I expect you’re familiar with the ‘Where’s Wally?’ pictures and illustrated books. You see a large, detailed picture containing hundreds of people and your task is to find Willy. Unless you are tuned in to what Wally looks like, or you have eagle eyes, it will take you quite a while to find him. Our dentist has a large ‘Where’s Wally?’ picture on the wall in her surgery to occupy the children.
Similarly, our children’s school recently had a Book Week and on the Friday invited children to dress up as their favourite book characters. So did the staff. The Head came dressed as Wally, and challenged the children to find him later in the day. It was a bit unfair: he hadn’t told them he would be changing back into his suit and going to a meeting elsewhere!
What does that have to do with Palm Sunday? It’s a story with a lot of hiddenness about it. We are so used to thinking that Jesus comes in on a donkey to demonstrate that he is the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. In particular, we point out that to come in riding an ass means that he was coming in peace, not in war. We think he is acclaimed as Messiah by the crowds as they sing, ‘Hosanna’.
But, but, but! We may know that Jesus fulfils Zechariah’s prophecy, but Mark doesn’t quote it. You need eyes to see. We may know that he was claiming to be king, but the Romans didn’t seem worried about this little demonstration. We may acclaim Jesus as Messiah, but when the crowds sang ‘Hosanna’ they didn’t quite go that far in what they said.
It’s all hidden. It only becomes apparent later. You need to know the rest of the story. You need to read the Scriptures in the light of Jesus. You need the help of the Holy Spirit. At the time, had you lived in Jerusalem and witnessed what we call ‘The Triumphal Entry’, you wouldn’t have guessed.
What, then, do we know that wasn’t apparent at the time?
Firstly, we see the Triumphal Entry as a sacred duty. On Palm Sunday, I always recall an Anglican church that was a neighbour to one previous Methodist church I served. Every Palm Sunday, they would always have a donkey in church. The reason I never forget this, is because the donkey had a name. Dave. Dave the Donkey appeared every year. For some reason, certain people made it their business to ensure I always knew about him.
And the donkey – laughing stock character as it is to some – is where we get the sense of sacredness and holiness on Palm Sunday. How so? Well, have you ever wondered why Mark goes to such detail to talk about the animal? Clearly it’s significant. Note Jesus’ specification: it is to be ‘a colt that has never been ridden’ (verse 2). This seems to reflect the Old Testament requirements that animals used for holy purposes had in every way to be unblemished. Jesus is making clear to his disciples his intention that the manner in which he will enter Jerusalem shows that this journey is a sacred duty.
The nature of Jesus’ entry as a holy task, a sacred duty, will not surprise you. But who in heaven and earth focusses on a donkey for such work?
Jesus, that’s who. A humble ass is the way he makes clear to those with eyes to see the nature of what he is doing. It’s part of that whole approach to life in our faith which deeply values the physical and the material. Archbishop William Temple said that Christianity is ‘the most avowedly materialist’ of all religions. That is a claim that sounds shocking to our ears when we have been taught that materialism is wrong. And if materialism means worshipping material things, then it is wrong.
But if materialism simply means valuing the material aspects of life, then we see that our faith is shot through with materialism. We believe in a Creator God. We believe in Jesus who took on human flesh, and whose lasting symbols are water, bread and wine. We believe in the resurrection of the dead – and that means bodily resurrection, there is no other kind. Our ethical beliefs touch on the most material and physical aspects of life – money, sex and so on.
Sometimes, though, we veer off this course. When someone dies we are prone to saying that their body was just a shell for the real person, but this is wrong. When we grieve a death, we are waiting for the day when that person will be raised to new life with a resurrection body animated by the Holy Spirit.
All of which is to say that when we look at Jesus’ use of the donkey for his purposes, let us dedicate the physical and material dimensions of our lives to his glory. Let us seek to use our physical bodies and material possessions in a holy way. When we take up the offering later in the service, let us remember that we are not simply raising enough subscriptions to keep an institution going, we are offering the physical to God in holy worship and service. We shall live out the meaning of the offertory prayer every day.
Secondly, let’s look at the use of the Scriptures in this story. There are a few things to put together here. One is what I mentioned at the beginning, namely that there are hints in this story that Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah about a messianic king coming to Jerusalem in peace. Another in the use of the donkey seems to reference at text in Genesis (49:11) which is part of Jacob’s blessing of his sons, but which was later taken as a messianic prophecy. Finally, we have the crowds singing ‘Hosanna’, and in doing so quoting one of the Psalms, and in particular one that was used by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem either for the Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. It isn’t strictly a messianic psalm, but again Mark may want us to see the reference to ‘the coming kingdom of our ancestor David’ (verse 10) as a messianic hint.
What’s going on here, then? A common thread seems to be this: none of these texts – Zechariah, Genesis or the Psalms – gets limited to their original meaning. Often the way we are trained to approach the Scriptures today is to say that the primary question is to ask what meaning the original author intended. Or alternatively, we sit around in a Bible study fellowship group, asking, ‘What does this verse or passage mean for me?’
But Bible verses are not used in either of these ways in the Bible itself! Helpful as it is to have a foundation in the original meaning, the fact remains that the New Testament authors approached the scriptures they already had differently. And relevant as it may seem to ask, ‘What does this mean for me?’ that can degenerate into reading the Bible in a me-centred way.
No: the New Testament writers had a different question about the scriptures they inherited. I think it was this: what do the Scriptures mean in the light of Jesus? That’s why they sometimes come up with some surprising applications of Old Testament passages. At heart, it’s the old slogan that ‘history is his story’. Life has meaning in the light of Jesus Christ, and so we interpret everything in the light of him. That includes our supreme written testimony to him, the books of the Bible.
Now you can take this to ridiculous extremes. You probably know the story of the preacher giving a children’s address and who asks the question, ‘What is grey, furry, with a tail and climbs trees?’ A little girl nervously raises her hand and says, ‘I know the answer should be Jesus but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’
In other words, I do not mean that we look for all sorts of doubtful interpretations in the most obscure of Bible verses, but I do mean that the overall thrust of the Bible in all its diversity and difference is to point to Jesus Christ.
There is still a place for those of us who can offer something by delving into the original meaning of the Scriptures. It gives us a base from which to work. But we are not limited to what the original authors meant, because what we are called to do is see that the biblical books have what some people call ‘a direction of travel’ – they point to Jesus. And that means we can all with the help of the Holy Spirit profitably read and discuss the sacred writings with a view to drawing nearer to Christ and following him more closely.
Thirdly and finally, let us see worship with new eyes here. For this I want to concentrate on the shouts of the crowd:
Hosanna!Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!Hosanna in the highest heaven!(Verses 9b-10)
There is a lot conflated here. Take the word ‘Hosanna’. We perhaps think of it as a word of praise, rather like ‘Hallelujah’. It did turn into that, but it began as a cry of ‘Save us’ and then became praise or an acclamation for a revered figure, such as a rabbi. In with all that you have the longing for the kingdom, and it could be either a restoration of David’s throne that is desired or a passion for final redemption. Somewhere in these words, then, you potentially have a number of elements of worship mixed up: praise, intercession and declarations of allegiance.
Again, the natural meaning at the time for the crowd would have been perhaps to honour Jesus as a great teacher and to pray that God might bring deliverance (of a political variety) through him as he rode into Jerusalem. Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been terribly militant, or – as I said in the introduction – the Romans would have taken more of an interest.
But for Christians, we see these hopes transformed and magnified in what we have come to know about Jesus. He is more than a rabbi; he will bring a salvation of a kind nobody could have imagined; he is bringing in a kingdom altogether vaster and more comprehensive in scope than previously dreamed.
And this Jesus – the king who would be enthroned on the Cross – is worthy of worship. This Jesus – who does more than merely meet our own aspirations but ushers in a universal kingdom where all will be put right – is worthy of worship. This Jesus – so much more than a rabbi – is worthy of worship.
When the crowds shout their well-meaning hosannas, the Christian sees with new eyes the allegiance of which Jesus is worthy. When the crowds seek salvation, the Christian sees the salvation to come. When the crowds shout in anticipation of the kingdom, the Christian sees the call to pray and work for that kingdom, to the glory of Jesus Christ the Lord.
The worship we offer on Palm Sunday, then, is more than some hymns, prayers, readings and reflections. If Christians have eyes to see Jesus through Palm Sunday, worship will be an expression of commitment and devotion. It will be an oath of allegiance, a renewal of vows. After all, every part of life – past, present and future – has meaning in the light of him. And therefore in our worship we dedicate not only the ‘spiritual’ but the physical and the material to him in praise for who he is and gratitude for what he does.
This Palm Sunday, let us have the eyes to see Jesus as he truly is, and to respond fittingly to him.