peaceful reign of Jesus enthroned on the Cross still
transforms people like nothing else. Armies can make people cower into
submission or force them into resistance, but they can’t change the sickness of
the human heart. The peaceful reign of Jesus can, forgiving and conquering sin,
providing the model for a different way of life.
Witnessing this poor and peaceful king the crowd bursts into praise:
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
‘Blessèd is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ – a quote
from Psalm 118:26, which we often adapt and use in our Holy Communion services,
where we are going to take bread and wine in memory of his death and marking
his covenant with us. For Christians looking back these words are part of our
holy rejoicing that Jesus the king died for us and for the world.
Then look at the other words of the crowd’s praise here: ‘Peace
in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.’ What do those words sound like? Are
they not reminiscent of the angels’ song to the shepherds when Jesus was born:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
The words of praise ‘Glory in the highest heaven’ bookend
the birth and death of Jesus in Luke. At his birth they celebrate his coming;
at Palm Sunday they anticipate what he is about to accomplish through his
rejection, suffering, death and resurrection.
All of which means that Palm Sunday has implications for
Good Friday. I recall as a child asking my mother why we called it Good Friday, and she tried her best to
explain to me. And there are people in our churches who barely notice that it’s
Good Friday. Some think that our
services on that day should only be characterised by grief and shame. I once
had a church steward pray in the vestry before a Good Friday service and refer to
the day as a ‘tragedy’. He missed the
whole point of the day.
Palm Sunday calls us not to miss the point of Good Friday. In
highlighting the poverty of Jesus the king who majored on sacrificial love and
Jesus the peaceful king who conquered hearts and minds that way rather than
with violence, we are led to praise. Reverent praise, to be sure. But praise