Archimedes, the third-century BC mathematician, taught the world that “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” That may be true. But often, traveling the straight line between where you are and where you need to be will only leave you lost.
As followers of Jesus, we believe that the only way we can get to where we need to be as human beings by taking the sometimes convoluted path to which Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh, invites us when He says, “Follow Me.” Or, “Repent and believe in the good news.”
Jesus was surrounded by a lot of “straight-line” thinking from the moment He began His public ministry.
Out in the wilderness after He underwent John’s baptism, Jesus was confronted by the supreme straight-line thinker, the devil. “If you’re so anxious to prove that you’re the Son of God,” the devil told Jesus, “just go to it, turn these stones to bread.” “If you want everyone to know Who you are, throw yourself off the temple, and let people see your Father prevent you from getting hurt,” the devil said. “If you’ve come to be the King,” the devil had argued, “just worship me and I’ll give every earthly kingdom to you.” The devil was tempting Jesus with straight-line thinking. “Why suffer?” he was asking Jesus. “Why go through rejection from Your chosen people? Why endure the trial of a kangaroo court? Why be beaten and spat upon? Why have nails driven into Your flesh? Why be crucified, humiliated?” the devil asked. “I’m offering you a straight line to what you’ve come to take. No suffering. No cross. No resistance to sin.”
This is exactly how the devil, the world, and our sinful selves still tempt us today: “You want it, don’t you? It looks good, doesn’t it. Go ahead and take it.” This is the devil's message to us all the time.
But Jesus always knew that a Savior Who did not resist the temptation that had drawn humanity into sin and death would be of no use to the sinners He had come to save, you and me.
And so, Jesus refused to take the straight line, the easy path. He took the harder path, the one that requires faith in the midst of things we can’t fully understand nor explain.
Jesus knew the truth of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” [ESV]
Jesus’ intention was to go through death, but not end up dead. The straight-line path in this world promises life and may lead to comfort, but always ends in death, separation from God.
Jesus constantly spurned those who tempted him to take the straight line, the easy path.
After He’d fed more than 5000 with a a few fish and scraps of bread, the crowd chased after Him to make Him a king. But Jesus said: “I am telling you the truth: you are looking for me because you ate the bread and had all you wanted, not because you understood my miracles.” [John 6:26, The Message]
The 5000, with their full bellies, wanted Jesus to take the straight line--the shortcut, the easy way--to being the Messiah King they wanted Him to be.
But Jesus knew that doing so would only consign the world, including you and me, to everlasting death and alienation from God.
Jesus could not kill off the power of sin and death over you and me if He did not bear the condemnation for our sins on the cross. For Jesus and for us, the shortest distance between here and the kingdom of God is the way of following God’s plan, no matter where it takes us.
This is why our gospel lesson for today finds Jesus in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover, despite all of the advice given to Him to stay away.
Just before our lesson, Jesus is in Bethany, the place where He had raised Lazarus from the dead. He’s in the home of Lazarus and of Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary. It’s during this dinner that Lazarus’ sister Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. (Catechism students: Please notice that it was Mary, the sister of Lazarus, not Mary Magdalene, who did this despite how this was portrayed in the excellent movie we’ve been watching together during Lent, Jesus of Nazareth.)
Judas Iscariot, probably speaking for the entire group is horrified. Judas, ever the straight-line thinker, says, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” [John 12:5]
You see, Judas had the same thought that many Christians have today. They look at problems like poverty, abortion, pornography, or gun violence and say that the Church needs to spend its offerings, develop programs, and do lobbying to solve them.
Ministries of mercy will always be part of the work of the Church, of course. They do the same thing that Jesus’ signs or miracles did: They give credibility to our proclamation of repentance and belief in Jesus as the only way to a life with God.
But the Church is not a social service agency.
We don’t offer people political programs.
We offer people one thing and one thing only: Jesus.
We’re to make disciples for Jesus Christ. That’s it!
Programs may make us feel as though we’re accomplishing our mission as Christians and as the Church.
But when, as Christ’s disciples filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we engage in the long, challenging, one-to-one process of making disciples, we do more than change people’s days or earthly lives, God transforms them for eternity to people, like us, committed to following the God who saves people by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
And so, Jesus tells Judas that the poor will always be around and that if their needs are important to him, Judas will always find ways to address them. But Jesus honors Mary’s extravagance: “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial,” He says [John 12:7].
Mary understood what none of Jesus’ other followers nor any of the Palm Sunday crowd nor the religious leaders understood. She knew that the way to God’s kingdom isn’t a straight line that comes by our effort.
The kingdom comes because Jesus died on a cross for us and because the Holy Spirit has given us the gift of faith in Christ and we simply follow Christ. Mary knew that Jesus wouldn’t be the king the crowds wanted.
Jesus is the King Who would spare no effort--including the offering of His own life on the cross--in order to gain an eternal kingdom in which, He promises, all who follow Him will reign with Him eternally over a new heaven and a new earth. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:12: “...if we endure [in faith], we will also reign with him…” How about that?
And so, we come to Palm Sunday.
Of course, with Passover just days away, Jesus is intent on being the once-for-all sacrifice for our sin, as John the Baptist put it: “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29]
But usually the only time that the straight-line thinking world considers sin is when it catalogs all the ways that others have sinned against them. Jesus’ fellow Jews were expert at listing all the very real ways that their Roman conquerors had sinned against them. They want Jesus to be a king who throws the Romans out of their homeland.
As Jesus enters the city, they think less of Passover, more of Hannukah. Hannukah is a mid-winter festival that commemorates the day, in 164 BC, when, under the leadership of a priest, Judas Maccabaeus, the Jews expelled pagan invaders from Jerusalem, then cleansed the temple.
When Judas Maccabaeus and his followers entered the city, people waved palm branches to welcome the conquering hero. They thought that, under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus, their country was free. They were mistaken: The Romans conquered the Jews in just a few short years and by 70 AD, just as Jesus predicted, the temple in Jerusalem was reduced to rubble.
But on the first Palm Sunday, around 28 to 33 AD, many welcome Jesus as a king who will go straight after the Romans and make everything right, another Judas Maccabeaus.
They welcome Jesus with palm leaves while chanting: “Hosanna [meaning, “Save us]! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord [A messianic prophecy from Psalm 118]! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
As the disciples watch this, they're clueless about how it all fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Verse 16: “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified [after He had been crucified, raised by God the Father, and ascended to sit at the Father's right hand] did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.”
The Pharisees, who held the upper hand in Jewish religious life, are appalled by the Palm Sunday parade. Verse 19: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’”
The Pharisees say more than they understand. In the very next verses of John’s gospel, Gentiles--foreigners, non-Jews---will approach one of Jesus’ followers, Philip, and ask if they can see Jesus. Even before Easter, people from other parts of the world starts going after Jesus, following Him.
Jesus promises later in John 12: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." [John 12:32]
The Pharisees think that if they can convince the Romans to take Jesus down, to execute Him, they will also take down talk of Him being the King and the Son of God. People will stop following Him. But as we gather on the sacred days of this Holy Week, we will be reminded again that the straight line--the easy path--isn’t the best route to travel to where we need to be.
There is no Easter without paying heed to Maundy Thursday, when Jesus commands us to love our fellow believers as He has loved us and when He first institutes Holy Communion, sustenance, life, and forgiveness for all who dare to follow Jesus.
And there is no Easter without Good Friday, when Jesus accepts our punishment for sin so that we can live with God for eternity.
There is no Easter, no life with God, for you and me unless we learn to repent, trust in Christ, and follow Him wherever He may lead.
In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus tells us: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points. But the surest line to life with God that never ends is to follow Jesus.
As we prepare for Easter, may we not neglect to follow Jesus on this pathway so that we can celebrate Easter with true gratitude and faith and awe. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This is the message from that congregation's Palm Sunday worship earlier today.]