Scripture: Luke 19:28-40
The year was 1950. The place Beatrice, Nebraska. For years the West Side Baptist Church held their choir practice on Wednesday at 7:20 sharp. In fact the choir director had something of a reputation for starting on time. On Wednesday, March 1st, at 7:27 a gas leak caused the entire church to explode in a horrifying ball of flame. Amazingly not a single person was hurt, because the entire choir including the punctual director was running late. It’s a true story. The year was 1937. The Place Detroit, Michigan. Joesph Figlock was going about doing his job as a street sweeper, and cleaning an alleyway between buildings. Meanwhile four stories up, a young mother lived out every parent’s nightmare and accidently dropped her baby David Thomas out the window. Amazingly, baby David happened to fall right where Figlock was. Figlock broke the baby’s fall, and neither were injured. One year later, toddler, David Thomas this time toddled out the same window. Once again David Thomas was saved when he landed on a surprised person who just happened to be at the right place at the right time. This man’s name? Joesph Figlock! Old Joe, happened to be in just the right place, at just the right time, to save the same baby in the same way twice. That is also a true story. What are the odds that an entire choir is running late on the same day or that the same man would save the same child twice? They would have to be astronomical! There are a couple of ways to explain coincidences. The first is mathematically. For example, the odds of winning the powerball lottery are 1 in 292 million. However, someone is going to win it is just your odds are not very good. The same logic applies to coincidences. Since the coincidence is possible it will happen to someone at some time. That is one way that people use to explain amazing coincidences, but I really do not think it is the best one. The other option for explaining coincidences is that there is an outside agent manipulating the odds. There is an unseen force that is influencing reality itself to accomplish things that are improbable and unrealistic. In our Christian faith we call this unseen force, this outside agent, God, and we call those kind of coincidences miracles. Perhaps you have had experiences in your life, experiences that appear to be amazing coincidences but we know better don’t we? As a pastor’s kid I have grown up in and been part of several different Methodist churches. It is my experience that every church is full of these kind of miraculous stories, these instances where God intervened, and the improbable or the impossible happened. We could probably be here for hours sharing our stories with one another, because I know that I have several as I am sure you do too.
We worship a God that is deeply involved in the world that God created. Our God is not some distant clockmaker who set the universe in motion and lets it run like a well-oiled machine. Rather our God, is involved in creation. God is at work redeeming and restoring all of creation. This means that our God is a God of coincidences, a God of miracles. The original twelve disciples of Jesus had their own stories of amazing coincidences. In the end, to be faithful to following Jesus and to following God, they just had to go with it. We can learn from this example as well. From this morning’s scripture we can learn to trust in our Lord and Savior and obey his commands, because God has a plan. We can learn to just go with it, because that is when the miraculous happens.
Today’s scripture, the story of Palm Sunday, reads almost like a plot for some sort of caper film like Ocean’s 11. All of these elements come together to pull off the perfect job. Nothing was stolen on Palm’s Sunday but the way that history, prophecy, and tradition all aligned on Palm Sunday is amazing. It is improbable and borderline impossible. This all started with a truly bizarre story of grand theft donkey. I do not know if you caught, but Jesus essentially tells his disciples to “borrow” (steal) a donkey. They are supposed to go, find it, and just take the thing. If anyone ask they were supposed to give the very unconvincing answer “The Lord needs it.” The gospel does not specify which two disciples got this dubious honor, but can you imagine what they were thinking. This had to be one of the more unusual things that Jesus did. I can picture these two nervous men approaching the donkey. One of them starts untying the donkey, while the other serves as a lookout trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. They had to be wondering, “what is going on here?” and thinking to themselves “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Yet, they just went with it. Even when the owner of the donkey came and said, “What are you doing here?”, they went with it and said “The Lord needs it.” Amazingly that worked! The disciples might have returned to Jesus with donkey amazed at how everything had worked out like he said it would. It seemed to be an amazing coincidence, but that was just the beginning.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey and in doing so he timed it just perfectly to make two amazing statements. First, Jesus was in no uncertain terms declaring himself the messiah. It was more than a coincidence that Jesus chose a donkey as his mode of transportation. In the Old Testamentbook of Zechariah there is a prophecy in Zechariah 9:4, that reads: “Rejoice greatly daughter Zion! Shout Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you righteous and victorious lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” As we have mentioned a few times in the past weeks as we have explored the disciples, first century Israel was a time and place full of messianic expectation. The Jews were expecting the messiah to come. During this time, tradition had formed around the prophecy from Zechariah as well as other Messianic scriptures. Many thought that the Messiah would come during one of the high holy days like Passover, and tradition had come to believe that when the Messiah rode into Jerusalem on a donkey they would come in via the Sheshun gate into the temple. This is what Jesus did.
This is also why there were people there with palm branches. Many people had gathered by the gate, just in case this was the year when the Messiah might actually come. These people were zealots, Jews who actively wanted to see the Roman empire overthrown and Israel become independent again. Palm branches were a symbol adopted by the zealots that represented Jewish sovereignty. This is also why they shouted Hosanna, roughly translated means “Please save us”, and finds its roots in Psalm 18. Like the palm branch, this is a phrase that was adapted by the zealots. It was their rallying cry, it was their political marketing slogan. This is why in this morning’s scripture the Pharisees are asking Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They are worried that all of this ruckus is going to get the attention of the Romans and cause an incident. Jesus came to Jerusalem knowing he would die, and when he did it was not a coincidence that he did so in a way that publically declared that he was the messiah.
At the same time though, Jesus was making a much more profound declaration. His entry on Palm Sunday was signifying something of greater importance that the cheering crowds hoping for political liberation missed. Jesus did ride into Jerusalem in anticipated victory on that day, but the salvation he was bringing was spiritual not political. Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. At Passover the Jews celebrate and remember that God spared them in Egypt. The Israelites were spared and saved from God’s wrath by the blood of a lamb that was sacrificed on their behalf. Jewish tradition based in instructions from Exodus stated that families were to select a lamb and care for it for four days before the sacrifice. The day that Jesus made his triumphal entry was on the same day that all of the lambs would have been brought into the city. These sacrificial lambs that came from Bethlehem would have come through in the mid to late afternoon into the temple area through the same gate that Jesus entered. The gospel of Mark mentions that after Jesus entered the temple it was late so he left, this means that Jesus likely followed the sacrificial lambs in to the temple. Again this is not a coincidence.
Jesus, the man born in Bethlehem, followed the lambs born into Bethlehem in a procession to the temple. The lambs were being brought there to be selected to sacrifice as a symbol of God’s forgiveness, protection, and redemption. Starting in the evening, families could start selecting lambs to care for. Jesus came in behind this procession to signify that he was God’s pick for the Passover lamb. He was to be slaughtered as the final sacrifice to cover the sins of not just a family, but to cover the sins of the world. Jesus processed into Jerusalem and presented himself as the lamb because as it says in Isaiah, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” This is why when in this morning’s scripture, when the Pharisees ask Jesus to silence the people he responds “I tell you, if they keep quiet the stones will cry out.” Everything had aligned so that Jesus could ride into Jerusalem on a donkey to declare he is the messiah while at the same time symbolically offering himself up as God’s sacrificial lamb. It seems like an amazing coincidence that it would all come together like that, but with God there are not coincidences just miracles. The rocks would have cried out to praise Christ, because this was the beginning of the biggest miracle of all, the one that would save all of humanity and redeem the entire world.
None of this was a coincidence. It was all by God’s design. Galatians 4:4 states that God the father sent his son “during the fullness of time.” It was not an accident, this was a plan that God had in the works for eternity. God still has plans in God’s time for us. God is involved in our lives and this not a coincidence. In our Methodist heritage we believe that God’s love for us is present for us before we ever respond to God’s love. We call this prevenient grace. The crowds that shouted Hosanna on Palm Sunday did not fully realize how God’s love was on display when Jesus made his triumphal entry. In the same way, we do not always realize how God is at work in our lives. We may experience a tug on our hearts to help a specific person. Other times things might align to create an unexpected opportunity. This opportunity might be full of uncertainty and a little scary but it can greater connect us with God or in serving others. Then other times we might find our paths crossing with someone at just the right time. Maybe it is someone we need to forgive, maybe it is someone we can serve, or maybe it is someone who can even encourage us. In all of these instances it might seem to be an amazing coincidence. It might be, or it might be the love and grace of God at work in our lives in ways we do not yet understand. During these times we need to follow the examples of the disciples, and just go with it.
On Palm Sunday we remember and we celebrate that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. We celebrate that this was not an accident, but the highly orchestrated kick off of God fulfilling God’s plan to fully redeem us and reunite with God. It seems improbable that everything would have come together just perfectly, to make Palm Sunday as symbolic as it was. However, this day reminds us that with God there are not coincidences, just miracles. God is still at work in our world, bringing the improbable together just perfectly so that there can be healing, forgiveness, restoration, and redemption in this world. When we find God at work in our lives in this way, may we just go with it. May we be willing to trust God. May we be willing to obey God’s leading, and in doing so may we join God in bringing about God’s kingdom on this earth.