[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today. Today is Palm Sunday.]
Ronald Reagan--for you young people, he was our fortieth president and a one-time movie star--had a story he loved to tell. It went like this: “Worried that their son was too optimistic, the parents of a little boy took him to a psychiatrist. Trying to dampen the boy’s spirits, the psychiatrist showed him into a room piled high with nothing but horse manure. Yet instead of displaying distaste, the little boy clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to all fours, and began digging. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ the psychiatrist asked. ‘With all this manure,’ the little boy replied, beaming,’there must be a pony in here somewhere.’”
Of course, a little boy of a different nature might not have been so sure that there was a pony to be found. He may have decided that where there’s manure, there’s always...more manure.
The point is that two people may react to the same events, experiences, or people in completely different ways. And that’s fine. One of the things I’ve learned in life is that we all have different tastes and 99.9% of the time, our diverging views don’t really matter one way or the other.
But at other times, how we react may mean the difference between life and death, even eternal life and death.
Whenever we think of Palm Sunday, I suspect that we conjure up images of palm leaves waving, “Hosannas” being shouted, and vast throngs of people welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem on the Sunday five days before His crucifixion. But if you look at our lesson from the Gospel of Luke today, you find none of those things.
We do see Jesus’ closest followers putting their cloaks on the animal He rides and onto the pathway He takes into Jerusalem. But we have no mention of what Mark calls “leaves from the field.” Or what Matthew describes as “branches from the trees.” In fact, of the four gospels in the New Testament, only John’s mentions “branches of palms.”
In Luke’s telling, Jesus’ disciples cry out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the Name of the Lord! [And, echoing the song of the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth] Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” But not once do we hear the crowds yelling, “Hosanna!,” a word that essentially means “Save now!”
And, as to crowds, our lesson only speaks of “the whole multitude of disciples,” meaning the hundreds of people who were followers of Jesus. But Luke doesn’t mention the thousands more who would have been in Jerusalem preparing to celebrate the Jewish Passover when Jesus arrives in the city.
What are we to make of these differences in the ways the four gospel writers tell the story of that first Palm Sunday? It all boils down, I think, to focus. Each of the gospel writers have different themes on which they focus, different aspects of Jesus’ story and of Christian faith.
And even more particular to today’s lesson, Luke’s account of the first Palm Sunday comes as part of a string of incidents in Jesus’ ministry and the parables he tells that hammer away at a single theme.
We see this theme earlier Luke, chapter 19, where we read of Jesus' encounter with a man named Zacchaeus. You know the story of Zacchaeus, probably. "Zaccheaus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he...”
Jesus was traveling through Zacchaeus' hometown. Being a person of short stature, Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore tree in order to get a good look at the celebrated preacher from Nazareth. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, He called him down from his perch, explaining that He intended to visit Zacchaeus' place right then and there. Zacchaeus climbed down out of his tree and welcomed Jesus. The problem, as some of the good people of that town saw it, was that Zacchaeus was a notorious extortionist. But it wasn't to those supposedly good people that Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house." It was to Zacchaeus. The difference between Zacchaeus and the good "church people" (or the first century Judean versions of good church people was that he welcomed Jesus, while they rejected or ignored Jesus. (By the way, from the Bible’s perspective, ignoring Jesus is exactly the same as rejecting Jesus.)
Later in the chapter, just before Palm Sunday, Jesus tells a story about a king who left his people for awhile, just as Jesus would do after dying, rising, and ascending to heaven. Some of the king's subjects excitedly welcomed his return. Others didn't want him around.
As we come to his account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Luke isn’t saying that there weren’t palm leaves, hosannas, or adoring crowds that first Palm Sunday. But, like a filmmaker showing us one or two people in a scene surrounded by thousands of extras, Luke wants to show us something very important, seen in the reactions to Jesus of two relatively small groups of people.
The first group is Jesus’ disciples. You and I know that at this point, just days before Jesus was to die on a cross, the five-hundred or so people who followed Jesus still didn’t get Him.* They thought that Jesus would be the sort of king who would get rid of the Romans, lower the taxes, and be good to God’s people…or at least, good to them according to how they saw things. But to the extent that they were able at the time, before the crucifixion and before Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples hailed Jesus as their king. They laid down their cloaks as an act of deference and respect. They praised God for Jesus and spoke enthusiastically about all the godly miracles Jesus had performed. They welcomed Jesus into their capital city of Jerusalem and into their lives.
Then, there were some Pharisees. The Pharisees, you know, believed that they could earn salvation and forgiveness of sin. They didn’t pay attention to the teaching of the whole Bible that salvation and forgiveness are gifts granted to those who turn from sin and trust in God. Appalled by the display of devotion to Jesus put on by the disciples, they tell Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!” They rejected Jesus as the king of either Jerusalem or their lives.
Two reactions: Welcoming Jesus. Rejecting Jesus.
Those who reject Jesus reject peace in their hearts, life with God, and eternity.
Those who welcome Him receive peace, life, and eternity.
Jesus can either be the rock on Whom we build our lives or the stone on which we crash and eternally self-destruct. What will we choose to allow Him to be in our lives?
A couple I know told me about something that happened when their young granddaughter burst from her bed room, where she had been reading the Bible. "I get to live forever!" she said. So do all who welcome Jesus into the center of their lives. And even in the rough and rugged times of life, we have the promise of a God Who loves, forgives, and gives us life forever!
When the disciples welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, they had no idea what they were getting into. They didn’t realize that their king would have to die and rise before He could claim His crown. They had no idea that following Him meant turning their backs on their sins, even the ones they enjoyed, so that they could take hold of the forgiveness and new life only Jesus brings.
For some, welcoming Jesus would mean death at the hands of their persecutors. For many, it would mean being rejected by family, friends, and society for trusting in the Savior they had seen dead and risen. But each day for the rest of their lives, they chose to welcome Jesus. For them, accepting the brief and earthly complications associated with following Christ was a small price to pay compared to spending eternity at His side. It still is!
As we prepare to celebrate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter this week, may we commit ourselves to always welcoming Jesus!
*The risen Jesus revealed Himself only to those who had believed in Him during His earthly ministry.