Palm Sunday is one of those awkward “holy days” in the Christian calendar. Growing up in Sunday school, I recall reaching for the prickly palm branches with elongated, green, skinny leaves awaiting us in the children’s sanctuary on Palm Sunday morning. Some mischievous kids would poke and prod each other with them in the stomach or back (and thankfully not in the eyes). Others would proudly wave them around like a school or favorite sports team banner or shake them vigorously like a pom-pom. But only a select few children knew of the significance and power of the palm branch for their Christian life or Palm Sunday, for that matter.
The same misconceptions of Palm Sunday hold true for even some professing Christians spanning generations—from the silver-haired to toddlers. Is Palm Sunday really that significant? Does it need a specialized focus on a Sunday morning? I’d like to reframe the question like this: Can Palm Sunday be a source of power for the people of God? If so, what can we do as preachers to make this day more meaningful for us and our members?
This article promotes three practices (explain, prove, and apply) for assisting congregants to have a more fulsome appreciation for Palm Sunday and to encourage them to reverently reflect on and worshipfully enter Holy Week. Palm Sunday can be applied to our discipleship, and I’ll give you four ways we can do so in just a bit. Here’s a big idea: Palm Sunday is “Power” Sunday.
Explain the Purpose Behind Palm Sunday
Some preachers don’t know (me included) what to do with Palm Sunday. Should I preach a “Palm Sunday” message or not? Is it worth my time doing “extra exegesis” or “extra homiletics” for it? Or is it more than just any “ordinary” Sunday?
Having to think creatively about Palm Sunday can be specially taxing if pastors prepare for additional Holy Week/Passion Week services such as Maundy Thursday services, including foot-washing ceremonies, Maundy Thursday Communion Services, a Good Friday Service, service to one’s community, and, of course, gearing up for Easter/Resurrection Sunday service(s)—for example, a sunrise service and the usual Resurrection Celebration worship service(s).
When I was a pastor, we even had early morning prayer gatherings at the church (requested by a select few) at 5:00am every single day of Holy Week, which required beyond the usual preparation in writing a new devotional for each day. By the end of the week, I was toast. Juggling all these responsibilities and organizing extra worship gatherings, it's no wonder that our creative juices are depleted regarding the seemingly less prominent day called Palm Sunday.
The Scriptural evidence is straightforward that Palm Sunday is the day which honors Jesus’ triumphal entry into the Holy City of Jerusalem and anticipating his final week of earthly ministry. However, what exactly do we want to communicate about it? More importantly, what gravitas does this day hold for Christians? Are there concrete ways to express the purpose of Palm Sunday?
There is a definite purpose behind Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is “Power” Sunday. First, we can clearly explain its prophetic magnitude. Palm Sunday is documented in all four Gospel accounts (referred to by biblical scholars as “The Harmony of the Gospels”) as recorded in Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:12-18. Ann Coble points out that only John 12:13 mentions palm branches.[i]
Why did Jesus and the disciples go to Jerusalem in the first place? It was the season of Passover, a Jewish tradition, of remembering what God had done for the Israelites in Exodus in sparing the firstborn in every household from the threat of Pharoah.
What we want to emphasize to our listeners is that Palm Sunday is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The power in biblical prophecy is that God has already fulfilled, continues to fulfill, or will in the future fulfill every single promise/prophecy that he has made. Here, the prophecy of “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’” (see Zech. 9:9 and Isa. 62:11).
What can we take away from this? Explain that Palm Sunday reminds us that God is a promise-keeping God. He is a prophecy-completing God. Unlike fickle people, God follows through on his Word, his promises, his prophecies. Therefore, we can wholly trust this prophecy-keeping God.
A second purpose is to explain Jesus’ place as the rightful King. He is King Jesus. While the Jews were waiting for a military ruler to overthrow the Roman empire, those “worshipers” awaiting Jesus’ entry into the city of Zion, whether consciously or not, paid homage to Jesus. King Jesus humbly sat on a donkey’s colt and entered the gates leading to a week of mocking, scorning, beating, bludgeoning, and ultimately sacrificing his life on the Cross.
Just as Jesus was King (whether they acknowledged him or not), he remains King today and for all of eternity. We are his creation, his very subjects, and we bow down and worship this King and Lord. On this day, we shout: “Hosanna: Blessed is the one who comes in the Name of the Lord!” in the sanctuary and with our actions by how we choose to live. Since Jesus is King, we uphold him as both Lord and Christ. We live for him alone.
Prove that Palm Sunday Is Powerful
How do we prove or persuade the church that Palm Sunday is powerful? How might skeptics view Palm Sunday? What evidence might they and even professing Christians need to be “won over” to appreciate the Triumphal Entry?
Jesus’ entire earthly ministry pointed to this week called Holy Week. Without Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem on this day, we do not have a clear pathway to Good Friday or Resurrection Sunday. Phil Ryken explains the frenzy of Palm Sunday by the crowd: “Some were tearing off their coats and throwing them in the road. Others were scrambling up trees to pull down the branches. Children lined the city streets, waving their victory branches and singing . . . .”[ii]
For whom in this world might people throw such a party? An event remotely comparable might be celebrating our favorite sports team that won a championship. The faithful in the crowd recognized Jesus’ royalty at least temporarily. For those of us living in the twenty-first century, we have the benefit of hindsight to know that some of the same people who cheered “Hosanna” later jeered “Crucify him!”
The question we might ask ourselves and our listeners is: What is our attitude toward Jesus today? Is Jesus a member of the Godhead, the Trinity, full of power and Lord over all of creation and all creatures or is he a weakling riding into town on a lowly donkey?
I’m reminded of William P. Young’s depiction of Jesus in The Shack as a humble, weak “Middle Eastern laborer.”[iii] Yes, we preach Jesus’ divinity and his humanity but what else can we convey on Palm Sunday to persuade our listeners of Jesus’ dual nature not emphasizing his humanity over and above his divinity in the way of William P. Young?
The power of Palm Sunday lies in the fact that Jesus does not lose his royalty as King of Creation simply because he rides into town on a donkey’s colt. He doesn’t cease to be God because of his Incarnation as a humble and helpless baby who is simultaneously the divine King. He can’t be less than fully human or less than fully divine.
Those who understood the significance of Jesus entering Jerusalem and who waved palm branches in appreciation and celebration understood the fact that this symbolism of remembering the Passover was so much more than passing over doorframes and doorposts with blood stains covering them. Rather, Palm Sunday is the day that Jesus begins his final triumph over disease, depression, death, and darkness. He launches the final week of his earthly mission and ministry which is the story of the gospel: his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. He is the sacrificial Lamb who was slain. It’s his blood and not the blood of animals that we need for our redemption. It’s not just another Sunday. It’s Palm Sunday and it’s Power Sunday.
Apply the Power of Palm Sunday
Finally, give your people concrete applications for the power of Palm Sunday. How does Palm Sunday influence our daily lives as we exit the parking lot on Sunday and enter the “work week” on Monday morning? While there are many that we can choose from, here are four application principles for a Palm Sunday sermon.
First, having a new vision of who Jesus is fosters a heart of worship. The Hebrew word “Hosanna” is “a shout of praise” and literally means “‘help’ or ‘save, I pray,’” an appeal that became a liturgical formula.”[iv] Over the years, if you’ve been around the church, you’ve heard many songs that include this word “Hosanna.” Applying “Hosanna” to our daily lives provides the opportunity for daily worship. It’s a request for Jesus’ help and “giving him worth.” It’s a prayer request in worship form. It’s acknowledging that in every part of my life I can worship Jesus in full surrender and dependence.
Second, it helps us not to fear. The rightful receiver of all praise, honor, and glory, King Jesus, hears these shouts from the crowd: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (John 12:13).” In John’s Gospel, he quotes: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
Jesus’ triumphal entry gives us the courage not to fear anything in life past, present, or future. While the Jews were waiting for Jesus’ first coming, we are waiting for his second coming. He won’t be riding on a donkey the second time around. Rather, he will be descending from the clouds with all power and “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Phil. 2:10).” Since Jesus is King and a good Ruler, we need not fear even of death itself. So, we can trust in him.
Third, a new vision of Jesus on Palm Sunday reminds us to share the gospel with others. In John 12:19, the Gospel writer relates the mumbling of the Pharisees: “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.” As we know, the world is not going after him today whether non-Christians or professing Christians. If anything, just as the Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t recognize him, so to our world today does not recognize him, either.
Although technically not an evangelistic sermon, Palm Sunday is as good a Sunday as ever to present the gospel story clearly to those in the pews. Share Jesus and his Triumphal Entry with gusto and with passion. Use empathic language that invites the listener into the emotions of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday. Bring the message of Jesus to them. We don’t have to wait for Easter Sunday to share the good news.
Finally, a new vision of Jesus on Palm Sunday encourages us to spend time or more time with Jesus. I share with Preaching Today’s readers a Palm Sunday sermon from John 12:1-11.[v] In John’s account, he shares the detail that the Greeks were seeking to meet Jesus and inquiring to do so with Jesus’ disciples at the Passover Celebration in Jerusalem. They wanted to be with Jesus and to learn from him.
As Gentiles ourselves, at least for most of us, may we share in the same Greek attitude to want to be with Jesus, to spend time with him (more time with him), and to tell others about him. Spending time with Jesus is the greatest gift anyone can receive. The best part is that it’s free of charge and he really does want to spend time with you and me.
Palm Sunday is “Power Sunday.” Each of these three practices (explaining, proving, and applying) and four applications will strengthen us and our hearers with the power of the Triune God. The Holy Scriptures are filled with the language of power for Christians, “little Christs” who follow and obey Christ, as his disciples. Jesus emboldens us to a greater faith, a greater obedience resulting in a greater lifestyle of praise, culminating in the greater glory of God. Try these practices, apply these principles, and display victory in Christ in your sermon by your conviction and enthusiasm. There is power in Palm Sunday for weary and sometimes defeated Christians and sometimes weary and defeated preachers, as well.
[i] See Ann Coble, “Palm Sunday” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.
[ii] See Phil Ryken, “Enter the King of Glory: What Christ Being King Really Means,” Preaching Today https://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2006/march/enterthekingofglory032006.html
[iii] Jack Wellman, “How The Shack Distorts Our View of God,” Patheos.com https://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2017/02/10/how-the-shack-distorts-our-view-of-god/