Donkeys + Palm Branches: What’s the deal with Palm Sunday?

Birthdays and bridal showers.  Work schedule and working out.  Fundraisers and friends.  Trips and to-do lists.

I just turned 32, and when people ask me if I feel any different, I respond, “I feel tired.  I think feeling 32 feels like being tired.”

In the midst of this, because I work at a church and Easter is kind of a big deal for us, I’ve spent countless hours thinking about the significance of Easter and the events leading up to it.

In doing so, I realized I’ve never given much thought to Palm Sunday.  At best, it served as a week’s notice that Easter would be here soon, cueing a rush to get those Easter eggs dyed and stock up on my annual Cadbury fix, because the real show would be coming soon.  It was the advance warning:  If you are singing hosanna and there’s talk of palm branches, make sure you’ve got your Easter plans locked in because you’ve only got a week left.

Poor Palm Sunday.  You’re the opening act.  No one actually buys tickets to see you.

And yet this year, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m excited to celebrate Palm Sunday.  Why?

Palm Sunday is one big party about how life is better when Jesus is in charge.

Here’s a  little more of what I’ve learned about Palm Sunday, and why you might want to be excited about what it points too as well!

PASSOVER

The original Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday before his eventual crucifixion, was taking place at the end of Passover.  Passover week commemorated God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of the clutches of the Egyptians. It was a joyous celebration, a time when people from all over Israel would converge in Jerusalem to remember and celebrate what God had done.  Under the current Roman occupation, hopes for a future deliverance would be running high.

Psalm 118 was on the lips of everyone at the time.  It was a song that looked forward to the Messiah, the descendant of David who would reclaim the throne and restore Israel.  All week, people were shouting:

LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you.

The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

(Psalm 118:25-27, NIV)

HOSANNA

One of the Hebrew words from Psalm 118:25 looks like this:

הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה

 If you squint just right, or if you know your Hebrew alphabet, this spells hosanna

It’s from the Hebrew verb, yasha, to save, deliver, give victory, or help.  In other words, “Lord, save us!”

Expectantly hoping for the Messiah, the one who would deliver them, the Israelites looked forward to the day when God’s rightful king would once more ascend the throne.  He would lead his people to victory, and he would also lead them back to true worship of Yahweh.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNT), on the origin of the word “hosanna,” elaborates on the significant role of Psalm 118:

“The Psalm is suited for a description of the Davidic king, in his role as the Melchizedek priest, leading his people in procession to Yahweh’s house.  In this context the cry, ‘O, Save’ would indicate an imploring cry to Yahweh to bring to reality that which the liturgy has depicted.  Judaism later followed out this thought by making the great cry focus on the expectation of the messianic king.”

DONKEYS AND PALM BRANCHES

Psalm 118:27 describes how the Messiah’s procession would be celebrated with boughs (palm branches) in hand.

In addition to the messianic hopes of Psalm 118, another key passage the Israelites would have fresh in their minds as they look for their deliverer is Zechariah 9:9 (NIV):

“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.”

The NIDNT continues to expound on the significance of “hosanna” as its use continued in 1st century Judaism:

“By NT times, Hosanna had become a full ‘cultic cry’…. The sight of Jesus fulfilling the kingly prophecy of Zech. 9:9, coupled with the strewing and waving of branches reminiscent of the ceremonial fronds which had come to characterize the Feast of Tabernacles, prompted the shout appropriate to that occasion and, all unwittingly, they greeted the true David with the Davidic welcome.”

Passover, hosanna, donkeys and palm branches

Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?  Now that you have some historical context, read the account from Matthew about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem:

Matthew 21:1-9 (NIV)

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!”

 WHY PALM SUNDAY MATTERS TODAY

The people of Israel are beat up, broken, oppressed, marginalized, and longing for the days when God’s favor was with them.  They are holding out hope for this promised Messiah figure, the one who would once again establish God’s rule and reign.

 They know that life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.

 When God’s anointed is on the throne, all is as it should be.

That’s what people are hoping for that first Palm Sunday. And maybe that’s a little bit of what you and I need today.


Even at its best, this life on earth carries with it a level of brutality and brokenness.  I would say there are a lot of good things in my life right now.  But even with all those good things, I’m so aware of my own sin and brokenness, and the profound brutality and brokenness of the world around me.

Even at its best, this life is far from perfect.  And this world will never BE perfect until Jesus comes again and once more humanity is living fully under the rule and reign of the rightful King.

Palm Sunday is about the hope that God will make, and indeed is making, all things right.

Life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.

Humankind was made to live in a proper relationship with our Creator—a relationship where His divine design for life and human flourishing is realized.  Humanity is at its best when it is submitted to the way God designed life to be lived, reconciled to God as well as to each other.

The first Palm Sunday inaugurated a beautiful opening act, setting the stage for Jesus to conquer the power of sin and death through his death and resurrection.  The rightful king reclaimed his people, his territory.  Since that first triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the story of God taking back the hearts of his people from the clutches of the enemy continues to unfold.  The rule and reign of Christ was undeniably established that week, but it is not yet fully here.

This Jesus life is here, now, in glimpses.  Sin no longer has mastery over us.  Death no longer has the final say.  Hope, joy, love, and peace are abundantly available as we walk through life with God.

There are moments, glimpses, when we see just how breathtakingly beautiful life with God was meant to be.  But then we come crashing back to this earth, and the brutal reality of living in a broken world hits us anew.

Life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.  As we encounter the places in this world where the ways of God are not recognized or lived out, it serves as a brutal reminder of just how broken this world still is.

Can you imagine what it will be like when there’s no more glimpses, and we are blinded by the beauty that is fully revealed?

Can you imagine what it’s like when, for the first time since the garden, humanity is living fully under the rule and reign of God and sin and brokenness are nowhere to be found?

Palm Sunday is a foreshadowing of what the real triumphal entry will be like.  Jesus came once to Jerusalem and initiated a new way for God’s people to be reconciled, a new way to live, a new way for the kingdom of God to start pushing back the darkness in this world.

But another Palm Sunday is coming, and on that day all the wrongs of this world will finally be made right.

The rightful king will be on the throne, and all will be as it should be.

The King of Kings will be the ONLY King, and the ways of God will rule once more on earth.


For the first time in my life this week, I genuinely prayed for Jesus to come back.

I love my life, and yes, there are definitely still a lot of things I’m hoping to experience and see before my time here on earth is done.  But honestly, I’m also ready to be done with the brokenness.  I’m ready to be done with sin.  I’m ready to not have my heart broken as I hear about the brutal and harsh realities taking place around the world.

God, save us.

Hosanna, God save us!

This world will never fully be right until YOU are once again fully in charge. 


That, dear friends, is a little bit more of what I think Palm Sunday is supposed to be about.  I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating this Sunday.  Let’s celebrate that Jesus is the rightful king, and rejoice in the victory He has already accomplished over sin and death.  But let’s also look forward to the day when the final Palm Sunday arrives!

My journey to Thailand: Where it all got started

It's a dangerous business,

I wanted to catch you all up on something exciting that has been taking shape in my life in the last three months or so.  It’s something that actually has its roots close to 9 years ago, and causes me to continually be amazed at how perfectly God is weaving this story of my life.

9 years ago I was in the midst of student teaching high school English in a small farming community in Oregon known for two things: it’s Future Farmers of America program, and it’s drug use.  I remember 3 things very distinctly from that time in my life:

  1. Trying to convince high school freshmen — who wanted nothing more than to either do drugs or  become farmers — to try and care about the literary nuances of Romeo + Juliet was, by far, one of the most difficult tasks I had ever faced.
  2. Although I was in my fifth year of college, I was still frequently mistaken for a high school student.
  3. Pursuing a career as a high school teacher was not what I wanted to do with my life.

A few months into the experience, as much as I loved my students and the opportunity to help shape young minds, I knew I would be on a fast track to burn out if I stayed in that career.  But not being one to quit, and not knowing what other viable options would be available to me with degrees in English and Philosophy, I decided to stick out the year.

With an open road in front of me, and no agenda of my own to occupy thoughts, I was open to just about anything.

During those key, formative years at university, I was connected with Cru (we still called it Campus Crusade for Christ back then).  This on-campus ministry shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in several crucial ways, not least of which was their emphasis on missions: being willing to go wherever and do whatever in order to be able to share the good news that a new kind of life can be found in Jesus Christ.

I knew that an English teaching degree was an open door into any country.  I could go and teach English overseas for 2 years with a missions organization, get my travel and adventure fix, hopefully get to talk a little bit about Jesus, and in the meantime figure out what other than teaching that I wanted to pursue.

(In reality, I probably didn’t think much past the two year commitment.  I was 22.  Seriously.  How do 22 year olds make such big life decisions?)

With this new direction of teaching English overseas and going to live missionally in a new country, I began to think about a destination.  I’d heard from other people who went into missions that they just knew what country they were drawn to.  I didn’t have any magic cloud shapes appear to guide me, but I did start to notice that one country more than any other grabbed my heart and made it beat a little bit faster when I thought about it.

Thailand.

As a philosophy major, I studied several different religions and had been intrigued by some of the classes I’d taken about Buddhism.  Having already spent a considerable amount of time studying the philosophical worldview and religious beliefs of Buddhism, I wanted to go to a country where I could have conversations and interact with people who were on this path.  As a 95% Buddhist nation, Thailand was the obvious choice.

In January, I found a missions organization that wanted to send me to teach English overseas, and I started praying more about this new adventure.  April came around—2 months before graduation and the time to actually formalize my commitment.  With the novelty of planning a new adventure wearing off, I started thinking a little bit more about the situation.

During this time, someone asked me if I had ever thought about going to seminary.  I loved school (can you say triple major?), and loved studying the Bible, so going to school to study the Bible sounded like a dream come true.  What if, before I went off to be a missionary, I actually got some formal training in theology?

Needing to make a decision before graduation, I went for a hike with my friend Adena, one of the staff members from Cru and a trusted mentor.  We went to one of our favorite spots, Bald Hill, hiked up past the abandoned barn, and made our way the 2 miles or so up to the top of the hill that overlooked my college town of Corvallis.  Sitting on a bench facing west, watching the sunset behind the mountains, the conversation went something like this:

Me:  Remember how I was thinking of going to Thailand?  Well, what if I went to seminary first?

Adena: YES!  Absolutely that is so perfect for you.  You’ll never regret getting that training.  I think it’s what you should do.

Without fail, every conversation I had with family/friends/mentors went almost exactly the same.

Message received.  Thailand would have to wait.

So in August of 2006, I packed up my little Ford pick-up truck with everything I owned and moved to southern California and started at Talbot School of Theology.

Over the last 9 years, Thailand has lingered quietly in the back of my mind.  As I had other opportunities to travel, I could still tell my heart was pulled to Thailand.  But the timing and opportunity never seemed to work out.

But then a year ago, I started learning more about an organization that is on the ground in Thailand, helping rescue kids out of the sex trafficking industry, and bringing restoration and healing through the care they offer to these precious rescued kids.  Almost as soon as I heard about it, that little piece of my heart that was tied to Thailand so many years ago started stirring again, and I thought, maybe, just maybe, this is the time.

In December I hosted a jewelry party to help raise money for this organization, Destiny Rescue, where we could purchase jewelry made by survivors of human trafficking.  My friends came over and we learned about the work that they are doing, and the brutal and stark realities of human trafficking.  Then we prayed for Thailand.  We prayed for the kids that were rescued and still in recovery, and we prayed for the kids who hadn’t been rescued yet.  We prayed for this organization that is on the front lines of battling one of the greatest evils of our day.  And while we were praying, that little stirring in my heart about Thailand got a little more insistent.

At the time, I had actually been planning a trip to South Africa for the following summer, but it just recently had fallen through.  I was trying to figure out what to do instead with the vacation time and money I had budgeted for South Africa, and here I was sitting in my living room and praying for Thailand.  Again.

Afterwards, as we were cleaning up, I asked the representative from Destiny Rescue if they ever led trips to Thailand so people could see and be a part of the work that is happening.

And you know what?  They do.

And you know what else?

It’s finally time for me to go to Thailand.

Ok, well, not until June.  For 2 weeks.  But still…it’s exciting!

9 years ago God planted a dream in my heart.  He never forgot, because He was the one who put it there in the first place.  As for me, I can’t wait to see how this story continues to unfold.

You can learn more about Destiny Rescue at www.destinyrescue.org.

Discipleship: 7 Reasons Why It Matters

I love this article by Carey Nieuwhof about discipleship in the church today.  He has poignant insight about how the church has missed the mark on discipleship in many ways, and he provides thoughtful suggestions for moving forward.  I appreciate his diagnosis when he writes:

I agree that often Christians in the West are immature. I agree our walk doesn’t always match our talk.

But I also think the average North American Christian is about 3000 bible verses overweight.

The way many leaders approach maturity is to assume that knowledge produces maturity. Since when?

It’s wonderful that people understand what they believe, but knowledge in and of itself is not a hallmark of Christian maturity. As Paul says, knowledge puffs up. Love, by contrast, builds up. And some of the most biblically literate people in Jesus day got by-passed as disciples.

The goal is not to know, but to do something with what you know.

Discipleship is one of those things the church really can’t afford to ignore.  It can look really different depending on church culture and methodology, and be adapted and implemented in a variety of ways to suit our context….but we can’t afford to overlook it.

By the way, when I’m talking about discipleship, I’m talking about a lifelong process of FOLLOWING Jesus, INTEGRATING our faith into every area of our life, and MULTIPLYING our impact for the kingdom of God as we pass our faith on to others.

When we disciple people, we want to help them deepen their faith as a follower of Jesus in such a way that it translates to actively applying and integrating what they’ve learned into their day-to-day actions and decisions.  Eventually, as disciples draw closer to the heart of God and start to learn and care about the things that God cares about, they’ll have a natural outflow of wanting to serve, and begin investing their lives into others, thus multiplying the impact of discipleship.

The importance of discipleship will never go away.

Here are 7 reasons I think discipleship is essential:

1. A lost culture

The values of western culture continue to move further and further away from how God designed life to be lived.  Accepted attitudes about money, sex, power, and human dignity have never been further away from what God has communicated about his design for human flourishing.  The church has to respond not by telling people they are wrong (because they stopped listening a long time ago), but my showing how the life that Christ calls us to is actually a life worth living.  The answer is not to shout more loudly, but to live more authentically like Christ.

2. A generation gap

These statistics from the Barna group should make us take a long and hard look at what we’ve been doing, and what we need to change to reverse these trends:

  • 5 out of 10 in their fifties and older attend church weekly.
  • 4 out of 10 thirtysomethings
  • 3 out of 10 twentysomethings
  • 6 out of 10 spiritually active teens left the church in their twenties

(For more, check out this article and this article)

3. A loss of literacy

Biblical literacy is at an all-time low.  Fewer and fewer Christians are regularly reading the Bible, much less memorizing or meditating on what they are learning.  Christians used to be “people of the book” and now we are people of bite-size social media theology and feel good sayings.  (Read more here and here)

4. A promise of God’s presence

(Ready for some good news yet?)

In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus promises to be with his followers in their disciple-making endeavors.  “Surely I am with you always.”  Sure, we know that God is always with us because of that whole omnipresent thing, but there is an assurance that we will get to partner with God in a unique way in the work of discipleship.  Not many other enterprises come with that guarantee.

5. A reminder of God’s goodness

When we walk through life with someone we are investing in, and as we continue to point them to Jesus, we have a front row seat to the work God is doing in our disciple’s life.  Few things in life will bring greater joy than the living reminder we see before us of God’s active presence and goodness.  You will most likely be changed just as much as the person you are discipling!

6. A fulfillment of God’s command

God has clearly left this task for his followers to do.

Do you really believe Jesus was serious when he said, “Go and make disciples”?

There’s not a lot of wiggle room here that I can see.  Less memorizing.  More doing.

7. An example to follow

Jesus bet his life’s work on discipleship.  Robert Coleman puts it this way:

“His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with the men whom the multitudes would follow.” (From The Master Plan of Evangelism)

Jesus discipled 12 men for 3 years, and entrusted them to carry on his his message after he left this earth.  Jesus didn’t build a structure, or create a 5-year program strategy.  He discipled.  He instilled his life into a few close followers and trusted that they would then pass it on to others, who would pass it on to others. If we want to be like Jesus, we need to follow this example.  We need to disciple.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!  Why do you think discipleship matters?

Have you ever discipled someone before?  How did you see God work?  What did you learn from that experience?Dallas Willard Discipleship Quote