In the church where I grew up, Palm Sunday was always a jubilant affair. Our opening worship was filled with upbeat choruses proclaiming ‘Hosanna’, to which the congregation clapped along with great gusto. It was definitely an occasion for tambourines – maybe even the odd flag. A week before Easter Sunday, it almost felt a little bit like a warm-up for the great day itself- a pre-Easter party.
It’s not difficult to trace the roots of this back to that first Palm Sunday, which we read about in John 12. But if we think of Palm Sunday simply as a feel-good fiesta, then we are missing something critical. For beneath the surface of this ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem is a hotbed of political and spiritual tensions which are about to reach their climax in Jesus’ final week. Holy Week may begin with a party and end with a resurrection, but the events in between are fraught with conflict, fear, doubt and death.
Word for the Week
John 12:12-15, 23-32
The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’
Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written:
‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’
Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds….
‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!… Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Ephesians 6: 10-18
Picture the scene. A noble hero enters (stage left) with his comrades. In the background, a city eagerly awaits their return. As the band approaches the city gates, the waiting crowd floods out to meet them and erupts in cheers and songs. Men, women and children wave banners in celebration. Their victorious leader is home.
Star Wars, Lord of the Rings – All the classic ‘good v. bad’ movies end in much the same way. The mission complete, it’s time for the party. Compare this with John 12. Same crowds, same celebrations. But with one huge difference. This is not the end of Jesus’ story. Perhaps the crowds thought it was – after all, Jesus had just performed the greatest miracle of his ministry, raising Lazurus from the dead. The ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem as Messiah seemed a fitting culmination. But Jesus knew otherwise. This was not the end of his ministry, but the beginning of something above and beyond anything done before. Jesus was riding not into a celebration, but a confrontation that would climax in his own death.
On the one hand, this confrontation is a human affair. Israel is under occupation by the Roman Empire. The crowds declaring Jesus their king and waving palm branches – a nationalist symbol of Israel – is a politically subversive act. The Roman governor Pilate would himself press Jesus to answer for his kingship within the week (John 18:33–37). Was he really building a kingdom to threaten the might of Rome? And not just the Romans, but the religious authorities were threatened by Jesus. His humble ride into Jerusalem had clear Messianic overtones. But the ‘official’ consensus amongst the religious leaders was that Jesus was a blasphemer and imposter. And there was only one fate for blasphemers: death.
But above and beyond these human confrontations is a spiritual one. In this final week, Jesus is readying himself for his greatest task: to finish what began at the dawn of time when Adam and Eve first rebelled against God. ‘Now is the time,’ Jesus says, ‘for the prince of this world to be driven out.’ For three years, Jesus had been steadfastly reclaiming enemy territory, declaring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Within the week, the final showdown would take place on a hill outside Jerusalem, and the power of sin – the levy which Satan held against humankind – would be broken once and for all.
As we approach Holy Week, I wonder – what kind of a Jesus do we follow? At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, the light of the world. But here we see the Jesus who came to bring ‘not… peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34), and we quake at the impending darkness. Where does this leave our faith? So often we can preach a blinkered, rose-tinted Christianity: create an edited version which dwells on all we stand to gain in Christ – life, and life to the full. Yes – Jesus does offer life in all its fullness. But the events of Holy Week remind us that to truly follow Jesus is inevitably to head into confrontation: often with the culture around us, and most definitely with the spiritual powers and authorities. The kingdom path may bring peace in the long-run, but it is often divisive along the way, and met with opposition and attack on many sides.
The reality is that the life of faith – this side of heaven – is lived on the battlefield. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus himself felt overwhelmed as he contemplated what lay ahead – as he saw who and what he must face. It should not surprise us to find ourselves going through struggles of our own as we seek to bring God’s kingdom. But the same God who strengthened Jesus to press on is with us, too, and is mighty to save. ‘The world will make you suffer,’ Jesus teaches his disciples. ‘But take heart. I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33).
“In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”
Own it personally…
- As you read John 12, place yourself within the scene. What would you have felt observing the celebrations – or when ‘King’ Jesus spoke about sacrifice? Note down anything that you notice which God may be drawing you to.
- Where are the places you see ‘the prince of this world’ still in operation – in your own life, city, country, or the world?
- Consider the ways in which Jesus’ teaching challenges our contemporary cultural values. Is God calling you to take something up, or put something down?
- Take the time to bring any struggles you and other Christians face before God. You might think about people within the church community, and Christians worldwide who are in places of extreme persecution.
Speak it Out – Pray and Prophesy
The battle which we face is ultimately against the spiritual powers and authorities. Read Ephesians 6:10–18 aloud. As you speak out the different pieces of armour, mime putting on each piece as a prophetic act for yourselves and others.