Seriously consider using this Palm Sunday sermon in your church this year!
If Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was triumphal on Palm Sunday, what went wrong less than a week later? Why did the crowds who adored Jesus on Sunday, turn on him by Friday of that week? And what choice does Palm Sunday present to us today? In this Palm Sunday sermon, I’ll try to answer those questions and explore the reasons the Roman empire, the Jewish religious leaders, and the common people all turn on Jesus after that glorious Sunday.
Palm Sunday Sermon: What Kind of King Did You Expect?
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The Problem of Palm Sunday
Today is Palm Sunday, the day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. This day has been described by Christians for generations as the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” But, have you ever asked yourself, “If this was a triumphal entry, then why did they crucify Jesus at the end of the week?”
Even the compilers of the revised common lectionary realize that this Sunday is a problem for us, because they give us two readings from the Gospels. One reading is from this passage, and it is called the “palms reading.” Not “palm reading,” but “palms” because of the palm fronds that those who greet Jesus line his way with. The other reading is called the “passion reading” because the suffering of Christ at the end of this week is called “the passion of Christ.” Mel Gibson made a movie with that title a few years ago, and it depicted his view of the last hours of Jesus.
So, we have a problem today that we need to address. If this is such a glorious Sunday for all Christians, what goes wrong by Friday that Jesus will find himself betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by the high priest’s guard, accused by a coalition of religious leaders, tried by the Roman governor, and sentenced to die the death of a common criminal—death by crucifixion.
A Day of Two Processions
You might not know that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem was not the only procession the city saw that day. In the year 30 AD, Roman historians record that the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, led a procession of Roman cavalry and centurions into the city of Jerusalem. (The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p.1)
Imagine the spectacle of that entry. From the western side of the city, the opposite side from which Jesus enters, Pontius Pilate leads Roman soldiers on horseback and on foot. Each soldier was clad in leather armor polished to a high gloss. On each centurion’s head, hammered helmets gleamed in the bright sunlight. At their sides, sheathed in their scabbards, were swords crafted from the hardest steel; and, in their hands, each centurion carried a spear; or if he was an archer, a bow with a sling of arrows across his back.
Drummers beat out the cadence of march for this was no ordinary entry into Jerusalem. Pilate, as governor of the region which included not only Judea, but Samaria, and Idumea, knew it was standard practice for the Roman governor of a foreign territory to be in its capital for religious celebrations. It was the beginning of Passover, a strange Jewish festival that the Romans allowed. However, the Romans must have been aware that this festival celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another empire, the empire of Egypt.
So, Pilate had to be in Jerusalem. Since the Romans had occupied this land by defeating the Jews and deposing their king about 80 years before, uprisings were always in the air. The last major uprising, long before Pilate’s time, had been after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC.
The uprising started in Sepphoris, about 5 miles from Jesus’ boyhood home of Nazareth. Before it was over the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, and the town of Emmaus had been destroyed by the Roman army.
After putting down the rebellion there, the Romans marched on Jerusalem. After pacifying the city, they crucified over 2,000 Jews who were accused of being part of the rebellion. The Romans had made their intolerance for rebellion well-known. And so on this occasion, Pilate had traveled with a contingent of Rome’s finest from his preferred headquarters in Caesarea-by-the-Sea, to the stuffy, crowded, provincial capital of the Jews, Jerusalem.