“See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9
Jerusalem would have been packed. It was not a big city, but as many as two-and-a-half million people may have been there for the Passover. All the accommodation in the city would have been taken; innkeepers would have made a handsome profit. Many of the people would have stayed in towns and villages around about and would have come into Jerusalem during the daytime.
It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the scene: people coming from distant places; old friends meting again; people who have not seen each other for a year catching up with the news. “How are you?” “What about the family?” “My, hasn’t he grown!” the conversations would be the conversations you would have heard from people anywhere.
Overwhelmingly, the crowds are ordinary people, but amongst them there would have been a sprinkling of others. As with any large gathering, there would have a criminal element: pickpockets, petty thieves, people selling goods on which no tax had been paid, and probably a few more serious offenders, avoiding arrest by blending with the crowds who thronged the streets.
There would have been other fringe elements. Political extremists would have canvassed for support, moving through the crowd, sharing ideas with likely listeners. Were they around today they would be on the Internet and sending emails and text messages. Along with political extremism, there would have been religious fanatics who would have regarded Passover as a great opportunity to berate the gathering crowds of the faithful.
Into the middle of this confusion and chaos and noise comes a man with a small group of supporters: Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the people would have heard his name and stories would have spread quickly through the crowds, “A great teacher”, “The Messiah”.
The Messiah coming into the Holy City at Passover! This indeed was something special, it was a moment not to be missed. The news would have flown around the city, “He is coming! He is coming!” Daily life and business would have been going on as normal, Sunday being a working day, but, at the news the Messiah was coming, trade would have stopped, shops would have closed up, workmen would have put down their tools. Whatever they were doing, people would have stopped .
The streets were already crowded. Sometimes people will only join a crowd because people are already there. People will stand and wait because everyone else is standing and waiting. They would be afraid to miss something momentous. The stories would have spread and the anticipation grown.
Then the rather odd parade passes through. It sounds odd, but Jesus knew what he was saying and the people themselves knew.
There was a great tradition of learning amongst the people, a great love for the Scriptures. Jesus, raised as the son of a carpenter, grew up in a community where the scroll could have been handed to someone in the synagogue and they would have stood up to read.
Jesus knew that when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was fulfilling the words from Zechariah, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The devout people lining the streets also would have known the prophecies of Zechariah. Jesus knew and the people knew that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth was declaring himself to be their king.
Reading about it today, the picture of someone riding into a city does not mean much, but for the people there, it said that the one for whom they had waited so long had at last arrived.
Naturally, this was not pleasing to everyone. The clergy would have been concerned at the audacity of this upstart from Galilee. The Roman authorities would have been worried at the prospect of disturbances. There had been riots before bringing Pontius Pilate unfavourable attention from his superiors. Disorder at Passover would be the last thing Pilate would wish to see.
Neither the religious leaders nor the civil authorities would have been pleased to see the scene that unfolded on that Sunday. It would be a coalition of those two groups that would bring about the death of Jesus.
Looking back on those events on that spring Sunday in Jerusalem, we see them though the prism of the following Sunday. Through the resurrection of Jesus, they take on an entirely different meaning. But, had we been there, what would our thoughts have been? What would we have expected from a Messiah? What, in our own time, do we expect from a Messiah?
Seeing the scene through the eyes of Jesus, what might he have thought? As he passed the cheering throngs, knowing what lay ahead, what might he have thought of the people who could cheer on a Sunday, and jeer on a Friday? What does he think of us now in our often wavering faith?
The words of Henry Milman’s 19th Century hymn capture the peaks and troughs of that holy week.
Ride on! ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, thy power, and reign.
Being a Christian will always have its troughs, its bad times, its dips and depressions, but through the resurrection of Jesus, no trough can ever be the last word.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 5th April 2009