So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13)
I have always enjoyed a parade, so Palm Sunday has always been a favorite festival of mine. When we planted the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lafayette, Louisiana, on Palm Sunday we arranged for a mini-parade of donkey rides for children from the parking lot to the front door. It was a big hit, although they were disappointed that I didn’t let the donkey carry them all the way inside!
All Angels Church in New York City already had an annual Palm Sunday tradition of a congregational procession around the block, led by the crucifer and a robed choir, followed by parishioners singing and waving palm branches. It was quite an event, but I learned that it was not as popular with the local neighbors as I would have hoped. Living around the church on the Upper West Side were lots of elderly Jewish people, and many were Holocaust survivors. Some of them were still convinced that Christians were somehow part of the horrors that they had experienced. The sight of a marching band of enthusiastic Christians carrying a cross through their neighborhood raised lots of questions and painful memories.
In many ways, those conflicting messages and emotions were part of the very first Palm Sunday procession, too. The crowd was excited about the promise of a Messiah who would deliver them from their Roman oppressors. They longed for the day when they would have their own King who would set them free. Could this Rabbi from Nazareth be the one? Of course, for Jesus, the shadow of the Cross loomed largely, and the enthusiastic cries from the crowd must have all seemed rather hollow. The events that would follow revealed that their shouts of praise quickly turned into demands for his crucifixion.
Large crowds always make me rather nervous – a crowd can quickly become an angry mob, and that keeps me on edge. In 1976 we were living in Alexandria, Virginia, and on Sunday, July 4th, there were spectacular Bicentennial celebrations in Washington, DC, including a massive parade down Independence Ave. Angela and I – with our four children – decided to go and watch – as did perhaps a million other people.
Overall, it was a well-behaved crowd, and the parade was spectacular, with numerous military marching bands, fire trucks, and so on. We were several rows back from the front, and our five-year-old son Jon could see nothing from his knee-high vantage point. He quickly became bored and did what most boys his age would do – irritate his sisters. I intervened by lifting him up and placing him on my shoulders and all was well – Jon could now see the parade, so all the sounds made sense, and peace was restored.
That experience quickly became a sermon illustration. Our day-to-day experiences make little or no sense when viewed from our limited vantage point, but when we are able to be lifted onto our heavenly Father’s shoulder and can see it from his perspective, all the pieces fit together.
This idea was reinforced for me when we moved to Lafayette, Louisiana. Interstate 10 is the major cross-country highway that goes through Lafayette and just after Baton Rouge crosses the Atchafalaya Swamp on a 20-mile-long bridge (3rd longest in the USA). The highway is almost perfectly straight, and from the perspective of drivers and any anxious passengers, it looks as if the road narrows to where it completely disappears at a point in the distance. Experience teaches us that the road remains the same width – it is all a matter of perspective.
From God’s perspective, Palm Sunday was the beginning of the last act of his rescue mission for the world. It began in pre-history with the hint of divine intervention, after that first act of rebellion in the Garden of Eden. The rather mysterious text reads, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) This plan of salvation is slowly revealed through the Old Testament with various hints of God’s gracious provision for the alienation brought on by our own rebellion. Redemption will focus on a child born to be king and prophesied most memorably in Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us, a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
This would be a king like no other. Instead of enjoying the privilege of a royal throne, he was laid in a borrowed manger and would end his earthly life crucified between two thieves on Calvary’s Hill. But from God’s perspective, this was all a part – a truly agonizing part – of the plan. The first Epistle of Peter describes it well: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
I find truly mind-stretching that from God’s perspective, the events of that first Palm Sunday are just as applicable to you and me today as they were the first time Jesus rode into the city. God does not count time as we do. God is above and outside the sphere of time, so the centuries that have passed from that first Palm Sunday are of no consequence in God’s timeless perspective. NOW is the day of salvation.
As you prepare for your own Palm Sunday observance, I do encourage you to look back on those historic events but also forward to that day when we will all kneel before the throne of the One who is our King. There we will join with the heavenly choir as they sing:
All glory, laud, and honor to you, Redeemer, King,
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.
You are the King of Israel and David’s royal Son,
Now in the Lord’s name coming, the King and Blessed One.