Because our Chapel meets on Monday nights, instead of Sunday Mornings, all our Christian Holy Days are pushed back by one day. So we have “Palm Monday.” This sermon was preached at our “Palm Monday Service” on March 29, 2021.
Yesterday was Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is the day that Jesus of Nazareth, a famous teacher, miracle worker, disturber of the peace, and who some say was the Son of God, entered Jerusalem being proclaimed as the Messiah and King by the people. By Friday of the same week, he would be crucified for treason and blasphemy by the same people who welcomed him as King the prior Sunday. There’s a lot we could say about Palm Sunday, but what we’ll be focusing on tonight is this: When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he rode in on an unbroken colt. I’ll be in Luke ch. 19. 28-44 if you’d like to follow along.
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “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. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
There are four stages to breaking a wild horse or donkey. These four stages correspond to four traits of wild animals, the very traits that make them wild rather than tame. The first stage is to calm the animal, and that’s because wild animals have a very low threshold for flight. What that means is, it doesn’t take much to put them on the run. So, the first step, is to calm them down by showing them they have no reason to be afraid. With a pat on the head, a scratch on the chin, and an apple in hand, the animal learns to associate humans with positive things. The second stage, is what’s called “reducing their flight distance.” What this means is, you can approach the animal and perhaps touch it, groom it, and maybe even halter it. The animal has learned it doesn’t need the flight instinct. In the third stage, the animal learns how to be led. The intense fear a wild animal feels around humans is slowly being replaced by trust. Finally, the animal can be ridden. It can be guided. It can be spurred on. It accepts restraint. A horse can be broken in by a skilled trainer in about a week. But this one, known to Jesus in a mysterious way, has never been ridden by anyone, ever.
They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
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:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Who are these people, calling out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”? Well, let’s begin with the most pressing. They were a conquered people. The Roman General Pompey had conquered Jerusalem 63 years before the birth of Jesus and the Romans had ruled it, either directly or through puppet kings like Herod ever since. This would have been particularly painful history during this week, the week of the Passover, where the Jewish people (including Jesus and his disciples) would celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt through the mighty intervention of God. The Jewish people believed God had called them for a purpose, had freed them for a purpose, but here they were, under the thumb of a Roman occupation.
Sometimes this frustration boiled over into trouble. Just prior to Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem a man named Barabbas had tried to lead an insurrection to overthrow the Romans. That kind of thing had happened more than once in Jesus’s 33 years. And because Jerusalem was always on edge, especially during this time of year, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate would ride from his palatial home at Caesarea by the Sea. He would arrive from the West, on a war horse, with a full military escort. Possibly at the exact moment Pilate, with his war party, arrived from the West, Jesus, riding on a donkey arrived from the East.
What are we to make of this? Well, I will make a simple point. The people that are crying out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” are a broken people. They have tried to buck, again, and again the rod of their oppressors. But what can be done against Pontius Pilate and his war party? Nothing. It wasn’t just Pilate who had broken this people. Religion had broken them as well.
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
The Pharisees, who see something unfolding that they’re uncomfortable with, resort to old tactics. Rebuke! Criticize! Scold! Lecture! Reprimand these unruly people into submission! Jesus had once said of these religious leaders that they “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23.4). What did Jesus mean when he accused the religious leaders of tying up heavy loads and putting them on people’s shoulders? The Reformation theologian John Calvin said that the heavy loads were God’s law, but God’s law applied in an oppressive, tyrannical, rigid, and cruel way, without the comfort of grace and forgiveness. And here we see it in action. Joy and hope because of Jesus springs from these people, but the Pharisees want them scolded and burdened with silence. The Pharisees want them broken. But Jesus refuses.
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Jesus will not terrify this crowd with a proud war horse, nor will he quiet them with religious guilt and fear. He will let them cry out, in hope, in joy, and even in victory. But our scripture doesn’t end with Jesus crying out in happy appreciation for the warm reception. Rather, our scripture ends with Jesus, sobbing over the very city that had just welcomed him.
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
Why the tears on a day that made so many, so happy? Because Jesus knows by the end of the week, this people who welcomed Jesus on Sunday will have rejected him by Friday. Why? Because they will have lost confidence that this humble, quiet, gentle, endlessly loving man, could have given them the freedom and peace they so desperately wanted. Rather than turn to Jesus, they turned to the sword, crying out for Barabbas the insurrectionist to lead them. Rather than turn to Jesus, they turned to religious cruelty and fear, crying out for the Pharisees to silence the man who rode the unbroken colt across the palms. By Thursday, this broken people, broken by war, fear, guilt, and despair, decided that only more war, more fear, more guilt, and more despair could save them. Jesus wept. “If you had known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
Jesus was undeterred. In humility he came into Jerusalem, and in humility he would leave it. In humility, on an unbroken colt he entered. In humility, a broken man carrying a cross, he would leave it. And for what? Well, for you. Now there are a variety of ways we could take this. The Bible says that Jesus endured the cross for love. The Bible says he suffered for the forgiveness of sins. Both are true. But by “for you,” what I mean this evening is he wishes to have you for himself. Pontius Pilate wanted the same thing, and he used a sword to get it. The religious leaders wanted the same thing, and they used laws, guilt, and fear to get it. But Jesus uses love, humility, mercy, and kindness, at the cost of his very own life, so that you would freely, without coercion, follow him. Jesus doesn’t need to break the colt to lead it. And he doesn’t need to break you. “Others bind that they may possess,” said the 2nd century Christian theologian Origen, “but Jesus frees that he may keep, for He knows grace is more powerful than chains.” “Christ is the master of humility,” said the 4th century Christian Bishop Ambrose. “Christ is not called King,” he continued, “as one who exacts tribute, or arms His forces with the sword, or visibly crushes His enemies, but because He rules men’s hearts, and brings them believing, hoping, and loving into the Kingdom of Heaven.” My friends, Jesus is not Pontius Pilate. He is not a Pharisee. He doesn’t need to break you to lead you. He can ride the unbroken colt.
But this is not entirely true I suppose. There is something that breaks, when we see Jesus riding from the east on a colt while Pilate rides from the west high on his horse. There is something that breaks, when we see Jesus weep as the crowd cries out. There is, something that breaks, when Jesus seats Judas, who would betray him, next to him at the Last Supper. There is, something that breaks, as Jesus dies friendless and alone, broken in body but not in his love and commitment towards us. I would be lying if I were to tell you that the unbroken love of Jesus cannot break you on a deeper, more profound, and lasting way than any conqueror’s sword or religious zealot’s rules. But being broken by love leads to freedom, and anyone who has come to know the love of Jesus knows what I’m speaking about.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the 18th century French military and political leader, is reported to have said: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended upon force. But centuries ago, Jesus started an empire that was built on love, and even to this day millions will die for him.” I agree with Napoleon, though I’d add just one thing. You can live for him, for Jesus, too. You can do it freely. You can do it unbroken, at least in the way that tyrants understand. You can do it now. Come Lord Jesus, rule and reign your people by the power of your unbroken love and be crowned King in our midst.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.