The King Is Coming
March 28, 2021
On Palm Sunday, we think of the crowd waving palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey as described in the Gospel accounts.
Why the palm branches?
In many ways it goes right back to the beginning of the story of the Bible. In Genesis, in paradise, it is thought there were many beautiful trees, among them palm branches. Later in the biblical story, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Feast of Booths) was celebrated with the waving of palm branches. There was an exuberance and celebration, a rejoicing in the LORD their God.
When Solomon built the temple, inscribed on the walls of the temple were palm branches to remind God’s people of God’s presence and his blessing. Later, palm branches were on the coin symbolizing the people of Israel and were perhaps a little like waving the flag.
After the city of Jerusalem was invaded and destroyed, when it was liberated by the popular movement of the Maccabees, they in celebration re-entered Jerusalem, waving palm branches.
And so, when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the pilgrims waved palm branches, they were, as it were, waving the flag. They opened the doors to Jerusalem to its liberator. And so, we have palm branches.
Of course, another aspect to Palm Sunday is that Jesus came in riding on a donkey. Why?
Well, some of the Gospel accounts reference Zechariah 9:9. We know that the prophet Zechariah wrote the Book of Zechariah around 518-520 BC, because at the beginning of the book, he gives a reference to King Darius. Zechariah was encouraging God’s people in their work of rebuilding the temple. He had eight visions in one night, which are in the first eight chapters of the book. Then from chapters 9 through 14, there are two oracles or two prophecies, literally a burden—that is, a message given to him from God that he was called upon to preach. And Zechariah 9:9 is in the middle of the first of those oracles, long interpreted as a Messianic prophecy by the rabbis with all the hermeneutic interpretative grids that the teachers of the Bible had down through the years. One day a king would come—the Messiah or the Christ, both meaning Anointed, both referring to the King—and he would ride on a donkey.
How extraordinary! As I say, this text was always thought to be a Messianic text by the rabbis and was one with which they wrestled. In one fairly well-known account, a great king of Persia teased the rabbis about this text, asking if they could not find a warhorse for their king. A rabbi is said to have replied, “Oh, that donkey will be multicolored and very impressive with all sorts of fancy things to it. Don’t worry. It will be a special donkey.” Which is entirely to miss the point. Jesus is humble and mounted on a donkey. No other religion would do this. Muhammad rides on a camel. The great conquerors ride on war horses. The presidents of our world turn up in their huge motorcades with their out-riders and police sirens going.
Why were they so excited that a king was coming? Think of Jerusalem, the city that was occupied by the Romans. Here was a king coming to set them free. No longer in the context of Zechariah would they be dominated by King Darius and the great empire of the time. No longer would they be dominated by the other small fiefdoms, kingdoms, princedoms around Israel from Gaza and elsewhere. Imagine yourself in a city that had been bombed and devastated. There was anarchy and chaos, and suddenly at last a king was coming to set them free.
Zechariah not only proclaims the king is coming, but that he is righteous and has salvation. Here was the great mystery that the prophets constantly searched into. How is it that the God who is righteous would rescue his sinful people? And how can he save us?
Entering Easter Week
And so we enter the week of Easter and behold the King this Palm Sunday coming into Jerusalem riding on a donkey with palm branches waving. He comes, and prophecies from long before are fulfilled. The righteous King would also be a saving King, a suffering King, a servant King, a dying King, and in the end, a risen King.
Perhaps you are looking for salvation. Surely our world is. Do we not need a king? A good king, a righteous king, a saving king?
This King that we worship is the humble King. The humility of Jesus here is not primarily an example for us to follow, though it certainly is that. It is a message for us to receive. The humility of Christ is the key that by the work of the Spirit of Christ opens the heart of the hardest cynic. This King has not come to dominate you. He has not come to destroy you. He has come to serve you and save you. Would you rejoice in him?
This Palm Sunday, the extent of your rejoicing will be measured by the extent of your worship of this humble King. If you want to rediscover joy, join the pilgrims waving their palm branches and worship the King on a donkey.
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