Palm Sunday Sermon— Great Expectations

(The following sermon was preached April 1 at the Woodlands UMC in the Woodlands Texas).

 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS, MAJOR DISAPPOINTMENTS— MT. 21.1-11

 

 

We are used to seeing Palm Sunday as a day of great celebration, and indeed it was and is,  but not for the reasons we usually think.  We associate the day with Jesus being King and riding into Jerusalem as a king, and with children waving palm branches in his honor.   The Gospel story in fact tells a slightly different tale.   It tells a tale of great expectations and Hosannas on Sunday,   and the acclamation ‘crucify him’ on Friday and perhaps in some cases by the very same people!

It is a sobering reminder about what happens to a group of very religious people when you raise their expectations of a major triumph to the roof at the beginning of a week, and by the end of the week dash those hopes so that even the inner circle of male disciples had denied, deserted, or betrayed Jesus by late Thursday, and as for the crowds they had turned ugly.  Jesus was handed over to the Roman authorities for execution by crucifixion.

What accounts for this incredible turn of events all in one work week?   Whatever it is, we need to realize from the outset—- Jesus did not come to meet our expectations or those of his fellow early Jews.   He came to meet our needs. He did not come to slay our foes and lift us high.  He came to serve and give his life as a ransom for sin.   For at root, the real heart of the human dilemma is not our political problems but our sin sickness.

As Jesus says in Mark 7— from out of the heart comes war, adultery, murder, slander, and all manner of human misbehavior.  The problem then and now was not chiefly how well the borders of the land were protected from alien peoples, the problem was the unprotected borders of the human heart.   Some background will help us understand this story in Matthew 21 more clearly.

First of all it is notable that this is the only time in all the Gospels that Jesus elevates himself above the crowd, but instead of doing so by mounting a war horse, he gets on a donkey and rides into town, indicating among other things that he comes in peace, not with sword in hand.

Matthew rightly quotes from Zechariah 9.  Listen to what that text says more fully: “Rejoice o daughter Zion! Shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem!  For your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” And then the next verse is the kicker— “he will cut off the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace (shalom) to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”   Jesus comes, quite self-consciously, as the Prince of Peace, not the denizen of war.   But here’s the irony.  The crowds don’t get it.

Take for example the waving of the palm branches. This had a specific symbolic meaning. It was used to celebrate the Maccabean victory less than two centuries before, when the Jewish Maccabees militarily conquered and retook Jerusalem from pagan overlords.   It was what the crowds hoped for when they saw Jesus riding into town on a donkey, which reminded them of King David or King Solomon and their ceremonial ridings into Zion.  Except, they didn’t pay attention to the kind of animal Jesus was riding, nor apparently did they share Matthew’s interpretation of the event in light of Zechariah 9.

Estimates show that at Passover Jerusalem went from being a town of 50,000 to a town of 500,000 and if you want to make existing authorities including both Jewish and Roman ones nervous, then ride into town making some sort of royal gesture, go into the religious center of the city, namely the Temple and make pronouncements and symbolic actions indicating its coming demise.

It seems clear that Jesus even raised the hopes and expectations of his own disciples that he was coming to town as the new sheriff, to take over.  And then, when everything took a very different turn by Thursday night, the disillusionment became profound.  

I love the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24 which tells of two relatively unknown disciples leaving town, who ironically say to the risen Jesus whom they don’t recognize— ‘we had hoped (past tense) he would be the one to redeem Israel’  but crucifixion had scotched that rumor altogether.   No one was looking for a crucified messiah in Jesus’ day.  That was as much of an oxymoron as Microsoft Works, a contradiction in terms.

The truth is, Jesus didn’t come to be that kind of king, that would run the Romans out of town.  He came to die on a cross even for the sins of the enemies of Israel.  Still to this day, we have a very difficult time understanding this.  Still to this day we tend to think that military solutions to our problems are the ‘final answer’.  The last week of Jesus’ life tells us— this is not so. 

We could win all the wars over our political foes and still lose our souls to the Devil.   Indeed, if you look at America today, I would say we are no better off than ancient Israel in Jesus’ day—we are losing the battle for the soul of our nation, the battle against ‘the world, the flesh, and the Devil’ and no amount of military might can compensate for such a loss, salve such a wound, solve such a problem.    

Our land needs a revival of the heart desperately, it needs to embrace the prince of peace, not the dogs of wars.   There has been a coarsening of our culture in my lifetime. We have become a less civil, a less civilized, a less Christian nation in my lifetime.  Indeed, we have even become a nation that wants not merely a separation of church and state, but a separation of God from country!  This does not bode well, and no amount of shock jocks on the radio ranting and raving about our demise will fix it.

Here’s another interesting irony in the Palm Sunday story.  The pilgrims coming to town with Jesus were singing the so-called Hallel psalms, the ‘let’s go up to Zion’ songs, rather like the boy scout songs we used to sing when hiking— ‘I love to go a wandering’.   Now the Hallel psalms are full of Hosannas which means God saves, and Hallelujah’s  which means praise Yahweh.   They are ancient praise songs, and they would sing this whether Jesus was coming into town with them or not. 

The line ‘blessed is he who comes (to Jerusalem) in the name of the Lord’ was what the pilgrims sang about and to each other as they went up to Zion.  But here it takes on a special poignancy because THIS TIME their king really has come to town.   This time the ultimate son of David really had arrived and the vast majority of them didn’t even know it, or if they did, they had a very different vision of what sort of king he should be than Jesus had.

When I am in Jerusalem I love to go to the Wailing Wall and participate in the prayers and worship with our Jewish friends there.  I love to leave a little written prayer in the wall as Jews do, so God will remember them.   One of the more interesting aspects of Shabbat worship, Sabbath worship on a Friday night there is that the ultra orthodox dance and sing, and one of the things they pray and sing about  is ‘Give us mashiach, we want mashiach now’.   They are praying for the coming of the messiah.   For the ultra orthodox, the current secular democratic state of Israel is not Biblical Israel.  Indeed Biblical Israel will not show up until messiah comes, in their way of thinking.   I agree with them.

The Israel we have political alliances with today is certainly not in conformity with the Law of Moses, or early Jewish expectations about the coming of the Messiah.  No, it is playing the same political games that Jereboam and Ahab and many another early Jewish king played to beat their enemies with armies or alliances or the like.    But what is really needed, desperately need by them, and by us, is repentance, and the embracing of Jesus of Nazareth, the one and only Prince of Peace.

I love the little poem of George McDonald, actually it’s a Christmas poem.  The first stanza goes like this— “we were all searching for a king to slay our foes and life us high,  thou camest a little baby thing, to make a woman cry”.  McDonald understood that Jesus, from womb to tomb, from birth to death, did not come to meet our expectations of what a King should be like—- he came to meet our deepest needs— our needs for salvation more than temporary political solutions, our needs to humble ourselves in the sight of God instead of trying to exalt ourselves above other nations, our need to let God be King and Lord over our lives, not ourselves, not our President, not any other human being other than Jesus.

If we want to understand why the original disciples deserted, denied, and betrayed Jesus, well some of them no doubt had the hopes of the Zealots— hopes that Jesus, especially after cleansing the temple, would then kick the Romans out of town, and begin to rule.  The irony is that Jesus during that very week predicted that in 40 years Jews who tried to establish God’s Kingdom that way, would be destroyed, indeed the temple and the town of Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Roman overlords.

And Jesus was exactly right.  In A.D. 70, exactly 40 years after Jesus’ death,  Jerusalem was torched,  and became a pagan city Aelia Capitolina.  After the second lesser Jewish revolt in the second century A.D. which was also squashed by the Romans, no Jew was allowed anywhere near the Temple remains until 1967.    Jesus told us there was no military solution to the problems of God’s people– when will we believe him?   At least the ultra orthodox Jews in Jerusalem know this.  The followers of Jesus should know it too.

Jesus bitterly disappointed both the hopeful crowd of pilgrims and his own male disciples during Holy Week.  And when you dash peoples’ highest hopes that severely it is not a surprise that you end up on a cross by the end of the week.   Today, when we hear the loud Hosannas, and sing with joy about the coming of our true King, the prince of peace, will we remember his words when he said— ‘if anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me’, all the way to Golgotha.

It was mostly not the macho, male disciples who got the message clearly.  They were more like duh-sciples— they didn’t get it.  It was the female disciples like Mary Magdalene who were last at the cross, first at the tomb, and first to see the risen Jesus.   

Who will we be more like during this high and holy week— like the pilgrims,  like Peter who said he would never deny or desert Jesus, said he was prepared to die for or with him,  or like Mary Magdalene?  It would be my prayer that sometime during this Holy Week, we would really take stock of what is important, and that we would indeed become like what we admire— Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ said Jesus,  ‘for they are the ones who will one day be called the true children of God’.    Are we true children of God— or are we just pretenders and contenders who would have done no better than the Dirty Dozen did during that first Holy Week. AMEN

 

 

 

  • Dougbeyer

    That’s good preaching, Ben. Thanks.

  • Rfields

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you. This is truly an awesome Palm Sunday homily. It reminds me of one your co-worker, Dr. Kalas, wrote in his NT from the Backside, called “Expecting a Little King.” Both your work and his get at the heart of the misunderstanding of Palm Sunday, and I greatly appreciate it (I would expect nothing less from my former Asbury professors).

    One question: you make reference to the forty years of Jesus prediction regarding the destruction of Jerusalem. I am familiar with the history, but not so much with the prediction. Would you mind expounding on where the 40 year prediction comes from? I would love to share your explanation with others.

  • Benw333

    Mk. 13 is clear enough. Jesus says that those preliminary events will transpire within a Biblical generation— namely 40 years.

  • Rfields

    Thank you kindly! I suspected you were referring to Mark 13, but didn’t catch the significance to Jesus speaking of a “generation”.

  • Max

    Thanks for your post here. Less civilised, coarsened culture, true. Your country has followed the piper to endless war, covering an imperial rapine in a phoney cry of freedom, and dragged us allies along with you. Where is the conscience of the nation gone, which we saw with Vietnam? How come the young have no protest in them? Would not Christ speak against these things?


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