People love to make Jesus over into their preferred image of Him. For example, an evangelical celebrity not long ago said that, despite what Jesus tells us as His disciples, turning one’s cheek to an enemy is un-Christian. (He actually said that!)
Efforts to change Jesus into a co-conspirator in our favorite sins or to reduce Him to a buddy we can control are nothing new. The Gospel of John tells us that after Jesus had miraculously fed a crowd of more than five-thousand people, the crowd wanted to turn Him into an earthly king accountable to their desires. So, Jesus went off to a mountain by Himself. (John 6:15) Jesus will not be the king the world wants. He will only be the king we need.
Today is Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His suffering, crucifixion, death, and, ultimately, resurrection.
The events of this day press this question on us: Who is Jesus for us?
It’s the most important question we will ever be asked, the very question Jesus posed to His first disciples when He asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was hailed by crowds. Because of that, there was a surface air of celebration. But Jesus was surrounded either by people who saw Him either as a buddy king to be used for their own ends or as a threat by those who, by their knowledge of Old Testament Scripture, had a sneaking suspicion of Who Jesus really was (and is) and so, wanted to get rid of Him.
According to John in today’s gospel lesson, John 12:12-19, there were two streams of crowds flowing into Jerusalem that day. There was the throng that had come there, as Jews did every year from throughout the Mediterranean basin, for the Passover. There was also a crowd that had followed Jesus from nearby Bethany, where, just a few days before, He had raised His friend Lazarus from the dead.
This confluence of people shows us how they see Jesus by their words and actions. They hail Jesus with words from Psalm 118. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13)
These words may seem innocent or innocuous to us. But, “Hosanna,” meaning Save, and the rest of what the crowds say had a specific meaning for the Jewish people. Historically, the words were cried out to Jewish kings who had won military victories. Palm branches too were waved during such celebrations of battles and wars won.
The message of the crowds was clear: “We’ll follow You, Jesus, as long as You do our bidding. So, re-establish the Kingdom of Israel by force. Lead us in a military battle to overthrow both Pilate and Herod. And then, give us what we want–the booty of war–as Your loyal followers.” They were itching for a fight and all they needed was for Jesus to give the orders.
But the crowds were to be disappointed. Jesus makes it clear that He hasn’t come to Jerusalem to lead an insurrection or win a military victory. John says that “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” (John 12:16) When Jesus did this, you can be certain that there were groans of disappointment from some in the crowd.
In telling us about this, John cites words from Old Testament prophecy, Zechariah 9:9: “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” Through the prophet Zechariah, who lived in the sixth century BC, God had announced that He was going to send the Savior Messiah to make all things right between God and the universe He had created.
But this Messiah would be no warrior king!
Warrior kings may temporarily change the borders of nations in this temporary universe.
But those kinds of kings can’t change people born as enemies of God into God’s friends.
Nor can they give mortal human beings everlasting life.
Nor can they make us citizens of a new and eternal kingdom in which every tear will be dried, every need will be met, every relationship healed, and every vestige of the filth of our sin will be removed from us.
The world’s conqueror-kings cannot give sinners the gracious covering of God’s own righteousness.
Only Jesus can do that.
Horses were instruments of war in the ancient world, the means by which armies killed and conquered. This is why in those days, the Jewish people, so often the victims of conquering armies, hated horses. Donkeys, on the other hand, did the work of peace. Zechariah’s prophecy said that the Messiah would not conquer humanity’s common enemies of sin, death, and darkness by violence, war, or the exercise of political power.
The Messiah would instead, humbly bring the Kingdom of God to all who believe in Him not by making war, but by the death He died for our sin on a cross and by the resurrection with which God the Father rewarded Jesus’ righteousness. Centuries before, through the prophet Isaiah, God had revealed that this would be how the Christ would conquer the reign of sin, death, and darkness over us. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him [on Jesus, the Messiah] the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
Then, after offering up His sinless life to take the punishment for our sinful natures we deserve, out of His great love for all, Jesus the Messiah would give forgiveness and eternal citizenship in the Kingdom of God to all who believe in Him.
The crowds in Jerusalem for the Passover had no interest in the Kingdom of God or in eternal life.
They wanted vengeance on the Romans and the Herodians, control of their country, and prosperity. Many, like the Zealots or maybe Judas Iscariot, still joined in shouting for Jesus after their disappointment in seeing Jesus on a lowly donkey, thinking they could use Him for their purposes.
But some in Jerusalem knew that Jesus couldn’t be used. The Pharisees look at the Palm Sunday spectacle and say to each other disgustedly, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:19) The Pharisees know that Jesus is, as John the Baptizer called Him, “the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) They get it that Jesus is God the Son, the Word made flesh. And for them, as would become true for Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the selfish crowds, Jesus was not a Messiah to be welcomed, worshiped, and trusted, but a threat, a threat to their way of life.
Even today, Jesus threatens us. He threatens our desire to be our own gods and our ambition to have lives focused on ourselves, our appetites, our interests, and our preferences.
The world turned against Jesus during that first Holy Week. Good Friday and Easter Sunday proved the world wrong for having done so.
Because of the death on a cross Jesus humbly faced and endured, Philippians 2:9-11 tells us “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This then, is Who Jesus really is: God, Savior, King, Redeemer, Who humbly bore the cross you and I deserve so that we might eternally share in His resurrection victory.
So, we come back to the question of Palm Sunday: “Who is Jesus for you?”
Jesus never sat on an earthly throne, was never serenaded by bands playing Hail to the Chief, never won a war or an Oscar or a Grammy or a Nobel Prize. But through His humble submission to death for us, He won eternity for us.
Will you daily welcome Jesus as your only Lord, your God, your King, Messiah, and Savior? Jesus tells us elsewhere: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Follow the King, Jesus, to everlasting life with God. Amen