Some of you may remember the song, The New Kid in Town. Though the melody is somber, its opening lyrics seem filled with the promise of a new hero who will make everyone happy. It starts:
There’s talk on the streets it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you
People you meet all seem to know you
Even your old friends treat you like your something new.
But this picture of popularity and happy anticipation gets interrupted in the first iteration of the chorus, when we hear:
Johnny Come Lately, the new kid in town
Everybody loves you, so don’t let them down.
Those words sound like a warning to me, as if people are saying: “We’re all behind you, as long as you please us and do what we expect of you, when we expect it, and how we expect it.”
The song has it right. People can be fickle. One day, they’re for you. The next, they’re shouting, “Crucify!”
That’s especially true when they feel that the “Johnny Come Lately” they hailed on Sunday has “let them down” later in the same week.
In many ways, this is the story of Palm Sunday.
Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem. Everybody was happy. Everyone was His friend. Everyone wanted Him to be the Messiah King, to take the throne of ancient King David.
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.
Like the happy first verse of the Eagles song, the words of the crowd seemed to speak of belief in Jesus as their King.
But the word they used, “Hosanna,” meaning “Save us,” is one of those phrases that can cut two ways.
On the one hand, it can be a statement of faith and surrender: “Only You can save, Lord. We need You!”
But it can also carry a threat: “We’re putting our hopes in you. So, be the king we want you to be...or else!”
The Palm Sunday crowd, itching for war and conquest and personal vindication, must have scratched their heads at what Jesus did that Palm Sunday evening.
Instead of giving people their marching orders, Jesus did something strange. At the end of our gospel lesson, Mark tells us:
...Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So, when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:11)
This is a strangely anticlimactic ending to a day in which Jesus' fellow Jews had proclaimed Him their King. It would be like inaugurating a president in this country--the oath administered, the crowd cheering, the Marine Band playing, Hail to the Chief--and then seeing the new president simply sit down. No speech-making. No marching orders. No crowing.
Jesus showed no interest in being a king who would lead the people in battle to rid themselves of the Romans.
The crowds and Jesus’ own followers must have been further mystified by what Jesus did the next day.
Mark 11:15-19 says that Jesus went back to the temple and still didn’t take up arms against the enemies of His homeland.
Instead, for the second time in His ministry, He turned on His fellow Judeans, throwing the money changers out of the temple. After being hailed as King, Jesus didn’t go after the Romans. He indicted His own people--the people of God--for turning the worship of God into an occasion for doing business! He was telling them that their real enemies weren't Roman soldiers, but the sin that drove them to worship money and worldly comforts and family and nation instead of the one true God of the universe!
On Palm Sunday, the crowds welcomed Jesus because they thought Jesus had come to do their will.
By Thursday of that week, what they came to realize was that He had really come to do the Father’s will. He had come, as He had already told them, “to serve, not to be served and to give His life as a ransom for many,” to bring the possibility of new and everlasting life with God to all who dared to surrender their lives to Him.
And so, like the crowds in The New Kid in Town, disappointed by the Messiah they thought they could keep in their hip pockets, the Jerusalem crowd turned on Jesus.
On Thursday night, just four days after His triumphant entry into the city, Jesus was arrested and the next day, the same crowd that had laid down their clothes and branches to welcome Him like a military hero cried for His blood.
They cried too that the Roman governor would release a terrorist named Barabbas. The crowds may have thought that, unlike Jesus, Barabbas had the stomach to fight the war against the Romans they wanted.
Truth is, they wanted a leader who would follow them, not a leader like Jesus, Who took His direction from God the Father.
And it's precisely here that we're hit with the questions that Palm Sunday forces us all to confront:
Will we be like the crowds or will we learn to be true followers of Jesus?
Will we follow our own selfish impulses and the habits of a dying world?
Or will we follow Jesus through tough times--even through death--so that we can receive what Jesus, because of His faithfulness to the will of God the Father, received on Easter Sunday: never-ending resurrection life with God?
And how exactly do we make this choice?
Above all, we must realize that faith in Jesus is not our achievement.
You and I are incapable of choosing to trust anyone or anything except ourselves.
We human beings are not born with free wills.
Left to our own devices, we will always choose the same selfish and self-destructive path the Palm Sunday crowd chose.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re without hope! Turn to 1 Corinthians 12:3. There, we read that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
Listen: Faith in Jesus, the capacity to believe in Him and surrender to Him despite what the crowd is saying, is a gift.
And how do we get the gift of faith? Turn to Romans 10:10. It says: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” Notice that faith does not come by our decision. It doesn't come by our effort. Faith comes when we receive God's Word, when we let it invade our consciousness, get past our self-justifications, and speak to us.
God’s Word is the most powerful force in the universe!
The Word of God has the power to comfort us when we grieve, assure us of God’s presence with us through every moment we live, and give us the certainty that Jesus “is the resurrection and the life” and that all who believe in Him, even if they die, will live and that whoever believes in Him will live forever. Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life.” Faith comes only to those who dare to listen to the Gospel word about Jesus.
The Palm Sunday crowd would have done well to follow the example of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. One day, you remember, Jesus was in the home of these three siblings, teaching.
Martha was busy hustling around. She made sure that everyone's glasses were full of drink and their plates were replenished with hors d'oeuvres. She served dinner. She cleaned up messes and saw that everyone was comfortable.
Mary, meanwhile, sat listening to Jesus.
Martha became enraged. Luke 11:40 says: “Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?...Tell her to help me.”
Martha thought she was a good person, just like the Palm Sunday crowd. “I’m a good person, a nice person” they must have thought. “I even belong the First Jerusalem Church of Nice! I do lots of good stuff! I deserve a break! I deserve a better life, some comfort, some perks for what a nice person I am!”
Jesus’ reply to Martha, in verses Luke 11:41-42, is stunning: “Martha...you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from you.”
All the things that the Palm Sunday crowd wanted could be taken from them: freedom from foreign conquerors, lower taxes, more possessions and financial security.
Jesus was offering them “the one thing” they needed: Himself. (He offers us the same thing.)
If, instead of celebrating on that first Palm Sunday, the crowd had listened to Jesus, allowing His Word to work faith in them, they would have had much more than anything they were shouting or striving for.
They would have received the gift of faith and a life with God that never ends.
And that is an incredible gift!
A man I know spent many years warming a pew at the church he attended, but never believed. Then, after a member of his family became gravely ill, he realized that all his attempts to control his life and his world were futile. A crack in his personal armor finally allowed the word about Jesus, the King Who saves helpless people from sin and death and gives eternity to those who believe in Him, got through.
God gives faith to all who truly hear the good news that God took on human flesh, voluntarily took the death sentence for sin you and I deserve, and then find, miraculously, God’s Holy Spirit has made it possible for us to say, “I believe. I believe in Jesus more than I believe in money, or good grades, or lottery winnings, or Ohio State basketball, or upholding or dismantling national health care, or my family, or America. None of these things has ultimate importance. When we peer into the mystery of eternity and the mysteries of each day, I believe that Jesus is all I need, the only One Who can see me through!”
Gary, a friend of mine, recently wrote about getting word from the family of a friend that the friend was in the last stages of dying.
Gary’s friend had always been a hard-charging businessman who resisted the notion of surrendering to Christ. He had no time to listen to the Word, the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus. There were too many deals to be struck, too much riding on his executive judgment.
Still, Gary and he had remained friends through the years. Now, called to his friend’s death bed, Gary prayed that finally, his friend would listen to the Word of God and surrender to and trust in Jesus. Gary didn’t want his friend to face an eternity separated from God. Jesus says that God so loved this world that He gave His Son Jesus so that everyone who believes in Him won’t perish, but have life with God forever.
When Gary got to his friend’s hospital room, he found him not only suffering, but deeply disturbed. Maybe now this friend, who Gary loved like a brother, would finally listen to the Word about Jesus and God would impart the gift of faith to him.
“How are you?” Gary asked. “Oh,” the friend said, “I’m really depressed. All my stocks tanked yesterday.”
Only a few heartbeats from eternity, Gary’s friend still kept his heart, just like the hearts of the Palm Sunday crowd, closed to Christ, the only King Who can save us to live as we were meant to live, forever!
If anyone listening to my voice on the radio today has heard the message that Jesus died and rose to give everlasting life to all who repent and believe in Him, then I urge you to surrender to Jesus.
Let Him give you the gift of faith.
Let Him be your King.
And if anyone who already believes has unfinished business with Jesus--and we all do--some part of your life you’ve been keeping to yourself and out of Jesus’ hands, some part of you that doubts Jesus’ love for you--I urge you now: Surrender to Jesus.
Daily repent and daily let Jesus give you new life.
Let God’s Word, recorded in the Bible, dwell richly within you.
Gladly receive the Word of forgiveness and new life He gives to believers who taste the bread and the wine of Holy Communion.
Welcome Jesus as the King of your life “while it is still called 'today.'” You will never regret it...and if you will endure in trusting in Jesus alone, I guarantee that you will spend eternity joyfully celebrating what God’s Word did in you when you opened your heart, mind, and will and truly listened to Jesus. Amen