Today is Palm Sunday. It is strange not to be in church. I’m really missing my friends at Bethel Presbyterian and Windsor Avenue Presbyterian Church. I’m sure they are missing our time together as well.
I imagine this week will be very strange indeed for a lot of people. Many of us have not crossed the threshold of a church since early March. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t worship together. I’m grateful that we have the ability to gather across the internet and over the phone. It really is a gift.
So we gather today in a different set of circumstances but God is still with us. God is good – all the time.
 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples  and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’”  And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it.  And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go.  And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.  And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.  And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
As we say in our church – The grass withers the flower fades – But the word of our God will stand forever.
Lord, months ago we planned to be together this morning in church buildings. We planned to start Holy Week as we have for so long – with Palm Branches and singing and being together and looking toward Good Friday and Easter. But here we are, our plans wrecked by circumstances beyond our control – which – as you know – always makes us anxious or uncomfortable. The loss of control and the unknown, Lord, always unsettles us – you know that about us. And so, we start this Holy Week in unusual circumstances. Lord, we need you now more than ever. In fact, we may not even know how to really pray. We want to pray for our family and friends. We do not want them to get this virus – but some of them already have. So, we pray that would recover quickly. But Lord, some of them haven’t – so we lift up our family and friends who are grieving. Lord, we pray for an end to this virus. We pray for those men and women who are working to heal the sick, for those who are caring for the sick, those who are risking their own health and lives – Lord – we lift them to you – asking that you protect them and bring an end to this virus. We pray for our leaders. We pray for those who are charged with making decisions for our country and our communities. We pray for employers who are faced with difficult decisions regarding their employees. We pray for the men and women of our community who have lost their jobs or will lose their jobs. Lord, bring an end to this virus and restore our community and our country.
Father, today, we remember Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Lord, help us to remember Christ’s entry into our hearts and our lives. Lord, let this be a day when people open their hearts and lives to Jesus. Father, now – more than ever – with all that’s happening in our lives – things that are out of our control – the loss of things as they were – Lord – hear our prayer and make your presence known. This I pray in the marvelous name of Jesus. Amen.
As you are aware, people approach the Bible from a lot of different perspectives. And sometimes those perspectives clash with one another. That clash can be amicable and sometimes not so much. To be frank, there are times that I hear someone’s perspective and I cringe. Some of that is because I’m concerned about the way it will impact others – especially when it comes to looking at Jesus.
A case in point involves an article that I read years ago by a woman who serves as the religion editor for a major publication in the United States. I will not through her name out there or the publication because – well – I’m sure she is a fine person and I’m not interested in being unkind to her. I am a little mystified though by how a person with no religious background, a person with a degree in journalism / English, becomes a religion editor – but that’s another point for another day.
At any rate, this writer/editor wrote an intentionally provocative article, which held a particular perspective of the Bible that a) I find it all too common and b) keeps some people from seeing the great value of the whole, and c) may keep people from seeing Jesus as He truly is – without all the baggage that folks hang on him. In the article, the writer – after reading particular parts of the Bible that she didn’t like nor understand said, “but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for…women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat – or a lamb or a turtle dove.”
Did you get that? This writer’s perspective – which is a common perspective – advocates that there are “throwaway lines” in the Bible. What do you think of that about that?
You know, I have to say, even if you approach the Bible as literature and nothing more, you wouldn’t say “throwaway lines.” I’ve never heard anyone within any English Department ever refer to portions of a book as “throwaway,” because they understand that all the lines work together to form the whole, even seemingly insignificant details play a part in framing the whole story.
Of course, I have to admit that there are portions of the Bible that I skim. A few years ago I decided to use one of those guides to read the Bible in a year and I have to be honest, I skimmed through the “begats” in the OT. You know, like in Genesis 5 “ When Seth had lived 105 years, he begat Enosh.  Seth lived after he begat Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters.  Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died.  When Enosh had lived 90 years, he begat Kenan.”
And on and on it goes. But those aren’t throwaway lines. They are important lines because they provide incredibly significant details in the Bible story. You see, each name on that list represents a generation of people where God was at work – even if they were not such great folks – God was at work – and through their lives, He was working to fulfill a promise that He made in Genesis 3.
In Genesis 3 God makes a promise – even after Adam and Eve blew it in the garden – even as God is sending Adam and Eve out of the Garden – even as God is condemning the dark one – he promises that a deliverer will come. In fact, Genesis 3:15 is understood by a lot of theologians to be the first hint at the Gospel: Genesis 3:14–15  The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
If you have ever seen The Passion of the Christ you may recall that in the first part of the film there is a snake slithering across the ground. Then all of a sudden, the head of the snake is crushed under the heel of Jesus. That scene in the movie is a nod to this text in the Bible. And each of the names that follow in Genesis and elsewhere – though they may seem like “throwaway lines” – they contain the names of the people that God used to form the lineage to fulfill this promise He made.
So, even though there are texts that we might skim over, we should do so knowing that those texts are nevertheless very important and within each of them there are details building the Biblical story of the Gospel.
While we might skim over the lists in the book of Numbers or we may allow our eyes to dance across the names that we have trouble pronouncing, we recognize how important each verse is because they provide details – like our text for today – which is Palm Sunday.
Mark 11:1-11 for instance, we get some details that at first glance seem to be something we can just skim right over in order to get the story moving. There are eleven verses. Eleven. And notice how much time in those eleven verses are given to the discussion of how Jesus is going to get into Jerusalem.
The first seven verses – out of eleven – focus on a donkey. A donkey? Now if anything might be considered “throwaway lines” – stuff about a donkey just might fall into that category – right? I mean, that’s a lot of time talking about a donkey. A donkey? What does it matter?
Well, as it turns out, verses 1 – 7 and all the stuff about the donkey is incredibly important – because the fact that the donkey is in the story reveals something very important about Palm Sunday, about what God was going to do through Jesus; in fact, that donkey might just be the most important part of Palm Sunday.
You know something, this whole thing about the donkey was so important that you can find similar details in all four Gospel accounts. The donkey is in Luke 19; Jesus told two of his disciples, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here…” And so Jesus’ disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do.
In Matthew 21 we are told that “Jesus sent two disciples,  saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once…” AND “ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.”
And it is in John’s Gospel, too. It says, “And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,  “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (Jn 12 ESV)
That donkey is a significant detail that keeps popping back up. A lot of people focus on the Palm branches. Don’t get me wrong, they are important. But you know, only the donkey is mentioned in all four. Luke doesn’t mention palm branches at all. But all four Gospels mention the donkey.
It is a detail – a literary detail – just like the lists in Genesis and Numbers. And we all know how important details are when it comes to understanding the message. That donkey is one of the reasons why the people started shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” – which means “save us now! Save us now!” and waving those palm branches. That donkey is just as important now as it was then.
Let’s go back to our Mark passage for a moment to see why that donkey isn’t a throwaway line. Look specifically at verses 7-11. As Jesus enters the community riding a donkey – notice what the people do and say. They begin to lay their cloaks and “leafy branches” or palm branches down on the ground.
 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it.  And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.  And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”  And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (ESV)
All of the means that they recognized something very significant about Jesus. In varying degrees, the people in that crowd recognized that Jesus was the promised Messiah – their deliverer – their savior – but perhaps not so much in the way you and I might think.
You see, in those days, people were anticipating the coming of the Messiah. They were waiting and expecting. It was at that time of what we might call a messianic fervor. It is why – when you read the Gospels – it is why they ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah. They were expecting the Messiah to show up. But they expected the Messiah to come in and be like David – a warrior – or Moses – who was a negotiator – lawgiver. They were looking for the messiah to be like a king who would overthrow the Romans and help establish them as a power of their own. They were looking for the messiah to be one who established the temple and worship – all of those things.
So – there is all this build-up going on – and people know the things that Jesus has been doing throughout the land. They know he has healed people. They know he has raised the dead. They know he has restored sight to the blind and made the lame whole. And, they’ve heard the things that he’s said. They know he has pointed them to truth – that He is from God. And so, as Jesus enters Jerusalem – he enters like a king. And many believe that Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for – and so – as he comes into Jerusalem they see him riding a colt – the foal of a donkey – and they start shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
They are shouting that because that donkey was one of those “throwaway lines” back in the OT. You see that donkey was in the story long before Jesus sent his disciples to get it. In the OT book of Zechariah –in Zechariah 9:9 -there is a passage that says, Fear not – “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
And that’s why the people were shouting “Hosanna!” “Save us now!” Oh, and do you see that line in Mark 10, “ Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”? They see Jesus and that donkey and they put two and two together. And they talk about David – because – well –
Do remember moments ago all those lists of begats in the OT play and the part they play in telling the Bible story?
Well – you see – this mention of David? Well, God’s promise in Genesis about bringing the Messiah through Abraham – that promised continued on to David – King David – and it was widely known that the Messiah would be a descendant of David – so all of those names go along those lines – and we can draw a lineage line from David to – well – guess who? Jesus.
So when the people see Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, it all clicks into place. The Messiah has come and he is like David. The people are chanting “ Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” And so, they have made the connection between what was foretold about the donkey and King David – and Jesus – and the Messiah – and so they are expecting the Messiah – Jesus – to be like David – a warrior king…king that will lead them in triumph over their enemies…
The problem is, of course, that blasted donkey. Turns out, that donkey is critical in this whole story – way more so than the Palm branches.
Yes – Jesus comes into Jerusalem like a King – just as Zechariah said He would – and He is a descendant of David – just like those OT lists said he would be – but the people are mistaken about what this king – the messiah has come to conquer. You see this moment is a pivotal moment in human history and it connects back to Genesis 1-3.
You might recall in Genesis 1-3 that God created all things – and it was super good. Humanity even had a close relationship with God. But, for whatever reason, we blew it. Humanity chose to go its own way and disobeyed God – and broke covenant with God. In Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that the payout – the cost of the break-in covenant with God – is death. It isn’t just the curse of sin that we still bear the weight of – it is that the wages of sin – the payout of sin – is death – separation from God. Sin is any want of conformity to the will of God and it also means that humanity justly deserves God’s wrath and displeasure.
You see, in antiquity, when a king entered a community on a horse – it was generally a warhorse. And when a king entered a community on a foal, a donkey, it meant he came in peace – in shalom.
Jesus comes riding on a colt – a donkey – and in fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah – which says, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your KING is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
The people don’t need to fear because their king comes on a donkey’s colt. Why would they need to fear? Because he could just as well have come on a war-horse. But Jesus – the Messiah – the very Son of God – comes into Jerusalem – in peace; God had every right to enter into Jerusalem and enter into the world on a war-horse in order to carry out His wrath toward sinful humanity but instead, He comes in peace/shalom.
That donkey means that at that moment, Christ came into the world to bring Peace – shalom. The people were clamoring for a king that would simply conquer their oppressors. They really didn’t get that the picture was much, much larger.
Jesus came to conquer sin, death, and hell. He came so that we can have peace with God, peace with ourselves, with our neighbors, peace with all of creation. So that we could have peace in a fallen, virus plagued world. Jesus wasn’t worried about the Roman army. Jesus came that we might have life and life to its fullest measure – which only comes through a relationship with God – through peace with God.
That donkey he’s riding on isn’t a throwaway line – it is incredibly important that Christ rode that donkey into Jerusalem that day. I think it is way more important than the palm branches because the message being sent is that all that Jesus does that week is part of God’s ultimate plan to bring peace to humanity through the person, word, and work of Jesus.
In all four Gospels – that donkey – the colt – gets a lot of attention – as it should. The Gospel writers recognized the significance. It is not a throwaway line. There is no mistaking that Jesus wanted to ride in on a donkey – a colt – a foal. Jesus came in like a King – well, actually he came in like the prophet Isaiah said he would – he is, after all, the Prince of Peace/Shalom.
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem was about more than just the people of that day and age. It was bigger than just the problems they were facing. Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem had deeper, spiritual implications – that reach to this very moment and beyond.
The biggest issue facing all of humanity is not the strife that divides us or a virus that threatens us. The biggest issue facing all of humanity is the gulf that exists between God and humanity – a gulf caused by sin; Jesus – riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – is the bridge the spans that gulf. It is only through Jesus that a person can have peace with God.
No – there aren’t any throwaway lines in the Bible. Every line – even the begats, and even lines about a donkey – point to this incredible reality that God has made his love for us known through the person, word, and work of Jesus. Today, this Palm Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem because it points to the fact that we can have peace with God, each other, and ourselves.
What we really celebrate is that He comes riding on a donkey – because that symbol is meant for you and for me. Christ did not come bringing the wrath of God down upon sinful humanity. Instead, God once again reaches out to us – all of us – in peace – in shalom – in love – and mercy.
Let me pray and you join me in the Lord’s Prayer.