Palm Sunday has at its theme a sense of expectation as Jesus enters Jerusalem.
It is possible that there were hundreds of thousands of people who would come into the holy city for the Passover Festival and it was a time to remember how in the past when the Hebrew’s were slaves in Egypt, God intervened to bring freedom to his people.
The history of Israel had been shaped by a heritage of past glories, particularly when David was King, but for hundreds of years it had been a story of shattered hopes, exile and foreign invasion. On this day Jesus after most of his ministry had been spent in the north, in the rural area of Galilee, finally enters the city and the crowds are excited and expectant.
One of the themes this week in assemblies has been thinking about the various experiences you can have of being in a big crowd. It can be very exciting (football match) and also at some level it is good to be part of something where the experience is shared.
I think that the biggest crowd that I have been part off was when Pope John Paul visited England in 1982 and there must have been over 200,000 people making their way to somewhere near Coventry.
We can be part of big crowds when we go to a sport event, a music concert or maybe the fireworks in London at New Year. These events are generally good natured and fun to be part of. Yet crowds can also be volatile and changeable.
My worst experience in being part of a crowd was at a football match in Glasgow in early 1984. I worked with the Simon Community and one of the residents was from Aberdeen so for his birthday a few of us took him to see them play Celtic. We decided to go into the away end and before the game bottles were being thrown and a group of Celtic supporters broke through the police and attempted to charge the away supporters. It was a frightening experience and it actually put me off from going to see a football in the city (for two weeks).
In the Gospel stories Jesus attracted a great deal of attention. We are told that people from the surrounding areas would seek him out and listen to him. The most well known stories are the feeding miracles where 5000 people have followed him out in the countryside. Yet, even here there is the sense that the mood can change. The people are restless and hungry and the disciples ask Jesus to send them away to get something to eat.
By the time Jesus came to the outskirts of Jerusalem and prepared to enter the city you get the impression that he knew how excitable and potentially dangerous a crowd can be.
When you go to a sporting event or possible a concert there is at the beginning a great sense of expectation as the team or musician walks onto the stage. It is part of the theatre of the event as the noise levels increase.
It is interesting that as Mark tells the story quite a few verses are taken up with the mode of transport and the efforts that two of the disciples go to in finding a donkey. They have to go into the village, find the colt and then bring back to Jesus and explain what they are doing to anyone who questions them.
This is what happens and one theory is that the two disciples were James and John. These were the two disciples who had asked Jesus if they could sit on his left and right when he comes into his kingdom. The kingdom for them suggested power and status, but a consistent theme through Jesus’ teaching has been that he will suffer and be rejected and the disciples have to understand that the kingdom is only going to come through suffering. If James and John or the other disciples were unsure about what type of kingdom Jesus was bringing he puts them on donkey duty.
In John’s account it is Jesus who is on foot who finds the donkey and sits on it. Mark put two of the disciples on the job as possibly he wants them to understand what being a follower of Jesus means.
Riding a donkey is a reference to the prophet Zechariah in which the people of Jerusalem are told not be afraid, as their King in coming seated on a donkey.
Despite the enthusiastic voices saying “Blessed is the name of the Lord,” and “Blessed is the coming kingdom,” Jesus is deliberately downplaying the sense of expectation.
He is the lowly king, “humble and obedient to the point of death,” is the way St Paul in the letter to the Philippians describes that nature of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus wants his disciples to become what they have been called to be: followers who learn from him as he offers a different type of kingdom.
If you want power through a display of force – domination through military strength – ambition, pride, control, superiority, competitiveness, strife.
You have the Roman army as your role model. If you want to follow Jesus into Jerusalem: then its power through compassion, community, and healing, self-giving love.
Just to make the point the end of today’s Gospel is totally underwhelming. He goes to the temple, has a look round, and as it is late decides to go to Bethany with the twelve. This is a way of saying that nothing happened.
In the last week we have been thinking in the news about the power of influence in the media shaping how we might make decisions.
The Jerusalem equivalent of Cambridge Analytica will soon be at work. Stoking the feeling that Jesus is not what we expected, in fact a disappointment, certainly not someone who is going to change the world.
Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing that the enthusiasm of crowds is not a good indicator of how well things are going. Within a few days the cry will be not “hosanna,” but “crucify him.”
The most important thing for the disciples will be faithfulness and trust, not public opinion.
A kingdom is coming, but as we go into Holy Week, we are invited to journey with the disciples and discover how its arrival is going to be found in unlikely places.