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Royal events attract the attention of millions around the world. It is estimated some 4 billion people watched the funeral of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II – more than twice the population of the world when she was born.
How different was another royal occasion, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the acclamation of the crowds calling on him as God’s King.
A King’s Welcome. The Gospels tell us that Jesus deliberately set the scene for his entry into Jerusalem that day. Riding into the city on the back of the foal of a donkey, he was fulfilling a prophecy about the Messiah made by Zechariah some 500 years before (Zechariah 9:9).
When Jesus prepared to ride the donkey, the disciples threw their cloaks on its back, and Luke records that as Jesus rode down from the Mount of Olives people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. His entry into Jerusalem had the hallmarks of a king entering his city (Luke 19:35f).
Indeed, Luke along with other Gospel writers wants us to feel just how much of a royal procession it was: As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!…” (Luke 19:37f).
The crowds were singing one of the festival psalms for the Passover Feast (Psalm 118:26). It’s a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the one God who never loses his battles and establishes his kingdom.
Peace was another theme: “…Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” they sang. Peace was the angels’ song at the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people… the angels had sung (Luke 2:12).
However, there was an irony here that the crowds in their enthusiasm seemed to have missed: this king was not riding a warrior horse. It was no royal or presidential motorcade with an armed security.
And there is another element to that first Palm Sunday which Luke records: As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. … because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44).
As Jesus came over the top of the Mount of Olives and saw the city, it is clear that uppermost in his thoughts were his suffering and the destruction of nation’s capital, David’s royal city. Yes, he was the king coming ‘in the name of the Lord’ as the people sang. But he knew he was not coming to take up David’s throne at that time as everyone expected. Rather, he foresaw the city of Jerusalem – a smoking, desolate ruin.
Why would this happen? Because Jerusalem failed to recognize the One who had visited it.
On that first Palm Sunday there were joy, acclamation, and tears. Yet, five days later the unthinkable occurred: Jesus was put to death by crucifixion. The contrast between the first Palm Sunday when crowds acclaimed Jesus as king and the day he was strung up on a cross, could not have been more stark. One day the crowds were saying he was God’s promised king; within a week the dying Jesus was exposed to the vulgar frivolity of the Roman soldiers as they offered him wine and made a party of it. “If you are the king of the Jews,” they mocked, “save yourself” (Luke 23:37).
The events of that Thursday evening and Friday had moved swiftly. Jesus had been betrayed, arrested, brought to trial before the Jewish religious leaders, before Herod, and before Pilate. Herod and Pilate had declared him innocent of the charges against him. But the Jewish leaders were adamant he should be put to death.
And when Jesus was nailed to the cross, Pilate the Roman governor in Judea had ordered, as was the custom, that the charge against Jesus be nailed above his head – ‘King of the Jews.’ With Jesus’ resurrection and his conquest of death, Pilate’s notice was prophetic.
Why then did Jesus die? Jesus himself answers the question. In Luke chapter 19, verse 10 he says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”.
The whole of the New Testament and the voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts tells us why: he died for you and for me. As we read in Romans chapter 5, verse 8 the punishment for our sin was laid on him. Indeed, when he was dying, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Everyone watching the scene that day knew he was innocent. The them he was praying for are all who shut their minds to the voice of truth, the voice of the Spirit, and the testimony of their conscience. He was praying for the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders; he was praying for the crowd and his followers. But he was also praying then for you and me, for none of us has perfectly honored him as we should.
And isn’t it also true that although we have heard the story of the cross, there are times when we have refused to let it change us? How often have we failed to reckon that our indifference or arrogance towards him contributed to his pain.
How encouraging it is to reflect on the twin themes of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. As we consider their significance, we need to ensure that our own relationship with the king is secure. And when the joy of that really touches us, surely we’ll want to share it with family and friends as well as many others.
A prayer. Almighty and everlasting God, in tender love towards humankind you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take our nature upon him and to suffer death on the cross, so that all should follow the example of his great humility. Grant that we may follow the example of his suffering and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.