[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, during both worship services today.]
In many churches, no doubt partly in recognition of the fact that many Christians won’t be commemorating Holy Week at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, this is designated not as Palm Sunday but as The Sunday of the Passion, a Sunday that remembers Christ’s suffering and death for us.
Personally, I prefer to give Palm Sunday its due as a separate day on the Christian calendar. Besides, as we’ll see, there is a whiff of murderous conspiracy against Jesus and a hint of the agonies of His crucifixion and death that can be detected amid the celebrations of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday isn’t all "happy happy joy joy."
To set the stage for what happens in today’s gospel lesson, which gives us John’s take on the first Palm Sunday, it’s important to remember what comes just before this event. In John 11, Jesus raises His friend Lazarus from the dead, the seventh and final sign John records Jesus performing.
But even miracles of God can be ignored or even more improbably, arouse controversy.
In John 11:45, we’re told that some who had witnessed Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life ran off to tell the Pharisees what had happened.
The Pharisees, far from being happy or praising God for this miracle, are alarmed. John 11:46 says that, along with the chief priests, they called a meeting of Judea’s religious leadership. These religious leaders are more fearful of their Roman overlords than they are of the God Who is meeting them in Jesus. “If we let [Jesus] go on like this,” they tell each other, “everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
It’s a classic case of the haves wanting to protect what they have. In John 11:47-48, we see that these religious leaders are more interested in maintaining their status and their religious traditions, than following God. They worry that Jesus will gain such a following that the Romans will be alarmed and destroy the very institutions that guaranteed them their cushy lifestyles and gave a modicum of peace--the enforced peace of an iron dictatorship, what was called the pax romana--in the midst of their people’s oppression.
In John 11:49-50, Caiaphas, the high priest for the year upbraids the rest of the leaders for worrying. The solution, he says, is simple: a way must be found to kill Jesus. Kill the One the people want to make their king and you’ll save the very people who, in a short while, will be crying, “Hosanna” for Jesus from death and disaster. “You know nothing at all!" he tells the others. "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
In the next verse, John tells us that Caiaphas didn’t know much either: “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.”
So, as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the religious leaders are hatching a plot to kill Jesus from selfish, fearful motives. They’re clueless about the the fact that, Jesus, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world,” was going to the holy city with the intention, according to God’s plan, of sacrificing Himself on the cross in order to save the world from more than death in this world. He was going to die and rise to save all who entrust themselves to Him from sin and from the more lasting and horrible death of eternal separation from God.
Jesus could well have said to these leaders what He later told the Roman governor, Pilate, in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
And ultimately, it would be neither Jewish leaders nor crowds nor the Romans who would take Jesus’ life. In Luke 23:46, we’re told “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
Jesus died at precisely the moment when God had decided He would die.
The leaders didn’t know it, but they were doing the will of God against their wills.
In our lives, we often think that we’re clever and in control. But, whether we perceive it or not, God is still in control.
We may endure tragedies and heartbreaks, as well as loves and loved ones lost, but God is bound to bring His good out of bad.
God will use Good Fridays to bring Easters for those who place their hope in Him alone!
All of this looms in the background as Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem at the beginning of our gospel lesson. Please go to it, John 12:12-19.
Verses 12-13: “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival [the festival is Passover] heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ [meaning Save or rescue us, Savior] ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’”
The words and the palm branches used to welcome Jesus, help us to see that while the people see Jesus as a king, they want Him to be an earthly king who uses military might to save them from the oppression of the Romans.
Jesus is the King--the Messiah, Lord of heaven and earth.
But He doesn’t conquer by force of arms or by using a democratic vote. (If Jesus' Lordship were dependent on majority votes, even in most churches, He would most likely lose.) Jesus' power isn't derived in any form of human power or manipulation.
As Jesus told the Roman governor Pilate after He was arrested: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Instead He conquers by a servant love that dies for us.
And the enemies He conquers are the common enemies that live in every human soul: sin, death, darkness.
Jesus has encountered people wanting to make Him a king on their terms before, of course.
Before Jesus began His public ministry, He was offered the crowns of every nation on earth by Satan, if only He would worship Satan.
And some time later, after He fed the 5000 with five barley loaves and two fish, the crowd didn’t understand that this was a sign of Jesus being God. They saw it as a sign that they’d found an instrument for their earthly ambitions. Jesus would have none of it. In John 6:15 we’re told: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
Jesus won’t be our king on our terms.
We can’t come to Jesus and say, “Jesus, we’ll follow You if You do so and so.”
Nor can we say, “Jesus, we know that You believe in our preferred political philosophy. So, bless what we've already decided to do.”
Jesus becomes our Lord only when we give Him unconditional surrender, allowing Him to crucify our sinful selves so that our new selves, remade in Christ’s image, can rise.
Jesus commands us to trust in Him just as He trusted in God the Father. Jesus claimed His eternal kingdom not through force, but through surrender to death and trusting that the Father would raise Him on the third day.
Verses 14 to 16: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’ At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.”
Jesus isn’t shy about claiming His kingship. He says, "The Father and I are one."
And just as prophesied by Zechariah 9:9, in the Old Testament, He comes to banish our fears and bring us God’s kingdom. Also as Zechariah said, He was riding on a donkey.
Donkeys always had a better press than horses among God’s people in Biblical times. Horses strapped to chariots were the means by which malicious foreign powers had done harm to them. Donkeys were even seen as the more majestic animal, the mount of a dignified and reputable king.
But, as John tells us, not even Jesus’ closest followers understood Jesus at this moment. We shouldn't be too hard on them though. Even today, I find Jesus' ways and will difficult to understand. There have been times in my years of following Jesus when it has seemed to me that Jesus has blocked from my life the very things that I knew would bring me happiness. Only in heaven will we more fully understand Jesus and His mysterious ways.
There are some things we can't understand about Jesus while we live in this world. But anyone, Christian or not, who tries to understand Jesus apart from His death and resurrection or apart from His call to follow Him because He is the only way to life with God--if they try to see Jesus only as a great teacher or a kind man, or only as a religious leader, they are missing the point.
On the first Palm Sunday, neither the crowd, nor Jesus’ own disciples, nor the Jewish religious leaders nor the Romans, had a clear understanding of Jesus. I'm convinced that some knew that, in meeting Jesus, they were facing God in the flesh. But ignorant or not, they all disregarded His signs and the substance of His teaching, refusing Jesus’ terms of total surrender as the way to life, and instead, saw Him on their terms, which is the way to death.
Verses 17-18: “Now the crowd that was with [Jesus] when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.”
Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was seen as an interesting use of power. It proved Jesus had power that others didn't possess.
The crowds hailed Jesus as king because of a sign, not because of what the sign pointed to.
Jesus had power; now the people hoped to draft Jesus as king to do their bidding.
Within days, these same Passover crowds would demand Jesus’ execution.
People can turn on God on a dime.
A woman I knew years ago became bitter with God because, after her mother, in her late eighties, had suffered a long train of illnesses in the final few years of her life, died. “I’m mad at God for taking my mom from me,” she said.
I wanted to ask the woman if she would like it if her mother, a believer now free from suffering and in the presence of God, would be brought back to this earthly life by God just to make her happy. I bit my tongue. But it’s questions like these we need to ask ourselves when God disappoints us.
We tend to think in the short term. God has an eternal perspective.
In the midst of the Palm Sunday joys and celebrations, our gospel lesson ends on an ominous note: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’”
Jesus is seen as a threat by the Pharisees.
And, in truth, Jesus is a threat to us whenever the things valued by this world--security, wealth, health, family--become more important to us than welcoming King Jesus to rule over our lives.
None of the things valued in this world can bring us what only Jesus can bring us: peace with God, the presence of God with us through all the times of this life, and life with God now and in eternity.
The call of Palm Sunday is to surrender--totally, unconditionally--to Jesus, letting Him forgive us our sins, letting Him guard us from separation from God, and letting Him give us life everlasting.
I look forward to being with you on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunday, so that, once again, we can celebrate Jesus not as the king we want when sin has its way with us, but as the King we need when we let Him reign over us.
As we immerse ourselves deeply into the story of Christ's death and resurrection this Holy Week, God can incite us to sing the old Lenten hymn with a deeper sense of awe and gratitude and faith: "Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." Amen