I don’t very often get to preach on the Palm Sunday Gospel, Jesus riding into Jerusalem, despite the fact that it comes round every year, because as you probably know, at our morning service there is no sermon. We read the whole of the story of Christ’s Passion instead. Of course, I am familiar with the story, but preaching makes you look closer, and that’s when you spot the details that might otherwise pass you by. There are two things that struck me afresh this time around as I looked at Luke’s account of that first Palm Sunday. I’ll come to what they are in a moment, but first let’s set the scene.
People were used to seeing processions in Jesus’ time. Everyone who was anyone would want to make a bit of a show of their arrival somewhere. It was a way of displaying your power. Rulers wanted to impress their subjects. Diplomatic envoys wanted to let everyone know that they were important. Then there were the “triumphs”, victory processions granted as a special
honour to military leaders, complete with parades of conquered prisoners, dragged along in chains, and looted goods.
The people of Jerusalem would have seen all sorts of processions come through the city gates. Around the same time that Jesus came riding in there had almost certainly been another much grander procession as well. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor would have ridden in with his troops, intent on keeping a lid on any unrest during the Passover Festival. It was a time when trouble was likely to be brewing. There were thousands of people crowded into a small space - it was every adult Jewish man’s duty to offer sacrifice at the festival – and the heightened religious feelings would have made matters even worse. Passover was a festival which commemorated the setting free of the Jewish people from oppression in Egypt, and if you were a Roman governor, you probably didn’t want people dwelling too much on that. It might give them ideas. When the Romans conquered a nation they brought with them what they called the Pax Romana – the Roman peace, but it was a peace that depended on everyone doing exactly what they were told to do. It might have looked peaceful on the surface, but underneath there was a seething cauldron of resentment.
It is against that backdrop that Jesus’ procession enters the city. And here is the first thing I noticed. Look at how his disciples acclaim him - this was the first thing I noticed. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” There are no hosannas in Luke’s version of this story. Instead the disciples proclaim peace. It echoes the song of the angels to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth and I’m sure that’s deliberate. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours”. Jesus’ whole ministry has been about bringing peace, not the Pax Romana, not a peace imposed by military force. This wasn’t a superficial peace that papered over the cracks of life, but a deep and healing peace that changed things forever. He had cast out demons, calmed storms, healed diseases, welcomed and eaten with outcasts, told his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, and those who had heard his message and taken it into their hearts would never be the same again.
And that brings me to the second thing I noticed, rather a silly thing at first sight, but maybe it is more profound than it first appears. Luke tells us that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt – it might be a young horse or a young donkey, but probably the latter. But when Jesus sends for it he specifies that it must be a colt that has never been ridden. It may be intended to echo the Old Testament references to King David bringing in the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, using a new cart and oxen which had never borne a yoke – symbolising perfection and purity - but on a practical level I am really struck by this detail.
I am no horsewoman – I was never one of those pony-mad little girls - but I do know that riding a horse or a donkey that has never been ridden is not for the faint-hearted. It takes lots of careful handling to get an animal to accept the idea that it might carry a person on its back, and from what I’ve seen it often involves a lot of falling off too.
But Jesus seems to get onto this colt’s back with no trouble at all, and stay there. It’s a small detail, and we miss it if we aren’t looking, but it is all of a piece with the rest of Christ’s mission. This colt is at peace doing this thing that he has never done before. Like the waves of Galilee, like the demon-possessed people, like the sinners and outcasts, he knows he is all right with Jesus. His anxious, skittish heart is calmed.
This little detail seems to me to be profoundly reassuring. Like that donkey, each of us is called to bear Christ into the world, in our words and our actions, and maybe we’re not always too sure about it either . How can we live as he has taught us? How can we show his love and compassion, when the clamour of life is all around us.? But this story tells us that we will be all right, and more than all right. It will be a blessing, and bring us the peace of Christ that passes understanding.
I can’t resist finishing with G K Chesterton’s poem, which imagines this scene through this young donkey’s eye, capturing both his awkwardness and his joy at this unexpected calling.
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.