St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 13th April 2014
Reading – Luke 19:28-44
So here’s a question for you this morning –
What do Prince William, Elvis Presley and Kenny Dalglish all have in common?
The answer is, they either have been or will one day be called King. Prince William is due to take the throne after his father, Prince Charles. In his heyday, Elvis Presley was called the King of rock’n’roll while even today avid Liverpool supporters will talk about King Kenny and all that he achieved on the pitch.
You might even say that we have here three kings – or at least potentially three kings – people who are known around the world for their status or their popularity or their achievements. You put a picture of Prince William on the front of your newspaper, and your sales will rocket. You find a long-lost Elvis tape and the recording will go platinum.
But today I want to talk about another king. This king never had an earthly throne. He did not write a song or even a book. He had no place of his own He could call home, and He only had a tiny band of followers in an obscure part of the Roman Empire. He was born in a manger; raised by a carpenter and his wife, and at about the age of thirty became for three short years a wandering preacher and healer. It’s not the sort of life you’d imagine a king to lead – and yet when he came into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday what did His followers cry out?
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!
Clearly there was something about Jesus which led people to call Him king. But what exactly?
Well, over the past three years Jesus’ followers had seen Him perform the most amazing miracles. Jesus had healed the sick; driven out demons; stilled storms; turned water into wine; fed five thousand; even raised the dead. Yes, there were many wandering preachers and healers in those days but none could match Jesus for the good that He did, and the power He displayed over sickness, evil and death.
They had also listened to Jesus’ teaching – teaching about a new kind of society, a society called the kingdom of God which was open to all – the leper, the tax collector and the outcast. He had spoken with authority and power unlike the religious teachers of the law and He seemed to do away with so many of the rules and regulations they’d invented. But He had also challenged people to repentance and faith, and to make real, practical changes in their lives, and He had claimed the right to forgive people their sins. This was heady, radical stuff that no-one had ever heard before, the sort of teaching only a leader or king could bring.
And they had also seen before their very eyes so many of their Old Testament prophecies coming to pass. The prophet Isaiah had talked of a time when the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped (Is 35:5) and Jesus seemed to be ushering in that time. Or to take another example, when Jesus fed the five thousand, those present would have remembered the great prophet Elisha who had only managed to feed one hundred. Time after time, the words and actions of Jesus made the Old Testament promises a tangible reality.
And here now was Jesus riding on a young donkey, called a colt, into the streets of Jerusalem. It was hard for those who witnessed this procession not to think of a prophecy back in the book of Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)
For those who had eyes to see, Jesus here was making the clearest statement yet that He was the king promised of old who would come and save God’s people. Now imagine for a moment that you had been taught about this promise since you were very young; that for over five hundred years your people had been waiting for that moment; and now the long-awaited king was here. How would you react? I imagine that at the very least you would be excited. In fact you would probably be wildly ecstatic. No wonder people laid their cloaks before Him – it was a sign of welcome and recognition of His greatness.
But not everyone welcomed Jesus that day. For the past three years the religious experts of the day, called the Pharisees, had questioned every miracle Jesus had performed and disputed every word He had said. As far as they were concerned, they were the ones who had the authority to decide what was and wasn’t acceptable in God’s eyes. They had the training and the traditions, and how dare an uneducated carpenter from Nazareth challenge them! He was an upstart, a troublemaker and this statement about being a king was the last straw.
No wonder we read in verse 39 how: Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” They wanted this false pretender silenced, and they wanted to start by getting His followers to shut up. Yet Jesus isn’t quite so willing to comply: “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (verse 40).
Now when it comes to telling the Easter story it’s very tempting to present the Pharisees as if they were sort of pantomime villains. You can almost be tempted to boo and hiss every time they are mentioned. But in fact the Pharisees were only the public face of a much wider attitude. The fact remains, most people in Jerusalem did not come out to greet Jesus that day. They were too busy leading their own lives and they certainly didn’t want Jesus disturbing their comfortable existence. So this Jesus claims to be king? Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but I have work to do, families to feed, bills to pay. Am I that bothered? No, not really.
So how does Jesus in turn react to this unbelief and hardness of heart? The short answer comes in verse 41: As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it. Now this is not the kind of behaviour we associate with a king. We think of kings smiling and waving at happy, adoring crowds. We think of kings who at least in public do all they can to preserve their dignity. But this king weeps, real, human tears, even as His followers cheer and wave their palm branches. It’s a remarkably poignant scene. Take a moment to picture in your mind’s eye. I would have shown you a picture of the event but I couldn’t find an image anywhere of Jesus weeping while riding on a donkey. We tend to airbrush these tears out of Palm Sunday, but they are a most important detail.
Because, you see, within forty years of this event, Jerusalem would be little more than a heap of rubble. The occupying Roman armies would finally lose patience after yet another rebellion and they would come in and smash the city to pieces. Indeed if you go to Jerusalem today you can still see the place where the soldiers hurled the stones of the temple off the top of the Temple Mount onto the streets below. The events of AD 70 were the most terrible and the most awful tragedy – and what moved Jesus to tears on that first Palm Sunday is that He could see it coming. Why? Because, as Jesus says, you (that is the people of Jerusalem) did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you. Instead of recognising Jesus as king, most that day ignored Him. When he caused a stir a few days later by being arrested, they condemned Him. And when He was nailed to cross and left to die in the most awful agony, they insulted Him. That’s how the people in Jerusalem treated Jesus that first Holy Week.
But please hear me very, very carefully at this point. There is a nasty streak in Christian history which has turned the reactions of the people at that time into an excuse for the worst and completely indefensible form of anti-Semitism. Let me say clearly: to read anything anti-Jewish into this story is completely unacceptable. For the sad truth, all of us are capable of ignoring Jesus, whatever our race or our background. All of us bear some responsibility for Jesus’ death because all of us have done wrong and fallen short of God’s standards. All of us have failed to honour Jesus in what we have said and thought and done.
So there are lessons all of us can learn from this first Palm Sunday.
And the first is quite simply this, that it should make all of us think what it means to call Jesus king. Yes, Jesus’ followers came out in force that day. Yes, they shouted God’s praise and laid their cloaks before His path. But come Friday, not one of them stood by Jesus as He was arrested, tried, condemned and crucified. Now I’m suggesting any one of us would abandon Jesus in quite the same way. But think for a moment where you’ll be the coming Friday – maybe at work, maybe away on holiday, maybe hanging out with your friends. Will your deeds and your words still show that Jesus is king over your life? After all, it’s easy to say Jesus is king when you’re part of a crowd singing His praise. The real test comes, however, in our daily lives and whether we really honour Jesus in the decisions and the challenges we face each day.
That’s the first lesson. The second and quite obvious one, is that it reminds us of the attitude that so many people still have towards Jesus. Yes, we are as a church gearing up for our outreach event Hope 2014, and yes, we are thinking and praying about whom we should invite, and it’s only right that each and every one of us do so. But the sad fact remains that a lot of folk we know do not care about Jesus. Maybe a small number are openly hostile like the Pharisees; rather more are like the inhabitants of Jerusalem back then, simply too busy or too distracted to give Jesus a second thought. And I know how discouraging that can be. When you’ve been praying a long, long time for a family member or friend to know the Lord, it can be hard to keep going. Yet we need to hold on to the fact that even in ways we cannot see the Lord hears and answers our prayers, and there is no limit to what He can do.
And thirdly, this Palm Sunday teaches us how we should respond when we encounter unbelief and hostility. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because they did not recognise the time of God’s coming to them. How far, I wonder, are we moved by the plight of those who refuse to put their trust in Jesus? You see, the reason why we are getting involved in outreach and mission is not just because we think it’s a good idea, or because we want more people in church on a Sunday morning. We are getting involved because people are living – as Paul puts it in Eph 2:12 – without hope and without God in the world.
And if we know anything of Jesus’ love and compassion in our lives then we should be deeply concerned about the spiritual welfare of others. Our mission, in other words, should spring from a broken heart. And if you think that sound a bit extreme, then look at the cross where Jesus’ heart was broken for us, where He laid down His life so that we could be made right with God. If that is how deeply Jesus loved us, then surely we are called to share the love we ourselves have received with others.
Palm Sunday is important because it calls us to think how far we are prepared to go to follow Jesus. Will you keep on following Jesus once you leave this building and proclaim Him king wherever you go? Will you keep on following Jesus even when you encounter hostility or indifference towards your faith? And will you keep on following Jesus to the cross as you bring before Him the plight of those who are living without hope and without God in the world?
Today even as we celebrate, let’s all of us take the time to own Jesus as our King, and may He give us the courage to take up our cross and follow Him. For His name’s sake, Amen.