Sermon preached at Evensong on Palm Sunday (14 April 2019) by Dr Paula Gooder, Chancellor

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Sermon preached at Evensong on Palm Sunday (14 April 2019) by Dr Paula Gooder, Chancellor

On Palm Sunday the Chancellor reflects on what made the crowd at Jerusalem recognise Jesus for who he truly was.


I find optical illusions fascinating. They come in various shapes and forms. Some at first look like one thing, such as a vase, but if you look long enough and hard enough turn into something else, such as two people looking at each other. Other optical illusions look like a geometrical pattern but if you squint and tip your head in just the right way, a picture will emerge from the shapes. The intriguing feature of optical illusions is that the gap between not seeing the illusion, and seeing it, is infinitesimally small. All of a sudden the image becomes clear and you can’t imagine how it was that you didn’t see it in the first place.

This morning churches across the world from the western Christian tradition celebrated what is known as Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday commemorates a significant moment in the life and ministry of Jesus, when Jesus borrowed a donkey from someone he knew in Bethany, a village just outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, and rode down the hill into Jerusalem to widespread acclaim from the crowd that accompanied him. To us, around 2000 years later, the response given to Jesus by the crowd appears unremarkable. We know exactly who Jesus was, and what this final journey to Jerusalem would lead to, so a bit of shouting, singing and palm waving seems the least that they could do. But in the narrative of the Gospel stories up to this point, it was extraordinary.

Until this point, Jesus’ ministry had, largely, been met with bemusement and incomprehension, if not downright hostility. Hardly anyone Jesus met – including his own disciples – appeared to understand who he was or what he had come to do. But when Jesus mounted the young donkey and rode it into Jerusalem this seemed to change. All of a sudden people seemed to understand who he was, they shouted and sang and waved branches from trees in recognition, a recognition which, even the day before, would have been almost inconceivable.  

So what changed? We can be fairly certain that, unlike the optical illusions that cause me so much pleasure, it was not a case of the crowd squinting and tipping their heads to the right angle. So what was it? What suddenly helped the crowd see who Jesus really was? It may not surprise you to know that this is a question about which there is much discussion and debate.

Many people back the donkey. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ mounting of the donkey at Bethany was not only important but planned. The story in the Gospels makes it clear that he had pre-booked his donkey – two disciples were sent ahead of the rest to collect the donkey that Jesus had already made arrangements for. Jesus’ wasn’t suddenly overcome with tiredness and decided to ride the rest of the way. He had planned ahead.

It is possible that riding a donkey into Jerusalem was meant to bring to mind a Roman Triumph. Indeed the alternative name for what we remember today is ‘Jesus’ triumphal entry’. When Roman emperors, who had been victorious in battle, returned to Rome they rode in style on a white horse bringing with them all the people they had defeated along the way. If this is meant to be a triumphal entry – it’s a very odd one. Jesus’ major challenge lay ahead of him, not behind him; he rode a donkey, not a white horse; the crowd came willingly and weren’t coerced. To see it as in anyway triumphal is a stretch of the imagination.

A much closer connection than a Roman triumph can be found in Jewish history. In the second century BC, a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees conquered the occupying Greek forces. Their re-entry into Jerusalem following this is recorded in 1 Maccabees 13.51 like this:

On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.

While the same objection stands – that Jesus is not yet victorious – this event feels much closer to what was going on here than a Roman triumph. If we add in to this two prophecies from Zechariah: one which declared that their King would come riding on a donkey and another that proclaimed that God would begin to save his people on the Mount of Olives, you can begin to see that seeing Jesus riding on a donkey on the Mount of Olives accompanied by Palm branches and singing might have stirred something deep in the popular imagination, tickling the backs of their minds and suggesting that this might just be the person they had been waiting for, for so long.

So the donkey is important but it isn’t the whole story. All four Gospels record the people singing something along the lines of:

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  

This is now so familiar a phrase in Christian tradition that it is easy to forget that it is a quotation from Psalm 118. Psalm 118 recorded the victorious return of a King from battle, back to Jerusalem to be welcomed and celebrated by the Priests in the temple. At the time of Jesus it was important for two reasons – the first is that it had become associated with their hopes for a Messiah. It was a favourite Psalm, often quoted when people talked about the person they hoped would come to save them, but it was also a Psalm that people used to sing on the way to the temple, as they made their way to worship God. Psalms 113-118, known as the hallel Psalms, were what were sung year in and year out on the way to the temple.

My hunch about what happened as Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem is that a number of features lined up: they remembered the Maccabees triumph against the Greeks with its accompanying Palm branches and singing; they saw the donkey and remembered the prophecy about God saving his people beginning on the Mount of Olives AND found themselves singing, as they always did on the way to the temple, Psalms 113-118. When they got to, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’, you can’t help wondering whether the penny dropped and they saw Jesus for who he truly was, the one they had waited for, for so long.  

So what was it that made the crowd around Jesus suddenly see him for who he was? It was no one thing – it was a profound combination of memory, place, visual symbolism and song which all came together in a single moment until they saw the world as they had never seen it before.  

This challenges us to think about ourselves too. Why is it that sometimes we can catch a glimpse of God, and of the world and our place within it, and at other times it feels as though we are wandering in an impenetrable fog, unable to feel or understand anything? The answer, it seems to me is offered by the events of Palm Sunday. Moments of comprehension and wisdom, when they come, emerge from the confluence of a range of factors: memory and place, symbolism and song, words and silence, deeds and inaction to mention only a few. Occasionally the right combination of factors come together at the right time and, when they do, the fog lifts and we see as we have never seen before. There is little we can do to force this to happen but we can be open, we can wait expectantly ready to join our own voices to those who have, over the centuries, have seen and understood and have been able to say:

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’.

Amen