[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
Father Andrew Greeley tells the story of a sixth grade social studies teacher who decided to have her students go through an election process, the object being to teach the kids about democracy. The students, it turned out, were enthusiastic and got into it. Even though the their parents had fostered a highly competitive atmosphere, especially as it related to academics, the kids got past the jealousies and resentments that can go with such circumstances, and elected a young woman who happened to be the smartest one in their class as the president of their mock country. Everything went well for the whole school year.
But the next year, things changed. By then, the parental pressure for good grades was so intense that the kids began to turn on their former president. They resented her superior academic performance and the respect she'd garnered from them. They began to spread untrue stories about how she studied all the time, pinning the nickname of ‘The Computer’ on her. The message they were sending her was clear: Dumb down and be the way we want you to be!
This is a story that gets played out in many different ways in our world. And not just among young people. The crowd may love us as long as we’re doing what they want us to do, as long as their egos are boosted, as long as we do their bidding. But if something we say or do displeases them, they’ll vote us off the island in a hurry.
This, folks, is the real story of Palm Sunday. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem. Everybody was happy. Yet amid the Palm Sunday celebrating was an atmosphere of implied violence, of threatened rejection. The actions and the words with which the crowds welcomed Jesus were fraught with ambiguity.
Their words seemed to speak of submission and surrender, taken as they were from Psalm 118: “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!...give us success…” But in this context, the crowds also seem to be telling Jesus, “Take the lead in a rebellion against the Romans. Be the king we want you to be!”
The leafy branches or palm leaves used by the crowd convey a similarly mixed message. They may have just been a convenient way of welcoming Jesus, broken off the trees that set outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But palm leaves and branches were also traditionally used by God’s people to celebrate some victory in war. The message seems to be, “Jesus, be our general. Lead us as an army to destroy Roman power over us. Give us what we want: the plunder of war and victory.”
These crowds, itching for war and conquest, must have scratched their heads at what Jesus did that evening. He simply stepped into the Temple, looked around, and went back to Bethany for the night. It would be a bit like someone being elected president, showing up at the Inaugural ceremonies three months later, stepping up to the podium, looking around, and then walking away.
The crowds and Jesus’ many followers must have been further mystified by what he did the next day. He didn’t confront the Romans, demanding their surrender or removal from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean territory. Instead, he went to the Temple where, appalled by how the place was being misused--not as a place of prayer and worship, but as a place for price gouging and injustice--he threw the extortionists out of the place. Rather than confronting their foreign enemies, Jesus turned on His fellow Judeans and said that there was something rotten in their religion, their spirituality, their souls.
On Palm Sunday, the crowds welcomed Jesus because they thought He had come to do their will. What they came to realize in the days after that is that He had really come to do the Father’s will. He really had come, as He had already said, “to serve, not to be served and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He hadn’t come to confirm them in their sense of moral superiority, but to confront them with their need of a Savior and to be that Savior!
And so, like the students at that school in Greeley's story, disappointed and shown up by the girl they had voted for the year before, the Jerusalem crowds turned on Jesus. On Thursday night, just four days after His triumphant entry, Jesus was arrested and the next day, the same crowds cried for His blood. They cried too that the Roman governor release a murderous thug, Jesus bar Abbas be set free. (This man was otherwise known as Barabbas; whose name in English is Jesus, son of the Father.) Barabbas was a terrorist. The crowds may have thought that he had the stomach they felt that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t have for revolution. The people were desperate for a leader who would follow them. They were sure now that Jesus, the son of Joseph wouldn't do it. Maybe Barabbas would.
Now here’s the question that Palm Sunday forces all churches and all Christians to confront: Will we be like the crowds or will we learn to be disciples, true followers of Jesus?
I know that too often in my own life, I’ve followed the crowd or followed the world's way of doing things, instead of following Jesus. (After all that's the easy way to go!) But how exactly do we make the choice of discipleship over crowd-following?
Above all, it entails praying and striving to live by the words, “Your will be done,” not, “God, do my will.”
This has been and remains a hard lesson for me. I have a vivid imagination. I can imagine all sorts of wonderful things God could do in my life. “Lord,” I’m inclined to pray, “if you’d bless me in this way or that, imagine all the good I could do!”
But God says, “I’d rather you imagined how much good you could do with the blessings I’ve already given to you.”
The Palm Sunday crowds probably thought that their lives would be so much better if the Romans were toppled and sent home. Then, they could be good believers in God, people with the freedom to love and serve their neighbors, as God commands His people.
Today, we might think, “If only we could win the Lottery...”
“If only we could get a big tax refund...”
“If only the kids weren’t involved in so many activities...”
“If only I had my health…”
“If things weren’t so uncertain financially…”
If a thousand other things were just so, then we could be really good followers of Christ. We could take up a ministry of service. We could teach Sunday School. We could invite a nonchurchgoing friend to worship with us. We could give more to the causes God cares about in the world.
But Jesus calls us to follow now on our current schedules, with our current incomes, under our current circumstances, just as He loves us now.
There are no perfect times for following Jesus.
The crosses Jesus calls us to take up are heavy and almost always inconvenient.
But taking them up is how we take up Jesus and take up the eternal life with God He offers free.
Our call is to turn from sin and surrender to Jesus Christ now. We’re to experience Christ’s presence in our lives today, even in challenging times. Our call is to love God and love neighbor now, today, just as God loves and blesses and cares about us in this moment.
Four nights after the first Palm Sunday, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, “Abba [an Aramaic word that literally means, Daddy], Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup [of death on the cross] from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Through His death and resurrection, Jesus won new and everlasting life for all who follow Him.
In thankfulness, we can submit to God’s will for our lives. We can become servants who by lives of active love for others God uses to do a world of good.
The great nineteenth century evangelist Dwight Moody’s life was changed when he heard a preacher say words like these: “The world has yet to see what God might do in the life of someone wholly devoted to Him.” Moody prayerfully asked God that night to let him be a person wholly devoted to the Savior Who went to a cross for him.
May that be our prayer, too.