13 March 2008

Bible portraits: Palm Sunday (Part 4)

It seemed to be no time at all before we were on our way down the slope of Mount of Olives, with the massive sun-bleached walls of the holy city facing us just across the valley. To our surprise there were people there to meet us. Some of them spread their cloaks out on the road for the donkey to walk on. Others had palm branches in their hands and were waving them wildly. There were exuberant shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Now it was all coming clear. The colt, the cloaks, the palm branches, the shouts of “Hosanna!” It was finally happening. The Lord was going to set himself up as ruler of Israel. There had been attempts before to proclaim Jesus as king—I remember it had happened by the Sea of Galilee just after he had fed that hungry crowd of more than five thousand people. But he had always resisted them in the past. He had often talked about waiting for the right time. Perhaps now this was it. One of us (I don’t remember now who it was) reached up into one of the palm trees by the side of the road and tore off some branches. In a moment we too were waving palms and shouting along with the crowd, “Hosanna to the king!” It was a glorious moment.

In the midst of the crowd we could make out some whose somber expressions indicated that they were not prepared to take part in the celebration. Leaning forward from the crowd they tugged at Jesus’ cloak to divert his attention. “Teacher,” they protested. “Make this nonsense stop! If this continues into the city and the authorities see us, it will be the death of us. They won’t tolerate anything that bears even a hint of rebellion.”

But the Lord was not to be put off course. “I tell you,” he said—I haven’t forgotten the words—“I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will take up the chorus.” So it was that, laughing and cheering we continued our way down the steep slope of the Kidron Valley.

It was the happiest, most exultant of occasions, and we were foolish enough to think that it would never end. Of course it did. Within days those glad shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned to angry screams of “Crucify!” The bright sun of that Sunday morning gave way to the darkened skies which clung to Golgotha like a pall as the Lord hung dying on a cross. What shall I say about that day? How weak and short-lived is the voice of human praise! How shallow and fickle is our faith in the one we once hailed as our King!

We thought we had him figured out. Again and again we imagined that we knew his mind. Yet right to the last it was only he who really was aware of what was taking place, only he who knew that what he was riding to was not a throne of gold but a cross of wood. How far beyond our human reason is that love which led him to ride triumphantly to his own death! How inscrutable his compassion to offer up his life for one such as me! The praises we shouted on that day are but a faint echo of the joy which now rings in heaven and through eternity:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power
for ever and ever!”

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