A Palm Sunday sermon based on Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11 preached on April 4th, 2017
These next 7 days…they’re Jesus’ last ones on earth. We call it Holy Week. It’s a funny, curious name for it. Holy indeed, but a whole lot more than that, too.
Jesus knew this week was coming. Whether or not He was sure of every detail of it, how it would play out hour by hour and minute by minute—that’s a different question. But Jesus knew He wouldn’t make it out of Jerusalem alive. The details of it all were not up to Him. They were out of His hands.
Jesus wasn’t in charge of how the crowds in Jerusalem would react to Him, what they would say or do. People are unpredictable like that, fickle too. Especially when they speak and act in large numbers. We’re erratic and dangerous when hoards of us gather together. You get 1,000’s of people all in one place—like Jerusalem; all for one purpose—like the Passover fesitival—and there’s no telling what could happen.
It could be a peaceful week where everyone behaves themselves, but more than likely in a religiously and politically loaded city like Jerusalem, during a religiously and politically loaded week like Passover, there will be interruptions or uprisings. Wherever humans gather, things can go very well until the moment they go very badly. That’s how humans do.
There were a few Roman soldiers stationed at every corner of the city to keep the peace. They were armed and vigilant. They anticipated violence, ready to intercede at a moment’s notice. The Romans let the Jews celebrating their religion festivals, but they were going to be heavily policed. It was the Roman army’s job to keep this week in Jerusalem manageable and peaceful.
Jesus knew he was headed into a volatile setting. Into the powder keg that was Jerusalem at Passover. He had been talking to His disciples about his inevitable death for months now—maybe even years. Jesus could see ahead. It wasn’t that He knew every detail of how it would happen. He was no fortune teller.
What was the Palm Sunday moment like for Jesus? Yes, he appeared as if He was in control of everything. He had made arrangements for all this. He had made sure a donkey and palm branches were at hand. Everything external was taken care of and under His control. But what was happening on the inside? Jesus knew what the people do to their Messiahs. As He rode into that city atop a donkey, what exactly did Jesus think He was doing? What was His heart filled with? Was it fear? Or focus? Did He feel as calm as He looked as the people waved their palm branches?
The people hoped that someone would be sent into the city one day and fix what was broken, right what was wrong, but, they were notoriously skeptical. For too many times now, they had put their hope in empty messiahs. Misunderstanding and distrust swirled around like wind that week. The air in that city was always unstable. Storms were always at hand. Jesus knew all of this.
As the people took up the acclamation Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!, what did all of it sound like to Him?
The song the crowd sang to Him that day—did it sound to Jesus like worship, or was their a tinge of something else in their voices? Something skeptical or even sinister? Did the crowd’s song that day mean anything to Jesus? “Save us!” they shouted. Yes, Jesus is here to save, but in an altogether different way than anyone could ever suspect or imagine.
As he strolled through the Palm Sunday crowd that day, the people gathered around, singing of how they needed saving. But most of them were asking not for the Messiah they needed, but for the Messiah they wanted: a Messiah fashioned in their own image, for their own advantage. But nobody—including not a single one of us—gets to fashion Jesus into whatever we want Him to be.
Jesus is not created for us; we are created for Him. Jesus is always and altogether different than the expectations we have of Him. Jesus doesn’t stand for our causes. He isn’t here to represent our loves. Jesus can’t be given to the masses, because inevitably, the masses will take Him and make out of Him whatever they want Him to be. The masses have no tolerance to let Jesus be who he actually is. As Jesus entered in the East Gates of Jerusalem, He knew how much He would be misunderstood.
That day, Jesus never lost sight of His purpose, His identity—He never lost sight of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever the people of that day, or this day, project onto Jesus never mattered or stuck. That’s because He kept His gaze upon the cross that awaited him just outside that city. Whatever Hosanna’s were sung that first Palm Sunday, whatever storms would come his way that week, whatever Crucify Him’s were shouted five days later, Jesus’ faith and sense of purpose were firm and unwavering.
Four gigantic fronts collided inside the gates of Jerusalem that first Holy Week: The way of Jesus in from the West; the way of the Roman Empire coming from the South; the way of King Herod Antipas descending from the North; and the way of the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphus in from the East.
With Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance—the pressure began to build up in that city. All the major power players had to have their way, and Jesus would be caught in the middle of it all. Matthew says that all of Jerusalem was stirring in turmoil that week. When Matthew took the temperature and listened to the wind, he could feel the looming natural disaster about to take place.
There were Roman soldiers on guard throughout that city, part of a military force unparalleled in strength and power in those days, ready to pounce on anything that came close to looking like trouble. Ready to snuff out any hint of uprising.
Then, there was the front of the Jewish political system of the day—far removed from their biblical beginnings. King Herod Antipas had built his reputation out of stone and marble. He cared not a bit about God. He was a tyrant whose building projects brought him to fame, and it was that fame that was most important to Him. He cared nothing for the common people.
And then there was Herod’s priest in arms, Caiaphus, another gathering front. Pastor Eugene Peterson writes that Caiaphus represented religion as privilege, religion as exploitation, commodity, and oppression.
If Herod was the leader of the secular world; Caiaphus was the leader of the religious world. Caiaphus was no real priest. No servant of God. He was much more interested in His own power and prestige. On taking control of the people’s faith, taking control of God.
These were all wicked weather patterns in place over Jerusalem that week. Jesus was well aware of every one of them. When all of it swirls together with the high-pressure religious system already in place in that Holy city, what we have is the perfect storm. Four fronts collided over top of Jerusalem—each one hell-bent on having their own way—it’s a recipe for destruction. As He rode through the East Gates on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was well aware that He was walking into a natural disaster.
That’s the 7-day weather report for this Holy Week.
The thing is, friends, Jesus wants us to follow Him straight into this storm. Have you ever given yourself to Holy Week before? It’s a rough ride. It’s not easy. But, each of us are called into the heart of the storm that is the last week of Jesus’ life.
This week, there will be a tantrum thrown in the Temple. This week, Jesus’ authority will be questioned over and over again. Jesus will share parables about the Kingdom of God. And nobody will understand a word of them, not even His disciples.
This week, there will be a final supper to attend. It will be so much more than a meal. It will be loaded with messages for us about what it is to truly live, to truly partake of Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death, and therefore find new life.
There will be a prayer prayed feverishly in a garden. Jesus will pray so hard He will begin to sweat blood. Then, two of His disciples will betray Him: Judas and Peter. Both will deny Him in one way or another. Jesus will then be arrested by the powerful people of His day.
He will be questioned and tried by those who do not know what they are doing, but will do it anyway. He will be mocked, and flogged, nailed through His wrists, stripped naked, and hung up on a tree. From that tree, Jesus will utter 7 last words—all of them prayers He makes to His Father. Then, He will die. Be buried in a borrowed tomb. But He’s only borrowing it.
I encourage you to walk with Jesus this week. To follow in His footsteps across Jerusalem. And let’s walk with each other, too. We have plenty of ways for you to worship and follow this week. If you do, it will make next Easter Sunday all the more joyous.
That’s the 7-day weather report for this Holy Week.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!