March 25th, 2018 “The Palm Sunday Road” Rev. Heather Jepsen
This Sunday we gather together to celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what will be his final week. We call this Palm Sunday or the Triumphal entry, though it is hardly a triumph. The more I think about this day, the more I imagine that folks didn’t really know what was happening around them. Jesus was one of many entering the holy city for the celebration of Passover. And while the crowds were riled up at his presence, shouting “Hosanna, son of David” they really didn’t know who Jesus was or what he was about. At this point it is more likely that Jesus is simply one of the crowd, parading down the Mount of Olives and up into the city of Jerusalem that day.
Lucky for all of us I have just been to Jerusalem and just a few days ago I was walking the Palm Sunday Road. So let’s look at some pictures to help us imagine the scene as it was in Jesus’ time and as it looks for pilgrims today.
- View from Mount of Olives (with me)
- Looking at the Temple Mount. What we see today and imagining what Jesus saw. Both would be tinged with hope, awe, and fear.
- Imagine Olive Groves. Now we see graves as this is the spot where Jesus is said to return at the second coming.
- Walking up to the gate. Jesus would have paraded with other pilgrims down to the valley and then walked up again to enter the walled city of Jerusalem.
- The Lion’s gate. Built after Jesus’ time but he would have experienced a similar entry.
- Looking back at the Mt of Olives from the Temple Mount. Gives us an idea of the distance covered. In Jesus’ day the hill would have been green, now it is white with graves.
- (4 pictures) The streets of Jerusalem, some empty and some to imagine with pilgrims. It would have been very crowded when Jesus visited since it was a festival time. Much like my visit during Lent.
- (3 pictures) Markets. While the items sold have changed, the sight of markets along the path is very much the same as it would have been for Jesus. I am sure just as many sellers called out to him and his disciples as called out to me and my group of friends.
- Other religious sects would have been present, like these Orthodox Jews getting off the bus.
- Religious authorities would have been present like this fellow with his big fuzzy hat.
- And of course there would have been a security detail. Today we see Israeli soldiers upon the Temple Mount and throughout the Old City of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time these would have been Roman soldiers. Equally armed and prepared to keep the peace using whatever means necessary. Notice this is the Via Dolorosa.
When you walk the Palm Sunday Road today, one is nearly overwhelmed with the crowds. People gather atop the Mount of Olives by the bus load and stream down the hill hundreds at a time. The path through the cemeteries is simply a walled in stone street. It is a treacherous journey with a steep descent. The stones are slippery having been worn smooth by the feet of millions of pilgrims. Add to that the random cars that may come zipping down the road, forcing one to literally cling to the walls to avoid losing a toe, and it is not a journey for the faint of heart.
When one comes to the bottom of the Mt of Olives, it is simply a matter of crossing through traffic and then hauling oneself up the hill and through the Lion’s Gate. The road is noisy and full of fellow travelers. There is a constant blare of car horns as local drivers and tourist busses volley for position in the traffic congested streets. The streets and sidewalks are dirty and the edges and corners are all full of discarded water bottles, ice cream wrappers, and other trash. It smells, like city streets often do. And the day I walked the road was an overly warm one.
As sweat poured down my brow and I negotiated my way through the massive crowds I joked to my friend over the blaring traffic noises that this is just like it was in Jesus’ time. I was kidding of course, but there was truth in my statement. Jesus didn’t face crowds of tourists but he did face the crowds of pilgrims gathering for the Passover. Jesus didn’t have to listen to the noise of traffic and rude drivers, but I am sure there was the noise of grunting camels and those who were trying to ride their beast of burden as far as it would take them yelling as they navigated the crowds. I am confident it was just as dirty as it was the day I walked, as litter is certainly not a modern phenomenon. And I am even more certain that whatever foul odor my nose picked up that morning was nothing compared to the absolute reek of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. While we like to imagine our Bible stories in perfect bubbles of clean happiness, the truth of the matter is that Jesus’ walk from the Mt of Olives to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount was probably as annoying as mine was. Definitely not something I am eager to experience again.
The way Mark tells the story it appears that some things about that day Jesus had planned in advance, but with other things he really didn’t have a plan. Mark tells us that Jesus had arranged for a colt to ride. I have spoken before about Pilate’s entry through another gate in Jerusalem that day. Pilate was riding a war horse and was accompanied by a military parade. Pilate was coming that day to show the city the might and strength of Roman rule, lest anybody get any ideas about acting out against the empire.
Part of what Jesus seems to be doing here is a bit of political theatre and a counter demonstration. He is coming into the city through a back gate, a pilgrim’s gate. And Jesus is riding a donkey or a colt, a sign of peace. Jesus’ followers were hailing his entry, but I imagine that many that day were simply trying to get into the city themselves. Laying Palm branches on the road was typical of welcoming pilgrims to the city, so they would have probably done that whether Jesus was there or not. His disciples got the crowd shouting his praise, but I am sure some were caught up in the celebration and didn’t really know what they were shouting about. While I used to imagine Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day as a lone event, now I imagine him being one section of a long stream of pilgrims. Just as my group of visitors was but one crowd entering the city a few weeks ago, Jesus and his followers would have been but one small section in a long parade of pilgrims. It is no wonder that it was of little notice to most of the people gathered there that day.
Even Jesus himself doesn’t seem to know what this day is all about. The writer of Mark’s gospel tells us that after he enters Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the Temple Mount. He simply looks around at everything and then turns around and goes home. That actually sounds a lot like my visit as well. Show up, look around, and then turn around and go back out. What was Jesus doing there anyway? Unless perhaps the point was simply to enter the city with the other pilgrims who had gathered there.
The next day Jesus does the whole thing all over again, minus the donkey. Jesus comes back into the city and the temple and begins drawing attention to himself and causing a ruckus as he yells at the money changers, violently turning over their tables and driving them out. There’s no hiding among the crowds that day, and it doesn’t take long for the religious authorities to begin to think it’s about time they put a stop to this rabble rouser.
Jesus will spend nearly a week walking the Palm Sunday Road. Every day he will head into the city to preach and teach in the area of the temple, and every night he will leave the city behind and head back up to the security of the mountain. As the week goes on he will celebrate the Passover with his friends within the city’s walls, and he will withdraw to the Mount and the Garden of Gethsemane to pray for peace. He will be betrayed in the garden and arrested by the authorities. He will be questioned by the court and declared guilty of blasphemy and treason. And then finally he will be crucified on the hill of Golgotha, still just a face in the crowd, as more than 6,000 Jews a year were executed there accused of crimes against the state.
As I mentioned last Sunday, the Holy Land is not really holy at all. It is simply an ordinary place with ordinary people. Jesus was one of those ordinary people. A teacher of the faith and a leader of a band of followers who had different ideas about who God was and who God might be calling God’s people to be. Jesus’ walk on the Palm Sunday road was much like the walk of modern pilgrims who trek those same streets today. And Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman Empire was much like the unjust death of millions of people today at the hands of corrupt governments and broken systems. The miracle of Jesus of Nazareth is not that he was someone special, someone separate. No, the miracle is that it was in Jesus of Nazareth that God experienced the life of someone ordinary. God experienced hope and joy, sadness and sorrow, suffering and death right along with the rest of us.
Next Sunday we will gather to worship and celebrate the most unordinary, extra-ordinary resurrection of this man. But today we gather to remember that Jesus was a lot like any one of us and a lot like any of those who live in the state of Israel / Palestine today. Just an ordinary pilgrim walking the Palm Sunday Road, entering the city of Jerusalem for the Passover with everyone else. Thanks be to God for the ordinary man that is Jesus of Nazareth and for the extra-ordinary miracle that will be Jesus the Christ. Together with the crowds we say “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.