From Palm Branches to Open Palms

Bob Browning


A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on April 17, 2011.

Matthew 21:1-11

From all over the world, Christians are gathering on the Mount of Olives about this hour. While it is morning in Atlanta, the sun is falling on Jerusalem. Just before the sun sets, one person in the crowd will read the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then the procession toward the Holy City will begin. These modern day disciples will retrace the steps Jesus took to enter the city gates on his way to the temple, a re-enactment which has taken place since the fourth century.

In a less dramatic, but no less meaningful way, I am sure many churches observed Palm Sunday like we did this morning by having children and adults enter the sanctuary waving palm branches and shouting hosanna to the Lord. I always look forward to this service, which ushers us into Holy Week.

What Jesus did on Palm Sunday has been the topic of discussion for two centuries. This event represented a dramatic departure from his usual style of ministry. Repeatedly, Jesus discouraged the disciples from revealing his identity and he refused to be openly honored as Messiah. All of this changed the day Jesus rode this colt into Jerusalem with people waving palm branches while shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

“What is this,” Dr. Fred Craddock asks, “a parade, a protest march or a funeral procession?” “It is all three,” he responds with that trademark twinkle in his eye, “Without a doubt, it is all three.”

Craddock believes this was a royal parade filled with pageantry and passion, not surprising from Matthew’s perspective. Of the four gospel writers, Matthew was the one who referred to Jesus as a king. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” the wise men inquired of Herod in the birth narratives. From the outset, Matthew sets up the raw material for his gospel, and according to him, Jesus was a king!

This is certainly evident at the end of his life, too. Prior to the crucifixion, the soldiers put a scarlet robe on Jesus, twisted a crown of thorns together and placed it on his head. They knelt in front of him and mocked him by saying, “Hail! King of the Jews!” Even on the cross, they attached a placard that read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

So, we would be correct in believing for Matthew, the Palm Sunday procession was a parade fit for a king. It was the triumphant entry into Jerusalem of a dignitary whose good work evoked an outpouring of love and appreciation.

At the same time, it was also a protest march. Where did Jesus go and what did he do after he dismounted that colt? He went to the temple and drove out the money changers. He confronted the religious leaders who were exploiting the poor and powerless and cleansed the temple of corruption, at least for a few hours.

Throughout the final week of his life, Jesus condemned the religious authorities for being greedy, self-serving and turning the temple into a den of thieves. He chastised them for using religion to feed their egos and addictions to comfort and power. He spoke truth to power and exposed their hypocrisy. He was not timid or shy, as a reading of Matthew 23 reveals. These “seven woes” directed at the religious leaders were the words of a courageous man on a noble mission.

This event also fits the profile of a funeral procession. Speaking like a prophet on behalf of the disenfranchised would put his life in great peril. The authorities were already plotting to arrest him and silence his voice. Thus, in the words of Dr. Craddock, “You could hear the groan of God each step along the way. He was not marching into a welcoming city, but to his own grave.”

Whatever this was, and I do believe Craddock has tapped into Jesus’ motives, it was meticulously planned and choreographed by Jesus. He left no detail to chance, according to Matthew, carrying this out the way the sixth century prophet Zechariah described in the ninth chapter of his book. He arranged for a donkey and a colt to be waiting at a particular location so the disciples could bring them to him. He even told the disciples how to reply if someone asked what they were doing. Riding on this sacred animal, which represented peace, he rode into the city, accompanied by a crowd of well-wishers.

As I pondered this text last week in light of this sermon, this question came to mind: where are you in this drama? I hope you will take a few minutes this morning to find your place on stage.

Like Jesus, are you riding into the face of a storm? There is no doubt he was. Jesus was not merely riding into a city filled with happy celebrants; he was entering hostile, enemy territory. He was riding into the eye of a lethal storm.

“Life is not for the timid,” Garrison Keillor is fond of saying. It certainly wasn’t for Jesus and it will not be for us, either.

Are you facing a stiff challenge today? Are you traveling down an unfamiliar road filled with blind curves and landmines? Are you afraid? I would think you abnormal if you were not.

What do you need? I suspect you need courage, just as Jesus did. You need the kind of courage Tom Ehrich describes in his article, “Last Supper: Preparation for Journeys,” which enables you to “remain steadfast, do the work at hand, remain faithful to duty, think ahead, look beyond the moment, imagine a new future and anticipate things passing away so the new can be born.”

Where did you find this kind of courage? I believe it is found through faith in a loving and attentive God.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus continually told his disciples. Many believe this to be the third commandment he left his followers, after loving the Lord with all their heart, soul mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves.

Are you relying upon God for the courage to do the difficult as Jesus did? I hope so and encourage you to draw close to Him, especially as you ride into your storm.

Are you in the crowd which followed Jesus into the Holy City, offering encouragement and support? You may not be riding into the face of a storm this morning, but you know someone who is. What can you do to help them? How can you support them at this critical time in their life? What could you do or say to lift their spirits and give them strength to confront their challenges? Ask God to show you and follow His lead.

Do you see yourself working behind the scenes to help someone fulfill their mission and achieve their potential? Each time I read this story, I am impressed by those unnamed characters who never made it to center stage and the spotlight, but without whom this event would have never occurred.

Certainly the disciples fit into this category; we don’t know which two were sent to fetch the donkey and colt. More than this, though, we know nothing about the man who owned the animals upon which Jesus rode. Whoever he was, he had to trade his plans for these animals for a divine plan that exceeded all his expectations.           

My friend, Allen Walworth, says this man had to release his clinched fists, which were holding tightly to the reins of these special animals, and open his hands to let them go. Furthermore, he had to do this on nothing more than the simple request, “The Lord needs them.” This entire story hinged upon the response of that man to this request.

It is not easy to let go of something we have and the dreams which accompany it. When we give it to God, however, we can be assured it will be used in ways we could never imagine to make the world better and advance His kingdom. This man’s donkeys would have never ridden into history had he kept his fists clinched.

Perhaps he inspired Jesus to open his hands when he was placed on the cross, as he voiced again those words uttered in the Garden of Gethsemane, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” I want to believe his hands did not need to be pried open like many were at a crucifixion. Instead, he voluntarily opened his palms in the ultimate act of obedience and trust. 

I admire people who turn clinched fists into open palms. Perhaps this is the true meaning of “palm” Sunday. It’s not about the palms which grow on trees, but the ones in our hands which can grow the kingdom of God by responding to His call and helping those in need.

Will you adopt this additional image of Palm Sunday and open your hands to take God’s hand and respond to the needs of those around you? What a difference this will make in your life and others if you will.