Today Christians all over the world, even those who have not been to church in a long time, will grace the pews for Palm Sunday. Palms will be all over the place and we will be waving hosanna with the joy of a little kid who has just unpacked his new toy.
When Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:53), we know that a lot of theological and Prophetic bombs are about to go off. He is walking to His death. “Jesus setting His face towards Jerusalem” could literally be translated as Jesus setting his face towards his grave and Palm Sunday is when He walks into jaws of death like a lamb walking towards the bloodied altar.
The road leading into Jerusalem is by now beaming with life, it is Palm Sunday. Jubilation and celebration. Shouts of praise and adoration. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” We should not forget that by this time the palms are shaking. By today’s standards, this was a red carpet reception only fitting for dignitaries and Hollywood blockbuster movie stars.
But there is something else: this King who is coming to town is mounted on a donkey! A donkey! And surely, the jubilant ones would have noticed this. They would have asked themselves why he was not on horseback. By the look of things, this is not your typical king.
The jubilations in town are a sign of the triumph about to come, but how? How shall we be triumph? Indeed if you read the story of this triumphant King, it doesn’t go well in the next few days. The lips that shout “Blessed is the King” on Palm Sunday will be the same lips that shout “crucify Him!” on Good Friday.
What is going on? How shall we be triumphant? When Jesus enters Jerusalem mounted on an ass (a donkey), He is making a statement that his backers gravely miss: the battle will be won by dying. Indeed, a donkey is the antithesis of a horse. While a horse is a sign of battle, a donkey is one of peace. The King comes in peace; He comes for peace, to die in it.
The dilemma of the people waving palm branches on Palm Sunday is that they also have an idea of how they shall be triumphant. And their idea is different from Jesus’s. Theirs is one of conquering, drawing swords and bleeding the enemy out.
Our church today cannot be any different. We may accept and celebrate the fact that it’s Palm Sunday and Jesus is in town but when it gets to climbing the hill to face our death, we rather stay downhill and monitor the proceedings from below. While Jesus insists that winning will only come by dying, we insist on living. Where he makes it clear that we can only win by bleeding ourselves out, we insist on winning by bleeding out the enemy.
Today’s church has outrightly refused to die. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33) The Gospel of Jesus is very clear: it’s only in dying that we will ever be able to live. But we insist on living. We insist on doing it our way, because we have convinced ourselves that if we work harder, we get to keep our lives.
But getting our hands dirty doesn’t guarantee life. If anything, it guarantees death. Those who insist on living will eventually die a death they will never come back from. God’s ferocious judgement awaits everyone who tries to earn salvation by doing more, trying harder, getting better or trying to hold tightly on their rotten life instead of just dropping dead.
God only accepts corpses because He alone knows what to do with them. To use the words of Robert Capon, Jesus “never meets a corpse that doesn’t sit up right on the spot.” When we die, we give up on the one thing that will always condemn us—our rotten life. “For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:7) But in death, we are able to receive a new and better life, Jesus’s life. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
In this case, Palm Sunday is a call to die to our rotten life. A call to give up on our life so that we will be resurrected into a new one—a life in Christ. It through dying that we get to live. The Good News is that God has offered His body, in exchange for our rotten ones and when we give up on this awful life, we soon realise that things are better on the other side. The garments are white and the sins have been forgiven and forgotten—this is the joy of the redeemed. You can only be hid in Him if you die with Him. So how shall we be triumphant? By dying.