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April
9
2017

Join the Parade: A Palm Sunday Message

“Joining The Parade”
 Matthew 21:1-11

(Inspired by a Message from Bill Bouknight)

For more than a decade, every year at the beginning of Holy Week I have preached a message about the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The story is in all 4 gospels, each telling it slightly differently.  The challenge of a pastor is to discover new truths to the familiar story that helps us all know and apply God’s Word in our lives. This year I’m drawing from insights I gained when reading a Palm Sunday message by the former pastor of Christ UMC, Bill Bouknight.  I hope you are equally inspired. 

When you read the story of Jesus’s Triumphal Entry, do you take it at face value, or do you wonder just how and why all this took place?  Doesn’t it seem a little odd, given how Jesus has kept a rather low profile for most of His three-year ministry for him to now ride into the capital city on a donkey followed by her colt and thousands of cheering fans?

It’s the year 27 A.D., about this time of year, when the city of Jerusalem was bursting at the seams with Jewish pilgrims there for the annual Passover Festival. It is possible that around 2.5 million people were in or around Jerusalem during this very holy week when Jews commemorate their freedom from Egyptian bondage which occurred around 1200 BC.

 There may have been up to 200,000 people lining the narrow road to cheer an itinerant preacher from Nazareth named Jesus; yet they are not really sure why they are cheering. They are not even sure who Jesus is.

 Imagine a parade was held on New York's Fifth Avenue for an unidentified celebrity and a half-million people showed up?! But they didn’t really know the guy…they were just caught up on the moment.  The Women’s March that occurred on January 21st in select cities across America was kind of like that.  Tens of thousands marched in protest (mostly about the inauguration of Donald Trump), but most participants couldn’t tell you what they were protesting.

That may be how it was on that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.  The crowd also did not understand the significance of his entry.  They were enthusiastic but, as politicians would say, Jesus' support was “broad but shallow.” The big money, the power structure, hated him. Many in the crowds were not really yelling "Hurray for Jesus!" They were using His parade as an excuse for political agitation against those hated foreigners—the Romans—who were occupying their country. They viewed Jesus’ entrance into the capital city as the fulfillment of their destiny to return to their previous glory of self-rule and prosperity. 

No doubt the palm branches and shouts reminded the Jews of another grand entry into Jerusalem 1 ½ centuries earlier by the Maccabees and the overthrow of the brutal Antiochus Epiphanes, the Bashar al-Assad of his day. Let me share a bit of the story.

In 167 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes, having already forbidden the practice of Judaism on pain of death,  set up an altar to Zeus right smack in the middle of the Jewish temple and even sacrificed a pig on it!  It doesn’t get more insulting for the Jews.

Stinging from this outrage, an old priest named Mattathias rounded up his five sons, all the weapons he could find, and a guerrilla war was launched. Old Mattathias soon died, but his son Judas, called  Maccabeus (which means "hammer"), continued the campaign and within three years was able to cleanse and to rededicate the desecrated Temple.

 It would be a full 20 more years of fighting—after Judas and a successor brother, Jonathan, had died in battle—that a third brother, Simon, took over; and through his diplomacy achieved Judean independence. That would begin a century of Jewish sovereignty before falling to Roman dominance in 63 BC by General Pompey.

 Of course, there was great celebration. Listen: "On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel." So says the account in I Maccabees - a story as well known to the crowd in Jerusalem that day as George Washington and the defeat of the British is known to us.

So there they were. Waving branches, laying out their cloaks for Jesus and his “noble steed” to gently ride into the Capital city.  But it was a far cry from a victory parade of yesteryear and sure paled in comparison to what the occupying Romans were used to.  I can imagine a nervous Roman officer on horseback, watching this parade from a hilltop, ready to put a stop this demonstration if it got out of hand. He must have regarded it with contempt.

Maybe he thought: "Back in Rome they know how to throw a parade to honor greatness. I can see the conquering general riding in a chariot of gold, with wheel spikes flashing in the sunlight, pulled by proud stallions. Behind him, officers in polished armor display the banners captured from vanquished armies. At the rear comes the ragtag procession of defeated prisoners in chains, hanging their heads in humiliation, living proof of what happens to those who defy Rome. Now that’s what a parade should look like!

"But look at this lousy excuse for a parade: the lame, blind, the children, the peasants from Galilee. And who is the hero of the parade? Some pitiful figure mounted on a little donkey, with his feet practically dragging the ground. What a sorry sight!"

Jesus's mood did not seem victorious that day. Luke’s account has Him weeping at the beginning of the parade as he thought of Jerusalem's many lost opportunities. Maybe because he knew that most of the folks waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna!” today would be waving fists and shouting, "Crucify him" before the end of the week.

He was deliberately presenting himself as a king, but not the kind the world knew and certainly not what many in this crowd had wanted or expected. He would wield no worldly, political power. Rather he was fulfilling precisely the prediction made about him by the prophet Isaiah. Listen to how Jesus is described in Isaiah 53:

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like ones from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:2a-5 NIV  King Jesus would rule from a cross.

 From the Palm Sunday event, Bouknight offers a few insights: First, Jesus always intrigues people. Verse 10 reads, "And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?'" The crowd was intrigued by Jesus even though they were confused about his identity.

When Americans were asked by the Gallup pollsters what historical figure they would most like to spend a day with, nearly two out of three chose Jesus, including 37 percent of those who claimed no church affiliation. Jesus still intrigues folks.

Whether people like him or detest him, they can't help calling his name. The film industry just can’t stop using the name of Jesus as either a profanity or a prayer.  People either worship Him or curse him, but it seems that no one can ignore him.

Jesus still mystifies and intrigues people across the world today. We are still asking the question, “Who is this?” I have a bit more to say about this, but I’ll save it till later in my message.

Notice this second truth: Jesus is misunderstood by most people. If Verse 10 tells us that the people of Jerusalem were intrigued about who Jesus was, then verse 11 tells us that most people guessed wrong about him. They thought he was just a prophet and nothing more.

On another occasion, Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying he was. They replied, "John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets." (Matthew 16:13-14) People then and now have a hard time getting a fix on who Jesus is. Even today, most people misunderstand Jesus.

Some contemporary Americans have tried to domesticate and tame Jesus. They have turned him into something resembling a  1960’s type hippie, flashing the peace sign, a sweet Jesus, meek and mild, who wouldn't hurt a flea.  But, you know, Jesus was not crucified for saying, "Let the little children come unto me." No, some of his most dangerous enemies hated him because he physically assaulted the money-changers in the temple, saying, "Get out of here, you bunch of crooks!" Two chapters over in Matthew 23, Jesus unloads on the teachers of the law and Pharisees in what is commonly called the “Seven Woes”.

Jesus is bigger than the public perceptions of Him. Jesus did what only God can do. He forgave sin. He allowed people to worship Him. The great British teacher C.S. Lewis was right to say that "Jesus either was who He said He was, the Son of God, or else He was a madman or a liar."  A liar, a lunatic, or Lord.

As we see in Scripture and in life today, the crowds and institutions have usually been wrong about who Jesus is.

That brings us to a third thought this morning: Jesus becomes King one heart at a time. He wins the world, one heart at a time. He will never be elected by a popular majority. Each of us in the privacy of our own hearts and souls must decide who he is.

After Jesus questioned the disciples about the crowd's perception of him, he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter responded, "You are the Christ of God." Each time a person makes an affirmation like THAT, Jesus is crowned as King of kings in that person’s life.

Now, let’s get back to our parade.  Imagine that Jesus's Palm Sunday parade is passing down Church Street here in Byhalia instead of Main Street, Jerusalem. You’re standing with the cheering crowds on the sidewalk, but Jesus invites you and the others to do more…to actually JOIN his parade. To get on the band wagon, as it were.

You sense that to step out into the street and to join him would be both thrilling and costly. You would be publicly identified with a controversial leader. After all, several prominent groups have sworn they will assassinate him as an imposter. Not only that, but if you join His parade, He might change you. He might change your values, your habits, your priorities, your spending patterns, your friends, maybe even your vocation. It may mean sacrifice. Can you do it?

The story is told of a pee-wee baseball game. When the young boy got up to the plate he looked over to the coach, and he saw him give the signal to sacrifice bunt. He then promptly proceeded to take three big swings and strike out. The coach ran up to him and said: “Didn’t you see me give you the signal to sacrifice?”

“Yes,” the boy replied, “but I didn’t really think you meant it.”

Isn’t that what we so often say to God? “Yes, lord, I heard that talk about loving our enemies…about putting others first…about sacrificial living, but I didn’t really think that you meant it.” The cross says emphatically that Jesus did mean it.

"The Robe,"  written by Lloyd C. Douglas in 1942 is a historical novel about the Crucifixion of Jesus. A character called Marcellus has become enamored of Jesus. In letters to his fiancée, Diana in Rome, he tells her about Jesus's teachings, his miracles, his crucifixion, and resurrection. Finally, he informs her that he has decided to become a disciple of Jesus. In her response letter, Diana says, "What I fear is that this Jesus character might affect you. The story of his life is beautiful. Let it remain so. We don't have to do anything about it, do we?"

 Oh yes, we do, Diana. This Jesus is still marching down the streets of the world calling people to join Him. Jesus is the unidentified king who has no crown to wear or kingdom to command...until one person at a time declares by faith, "Jesus is Lord for me. He will reign in my life."

Back to that question the crowd asked during the parade, “Who is this?”  It is the same question asked by the religious leaders—we’ll call them unbelievers and inquiring minds—Who are you? My friend, J.D. Walt, points out that in John 8, Jesus answers that question in a most interesting way…He tells them about His Father. Not only that, but He tells us about their relationship. It’s like He’s saying, “I am not merely who I am. Rather, I am who WE are.” Later in that chapter Jesus will get more explicit by saying: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Because we know Jesus, we know the Father. Take it a step further, He also said that we cannot know the Father except by knowing Jesus.

This same dynamic of knowing the Father by knowing Jesus is the very same dynamic he wants to work through us. What if, in order to really know who I am, people needed to know who Jesus is?

Walt asks a poignant question: What if I were so filled with such an inexplicable love that my life made no sense apart from Jesus? That’s a pretty good definition of a Saint (a holy one) isn’t it? Someone whose ordinary life is so filled with an extraordinary love that to talk about them would require talking about Jesus.

This is what discipleship to Jesus is all about, not running around trying to do good things for God, but becoming an actual authorized representative (an ambassador) of Jesus to the world. Sure, this involves doing good, but far more it means walking in an abiding relationship with Jesus so much so that we do what He is doing and say what He saying. Doing good is the fruit, but if it is to represent the work of Jesus, it must come through knowing Him, which is the root. Otherwise it might as well be the United Way or Lions Club.

Jesus says to those inquiring minds, “The only way to know me is to know WE.” He’s praying this for us, too, when he prays in John 17 this amazing prayer of unity , “that all of them my we one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (21 NIV).

CONCLUSION

Jesus is inviting us into the parade.  And not just to wave a banner like we’re in a march, then go home and act like nothing’s changed.  He’s calling us to take up our cross and follow Him.  He’s calling us to identify with Himself so that when others want to know us, they really have to get to know Jesus. 

And each time one of us is willing to publicly claim Jesus as Lord and Savior, His circle of influence grows. Each new disciple becomes a bridge to others. One by one, Jesus's kingship spreads.  In the words of Dr. Brian Russel, “the gospel always reaches us on its way to someone else.”

Maybe Jesus has walked the streets of your life for a long time, seeking a heart to rule, a soul to save, a life to transform. Are you watching the parade, or are you in it?  AMEN.

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