What a buzz there must have been. All eyes on the road from Bethany to Jerusalem. Waiting, expectant. A crowd approaching, making slow progress along the road, centred on a figure seated on a young donkey. A colt never ridden before, as Zechariah had written more than five hundred years before.
‘Rejoice, rejoice people of Zion, shout for joy you people of Jerusalem Look! Your King is coming to you, he comes triumphant and victorious, riding on a donkey,- on a colt, the foal of a donkey’
They had heard amazing things about that rider. The news of Lazarus, the man who had died and had even been laid in his tomb. This donkey riding man had called out to him and Lazarus had come to life, walking out with the grave clothes still around him.
Just as Zechariah had written, the people gave him a King’s welcome. They threw down their cloaks and palm branches to cover the road under the donkeys feet. Red carpet treatment. Nine hundred years earlier the same treatment had been given to another man, an anointed king of Israel, Jehu by name. Jehu was a very different man, one who was to set right the wrongs of the past, exacting revenge for the terrible deeds of Jezebel, wife of Ahab. Jehu thought nothing of the use of violence to secure his aims and 2 Kings 9 and 10 makes grizzly reading in illustrating how he achieved this, how he brought about the death of Jezebel and the priests of Baal. Could it be that this man on a donkey was going to enact a similar fate upon the cursed Roman occupying forces? Could he release Israel from their captors as he had released Lazarus from his death?
‘Hosanna!’ they shouted. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!’.
Just as the angels had sung thirty three years before to announce the arrival of the infant Jesus, so now the people took up the shout as he entered the holy city of Jerusalem. And nothing could stop the noise and excitement. Jesus told the Pharisees, ‘even if tongues were still the rocks and the stones would keep up the noise!’. What a buzz there must have been. But after a week or so we know already what a change in the shouts of the people. There had been no overthrow, at least not of the Romans. Instead Jesus had gone to the heart of their own culture, to the temple and begun his clearing out there. How wrong they had been. This man had not come to fight, although we see his anger at the corruption of his ‘father’s house’. He came to serve, to teach, to heal and to love.
As the crowds were shouting loudly on that day Jesus wept as he approached the city. ‘If you in your turn had only understood on this day the message of peace’, he said. He knew what was to come. In a few decades Jerusalem was to be attacked and the temple destroyed.-’all because you did not recognise your opportunity when God offered it’ (Luke 19.44). To the palm waving, coat throwing, Hosanna shouting crowd here was an answer to prayer. God was sending someone to sort it out for them. As the prophet had foretold a king was coming and the people of Jerusalem shouted for joy.
How many times are we like that crowd, hoping for someone, or something to happen that will save us from our own tricky situations? Don’t we wish God would do something to change our luck? A win on the lottery? Or perhaps that person we don’t agree with will suddenly have a change of heart and see things from our own point of view, which after all is always right!
What is our ‘Roman Occupation’, having such a heavy bearing on our lives, the things we wish some great benevolent force will come riding in and release us from? How many times, I wonder, have we seen an opportunity to confront our ogres and yet failed to recognise and understand the message that leads to peace.
No, Jesus did not come to attack the Roman forces, he came to change the whole culture of the oppressed Jewish nation from within. To clear out the corruption from the temple and through argument and teaching challenge the way these people, and we ourselves, thought about each other and about the nature of God. And ‘the people as a whole hung on his words’. (Luke 19.48)
The leaders of the Jewish religion tried every means possible to trick Jesus, to show him up, to catch him out, but every time Jesus showed himself equal and superior to their challenge, ‘they were unable to find fault with anything he had to say in public’. (Luke 20.26). How often do we try to find ways to appease our own conscience. We feel powerless, so we make every excuse and find every justification for not facing up to things, but keeping ourselves in the condition in which we find ourselves. We blame governments, we blame taxes, we blame the school bully. We try to attach all the guilt we feel for not living up to our own ideals to as many visible and external ‘evils’ as we can find. The friend who reminds us of our failings does not then seem to be that much of a friend! And with our guilt safely attached to those things we can’t readily influence we hope and pray for something or someone else to take the blame and sort it all out for us. Enter the King on a donkey. The evil was firmly attached to the Romans, the tax-gatherers, the Samaritans. Here was a man that would sort them out!
But this was no warmonger. The man’s message ‘shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, - and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matt.11.29). Yes the King had arrived, ‘triumphant and victorious’ but also ‘humble and riding on a donkey’.
He came to Jerusalem that day, and to us today, to offer an opportunity, a choice of pathways that will really liberate, set free, all who want to follow him. He extended to them and to us the invitation of Jeremiah 6.16:
‘Stand at the crossroads and look. Ask for the ancient paths and where the best road is. Walk on it and you will live in peace.’
He arrived in person to show those ancient paths, paths God had attempted to show us through Moses, through Isaiah and Jeremiah, to show us the best roads to walk on but like those mentioned in Jeremiah eventually they came up with the same reply. ‘No, we will not walk on that path. That path, inside ourselves, is too painful to walk on.’.
In the life and example of Jesus we see one deserving of the adulation and worship of a King who instead humbled himself, becoming a servant, and far from enjoying the adoration and cheers of those who lined the road to Jerusalem he wept as he saw their weakness and missed opportunity. He did indeed take on their occupying forces, not the external but the personal, the guilt and sin that cripples us, paralyses us preventing us from making the most of the life God has given us. He took our guilt and shame on himself in death on the cross. His offer is open still as it was to the man lowered through the roof by his friends. In forgiving his sin it was not only the physical paralysis that was cured, the man was freed from himself to start afresh.
In conclusion a prayer from Tagore;
‘Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my path, but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield, but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved, but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone, but let me feel the grasp of your hand in my failure’. Amen.