The Celebration and the Coming Storm
April 14, 2019*
By Pastor John Partridge
Have you ever heard the legend about the origin of the “V” for Victory sign? During WW2 the V for victory symbolism was proposed because the word “Victory” begins with the letter V in both English and French and the word “Freedom” begins with the letter ‘V’ in Dutch. But in Great Britain, the “V” sign (Americans often call it the “Peace” sign) has an entirely different, and offensive meaning and the legend about that dates to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It helps to understand that the Battle of Agincourt was one of the first battles ever fought after the development of the British longbow. Further, it was customary at the time for the lords and generals of the warring factions to meet, share dinner, and drink too much wine the night before the battle.
With that in mind, the legend says that while the French and the English leaders were drinking, one of the French generals threatened that after they had won, they would cut off the two bow fingers of all the longbowmen. As is often the case, the development of a new weapon proved to be decisive. The hail of arrows from the English decimated the French troops long before they met the main body of the English swordsmen and, in the end, the French were routed and fled the field. But, the story goes, as the French fled, the British longbowmen happily held up a “V” for victory sign to remind the French that they were still in possession their two fingers. Ever since, the British use the “V” sign much the way that Americans tend to use their middle finger.
In any case, what I really wanted to point out was the historic practice of meeting for dinner before a major battle. Can you imagine trying to celebrate knowing that you might not survive the fighting on the next day? Can you imagine what it was like, as the allied armies prepared for the D-Day invasion, for those soldiers who had the misfortune to celebrate a birthday a day or two before boarding a landing craft for a beach Normandy? In many ways, this represents what we find in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As we begin the story of Holy Week, of Jesus’ arrest, imprisonment, torture, crucifixion, and death on the cross, Palm Sunday must have felt, to Jesus, like having a party before the battle or a celebration before the invasion.
To see why, we begin by reading the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry in Luke 19:28-40.
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Before Jesus set foot in the village, he knew that there was a colt tied up there. Before he met the owner, or any of the neighbors, he knew what answer would satisfy them that it was okay for a total stranger to borrow their animal. Jesus’ perception of places and people who were nowhere nearby has always been impressive and is an example of Jesus’ divinity and an expression of his omniscience. Jesus knew what was beyond his field of vision, he knew the hearts of people that he had never met, and he knew what would happen in the future. But with that in mind, it makes the next part of the story even more staggering when we understand the story from Jesus’ perspective.
As Jesus crosses over the last hill and comes to the Mount of Olives, he is now within sight of the Temple. On the road on which he is walking, it is now literally all downhill from the Mount of Olives to a bridge that crosses the valley, and then to the temple gate. But as Jesus begins his descent of this hill, the people begin to shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” The Apostle John records that the people
“took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” [which means “Save us”]
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!”
And as the people did these things, some of the Pharisees ask Jesus to rebuke his disciples and make them stop. Jesus says no.
Because what the disciples and the people around Jesus are doing could potentially disrupt the status quo of the people in power and trigger a major problem with the occupying Roman army. To understand better, let’s look at that in a little more detail.
The things that the people are saying, “Hosanna” or “Save us,” “Blessed is the king of Israel,” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” are things that were said to kings and conquering generals as they entered the city. Riding on the back of an unridden donkey was the way that kings were known to enter the city when their intentions were peaceful. Laying down cloaks or other items of clothing along the road was, again, the way that kings or heroes were greeted, much as we greet dignitaries today with a red carpet. And waving palm branches was as close as the people could come to waving an Israeli flag. Taken together, within sight of the Antonia Fortress which adjoined the Temple and was the headquarters for the Roman garrison, the people were publicly, and loudly, proclaiming the arrival of a king to the city of Jerusalem.
The Pharisees are afraid that at the height of the Passover celebration, these actions might cause the Roman army to do something violent. But what they probably fear most is the potential political response. You see, when the Romans took over Israel, they set up a power sharing agreement with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin. Rome allowed Israel’s leaders to run the country and to perform their rituals in the Temple, but to ensure that these leaders were under the ultimate control of the Roman government, all the priestly vestments, robes, or uniforms were held under guard in the Fortress Antonia. If the Romans suspected that Israel’s leaders, or her people, were raising up a new king or acting in rebellion against the Roman government (and all of these things could be interpreted that way) then the Romans would close the doors to the fortress and there could be no daily sacrifice and with tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in the city for the celebration of Passover, there would be no Passover.
If the Pharisees and the other leaders of Israel couldn’t control the people, then the Roman army could hold the entire Passover celebration for ransom until Israel found leaders that could. The Pharisees were afraid that the status quo could be upset, and they could lose their jobs, their status, and even their lives. This is why the Pharisees tell Jesus to make his disciples and other supporters stop but Jesus knows that what they are doing is in fulfillment of prophecy and says that if the people stop, the stones themselves will cry out so that God’s prophecy will be fulfilled. And Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is also why they immediately return to the city and begin to plot the murder of Jesus. He is a danger to the structures of power. He is a danger to the jobs, position, respectability, and authority of the movers and shakers of Israel.
Jesus must go.
But if we learned anything at all from the simple story about sending two disciples to find a donkey, it is that Jesus knew what the Pharisees were going to do next. Even before he came to Jerusalem Jesus knew that he would die there.
And so, for Jesus, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was very much like the officers’ dinner before the Battle of Agincourt or those unfortunate soldiers who celebrated birthdays before the invasion of Normandy knowing full well that they might not survive the day.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, what we celebrate as Palm Sunday, is a staggering study in contrast because we see Jesus being celebrated as a king and as the messiah, but even as they celebrate, Jesus knows that he will die within hours.
Jesus knew that he would die.
He knew that honoring God would cost him his life.
And he chose to honor God anyway.
And yet, how often do we fail to honor God because doing so might be…
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