I hope you didn’t feel too disappointed on missing out on Palm Sunday this year. The reason is that we are reading from Luke’s gospel, and Luke makes no mention of ‘palms’ during Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Instead, we only get mention (Luke 19.37) of people spreading their cloaks, or outer garments (himatia) on the road. So this year we celebrate Cloak Sunday. (If you are part of the tradition which keeps the palms and burns them for next year’s Ash Wednesday, I would advise against doing this with your coats.)
But Luke’s account raises another question for us: what kind of king do we want reigning over us? I am not here referring to Charles and Camilla—but to the kind of authority that we are ready to submit to. There are many authorities which exercise influence over our lives, both formal and informal—and in fact all those around us exercise some kind of power over us, through their opinions, personalities and evaluation of us, as we exercise power over them.
The reason Luke raises this question for us is that this whole section of his gospel is shaped to relentlessly press home the question for his readers: who is Jesus?
It starts in this passage with the mention of Jerusalem. Although Jesus must have visited the city many times before, Luke has been arranging his narrative since chapter 9 around this, climactic visit (Luke 9.51, 13.22, 17.11). Why does Jerusalem form such a vital focus? Certainly because this is the place where prophets are killed (Luke 13.33–34), but also because Jerusalem was the centre of spiritual, religious and political power. It was from Jerusalem that the influential Jewish leaders had come (Luke 5.17) and where people expected the kingdom of God to be revealed (Luke 19.11)—not least because it is the City of the Great King (Matt 5.35, Psalm 48.2).
As Jesus approaches the city, Luke slows down the narrative dramatically; Bethany and Bethphage are just a couple of miles from the city, and the Mount of Olives just several hundred metres, with a panoramic view over its walls and temple—glistening in the sun with its limestone, marble and gold decoration. Up till now we have covered mile after mile with Jesus; now we slow right down so we can trace his every footstep.
Luke’s focus on detail doesn’t tell us some things we would like to know—like which disciples go ahead to find the colt, exactly which village the colt comes from, who the owners are, or what they felt when the colt was taking. But it does tell us about the colt being untied—five times! The disciples will find a colt that is tied up; they are to untie the colt; they might be questioned about the untying; they did untie it; they were asked about untying. Why all the focus on untying?! Because, according to Gen 49.10–11, this is the sign of the Coming One who is the true ruler of Judah, to whom the nations of the world will submit. As Joel Green comments, ‘the whole process is wrapped in the interpretive cloth of eschatological expectation and scriptural allusion.’ Uniquely in Luke, it is the colt’s ‘lords’ (in most translations, ‘owners’) who question the disciples (Luke 19.33); they respond to these lords that the colt is needed by the Lord.
The colt hasn’t been ridden on before, because that is what is required for the king’s mount. And the format of the entry into the city follows the pattern of other examples from Scripture and from culture. What is most striking is that such events do not mark the crowning of the king, but the recognition of the king who has already won his victory. Matthew and Mark hint at this in the way they record the acclamations of the crowd. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the Coming One…!’ (Matt 21.9); ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!’ (Mark 11.10). But Luke makes it explicit: ‘Blessed is the coming King!’ (Luke 19.38), adding to the quotation from Ps 118.36.
So Jesus is coming to the city of the king; he comes in the manner of a king; and he is acclaimed by the crowd of his disciples as the king who hope the kingdom will now be announced. But what kind of king is Jesus? And what does his kingdom look like?
First, he is a king who brings peace. Luke also records the crowds as acclaiming: ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Do you recognise that acclamation? I hope so; we heard it at Christmas on the lips of the angels as they made their announcement to shepherds in the field (Luke 2.14). When Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son, John the Baptist, he anticipates that his ministry will ‘give light to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.79). Peace is a major feature of the theology of both Luke and Paul, so much so that Paul begins every letter not just with the customary greeting of ‘grace’ but also with ‘peace’.
Secondly, Jesus is a king who merits praise and brings joy. This is not just true for people, but the whole of the creation. If the people stop praising, then the very stones themselves (on the road? of the temple building?) will cry out (Luke 19.40)! Celebration is a consistent theme in Luke, not least in the parables of the lost who are found (in Luke 10).
Thirdly, Jesus is a king who brings power. The disciples welcoming Jesus celebrate the ‘works of power’ they have seen him doing (Luke 19.37). Luke has a distinctive interest in the question of power; when the Spirit comes on Mary, then power from on high rest upon her, the same power that will rest on the disciples when the Spirit comes in Acts 1 and 2. And Jesus himself, who goes into the temptations in the desert ‘in the Spirit’, returns in the ‘power of the Spirit.’ But this power is not to be used to control, manipulate or restrict, but to bring down the proud ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51) and to give ‘freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free’ (Luke 4.18).
This is a different kind of king to any you’ve met before. And the reason for that is that the journey up to Jerusalem is not a journey to power and glory, but (as Paul makes very clear in Phil 2.5–11, the other lectionary reading for Palm Sunday), it is a journey down in obedience to death. This is why he brings peace: he has turned us from enemies of God to friends through his death. This is why he brings praise and joy: because his death and resurrection have dealt with the things which separate us from God and from one another. This is the power he offers: power to know forgiveness and peace of mind.
And this presents each of us with a challenge. Will we stand with the disciples and welcome this king of peace, praise and power? Or will we stand with the Pharisees who are like the resentful tenants who ‘will not have this man to reign over us’ (Luke 19.14)?
(This is the content of a sermon preached at HMP Whatton on 20th March 2016).
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