PALM SUNDAY

Jesus Fails to Meet Our Expectations

Customer surveys are nothing new, but technology now provides greater opportunities for such surveys to be distributed and feedback to be recorded. Shop at Target or get a cup of coffee at Caribou and there’s a good possibility that your receipt will include a code for an online survey. Often these surveys are mutually beneficial — while companies are able to solicit feedback about the state of their business, consumers usually receive perks for the next time they visit.

I’ve gotten burned out by all of the customer surveys. I’m not a tedious shopper, meaning it’s not rare for me to spend more time filling out a survey than I actually spent in the store. Usually less than 25% of the questions pertain to my experience, leading me to answer a significant amount of the questions with “n/a.” Then there’s the matter of the perk — nine times out of ten, I fail to do anything with it. Knowing I’ll likely drop the ball, it’s increasingly rare that I will even take the time to fill out a survey.

Beyond all of these factors, I’ve learned that I don’t like the way surveys make me feel about my shopping experience. The questions succeed in leading me to critically reflect and decide whether my experience met my expectations, but usually this causes me to notice flaws that I would otherwise overlook. Unmet expectations lead to dissatisfaction, and the last thing I need in my life is more of that.

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Today is what is known in the Church calendar as Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week which leads up to the celebration of Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem — the beginning of the end of Jesus’ journey to the cross. The Gospel According to Matthew records the story this way:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

-Matthew 21:1-11

As Matthew points out, the donkey and colt are very important to the story — particularly to the crowds in Jerusalem and to the Jewish people to whom Matthew was writing. Jesus’ choice of transportation was meant to point them to who he was and what he was up to. His entry was a fulfillment or completion of a prophecy announced by a man named Zechariah in the sixth century BC.

Zechariah was a post-exilic prophet, meaning he spoke to the people of Israel after they had returned home to Jerusalem after decades of being captives in a foreign land. Even when they returned, however, it didn’t exactly feel like home — they were still under the rule of strangers even in their familiar land. As God’s people who were promised this land, the world was still not as it should be. Why wasn’t God doing something? Why wasn’t God keeping his promise?

Into this tension, prophets like Zechariah spoke on God’s behalf and focused the people’s attention towards a future day when he would act decisively on their behalf. God hadn’t broken his promise; someday he would defeat Israel’s enemies and reestablish his rule through a king who would make the world as it should be again. That hope, Zechariah said, would look like this:

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.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow
and fill it with Ephraim.
I will rouse your sons, Zion,
against your sons, Greece,
and make you like a warrior’s sword.

-Zechariah 9:9-13

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Given their expectations, I can’t help but think that the crowds in Jerusalem would have indicated dissatisfaction on their Jesus survey. Clearly not on Palm Sunday, but certainly by midweek. The titles and words used throughout Matthew 21 give us an indication of the expectations they had concerning about Jesus — expectations that weren’t met.

First and foremost, the crowds expected a king. Prodded by the echoes of Zechariah, the crowds shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Son of David was a messianic title, reserved for the coming king who would be a descendant of David’s royal bloodline and retake the throne of Israel.

So Jesus was a king, just not the one they expected.

Their second expectation who have flowed from the first: they expected a conquerer. Yes, a king entering on a donkey would have been an image of peace in stark contrast to a warhorse ridden by many other rulers. But according to Zechariah and to the crowd’s expectation, how would that peace be achieved? Through military victory. Matthew, in his quoting of Zechariah 9, actually omits a line: “righteous and victorious.” (Wonderful hermeneutics, huh?) Again, the crowd’s response betrays them as they call out “Hosanna!” — save us!

So Jesus was a conquerer, just not the one they expected.

Finally, the crowds make a definitive statement about their expectations of Jesus when asked who this person is entering Jerusalem: “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” and “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet” (Matt.21.11, 45-46). A prophet — like Zechariah centuries earlier — was someone who shared a message from God. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the crowds recognized that he was important and had something important to say. Another quality of prophets: they’re quickly turned on when they say something unpopular. A prophet who announced what they wanted and expected was a prophet worth listening to. But a prophet who confronted their wants and expectations? He’d be better off dead.

So Jesus was a prophet, just not the one they expected.

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The crowd’s cheers proved shallow and fleeting at best. They expected a king, a conquerer, and a prophet who would do and say what they expected, not one who show them what God expected of them. And just five days later, they jeered him, they doubted him, they disowned him, and they cheered for his death.

If we’re honest, Jesus often fails to meet our expectations, as well. He fails to act. He fails to advocate for us. He fails to follow through. He fails to come back. And in his failure to fulfill our expectations, we jeer him, we doubt him, we disown him, and we even cheer on his death.

When we hang on so heavily to our expectations of Jesus, we overlook something key to our pursuit: his expectations of us. Jesus expects us to love one another, to join him in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup, to deny our own rights for the sake of others, to the forgive those who do wrong to us, to live in the tension of feeling God’s absence, and even to die. Jesus expects us not merely to lay down our coats and our palm branches, but to lay down our very lives.

The promise on the backside of this is, of course, resurrection. Easter is the promise of new life where there was only death. Easter is the announcement that Jesus really is king, that he really is conquerer, that he really is prophet. But Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday precede Easter — new life can only come from life that was lost.

So as we enter Holy Week, what might Jesus expect from you? Or more accurately, what might he expect from us? As we explore these questions, may we acknowledge that Jesus is king, he is conquerer, he is prophet. But may we also acknowledge that he is Lord, that he is in deserving of our lives. Even when he falls short of our expectations.