(shared with the people of Friendship Church, April 4, 2004)
About a year ago, I was working at home and decided to take a lunch break. I turned on the TV and tuned into one of the news channels. What I saw was a sight I’ll wager many of you have seen many times in the intervening year: videotape of grateful, excited Iraqis cheering as US military personnel used a tank to pull down an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein. Do you remember what happened after the statue was toppled? Many startled and grateful Iraqis shook the Americans’ hands, thumped them on the backs, and cheered them. It was a moment of celebration and victory!
Contrast those images to the ones we saw this past week from Fallujah in Iraq. American engineers, civilian workers, in that city to help rebuild the country, were ambushed and killed. A mob then gleefully desecrated their bodies. While that mob and that city don’t represent all of Iraq, one couldn’t help but wonder, “What happened this past year?”
The events we celebrate this Holy Week—the period between today, Palm Sunday, and Easter Sunday—teach us how quickly things can change in life. The events we remember this morning, everything associated with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as He prepared to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover, are well-known to you. Back in the first-century and for eons before, Jews from all over the known world would travel to Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate important religious festivals. Passover was one of those festivals. So, Jerusalem was packed with crowds of people as Jesus arrived.
Ever since Jesus’ dinner in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, which we talked about last week, there had been a buzz about the possibility of Jesus coming into town. Everybody knew that if Jesus did show up for these holy days, He would provoke a confrontation. The Roman occupiers wouldn’t like it. And the Jewish religious authorities, who had already plotted to murder Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, wouldn’t like it either.
The crowds though, ate it up! They were fed up with their religious leaders, who laid stern demands on them and told them that the only way they could live with God and avoid His punishment was by obeying a lot of human laws. They were fed up with religion! They were also fed up with these Roman outsiders running the show in the land God had given to them. But Jesus aroused a hope within them. Maybe, they probably thought, Jesus would lead the charge and throw the Romans out and bring down the religious elite and let them all do what they wanted to do.
Even the way the crowd chose to welcome Jesus indicated that they completely misunderstood Him. They waved palm leaves, something which in ancient times, Jews had used to welcome conquering military heroes. At the moment of Jesus’ arrival, the crowd didn’t think of the fact that Jesus didn’t speak in “Us vs. Them” terms. Jesus said that everybody was a sinner, everybody needed a Savior, and everybody—Jew, Roman, Iraqi, American—could follow Him and live forever with God. They certainly were ignoring Jesus’ words that their old sinful selves needed to die so that Jesus could help them become people on their way to being just like Jesus: loving servants who put the interests and needs of God and neighbor ahead of their own. As they shouted, “Hosanna!,” a word that means, “Lord, save” or “Lord, mercy!,” what they really meant was, “Give us what we want, Jesus. Treat us like kings!”
But if that’s the way they felt, events of that week would quickly leave them disappointed. The text of a Valentine’s card I recently found on the web said, “To my love. You've taken care of me when I was sick, cheered me up when I was sad, comforted me when I was in trouble. But what have you done for me lately?” Within days of their conquering hero’s welcome for Jesus, the crowd’s feelings about Him would be similar. Jesus had given them a feel-good celebration on Palm Sunday. Jesus had brought them healing and hope and the good news that God’s forgiveness and new life were free gifts for all with faith in Him. But as Sunday gave way to Monday and drifted onto become Tuesday and Wednesday, they became impatient and angry with Him. Jesus was offering them the most precious gift in the universe—life forever with God, but they weren’t interested. By Thursday, the crowd had turned completely from Jesus and wanted Him dead. Things can change quickly!
But if people are fickle, Jesus is faithful. Of all the thousands of people on the streets of Jerusalem that Palm Sunday, Jesus alone knew what was going to happen. While He wished—and even prayed—that He wouldn’t have to go through the agony of the cross, He forged ahead.
That really is the wonder of Palm Sunday: Jesus was obedient to His mission. He didn’t let the crowd, His desire for safety or popularity, or His instinct for self-preservation prevent Him from going to the cross for us. He didn’t whine about how His suffering and death were unfair. He knew that if He remained faithful to God’s plan for Him, the payoff would be enormous. And it was. At the end of the first Holy Week, Jesus Who had endured death rose again and through that miracle, opened the possibility of everlasting life to all who follow Him!
Some of you have read the phenomenal Rick Warren book, The Purpose Driven Life. Do you remember the book’s very first sentence? Warren writes, “It’s not about you.” I don’t know for certain why the people of Iraq who oppose American occupation there feel the way they do, but I have a pretty good idea why the crowds in Jerusalem turned on Jesus. I have a pretty fair idea why people turn on Him even today. I have a good idea as to why I turn on Jesus myself sometimes.
I’ll never forget a lecture given by one of my seminary professors when I was preparing to become a pastor. He had been through a lot in his life, tragedies and challenges. So, I felt that he had the right to say what he did. He talked about how difficult it was for him, after all he’d been through, to be with people who, confronting challenges in life, would ask, “Why is this happening to me?” The professor said that while he would never be so insensitive, he often wanted to shake these people and ask them, “Why shouldn’t this be happening to you?” This is not heaven. Yes, God has invaded our world and our lives through Jesus Christ. And He promises to be with us. But Jesus’ reason for coming into this world wasn’t to make this life easy. He came to change us from the inside out.
There’s a good reason for Jesus not making everything easy for us in this life. When I was growing up, my family spent time with two other families. In one of these families, the dad was a tyrant. On occasion, when the kids misbehaved, I watched him grab his kids by the throats and smack them on the ears until he thought he had control. All of those children ended up getting into lots of trouble as adolescents and adults. In the other family, the parents doted on the kids, let them have temper tantrums, and never told their children, “No.” Those kids also had grave problems as adolescents and adults. God is neither a dictator or a doormat. He so wants what is best for us that He sometimes says No and He loves us even in life’s tough times. God isn’t monster. God doesn’t bring tragedy or pain to us. But the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that God does use the circumstances of our lives to discipline us, to help us, and fit us for the work God has for us in eternity. The Jerusalem crowd—and I suppose, you and I—would rather that God made this life a trouble-free existence. When life throws us difficulties, it’s easy for us to join the crowd and complain that God isn’t bowing down to serve us. But life isn’t about us!
Listen: Don’t pay attention to the changeable crowd! Don’t listen to the fickle interior voices of our own selfishness! Listen instead to God and the powerful message He’s sent to us through Jesus the Christ. Let God love you into a life made new by Jesus. Let Him love you into a life of boldness and risk, of hope and fulfillment, of eternity with Him! In the foreword for the book accompanying his new movie, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson talks about why he made this movie about Jesus in Holy Week:
“This had its genesis during a time when I found myself feeling trapped with feelings of terrible, isolated emptiness...during...[a] time period of meditation and prayer...I first conceived the idea of making a film about The Passion. The idea took root very gradually...I wanted the effort to be a testament to infinite love of Jesus the Christ, which has saved, and continues to save, many the world over. It seems that in our modern secular existence we tend to forget...I wanted to remember to unforget...the Passion of Christ which cannot be articulated, only experienced..."
Jesus came into this world to die and to rise for you. You don’t have to earn that love. It’s God’s gift to you. Through all the seasons of life, whether it’s popular or convenient to follow Jesus or not, whether we feel like following Jesus or not, Jesus is still the Savior Who gave His life for you. As long as you and I still have breath, we can still decide to follow Him. The question of Holy Week—the question for each day of our lives is, “Will we follow Jesus?” All of heaven for all of eternity is waiting to hear our answers.
[The quote from Mel Gibson is cited in a sermon by Michael Foss.
[I highly recommend Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life. While I don't agree with everything Warren says in his book (ie, I disagree with his understanding of Holy Baptism for one thing), I nonetheless love the book and think that it can contribute mightily to one's spiritual growth, as it has to mine.]