More than You Think: A Palm Sunday Reflection

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Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday. Is there a more ambivalent day on the Christian calendar? “Hosanna!” shouted the people lining the streets of Jerusalem. Literally, “Save us!” Save us, they meant, from the Roman oppressor.

Jesus did come to save them, of course, but not from the Romans. Over the next few days, the crowd would come to realize that Jesus wasn’t on board with their agenda. By Friday the very people who shouted “Hosanna!” were shouting “Crucify him!”

So it has always made me a little uneasy to commemorate the shouting and the palm-waving on Palm Sunday. Does praise count as praise when the people are that confused and, as it turns out, that bloodthirsty?

We have baptized all our children on Palm Sunday. The first was more or less accidental; the Sunday that was convenient and available happened to be Palm Sunday. We held our boy in his long white gown and the children came down the aisle with their palm branches and the big organ rumbled and we sang,

All glory, laud, and honor
To Thee, Redeemer King
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.

Immediately we understood that Palm Sunday, traditionally associated with the faith and praise of children, was the perfect day to recognize and celebrate a child’s place in the Covenant. So we baptized our other five children on Palm Sundays too.

We came to think of Palm Sunday as our family holiday and were a little sad whenever the day came around and we didn’t have anybody to baptize. It may be my imagination or selective memory, but Palm Sunday seems always to be beautiful–sunny and bright after the long, gray nastiness of a Nashville winter.

Yet Palm Sunday has still troubled me. What, exactly, are we celebrating?

My friend and pastor Russ Ramsey preached yesterday. He helped me see that we celebrate on Palm Sunday the same thing we celebrate any time we baptize a baby. He summed it up in a sentence: “Jesus is always doing more than you think.” We expect Jesus to deliver us from Romans or fears or insecurities or money troubles or addictions or heartache or loneliness. But Jesus came to deliver you from troubles that go much deeper than any of those. “I am doing a new thing here,” he is always saying. “You have no idea.”

On that first Palm Sunday there wasn’t a soul in Jerusalem who understood what Jesus was up to. As the scripture points out, even “his disciples did not understand these things at first.” They were as ignorant of his purposes as a little baby at the baptismal font. When it comes to that, if I’m any less ignorant myself, it’s through no merit or wisdom of my own, but only by God’s grace. Yet Jesus did what he came to do. He continues to do what he means to do, requiring neither our permission or our full understanding.

I don’t wish to suggest that our will and our understanding don’t figure into the equation. I do wish to suggest, however, that this business of sin and redemption is full of mysteries, and our grasp of things isn’t as important in the end as our willingness to believe God even as we inhabit the mystery. And I’m thankful for a day to commemorate Jesus’ unflagging determination to rescue people who had no idea how badly they needed to be rescued. Hosanna! He is always doing more than we think.

Russ Ramsey has put together a series of daily readings he calls “Easter Week in Real Time.” They walk the reader day-by-day through Holy Week, showing from the Gospels what was happening each day between Palm Sunday and Easter. You can find “Easter Week in Real Time” here at The Rabbit Room. I’ll be reading them this week, and I commend them to you.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


39 Comments

  1. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Thanks for the link, Kyle. I haven’t read the whole article yet, but I can see that it will be well worth my time. Always glad to hear a thoughtful counter-position…

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    “…our grasp of things isn’t as important in the end as our willingness to believe God even as we inhabit the mystery.” That’s the mouthful. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe.” We actually have to know very little in order to make the leap on a daily basis.

  3. Patrick

    Great message, Jonathan! I struggle with Palm Sunday too. Even if the crowed wasn’t fickle as Kyle’s link boldly denounces as a myth- it is what the crowed was demanding (yes, they were demanding not praising) that makes me uneasy with it. I’m not convinced that the crowed wasn’t fickle. It was Holy Week and “Hosanna” was a shout of great misunderstanding about who Jesus was and what he intended to do. Even if this was a “different crowd” than the one crying “Crucify Him!” in reality the are both asking for the same thing. To “Save Us!” is the reason Jesus came to town that day. He knew full well what this would lead to. The only way he could “Save Us!” is when we “Crucified Him!”. Whether or not it was the same group back then shouting each of these demands- We ARE both crowds today. Only Jesus can save us. He saves us from ourselves and our sin. And every time we willfully sin against Him our heart screams “Crucify Him”- it is for my sins, and yours, that Jesus let himself be Crucified. We are the fickle crowd.

    As a person of psychology I know crowds are fickle. All crowds are. In a large group most people seem incapable of thinking for themselves. The Old Testament shows us a long history of a fickle people. The very day they are saved from Egypt (the event that is being celebrated by the Jews during the week we are referring to) they are protesting that they never should have left (Exodus 14: 11-12). You can deny it all you want, but we are that fickle people.

  4. KRF

    “Jesus is always doing more than you think.”
    In the midst of my currently chaotic world, that is exactly what I needed to read this morning.

  5. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    “Jesus is always doing more than you think.”

    Jonathan – thank you so much for this wonderful meditation. It was so good. It brought tears to my eyes and opened a window in my soul…

    Thank you so much for sharing the gospel with us.

  6. Fellow Traveler

    Yep, good link Kyle, and I’ve heard Paul Maier speak about this a couple times too.
    The Good Friday crowd was probably largely composed of temple workers who were told to come and follow directions if they wanted to keep their jobs. (Notice how they behave like they’ve been pre-programmed. “Whom will ye that I realize unto you?” asks Pilate. Imagine whispering: “What do we say now?” “Ask him for Barabbas.” “BARABBAS!”) And only a couple hundred could fit into Pilate’s courtyard, so there literally wasn’t room for the sympathetic Jewish people. They were outside lining the streets of the Via Dolorosa as Jesus came walking down and carrying his cross.

  7. Becca

    Jonathan, thanks for this. I have run fickle from Christ like Peter and John. I have cried Hosanna one day, only to charge Him with raised fists on the next. I have promised to trust in one breath and grabbed for the steering wheel in the next. So I don’t have to look any further than my own heart to see the inconstancy you mention. It’s so good to consider that: “Jesus is always doing more than you think.” I’m grateful for your reminder to rest in His care and mystery.

  8. Fellow Traveler

    Oh, I feel stupid. I typed the word “realize” when I meant release.

    [Assumes fetal position under desk.]

  9. Julie

    My family is in the middle of reading “Amon’s Adventure”, which is novel/family devotional set in the weeks leading up to the crucifixion. As we see the culture (as well as the events unfold) through the eyes of a child, I’m reminded that the Jewish culture was not much different than ours. We are worshipers who are constantly fighting the draw to our idols, we are believers who struggle to have faith, and our lives shout “Hosanna” while our fickle, selfish nature was the very same that led to “Crucify Him”. They were not entirely all good nor all evil. They were both. And so are we. As we approach Good Friday, I’m grateful that we are indeed new creations, and that Jesus continues to be up to far more than we can imagine. As he was with Joseph when he was in prison, with Job when all was taken from him, and with the disciples when they had lost heart. He was always up to more… and continues to be…

  10. Fellow Traveler

    Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
    That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
    By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
    O most afflicted.

    Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
    Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
    ’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
    I crucified Thee.

    Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
    The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
    For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
    God intercedeth.

    For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
    Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
    Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
    For my salvation.

    Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
    I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
    Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
    Not my deserving.

  11. JWitmer

    Michael Card is among the Bible teachers who believe there were two crowds that weekend – the visitors, excited to see the Messiah on Palm Sunday, and the locals of Jerusalem, threatened and full of hate for Him. It makes sense to me.

    But I don’t think that negates the truth that Jesus came to do more than we think, (beautifully put) or that He alone knows the full extent of His plans. The Hosana worshippers, fickle or no, were still confused and mistaken in their praise. And those who cried for crucifixion, arrogantly claiming that His blood should be upon them and their children had no idea they were making the only possible plea for mercy they didn’t deserve.

    In Mere Christianity Lewis quoted MacDonald something to this effect:

    We anticipate that when Christ takes over our lives He intends spring cleaning, maybe a new roof or even adding a room or two. But what He really intends is to level the entire structure of self in order to build anew on the spot.

  12. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Thanks for this, Jonathan. I love the way you take my mind into rich imagination. And for what its worth, I have gone from “Save me now!” to “Get out of my life!” in far less than four days time, so I take your point.

  13. kelli

    Thanks for this, Jonathan. I needed this reminder today. (Well, I actually need it daily!) I need to trust more than I need to understand.

    Susan…it’s in chapter 9…Counting the Cost. I looked it up, too:)

  14. Ugly Biscuit

    Wonderful! I love the part about “I’m doing a new thing here” and “You have no idea!”

    We really don’t know! To staggering depths, we have no idea…dark glass looking!

    Praise God!! Bring on Good Friday! Cross Day!!

    Big-HE-little-me!

  15. Loren

    Over the years I somehow missed that Palm Sunday is “traditionally associated with the faith and praise of children.” Yet within the space of a day I read this and an editorial in WORLD magazine about the power of “Hosannas” from children (there was a lot more to it than that, and I wish I could share the whole article, but online you can only see a bit if not a subscriber 🙁 ). All that to say, it’s such a beautiful picture!

    And yet every time I see the praises of Palm Sunday I’m reminded of Michael Card’s contemplative song about Jesus riding to Zion on the back of a foal. I always thought it would be such a powerful song to play in one of those Easter pageants–instead of the typical loud, joyful song have the people waving their palms in silence with one voice singing that.

    Jesus really WAS so much more than they could fathom. He’s so much more than I can fathom! Hallelujah!!!

  16. Leanne

    One more thing I feel compelled to add: I resonate with that uneasy sense of “celebration” on this day and for the first Palm Sunday ever, I found myself unexpectedly weeping in church yesterday when the choir was singing and the trumpets were blaring. I just felt overwhelmed with the realization of how much I need Jesus to “Save now!” I mean, from the outside, there I was looking all happy and put together, sitting next to my husband to whom I am happily married, with our lovely, healthy three daughters nearby, and yet, inside, so fragile and needy and weak. Still in need of that Savior and his relentless tenderness.

  17. Thomas McKenzie

    Hey all,

    In the Anglican tradition, as in others, we process into our sanctuary from outside, waving palm branches and singing Hosanna. Then, just about ten minutes later, we are reading the Passion narrative as a drama. The congregation has the part of shouting “Crucify him!”

    No one actually knows who was in which crowd on those days in history. However, I know that I am in that crowd every Palm Sunday. I shout “Hosanna” and I shout “Crucify him.” And while I don’t shout those words every other day of the year, I might as well, because my heart says both of those things pretty much every single day.

    Thomas+

  18. Fellow Traveler

    Thomas, I also attend an Anglican church, and it’s always a profound experience when the congregation shouts “Crucify!”

  19. Kyle Carlson

    I’m grateful for the interaction of several folks here with what I suggested in the first comment. I can agree that we are (I am) often in fact fickle in our devotion to Christ, and may betray him in my heart and actions just moments after affirming him with my words. No argument there.

    But (and forgive me if I’m pushing back too much and should just shut up), can’t we affirm that truth without making mistaken or careless statements about the biblical narrative? I don’t need for the “Hosanna” people and the “crucify” people to be the same group in order to affirm that I have a weak and fickle heart. In fact, I could probably even use the narrative of Jesus’ last week on earth to make that point. But I could do it without assuming that we’re actually seeing that fickleness in these particular people in this particular narrative sequence.

    I’m not suggesting that Jonathan was careless – but I do think he was mistaken. He, in fact, responded with humility and intellectual curiosity, which is admirable and appropriate. But to respond by saying, “That may be so, but it doesn’t matter” doesn’t seem to hit the mark to me. It’s like saying, “Well, it’s OK to teach half-truths or untruths from the Bible, because chances are I can still use them as an analogy to communicate something true.” All I’m suggesting is that maybe this is not the most reverent and cautious way to approach the text of Scripture.

    But again – I affirm with you all that I am fickle and foolish, and abandon Jesus often. Please receive this comment with a warm, friendly, conversational tone. I’m certainly not attempting to rant in any way. I love this forum and benefit regularly from both posters and commenters.

  20. Jonathan Rogers

    Kyle, I agree with you: it’s not okay to play fast and loose with the scriptures or intentionally to tell half-truths in the cause of larger truth. I agree that we should be reverent and cautious in our approach to scripture. When I saw your most recent comment, I decided it was time I finished reading the article you linked to. I have to say, I found it convincing. If I had read it before I wrote this piece, I would have written it differently. So thanks. I’ll think differently about Palm Sunday henceforth.

    Thanks, Kyle, for your collegial tone and your reminder that we can take these things seriously–and even be a little bit insistent–without being ugly.

  21. Thomas McKenzie

    Kyle,

    I agree with this: let’s take the Bible seriously. Let’s not make our interpretation the main thing, but let the Bible speak, or be silent.

    The Bible does not say who was or was not in the crowd. Period. If I say for sure the same people said ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Crucify him,’ then I’m wrong. If i say for sure that it wasn’t the same people, then I am wrong. It is an interesting argument, but there is no way to know for sure.

    In matters like this, St. Augustine recommended liberty and love. I say we go with that and let it drop.

    “In essentials, unity.
    In doubtful things, liberty.
    In all thins, love.”
    –St. Augustine.

  22. Kyle Carlson

    @Jonathan – Thanks for your humility. Glad to shed some light. :- )

    @Thomas – Thanks for chiming in. My last push back, I promise: Have you read the article I linked? It essentially walks through the gospel accounts and follows the textual indications of who is in what crowd. (Namely, who are the people who love Jesus, and who are the people who hate him?) I’m not sure it’s a matter of interpretation; I think it’s a matter of paying attention to the details of a text.

    But the final word: I like liberty and love. And I like Augustine. And I like your movie reviews. Done.

  23. Fellow Traveler

    Kyle, I completely agree. I have never once tried to say that we shouldn’t take away a profound lesson about how we respond to Jesus. I sincerely believe that we should be sober in examining ourselves. All I said was that we in fact have good historical evidence that (in actuality) the two crowds weren’t the same, but as you said, that’s not necessary for us to think about our hearts.

    I wasn’t attempting to be snide, honestly, and I apologize if somebody thought I was. I wasn’t trying to belabor anything, and I in fact agree with Thomas.

  24. Dryad

    I would like to say that this place has taught me a lot about how to disagree in love. Just reading the respectful arguments here has lifted my spirits and made me think.

  25. Fellow Traveler

    Among Christian brethren, it’s definitely a good thing to choose your battles and learn how to agree to disagree!

    Of course, that’s not to say that there could never be anything that calls for a sharp Christian response, but minor disagreements among friends don’t count.

  26. Kyle Carlson

    FT – I didn’t interpret anything you said as snide. My comment wasn’t even in response to yours, since you were saying basically the same thing I was, I think.

    Let’s all clink our glasses and move along! *cheers*

    Kyle

  27. Fellow Traveler

    Yeah, I had said a little more that didn’t show up here at first, and that’s what I meant.

    *clink* and cheers to you too!

  28. Becca

    I read the Ensor article twice. I read parts of it three times. Though he shares some interesting insights, he also uses several clear examples of eisegesis. I certainly appreciate a rousing watertight exegesis, I just don’t think Ensor achieves that in this particular essay.

  29. Jason

    Jonathan, thanks for the post. It is always good to remember that “Jesus is doing more than you think” and that there is more mystery in Scripture than we let on. As Chesterton said, “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health…”

    @Thomas – I also have found it a profound experience to put myself in the place of the crowd, although I have never done it formally in a service since we don’t do that sort of thing in Bible churches. I wish we did. There’s something about incorporating our physical bodies (including voices) into the corporate worship service that quickens the spirit – and I love how prevalent that is in the Anglican tradition. You said ya’ll do that at the Palm Sunday service, right – not Good Friday? If so, I’ll need to be sure to attend one next year.

  30. Thomas McKenzie

    Hey Jason,

    Yes, We compress a lot into Palm Sunday. I often wish we didn’t, that we would keep the Passion until later in the week. But, if we did that, most Anglicans would go to church one Sunday and it would be all happy-clappy Palm Sunday and the next Sunday would be all happy-clappy Easter. We have numerous services between Palm Sunday and Easter, and these all remember various aspects of the Passion, but the too many people only come to church on Sundays and don’t participate in the awesome mid-week liturgies.

    If you are interested in what we do, here is a link to our Holy Week Schedule this year with some brief descriptions of the services:

    http://tinyurl.com/3tjmxyx

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