Appointment in Jerusalem

This is Holy Week, and around the world Christians are celebrating the momentous events that took place 2000 years ago. Although there are many things that separate us, here is one thing about which all Christians agree. Holy Week is at the center of the Christian faith. For one glorious week, differences of language, culture, race and doctrine are forgotten.

And what a week it is, eight days that begin with Palm Sunday and end with Easter Sunday. Two great events bracket Holy Week–the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Without controversy, it is truly a Holy Week because it encompasses the most sacred events of the Christian faith. All the things that we hold most dear were proved to be true during this great week in Jerusalem.

Stained Glass

The year was 1902, and a bustling young congregation prepared to build a new sanctuary. The First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park hired one of the greatest church architects of the Midwest, W. G. Williamson. Their charge was simple–Build us a sanctuary that will lead us to worship the grandeur and greatness of God. He succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. This beautiful Romanesque sanctuary in which we now worship was the result.

It’s clear that Mr. Williamson was a good theologian as well as a master architect. He saw clearly that Holy Week stood at the center of the Christian faith. That’s why the huge stained glass window on the east side of the sanctuary contains a picture of a woman holding a palm frond. It’s a scene from the first Palm Sunday. The window on the west side shows an angel blowing a trumpet on Easter Sunday morning. We’ve been worshiping between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday ever since.

It was an inspired choice because the very architecture of this room brings us back again and again to the central realities of our faith.

The Majority Will Never Desire the Truth

This morning our focus is on Palm Sunday. I’m sure that most of us know the general outlines of the story. But I suspect that most of us have never considered the story in any detail. Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey? Why did the people wave palm branches? Why did they cry out “Hosanna!” as he passed by? What does it all mean? Of all the events of Holy Week, the Triumphal Entry is the most-overlooked and least-understood.

As a place to begin, let’s consider these words by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard:

The truth must essentially be regarded as in conflict with this world; the world has never been so good, and will never become so good that the majority will never desire the truth.

On Palm Sunday, the Truth rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back. Although the crowds cheered the Truth, beneath the surface a conflict was raging. The majority did not want the Truth that day, nor have they wanted the Truth on any day since that day.

Sunrise in Bethany

I That day began as all other days, with an early sunrise and the sound of merchants opening their little shops. Bethany wasn’t a large town, or even a town at all. More like a village, really, a simple cluster of homes. Here and there the farmers made ready to go to the fields–planting season was upon them. Mothers busied themselves getting their children up and dressed.

In one home things were different because Jesus was there. It was the home of Mary and Martha–two sisters who lived together along with their brother Lazarus. Jesus had visited with them many times. Their home was a special place of refuge for him. But this time his visit had been different. This time he had come for a funeral but had turned it into a celebration. Just a day or two earlier he had publicly raised Lazarus from the dead. Hundreds of people had seen him do it, and by now thousands more had heard the news. It seemed so impossible … But Jesus had done it! The celebration had gone on late into the night.

Now the morning had come. It was clear to everyone that Jesus was not staying any longer. He had that look about him of a man on a mission. No one else knew what was about to happen. No one–not even the most perceptive among his disciples–realized what was about to happen on this cloudless Sunday morning.

The Master’s Plan

I pause to insert two facts into the narrative. One is that the story of the Triumphal Entry is repeated–in detail–by all four gospel writers. That fact is noteworthy because it tells us that something critical is about to happen. The other fact is that as you read this story, one impression overwhelms you: Jesus is in complete control of everything that happens on Palm Sunday. Unlike other events in his life, he is not reacting to anyone or anything else. No one–repeat–no one expects him to do what he does. There are no sick people, no Pharisees to confront, no storms to still, no dead men to raise, no puzzling questions to answer. What Jesus does, he does of his own accord.

The Master’s Plan

I pause to insert two facts into the narrative. One is that the story of the Triumphal Entry is repeated–in detail–by all four gospel writers. That fact is noteworthy because it tells us that something critical is about to happen. The other fact is that as you read this story, one impression overwhelms you: Jesus is in complete control of everything that happens on Palm Sunday. Unlike other events in his life, he is not reacting to anyone or anything else. No one–repeat–no one expects him to do what he does. There are no sick people, no Pharisees to confront, no storms to still, no dead men to raise, no puzzling questions to answer. What Jesus does, he does of his own accord.

An Ancient Prophecy

The story of Palm Sunday really begins with a donkey. Most of us have heard how Jesus sent his disciples to a neighboring village (probably Bethphage) with instructions to bring back a donkey. When you read Matthew’s account you realize that the two disciples actually brought back two donkeys–a mother and her young colt which had never been ridden. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the young colt with the mother walking alongside.

Matthew also tells us that by riding a donkey into Jerusalem Jesus was fulfilling an ancient prophecy from Zechariah 9:9. Those words–written 575 years earlier–predicted that when Messiah came to Israel, he would come riding on a donkey. “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” Those words tell us two specific facts about the Messiah. First, he will come as a gentle king riding on a donkey. Second, he will come as a righteous king bringing salvation to his people.

Nothing would have seemed more unlikely than for a king to come riding on a donkey. Jesus could hardly have chosen a more unlikely way to present himself to the nation. If the Scripture had not predicted it, no one would have dreamed it up. That explains why the Romans sat idly by on Palm Sunday while tens of thousands of people flocked to Jesus. From their point of view, the whole thing was a joke. A king on a donkey? You must be kidding. No self-respecting king would be caught dead on a donkey. If you wanted to make an impact, you would come in on a war-horse or surrounded by soldiers or mounted on a chariot. But on a donkey? No way.

It’s not hard to imagine the Romans laughing as they watched the spectacle. A pauper king, riding on a borrowed donkey, his saddle a makeshift layer of cloaks, attended by an unruly mob whose only weapons were palm branches.

He didn’t look much like a king that day. But that was the whole point. He’s a king, but he’s not like any earthly king. The Triumphal Entry was an “acted parable,” in which Jesus was sending a clear message to the nation. “This is what I am! I am your King, but I am not the King you were expecting!”

A Symbol of National Liberation

Speaking of the unexpected, as Jesus began the three mile journey from Bethany to Jerusalem, the people along the road began to do something no one could have predicted. As Jesus passed by, they waved palm fronds. What does that mean? In the Old Testament, the Jews were told to wave palm fronds as a part of the Feast of Tabernacles. Two hundred years before Christ, during the Maccabean Rebellion, when the Jews temporarily regained control of the Temple from the Syrians, they celebrated by waving palm branches. Thirty years after the death of Christ, during the rebellion that led up to the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Jews minted coins containing an image of palm branches on one side. Taking this all together, we may say that in the time of Christ palm branches represented joy and celebration. They were also a symbol of national liberation for the Jews. Waving palm branches before Jesus was similar to giving him a ticker-tape parade. Or we might think of those huge parades that welcomed back the soldiers from Operation Desert Storm. As they marched down the street, they were welcomed by a sea of American flags.

When the Jews waved the palm branches as Jesus rode by, they were saying, “This is the man and this is the day!” It was the welcome given to kings and conquerors. “Ride on, King Jesus, no man can hinder you.”

Five Days Before Passover

It is now Sunday morning, five days before Passover. That fact is significant because it means that Jerusalem will be clogged with pilgrims who have come from every part of Israel for the great celebration. Josephus says that during Passover the population of Jerusalem could swell to 3 million people. It was the closest thing in Israel to a national town meeting. Everyone who was anyone would show up for Passover. Long-forgotten friends would meet on the streets, families would travel hundreds of miles to be there. In such an atmosphere of festive anticipation rumors would quickly spread like wildfire. As word of the raising of Lazarus spread, people began to wonder if Jesus would come to Jerusalem for Passover (John 11:53). Everyone knew the animosity that existed between Jesus and the Temple leaders. Would he take a chance and come anyway? Or would Jesus choose the safe route and stay away altogether?

Add to that the general political ferment that always existed in Israel. There were three main political parties: The Pharisees who patiently endured Roman rule; the Zealots who didn’t patiently endure anything, especially the hated Romans; the Sadducees who ran the Temple complex and cooperated with the Romans. Finally, you have the Romans themselves and the two key rulers, Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. The stage is now set for a great confrontation. Into this unstable situation rides Jesus on the back of a young donkey. What will happen next?

Two Strange Sights

Picture the scene. As Jesus leaves Bethany for Bethphage and the Mount of Olives, hundreds of people come running to join him. Soon the crowd swells as whole families drop what they are doing and line the narrow dirt road. If you read John’s account, it is clear that another large crowd in Jerusalem, having heard that Jesus was on his way, leaves the city to meet him as he approaches the Mount of Olives. Somewhere on the far side of the Kidron Valley, the two groups join in a melee of shouting, singing, laughing, dancing and chanting. It is a day of unbridled joy as the common people welcome Jesus to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile inside the city, the chief priests and scribes monitor the situation with increasing alarm. A public display of support for Jesus was the last thing they wanted. It appears to them that the entire world has gone over to Jesus’ side. Their shock turns to dismay and then to anger as the reports keep pouring in. The minutes turn to hours on Palm Sunday while two streams of human emotion converge. On one hand there is rising excitement as Jesus nears the Eastern Gate; on the other hand there is mounting opposition as the leaders decide that Jesus will not leave the city alive.

Holy Hurrahs

Meanwhile the procession makes its way toward Jerusalem, the shouts of the people growing louder by the minute. All four gospel writers make a point not only to mention that the people shouted, but also what they shouted. They specifically mention two things: First they cried out “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”, and second they said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” “Hosanna!” is a Hebrew word meaning “Save us now.” As one writer put it, “Hosanna!” was a kind of “Holy Hurrah.” Every observant Jew immediately recognized the second statement as a quotation from Psalm 118. They all knew it because Psalm 118 was one of the best-known Messianic psalms. By shouting these words, the people were in effect explicitly identifying Jesus as the promised Messiah. No other meaning could reasonably be construed from their exultant shouts. These people believed that at long last the Messiah had come.

They were right.

Sometimes it is overlooked that Jesus gladly accepted the praise of the people on Palm Sunday. What a change this was. For most of his public ministry, whenever he worked a miracle, he told people not to spread the word. He wanted people to see him as more than a miracle-worker. But not today. The time for silence was long past. If he once discouraged publicity, he now counts silence inconceivable. The time for truth had come. When the Pharisees heard the crowds praising him, they urged him to rebuke his disciples. Jesus refused, saying, “If I tell them to be quiet, the rocks themselves will break forth in praise to me.”

Jesus Weeping

Now something very strange happens. Luke is the only writer who tells us about it. At the height of the celebration Jesus begins to weep. It happened as the road to Jerusalem wound around the southern shoulder of the Mount of Olives. As you travel that road, you come to the crest of a small rise. As you reach the crest, the whole city of Jerusalem suddenly appears before your eyes. It is an awesome, breathtaking sight. When Jesus saw the city, he began to weep.

It must have seemed very strange. I can imagine a little boy saying, “Mommy, why is Mr. Jesus crying?” And the answer,"I don’t know, sweetheart.” The answer is not hard to find. Jesus was weeping, not for himself, but for the city that was about to reject him. Jesus saw beyond the cheering crowd to the mob that would soon crucify him. He knew on Palm Sunday that Good Friday was only five days away. And through the dim mists of history, he saw into the future, to the time when the Roman army would sack Jerusalem in A.D. 70. These are his words: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42-44) In the midst of the joy Jesus saw the future clearly. He knew that Good Friday was only five days away. He knew that the nation would soon turn away from him. He also saw through the misty future to the day when the Romans would destroy the city stone by stone, killing men, women and children by the thousands. Because the nation would reject its Messiah, such awful judgment would soon fall. Why? God’s Son had come and they did not recognize him. God’s Son had come and they crucified him.

–He knew the crowds were fickle.

–He knew the leaders were plotting against him.

–He knew the cheers would soon turn to jeers.

–He knew on Sunday what would happen on Friday.

–He knew the cross lay directly in his path.

He knew all those things but he went anyway. King Jesus rode on toward the city because he had an appointment in Jerusalem.

How Could He Have Made It Plainer?

In the days to come some would look back and say, “If only we had known.” But after Palm Sunday no one could truly use that excuse. They knew! No one could ever say, “He didn’t make himself plain.” How could he have made it plainer? He made himself so clear that no one could miss it.

On Palm Sunday no one was under any compulsion. The nation had a clear choice to make. So did the rulers. The Romans did nothing to interfere. The priests stood by and watched it all happen. Every man had a choice to make that day; every man in Jerusalem made a choice. For better or for worse, the die was cast. Jesus called for a decision and the nation rendered its verdict.

Mixed Reactions

Now Jesus has come into the city. Wild confusion reigns. The King has come. What will the people do? The answers are not hard to find:

–The disciples praise him openly.

–The children praise him innocently.

–The crowds cheer him but they do not understand him.

–The city is curious but not committed.

That leaves only one group–the religious leaders, that large group of Scribes and Pharisees, the “elders of Israel,” the rulers of the Sanhedrin. What will they say? How will they respond? The people have spoken, but will their rulers follow suit?

Three words sum up the “official” reaction to Jesus on Palm Sunday: Fright … Frustration … Anger. Fright because they do not know what Jesus is up to. Frustration because so many people cheer him as he rides into the city. Anger because they now see him as an enemy of their interests, an enemy who must be eliminated.

Short Rows

My friend Bruce Tanner has an expression that he uses to describe anyone who finds themselves in a tight spot. “You’re down to the short rows now.” It’s a figure of speech taken from the way farmers often plow their fields. When you plow diagonally, you start out with the long rows and end up with the short rows. It takes extra skill to handle the short rows properly.

The people of Israel were down to short rows now. The luxury of idle discussion is now past. The time for decision has come. Very soon the nation must render its verdict concerning Jesus Christ. The evidence is in, the jury has been instructed, and a verdict must soon be returned.

Kierkegaard gave us another penetrating word that applies to this moment in human history: “Jesus Christ is the object of faith–one either believes in him or is offended by him.” There are two choices and only two. You either believe or you are offended. The truth about Jesus is a two-edged sword. It cuts both ways. No one can stay in the middle forever.

In Matthew’s account he includes a fascinating note. As Jesus approached Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Matthew says that the whole city was stirred. The word means to be shaken to the core. People began to ask each other, “Who is this man?” And the answer came back, “It is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” Think about that answer for a moment. It is true as far as it goes. Every detail is correct. But it doesn’t go far enough.

He is a prophet but he’s more than a prophet. He is from Galilee but that’s not his ultimate hometown. The people of Jerusalem asked the right question and gave the almost-right answer. But in spiritual things almost-right is not good enough. They were close but not close enough!

Palm Sunday Lessons

Mark ends his account of the Triumphal Entry by telling us that after Jesus entered Jerusalem he went to the Temple, but because it was so late in the day no one was there. So he left Jerusalem with his disciples, went back to Bethany and spent the night there. It is a strange way to end such a momentous day. But it does raise a valid question. What did Jesus accomplish that day? What was Palm Sunday all about? Why the Triumphal Entry?

If you want the answer in one sentence, it goes like this: Jesus was sending a message to Israel on Palm Sunday, a message that the time for decision had come. No longer would the people have the privilege of discussing his credentials in an abstract manner. On this day Jesus presented himself to the nation, asking for an immediate decision. The answer he received was not encouraging. Although the crowds cheered, they did not truly understand him. Although the leaders understood him, they did not cheer him. Israel came close, so close on that day to embracing him as God’s Messiah. But close wasn’t good enough.

After Palm Sunday the only thing left was Golgotha.

Nearly 20 centuries have come and gone since Jesus met his appointment in Jerusalem. Three abiding lessons remain for our consideration.

1. Spiritual Opportunities Don’t Last Forever.

Where Jesus Christ is involved, no one can wait forever. No one can sit on the fence forever. There comes a time when a decision must be rendered for or against the Son of God. In spiritual matters, not to decide is to decide. To say “not now” is really to say “no.”

It’s not enough to be interested in Jesus. Millions of people who are interested in him have no living relationship with him. The people of the first Palm Sunday were interested. The whole city was stirred to the point of discussion … but not the point of action. Mere interest will never save you. The gospel saves only those who believe … not those who talk about believing. Interest is good if it leads on to action; if not, interest will eventually harden into disinterest and ultimately into hatred.

Spiritual neutrality is a temporary way-station, not a permanent destination. No one stays there forever. Kierkegaard was right. “One either believes in him or is offended by him.”

There is a time to think and a time to decide; a time to be silent and a time to speak; a time to discuss and a time to make up your mind. Palm Sunday reminds us that each of us must sooner or later make up our minds about Jesus Christ.

Rollo May offers a very helpful word at this point:

The reason we do not see truth is not that we have not read enough books or do not have enough academic degrees, but that we do not have enough courage.

He is exactly right. If knowledge alone would save us, the whole world would be saved by now. But knowledge without courage leads you to an intellectual cul-de-sac. It takes courage to believe in Jesus. For that matter, it takes courage to make any important decision in the spiritual realm. Rarely is knowledge the root of our problem. Mostly we just lack the courage to embrace the truth.

2. The World That Rejected Christ Then Still Rejects Him Today.

The people of the world hate religious emotion in the same way the Pharisees hated the way the crowds cheered Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. They hate religious emotion because they do not understand it. To them religion is an intellectual affair that never touches the heart. But Jesus will have none of that. If a man will not give him his heart, Jesus wants no part of him. Although it sounds strange to say, if Jesus came to Chicago, he would be crucified all over again.

3. The Invitation is Not to Believe But to Be Brave.

Christ comes again and again to the human heart. Each time a verdict must be rendered. Look! He’s coming down Lake Street. Jesus has come to Oak Park. Your King has come. What will you do? Will you join with those who crucified him or will you join with those who cry out “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!"?

Our greatest need is for moral courage to make the right moral choices. When the time comes to take sides with Jesus, all you need is enough courage to do the right thing. The Palm Sunday invitation is not to believe but to be brave. The brave join the little children who praise him gladly while the timid are left to dream about what might have been.

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