So they approached Jerusalem. They got as far as Bethphage and Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, when Jesus sent two of his disciples on ahead with a specific task. ‘Go to the village over there,’ he said to them, ‘and as soon as you enter it you will find a colt tied up – one that nobody has ever ridden before. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone says to you, “Why are you doing that?” then say, “The master needs it, and he will return it at once.” ’ They went off and found the colt tied up beside a door, out in the street; and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They gave the answer Jesus had told them, and they let them carry on. So they brought the colt to Jesus and laid their cloaks on it, and he mounted it. Several people spread their cloaks out in the road. Others did the same with foliage that they had cut in the fields. Those in front, and those coming behind, shouted out, ‘Hosanna! Welcome in the Lord’s Name! Welcome to the kingdom of our father David, the kingdom coming right now! Hosanna in the highest!’ Jesus entered Jerusalem, went into the Temple, and looked all round. It was already getting late, and he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
It was late October 1991. The fishing boat Andrea Gail was five hundred miles out into the Atlantic, off the Massachusetts coast. A cold front was moving along the US–Canada border, causing turbulent weather in New England, while at the same time a high-pressure system was building over south-eastern Canada. These two systems would, without extra help, have created quite a storm; but there was more. A tropical hurricane, arriving from further south, completed the picture. It was the perfect storm. Ferocious winds and huge waves reduced the Andrea Gail boatto matchwood. There had, of course, been earlier ‘perfect storms’, but this was the one made famous by a book and a movie which took that phrase as their title.
I have often thought that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, for which we are now getting ready as our Lenten journey nears its end, he was riding into a perfect storm. The strong wind from the west is the pressure from the Roman empire: Rome needed the Middle East to be stable and settled to keep its eastern frontier secure. The high-pressure system to the north is the eager, overheated aspirations of the Jewish people, longing for independence and ready to use violence to achieve it. And the hurricane from the south? The hurricane from the south is the ancient, long-prophesied purpose of God himself.
The Jews, of course, hoped that God would simply endorse their aspirations. Get the hurricane to reinforce the high-pressure system, and we can see off the cold westerly wind! But throughout the long history of Israel things had never been that simple. Again and again God’s purposes went ahead while Israel misunderstood them, misread the signals, and tried to pull God’s plan out of shape to coincide a bit more with its own dreams and goals. Sometimes this had resulted in major disasters.
What Jesus did, on that first Palm Sunday, was to put into action one of the classic statements of prophetic purpose. God would indeed come back to his people, to fulfil his promises, to rescue them, and to set up his kingdom of peace over the world. But it wouldn’t happen the way they wanted. It would indeed be a kingdom to confront Rome and every other proud pagan empire. But it would also have to confront the twisted hopes and desires of the people themselves, not least their corrupt and self-serving leaders.
So, on Palm Sunday, Jesus rides, knowingly and deliberately, into the perfect storm. He knows what will happen. But he believes, as we shall see, that the storm now brewing will be, paradoxically, the means by which God’s purposes will be accomplished.
All this explains the contrast, to which people often draw attention, between the enthusiasm of the crowds on Palm Sunday and the angry cries from the same crowd on Good Friday (15.10 –15). And here Mark has to allow the words to carry two quite different meanings. When the crowd shouts out its Hosannas (verses 9 –10), welcoming Jesus into the city, and celebrating ‘the kingdom of our father David, the kingdom coming right now’, they are thinking back a thousand years to the time when Israel was truly great, when the surrounding nations were repelled, and the independent kingdom of David, and then of his son Solomon, extended further than ever before or since. That’s what they want. Like James and John in chapter 10, they are imagining Jesus as a standard earthly king – well, not exactly standard, because they certainly don’t want him to be a Herod or a Caesar, but they certainly imagine that he will do what a true king should, get rid of the hated pagan oppressor and establish an independent country once and for all.
Mark, of course, believes firmly that Jesus is indeed the ‘son of David’, the one who is bringing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. But that kingdom is not the sort the crowd have in mind, just as it wasn’t the sort that James and John had in mind. Mark is beginning a sequence which will take us all the way to the foot of the cross, where people – here the crowds, there a Roman centurion, with others in between – will say things which they mean in one sense and which Mark ‘hears’, and wants us to hear, in quite another sense. Jesus is indeed to be crowned as the king of the Jews. But the crown will be the crown of thorns. And the homage that the nations will pay him at his coronation will be the muttered, head-shaking puzzlement of a hard-bitten professional killer.
Among the many other lessons we urgently need to learn from Palm Sunday is the way in which those perfect storms have a habit of coming back and catching us unawares. The world is trying to squeeze us into one particular mould. We may, particularly if we are Christians, have a fairly clear idea of what we want to do, how God wants us to be; but, as with the Jewish people of the first century, as indeed with James and John, there is often far too much of our own agenda peeping through. We need to learn humility: humility to realize that God’s plans may well not be our plans, because his thoughts and ours may be just as radically different as God’s thoughts were from the thoughts even of Jesus’ closest disciples. Sometimes the only way we learn all this is through the perfect storm, the moment when everything in life appears to go wrong and we find ourselves tossed to and fro in the middle of it. When that happens, the answer we get from Palm Sunday is clear. Hold on. See the story through. Keep with Jesus in all that lies ahead. The story does indeed lead to the cross. But that is the moment, in a way that still catches us off guard, at which God’s purposes are fulfilled, and his kingdom is established.
Teach us, gracious Lord, to watch humbly for your way forward, no matter what our culture may say or our hearts may desire.