Sermon for Palm Sunday

First set of Readings: Psalm 118:1-2; 19-29; Luke 18:31-34

Second set of Readings: Luke 18:35-43; Isaiah 35:3-6

Third set of Readings: Luke 19:1-10; Philippians 2:5-11

Fourth set of Readings: Luke 19:28-40; Revelation 7:9-17

Fifth set of Readings: Luke 19:41-48; Isaiah 50:4-9a

Sermon “Who Is This Coming to Town?”

So many stories are packed into these few days of Holy Week! So much scripture to saturate ourselves in – to read and to marvel at – to read and to cry out: “how could they?!” Stories to read and begin to understand that we are no better than they. How is it that a blind man and an infamous sinner seemed to understand who Jesus was so much better than the curious crowds that surrounded them? Why did they understand their need of Jesus while most of the rest did not? How many of those shouting “Hosanna” (Lord Save Us) on Sunday would be shouting “crucify him” on Friday? How could those in charge of the temple which celebrated God’s presence with his people, not welcome the very son of God when he walked into its gates? All of these questions stem from the same problem – they did not understand who Jesus was. As Luke says: “it was hidden from them.” Even from his disciples! “Who do you say that I am?” He had asked his disciples – Peter gave the beginning of a correct answer, but even he didn’t know what it meant to be the Messiah.

We might rightly focus on any number of the principle characters in these stories, but today, I want to draw our attention also to the nameless crowds and what they might have thought about this man Jesus. Let me set the stage briefly. The time is about this time of year – Just a few days before Passover, which is Friday, this year. The Passover Festival commemorates Israel’s Exodus from Egypt following the most terrible of the ten plagues – the death of all the first born in Egypt – but the angel of death passed over the houses of the Hebrews which were marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb.

It is one of the three principle feasts of the Jewish people. They were commanded to celebrate it in Jerusalem whenever possible and hundreds of thousands came. During this feast, Jerusalem swelled 5 times in population. The roads into the city would have been very busy. So Jesus tells his disciples, ‘it’s time to go to Jerusalem. But this will not be any ordinary commemoration. This is the beginning of the final act of Jesus’ ministry. By this point, Jesus has become quite well known. Not only up in Galilee, where the bulk of his ministry occurred, but even down in Jerusalem. The Chief Priests and elders of the Jewish people had identified him as an existential threat. This rebel did not hold to the traditional teachings – he dared to criticize their leadership, he welcomed the worst of sinners and besides, if this Messiah label that some were tossing around stuck, he was bound to bring the Romans down of them all.

Who is this who goes willingly into the hands of his enemies? His name was well known, but who was he? The crowd was not sure – there were so many stories! They had heard that he had fed thousands up in Galilee, and that he had healed the sick, cured people of blindness, leprosy, paralysis, demon possession and even raised the dead! Not since Elijah and Elisha had one so mighty been seen in Israel. Was he another great Prophet? But he taught differently than they did. Could it be he was the one that was long promised – the anointed one of God – Messiah? Would he restore, at long last, the throne of good king David? Would he lead them in kicking out the hated Romans? It had been tried before, with tragic results, but maybe… maybe this was the one.

Was that what the crowd was crowding around to see in Jericho? Was that why they cut those palm branches down there and carried them with them on the steep road up to Jerusalem? A national hero? That wasn’t what the blind man saw though. He heard the crowd passing by and the name of Jesus of Nazareth. For him, hope blossomed. Yes he called out to the Son of David, but for mercy, not liberation. He asked his Lord, for his sight and received it as a fruit of his faith. The crowd saw it too, and for once at least, gave glory to God as they should. Who is this that heals with a righteous word? It was a good start to the journey.

Now Zacchaeus though; He could see, quite well. He had two problems. He was too short to see over the crowd surrounding Jesus- but that could be remedied by the simple act of climbing up a handy tree. His second problem was much worse. He was a tax collector – worse yet – a chief tax collector. He was a Roman collaborator and apparently thief as well. As long as he brought in the required revenue, no one stopped him from taking extra for himself, it was the way the system worked. But the crowd despised him for it. Imagine their shock when Jesus went out of his way to talk to this little thieving traitor and even invited himself to his house for dinner. We are left to wonder what they thought when Zacchaeus promised the full restitution required by the Mosaic law and Jesus pronounced him a true son of Abraham. Were they perhaps a little less enthusiastic with those palm branches for a while? Who is this who calls himself the “Son of Man” and says he “came to seek out and save the lost.” Who are we who presume to judge who God loves?

As they made the final approach to Jerusalem, they would have been winding up the back side of the Mount of Olives. Here was the village of Bethany, the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. It was a place where he had friends. No wonder all his disciples had to say was that the Lord needed the little donkey and nothing more was said. Here, finally was a sign the crowd understood, or at least they thought they did. Here were the words of the prophet Zechariah walking out the of scriptures (Zechariah 9:9 NIV) “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So rejoice they did! There is something Holy and eternal about this scene. It was one of those moments in time that is sensed, if not fully understood. The Pharisees felt it too. They felt it, and it scared them! They were alarmed with worries of riot and insurrection. Imagine their shock when Jesus responded to their demand for this demonstration to cease by telling them that it was such a moment that even the rocks would cry out if no one else did. Who is this who even the rocks would praise? Perhaps the very one through whom they were created. We are left in awe and with an awkward question – what does that make us, we who forget our Lord when life gets busy or inconvenient, dumber than a rock?

This scene looks forward to the time when Christ will be praised for who he really is – not just by the locals, but as we read in (Revelation 7:9-10 NIV) “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” This is who was truly coming to town, but they did not know it yet. It begs the question of what might have been. That is why those in the crowd would have seen tears in Jesus eyes, if they had looked just a bit more closely, as they crested the Mount of Olives with all of Jerusalem laid out before them.

He knew what would come as a result of the rejection that was before him – even then as they were cheering, waving the palm branches they had brought up from Jericho. Jesus laments as the crowd cheers – (Luke 19:42-44 NIV) [42] …“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. [43] 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. [44] They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” They didn’t teach me there were tears on Jesus’ cheeks as he rode into Jerusalem that day – I wish they had because it teaches me much about the Character of God and of my Lord. He came because it was his Father’s will to reconcile the world in this way. he came because of love.

There is yet one more stop on our journey – into the city itself and into the outer courts of the temple. Where, after clearing out the Court of the Gentiles, which had became a market place instead of a house of prayer for all nations as originally intended; He did what he came to do – he taught them as Isaiah said he was to do. (Isaiah 50:4 NRSV)

[4] The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” He taught despite what was to come. He taught right there in the home base of those who were plotting to kill him. This was after all the very place where people came to present themselves before God. If they had only known who had come to town. But this is not a tragedy. It is not a story that comes to a sad ending. It will get darker still, but follow along this week to the upper room and to the cross. Follow and be amazed at what God was willing to do and endure so that we might be saved. Follow through the pages of scripture all the way to the stone cold tomb, so that we will understand the brilliance of Easter morning all the more. Come, join the journey as we follow the steps of Jesus.