Cycle B Palm Sunday

 Is. 50:4-7; Phil. 2:6-11; Mk. 14:1-15:47

One of the most iconic triumphant entries in ancient history is that of Julius Caesar into Rome after his victory in the Battle of Zela in 47 BC.

After years of military conquests and political maneuvering, Julius Caesar emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the Roman Republic. In 47 BCE, he faced off against Pharnaces II of Pontus in the Battle of Zela, where he famously declared "Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered") to describe his swift and decisive victory.

Following this triumph, Caesar returned to Rome in a grand procession known as a triumph. His entry into the city was marked by lavish displays of wealth and power, with captured treasures, exotic animals, and prisoners of war paraded through the streets as symbols of his military prowess.

The Roman people, eager to celebrate their victorious general, lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Caesar and his spoils of war. The air was filled with the sound of cheering crowds and the triumphant blare of trumpets, as Caesar's procession made its way towards the heart of Rome.

As he entered the city, Caesar was greeted as a hero, with shouts of acclamation and adoration echoing through the streets. The Senate, recognizing his achievements, bestowed upon him numerous honors and titles, further elevating his status and influence within the Republic.

Caesar's triumphant entry into Rome after the Battle of Zela solidified his position as the preeminent leader of Rome and paved the way for his eventual rise to the position of Ruler of Rome. It remains one of the most memorable moments in ancient history, symbolizing the triumph of ambition, skill, and determination.

The contemporaries of Jesus were well aware of the significance of the triumphant entries. The Jews knew their Bibles, and many people in the crowd would have remembered the words of Zechariah and recognized what Jesus was doing. Some of them may have even remembered that when Solomon became Israel's king, he was presented on the donkey of his father David (1 Kings 1:38-39). 

The rabbis had said it would happen on Passover—that the Messiah would come and judge the ungodly. Well, it's Passover week. There are hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover. As they fill the streets, a victory parade starts to form at the edge of the city—a two-mile parade that will go into the heart of Jerusalem.

The people of Israel had always understood Zechariah's prophecy to refer to the Messiah, to God's anointed king. The prophet said: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9).

When Jesus mounted the donkey, he was presenting himself as Israel's promised king. By his actions, he was saying, "Behold, thy king cometh unto thee."

In ancient times, when a king rode into a city, it was usually with a show of power and wealth. Thus one might have expected Jesus to enter Jerusalem at the head of a mighty army, bearing dazzling prizes for his royal treasury. But here is the surprising thing: the rightful king, the victorious king, is also the gentle king. Jesus comes to greet his subjects, not with pomp and circumstance, but with all humility and meekness.

Gentleness is one of the royal attributes Zechariah mentions in his prophecy: "See, your king comes to you … gentle" (Zechariah 9:9). The king's gentleness is symbolized by his mode of transport. At the very least, one would expect Jesus to ride a horse. But instead of coming on a mighty war horse or a proud stallion, he rides a lowly beast of burden.

Jesus isn't coming like the arrogant Roman generals on their war horses. He's coming in humility like Solomon did—the son of King David who rode on a mule through this very same Kidron Valley when he came into Jerusalem to take up the throne as king. Jesus is coming from the Mount of Olives, where the prophets had said the Messiah would come.

Overwhelmed with joy, the people begin to cry out: "Jesus must be the one! He's the new king of Israel! Wow! Praise God! Hosanna! Quick! Take off your coat and lay it down on the road in front of him. Run and cut branches from that tree and lay those down. 

He's closer now, and people are yelling: "Bless the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise the new Son of David! Blessed is the King of Israel!" All the pilgrims to this Passover are singing their ancient Passover song out loud: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

But then something odd happens. Jesus doesn't go to the Roman fortress, the heart of the enemy occupation. He doesn't go to the barracks to drive out the ungodly. He goes to the temple, the heart of the Jewish religion, and drives out the people who are providing a service of convenience for people coming to worship.

As the people had prayed for years, the Messiah did come at Passover to judge the ungodly. But to their shock, he confronted them and not the Romans.

Today the messiah will ride into our lives. When the Messiah rides into town, we never know where he might go or what he might do. When the Messiah rides into town, he finds evil things right in the heart of his people.

Peter says clearly, "Judgment begins with the family of God." And today we know that the temple, the place where God's presence is, is in his people. So I wonder—what would Jesus cleanse from God's people today?

Jesus would cleanse many things that we widely accept—things we wouldn't think anything about.  Jesus would also cleanse us of our dark greed and our selfishness. 

When John Newton preached on Zechariah 9 back in the 17th century, he explained how wonderful it is to serve Jesus Christ, the gentle king: "Happy are these his subjects who dwell under his shadow. He rules them, not with that rod of iron by which he bruises and breaks the power of his enemies, but with his golden scepter of love. He reigns by his own right, and by their full and free consent, in their hearts. He reigns upon a throne of grace, to which they have at all times access; and from whence they receive, in answer to their prayers, mercy and peace, the pardon of all their sins, grace to help in every time of need, and a renewed supply answerable to all their wants, cares, services and conflicts."

If we are saved by such a gentle king, then we should serve him with all gentleness. Gentleness is one of the marks of the Christian, the fruit of God's Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:23). Our lives should be living demonstrations of the "meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:1). Sadly, many Christians are harsh in their judgments, abrasive in their opinions, and rough in their handling of the weak. 

Something of the Messiah's gentleness seems to have worked its way into the heart of George Friedrich Handel. Handel was not a gentle man, by most accounts. His musicians often found him difficult to work with because he was harsh in his judgments. Yet Handel donated all the proceeds from Messiah to the poor and the needy. When the oratorio was first performed in Dublin, the newspapers advertised it as follows:

For Relief of the Prisoners in the several jails, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and for the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, call'd the Messiah.

This tradition continued throughout the composer's lifetime. According to one 18th-century historian, "From that time to the present, this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan … more than any single production in this or any country."

Handel's generosity was in keeping with the character of the Messiah himself, who healed the sick and made the children sing. 

Palm Sunday is an event of great insight and great misunderstanding. The great insight was that this Jesus really is "the King who comes in the name of the Lord" (Luke 19:38). He was the Messiah, the Son of David, the long-awaited Ruler of Israel, the fulfillment of all God’s promises. But the great misunderstanding was that he would enter Jerusalem and by his mighty works, take his throne and make Israel free from Rome. It wasn’t going to be that way: he would take his throne but it would be through voluntary suffering and death and resurrection.

Palm Sunday reminds to follow the tradition of the King who comes in all gentleness, to accept unforeseen turn of events in our lives and to extend God’s kindness, sympathy, understanding and healing touch to everyone.