[This was shared yesterday during Palm Sunday worship services with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
Palm Sunday isn’t an altogether happy day. While Sundays are always good days to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, there also is in Palm Sunday a foreshadowing of the suffering Jesus will undergo and die on a cross in the week that follows.
As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the religious leaders are hatching a plot to kill Jesus. The event that finally convinced them that Jesus had to die came when Jesus brought His friend, Lazarus, back from the dead. (Never mind that it would seem to be foolish to think that Someone with the power to raise a man from the dead would stay dead even if you killed Him.)
The religious leaders plotting Jesus’ demise had no idea that they were playing into the plan of God for Jesus. They were 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 express intention, according to God’s plan, of sacrificing Himself on the cross in order to save the world from its sin and from eternal separation from God.
Ultimately, it would be neither Jewish leaders nor crowds nor the Romans who would take Jesus’ life, although their sins and ours made His cross necessary. As Jesus once said, foreshadowing both Good Friday and Easter Sunday, “I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again..." (John 10:17-18)
And so, at the time appointed by God the Father and not because of the wounds inflicted on Him by the world, Jesus would say from the cross: “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46)
In our lives, we often think that we’re in control or must be. 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, eventually and eternally, to bring His good out of bad. God will use Good Fridays to bring Easters for those who place their hope in Jesus Christ 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 the people see Jesus as a king who would use military might to save them from the oppression of the Romans. Their welcome of Jesus echoes the welcome given to a Jewish priest who had led an armed revolt against foreign conquerors who had prohibited Jews from worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem back in 167 BC. These events are celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The Maccabean regime that came to power when the Jews through their foreign overlords out didn’t last long. No kingdom built on human force, human blood, or human logic can ever last. But the crowds who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem forgot that lesson from their own history and were ready to take up arms to make Jesus their king.
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. Jesus' power isn't derived from 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.”
Contrary to the dead-end thinking of this dying world, Jesus conquers by a servant love that compelled Him to die for us. And the enemies He conquers are the common enemies that live in every human soul: sin, death, darkness.
Jesus refuses to 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.”
We can’t approach him like the man profiled on 60 Minutes years ago, who ran a house of ill-repute in Las Vegas and told God that if God let him make a certain amount of money with his business, he would get out of it.
If we are to come to the God we know in Jesus, it will be on His terms or on no terms at all.
Jesus becomes our Lord when we daily yield control over our whole lives to Him, allowing Him to crucify our sinful selves so that our new selves, remade in Christ’s image, can rise.
We will never be fully remade in Christ’s image before our earthly lives come to an end; but Jesus’ disciples are those who willingly let Christ call them to repentance, trust, and renewal each and every 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 didn’t understand all of 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 or His deity. He says, for example, “The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30)
But more than anything He says, what Jesus did on the first Palm Sunday also tells us about Who He is. For one thing, as prophesied by Zechariah, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). This was a sure sign that He is the Messiah-King long promised to God’s people and to the people of the world.
But, as John tells us, not even Jesus’ closest disciples, the apostles, understood what was happening on the first Palm Sunday.
We shouldn't be too hard on them though. Today, I often 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 thought would bring me happiness, instead doing those things for me that will bring me life. Only in heaven will we fully understand Jesus and His mysterious ways.
But anyone, Christian or not, who tries to understand Jesus apart from His death and resurrection or apart from Jesus’ 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 will miss out on all that Jesus wants to give to us.
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.”
By much of the crowd who had seen what happened, Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead was an interesting display 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, but because of how they thought that they could manipulate Jesus for their own purposes. Within days, many of these same people 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, had died. “I’m mad at God for taking my mom from me,” she said. I tried tactfully 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 was unable to get my question across to her. But it’s questions like these we need to ask ourselves when we feel that God has disappointed us. We 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!’”
The Pharisees see Jesus as a threat who had to be killed. And, in truth, Jesus is a threat to us whenever the things valued by this world--security, wealth, health, family, country, reputation, happiness--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 to Jesus and to keep surrendering to Jesus every day, 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 and remember that Christ did all of this for you and me and every other sinner in the world, God can incite us to sing the old Lenten hymn with a deeper sense of awe, gratitude, and faith: "Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]