Friday, 19 May 2017

Palm Sunday

Jesus enters the great city of Jerusalem and it leaves some asking, “Who is this?” It is a question that comes up a lot in the Gospels. Jesus calms the storm, “Who is this?” (Matt 8). Jesus declares a man’s sins forgiven and then heals him and the religious leaders ask, “who is this?” (Luke 7). Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?” When people answer this question they often get it wrong, or only part right. Some of the religious leaders thought Jesus’ power came from demons and so he was some kind of dark magician. Some called him a prophet, which is getting closer. At least he’s playing for the right team. Peter declared that Jesus is, “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mat 16:16). But even then Peter didn’t quite have it because right after he declared this about Jesus he pulled him aside and began to scold him for saying that he was going to be killed.

“Who is this?” This is the question all the Gospels are answering. They want us to know who this man is.

Jesus received the welcome of a king. I don’t know if you have ever seen royalty be welcomed. There are people lined up all along the streets. They are waving flags. Some bring flowers to give. There are barricades to keep the crowds back.

They welcome Jesus in as royalty. But this is even bigger. To understand the excitement of the crowd we have to understand a little bit of what was happening at the time. The Roman Empire was occupying their land. They felt the boot of Rome on their necks. Their influence seemed to poison everything. The king was a kind of puppet king put in power by Rome. They used their own people to collect Roman taxes and line the tax-collectors would pocket whatever extra they could squeeze out of the people. There was a broad feeling that the temple leadership had become corrupt as well. Jesus turning over the tables was a judgement on the leadership of the temple and how they were creating an environment for taking advantage of those who came to the temple to worship.

The people had a sense of who the messiah was supposed to be.

Who are they expecting? They are welcoming him as the messiah. In the minds of most people the messiah was a king like King David who would replace the corrupt leadership, unify the country, and free them from oppression. To welcome him they lay their cloaks on the ground (2 Kings 9:13), which is a sign of loyalty and dedication. They wave tree branches in celebration and lay them on the ground making a kind of red carpet (or green carpet) welcome (1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7). They shout “Hosanna” which means “save us” (Ps 118:25). It had become a kind of shout of joy and adoration.

So they welcome him as a king, but oddly he comes on a donkey. We might expect a war horse. A donkey is so undignified. It is like the queen riding a Vespa. There are a few reasons for this. One is that Jesus is very purposely fulfilling a prophesy about the messiah (Zech 9:9). Through this action Jesus is declaring that he is the messiah. The Messiah was also called the Son of David and another son of David, Solomon, came to the city on a donkey when he was anointed king to succeed his father (1 Kings 1:32-40). … But it is also a symbol of humility. This King is for the people. This king is humble before God and is willing to be led by Him. Jesus embodied that humility and we read about that In Philippians 2 today. He was willing to be emptied in obedience and humility to God.

There is a dramatic shift today. It is not only Palm Sunday, but it is also Passion Sunday. We can get spiritual whiplash today. The crowds shift from shouting “hosanna” to “crucify”. Jesus is betrayed by one of his own disciples. The rest scatter. Peter denies knowing Jesus. The justice system is manipulated to create injustice to convict him.

How could such a dramatic shift happen in such a short time? Part of the reason why is that Jesus was not the messiah they wanted. Jesus was the messiah God wanted. They wanted a nationalist hero who would wave their country’s flag. They wanted someone to kick out the Romans and be their King.

The messiah God wanted was going to battle with Sin and death, not the Romans. This messiah was for all of humanity, not just Israel. He wasn’t raising an army of soldiers, but of saints. He was to fulfill the original blessing of Abraham that he would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the world (Gen 12:3).

I wonder how often we do this? We try to make Jesus into who we want him to be. We want a Jesus to forgive my sin. I want a Jesus to secure an afterlife for me when I die.

But there are lots of things about Jesus that make me uncomfortable. He tells me to love my enemies. He tells me to turn the other cheek when struck. He tells me that if I don’t deal with my anger I might as well be a murderer. If I don’t deal with my lust I might as well be an adulterer. He tells me to pick up my cross and follow him. There are things Jesus does that make me uncomfortable. Maybe I want the Jesus that just makes me feel warm and fuzzy and not the Jesus who challenges me to be transformed. If I do that I’m crying “crucify” with the crowd.

C.S. Lewis once said that when he was a child he would have a toothache. But, he wouldn’t want to tell his mother. All he really wanted was a Tylenol to alleviate the pain, but he knew that if he told his mother he had a toothache, she would bring him to the dentist. He just wanted the pain to go away, but the dentist would drill into his tooth to fix it. Not only that, but he would poke around in his mouth to look at teeth that weren’t even bothering him yet.

For Lewis, God is like the dentist. We want parts of God, but not other parts. We might turn to God because we want Him to deal with our loneliness, or sadness, cowardice, bad temper, or addiction. He will likely cure it, but he won’t stop there. He will start poking around and start fixing other bits, even if you don’t think it’s broken and don’t really want it fixed. You can resist him, of course, but if you don’t he is going to complete the job he started. He wants to make you into something new. There is a cost to becoming Christian- It has to change you. The Messiah is coming to fix the world, but he will fix you along with it. Jesus presents himself to us. He may not be exactly what we think we want or expect, but Jesus gives us what we actually need.

Our Messiah is humble enough to allow us to accept him or deny him. He won’t force himself on us. He will present himself to us, and we are free to accept him or deny him. We can welcome him as king, or crucify him as a fraud. God was willing to gently ride a donkey and ask for our acceptance, not command it. Jesus teaches us the depth of God’s love for us by allowing us to kill him on a cross. He was so gentle that he even allowed us to reject him, and crucify him. And even after all that, he wouldn’t let it stop him. He will not give up on us. He used even our rejection of him, his own crucifixion, to show the unbelievable depth of his love for us. We would love to forget about Good Friday- it’s not a part of the story that feels nice, but if we are going to accept Jesus we need to walk into Good Friday with him as well.         

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