Palm Sunday - "The Back of the Crowd"
Today is Palm Sunday.
Palms have been waved, photos have been taken, songs have been sung with gusto.
And all of this begs the question, "What's up with the Palms?" Seriously. Why are there a bunch of kids running into the worship space? Someone inevitably gets hit in the face with the palms, am I right? Raise your hand if you got smacked a bit.
But where did all of this begin? Why do we celebrate Palm Sunday? And why does it seem, at least on the surface, like an exercise in futility? I mean, here we are cheering and waving and celebrating...
... And then on Friday we'll be huddled together, remembering the day that Love died on a cross.
Let's journey together almost 2000 years back in time. Our guide today will be Luke's Gospel--chapter 19 verses 28-40:
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’
32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 They replied, “The Lord needs it."
35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”[a]“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Let's set the stage for this remarkable moment. We have to go back hundreds of years before Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem to a prophecy from the prophet Zechariah which declares: "Behold, your king comes! Humble and riding on a donkey!"
In the cultural imagination of the Hebrew people in the 1st century, the idea of a king riding on a donkey served as a sign and symbol of the nature of his kingdom--one of peace, and filled with hope where everything is as it should be.
So you have to contrast what Jesus is doing here with the reality that the Jewish nation was facing in that very moment. Some 100 years earlier Rome had taken over Judea, what it called Palestina--a variation of the name of Israel's historic tribal enemy, the Philistines. They named the region thusly to basically rub the Hebrew's noses in their weakness.
The Romans typically would put the wealthy and aristocrats in charge of the regions they took over because they trusted the wealthy to want to do whatever they could to hang on to their wealth--even if it meant betraying their own people. Eventually they appointed a strong ruler by the name of Herod as they king. Herod strengthened the Jewish monarchy and weakened the priests and religious elites because they threatened his power.
When he died, however, the Romans put the priests in Jerusalem back in charge of everything--seeing them as the most likely group to have no problem exploiting the people, and extorting taxes from them. There were rebellions to this initially, but the Romans destroyed the rebellions violently, crucifying 2000 people in Jerusalem alone, and completely sacking the city of Sepphoris, which was 4 miles from Jesus' home town of Nazareth.
The power grab by the Temple authorities resulted in a terrible system: rule by a few, economic exploitation all legitimized through the use of religion and religious overtones.
On the day that Jesus entered into Jerusalem there was another procession that took place from the opposite end of the city. That procession was led by the Roman governor of the city, Pontius Pilate. Pilate would have ridden into the city on a huge white horse, surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback. There would have been huge banners going before him with the golden eagle of Rome on top of them.
Jesus' procession was much different.
Let's focus on the end of the passage for our study today, however. There were some Pharisees watching the whole thing go down and they weren't thrilled. The Pharisees were a group of people who believed that the reason why the Romans were oppressing the Hebrew people, the reason why the Temple was exploiting the masses was because Israel had become faithless, and didn't keep the law.
They try to shush the proceedings. They are motivated by fear, afraid of the Romans, afraid of what might happen if it even looked like a rebellion. They were well aware of the other procession that had taken place that day, and they were just a few decades removed from the mass execution that took place in Jerusalem, and the destruction But Jesus calls them out. He says, "You can't stop this. You can't contain this. If you tried to keep this quiet, God would make the very stones in the street cry out!"
Jesus basically tells them: "God's gonna do what God's gonna do, with or without you."
In fact, that is what I want us to focus on today as we take this ancient story and apply it to our lives. God's gonna do what God's gonna do, with or without you. What the Pharisees didn't get that day was that some truth is just too good to have its mouth shut.
You see this whole story is about contrasts. Between the people who get it and the people who don't. It's a contrast between the triumph of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the crucifixion that would follow only a few days later. It's a contrast between the oppression and the cruelty of the Roman Empire and the freedom and sacrificial love exhibited in the Kingdom of God. It's a contrast between the cheering crowds and the ugly mob screaming, "Crucify Him!"
So those people in the back of the crowd--they had to make some choices based on those contrasts, and they made the wrong ones. They chose to hang in the back instead of joining the cheering throng. They chose to try to discredit and quiet those who were celebrating because they were afraid of how that celebration might change things for them.
I see them making the same kinds of choices that you and I often make when we get this wrong, when we choose to hang back and not join in the journey after Jesus.
First I see them choosing fear over hope. They chose the fear they knew over promised hope. These people lived in fear--fear of messing up and making God mad, fear of the Romans, fear of the religious elite, fear of being wrong... But rather than step into the hopeful celebration of the promised Messiah, they decided to hang back and choose their fear over the promised hope.
You and I do this all of the time. We choose caution, safety and certainty over recklessly abandoning ourselves to following Jesus. We settle. We think small. We narrow our minds and can't imagine what it would look like for us to live in abundance and joy.
Secondly, I see the Pharisees choosing religion over relationship. We've talked about this recently in the last sermon series that I preached, but it bears repeating. These guys were being oppressed and held back by their traditions, and empty religious practices. They were basically buying into a system that exploited people using religion and rules to keep them in line. They had the chance to embrace a real relationship with God through Jesus and they turned away from it.
They chose the Institution over the Way of Jesus.
I have done this so much. I get caught up in what I feel like I have to do in order to make God love me, and I end up choosing religion over a relationship. I forget that Jesus died and rose again to rescue me, not relegate me to keeping rules and meaningless religious rituals.
Finally, I see the people in the back of the crowd choosing Empire over Kingdom. Even though they claimed the Roman Empire to be the living, breathing punishment of God upon them, they effectively embraced it by rejecting the kingdom of God that Jesus was initiating. They chose momentary triumph over complete victory.
So many of us have done this very thing--especially during this election season. We imagine that political parties, or one particular politician as opposed to another particular politician will be the thing that will save us. We put our faith and trust in these things, believing that if we could just replace whatever "evil" empire we oppose with a "good' empire we support--everything will be great.
So where else do we do this? Maybe its when as a society we believe that we can create peace through war? Or we believe that constantly promoting competition will produce a better culture than one marked by cooperation. Or governments and businesses believe that winning at all costs is the rule of the day--even if it bankrupts us all.
Or it could look like when we try to find purpose and meaning in life apart from Jesus Christ.
Listen, the joy, the celebration the party is passing by. The streets are jammed with people who want desperately to walk with the Messiah, to be counted among those shouting "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Who exclaim as those people of old, "Hosanna, Hosanna," which means "God, save us now!" The parade is marching past you. Life is short.
What will you do? Will you make the right choices? Will you let go of your fear? Will you embrace a relationship with Jesus at last? Will you put your faith and trust in the kingdom of God here on earth, and not the empire of the day?
Because if you choose poorly and stand in the back of the crowd forever--the party will pass you by. Life will pass you by. Peace, hope, joy, fulfillment and purpose will pass you by. The kingdom of God will come. The Savior will rise! All things will be made new because that's what God wants, that's what God wants to do.
And God's gonna do what God's gonna do with our without you.