What was Jesus' fundamental mission and what are the lessons for today from Palm Sunday? Those are the questions as, this morning, we are to look at John's account of that first Palm Sunday. And we are to learn from what happened at the start of the most significant week in all of history, according to John 12.12-19. And my headings this morning are, first, Jesus' Entry into Jerusalem; secondly, World Views; thirdly, Jesus' Great Drama; and, fourthly, Jesus' Great Lesson.
1. Jesus' Entry into Jerusalem
Jesus' message, what he was trying to convey to the crowds, on that first Palm Sunday is described in John 12.12-15:
"The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!' And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
'Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey's colt!'"
Jesus is on his last journey to Jerusalem. His disciples had certainly understood that at least Jesus was the "anointed one", the Christ, the Messiah, the coming Great King. But they had been baffled because he had hinted that he was going to suffer in Jerusalem. We are told in verse 16:
"His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him."
But on this first Palm Sunday they would have thought kings went to Jerusalem to be crowned, not to suffer. Well, be that as it may, a few days before Passover in AD 30 Jesus and his followers came along the Jericho Road from Bethany. Bethany was, in distance to the centre of Jerusalem, like the Regent Centre is to the centre of Newcastle. He was coming (as 100,000s of other folk were) to be present for the annual celebration of Passover. Passover celebrated, of course, the escape from Egypt in Moses' time. But only in Jerusalem, out of all of Palestine, were the Passover lambs killed and eaten as a sacrifice in memory of that first Passover. Hence the vast crowds with many believing there could be, somehow, a miraculous deliverance from Roman authority at Passover time - as there had been, centuries before from Egyptian authority. Also there were crowds of people who had been with Jesus a little earlier. Look at verses 17-18:
"The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign."
That refers back to John 11 and the amazing miracle of Jesus raising a man – his friend Lazarus - four days dead, so really dead. He then continued living an ordinary human life. So Jesus was known as someone amazing – a human being with real life-giving power.
Now it is hard to make out all the details of this entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, but the gist is clear enough. First, don't think this is a small crowd. We are talking of a vast crowd. John emphasizes the crowd and he was an eye-witness. Josephus, the 1st century Jewish-Romano historian, said that there were three million who came up for the Passover. The High Priest for one census, it was alleged, reckoned that 256,000 (over a ¼ million) lambs were slaughtered at Passover time. He then reckoned at least 10 people would be served by each lamb – hence Josephus' three million. That may be an exaggeration. But at least think, as a minimum, of the thousands who exit St James' Park after a Premiership match in terms of the crowd, and with supporters of both sides. And many in the crowd, as they were able, made a carpet of palm fronds (palms by now being the Jewish national symbol). And Jesus' followers (of all sorts) started repetitive chanting, as crowds do, using the words of Psalm 118.25-26:
"Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes [words of conventional welcome] in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!"
But note that word "King". They are welcoming into Jerusalem "the King of Israel". To say that, however, was political dynamite. For we know what many Jews at that time wanted for, and from, a new King of Israel. They wanted a conquering hero who would deliver them from their hated Roman overlords. And such a crowd following someone, who himself would not deny the title of "King", would have been seen as a danger – in today's terms, an army of terrorists following a terrorist leader. But Jesus, of course, presented no such danger to the Roman authorities because he had other ideas. For he wanted radically to change the culture and the climate of thinking that was gripping the crowds and even some of the disciples. In modern jargon we are talking about a clash of world views with Jesus wanting to change the prevailing world view and stop the then current political correctness. And Jesus' thinking – his world view – not only clashed with public thinking in the first century. It certainly is clashing with thinking in the twenty-first century as well. So that brings us to my second heading:
2. World Views
But what are world views? Your world view, it has been well said, comes from how you answer two questions: one, the question of origins, 'where did the universe come from and how did life begin?'; and, two, 'why is there suffering, disease and death in the world?' That second question, of course, is a particular problem if you believe that the universe came from a wise and good Creator. For how, then, do you explain evil? Well, the biblical worldview accounts for human experience and the data of human history more reasonably than any other belief system, I am totally convinced.
It is the world view that a loving but holy God created somehow the universe and us in his image, to enjoy his world and to live by his commands in fellowship with himself. However, we were not created as robots but as free agents who are able to choose what is good or what is bad. Sadly, our first parents decided they knew better than God and disobeyed his command and suffered accordingly. And ever since all of us have followed in their foot-steps, disobeying God, in spite of the freedom he gives us in many areas to choose what we want. And the consequence is chaos and confusion and damage and destruction, in smaller or greater doses. The Bible calls all this "sin" and its results – the original New Testament word for "sin" meaning, literally, 'missing the mark' – God's mark.
And sins create a morally polluted atmosphere which we all morally breathe in, as it were, to our cost. And our sin damages not just ourselves but others as well. But God's loving and holy righteousness demands that justice is done. And the common good – the good life for all human beings and human flourishing - according to this world view, comes through getting right with God with sin forgiven. And the good news is that justice is done at the Cross of Calvary, where Jesus died. And individuals are changed to live more Godly lives in response to that death and through Jesus' Resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit. And that is the reality, according to the Bible, of the human situation. Not to face it is folly.
And, when made aware, men and women can understand that. The problem is they do not like it and think it is demeaning to their human dignity – to be subordinate to God. So they come up with alternative world views. In Jesus' day, yes, among the Jewish people there was an agreement that God had created this universe and humankind. But then the world view of a great many was this: that human freedom and true human flourishing would come about with the expulsion of foreign overlords. Two centuries before in the time of the Maccabees, it had been Seleucid Greek overlords, now it was Roman overlords. This was probably the current world view in the majority among the crowds that first Palm Sunday. So many were looking forward to a leader that would lead them to a physical victory over their enemy – the Romans.
But down the centuries that world view has surfaced since the Reformation in the West – namely that human freedom is the most important of human values. It eclipsed the biblical world view with some in the 18th century through the so called French and German Enlightenment. That world view said that God, if he exists, created the world but then never gets involved in it. And also men and women are born perfect and not with a tendency to sin. All the bad in the world comes not from human responsibility but from the human environment. And salvation and human flourishing will come through education and evolution.
But the injustices of 19th century capitalism and 20th century Marxism and Fascism and terrible World Wars proved how hollow that world view was. So we are now witnessing world views shaped by varieties of nihilisms, together with the ultimate world view of freedom in the religion of the self. That "Religion of Me", as it is being called, was behind the new Guides' Promise over which Glynis Mackie and her guiding colleagues at Jesmond Parish Church have bravely defied the authorities. For the Guide Promise was changed from being "true to My God" to being "true to Myself"; and our guides at JPC have rightly refused to use the new promise.
This new religion (for such it is) and world view of the self says that in yourself you have a sovereign independence that is essential to your dignity as a human being. This, then, gives you freedom to do whatever you like in, with, and to the material world and that includes your own body which has no intrinsic meaning. So feel free to harm yourself but not others without their consent or if underage.
This is very similar to the early Gnostic world view in New Testament times. The Apostle John was fighting these ideas in his epistles and there are hints of it in his Gospel and in the book of Revelation. And it explains the new orthodoxy regarding homosexualism and transgenderism. But that is much more than just about sex and gender. It is from a total world view which, like all world views, is something like the air you breathe. And like the air you breathe you do not notice it, until something challenges you or it, and it is seen to be so foolish. Well, such a challenge to the freedom world view of first century Palestine was that entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. For, thirdly, that was:
3. Jesus' Great Drama
Jesus is teaching the new world view by a great dramatic action. Like prophets in Old Testament sometimes enacted little dramatic cameos, Jesus is enacting on a huge scale the prophetic action of all prophetic actions. For this is a much grander event than any Old Testament prophet's action, with thousands watching as he rode into Jerusalem. And this is quite unique in his ministry, which has been relatively quiet until now. We can, therefore, take it that the message being conveyed is of supreme importance. So what is the message of this great drama? It was, surely, this:
Jesus is not rejecting the title "King". However, and this is a big 'however', he is not riding either in a chariot or on a war horse, but on a donkey. Look at John 12.14-15 again:
"And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
"Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey's colt!""
That quote is from our Old Testament reading - the book of the prophet Zechariah 9.9-10:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth."
So Jesus' enacted parable – let's call it that, if you prefer – was teaching that he was going to be the very opposite to a conquering hero. He was entering humbly (as Zechariah predicted), on a small donkey, not a great war horse. And he was coming peaceably not at the head of a great army. And the last thing he was proposing to do was take on the Roman authorities as a general initiating a Civil War of freedom. He had no intention of being a freedom fighter.
As the missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, pointed out, here lies one great difference between Jesus and Mohammed. Mohammed of Islam rode into Medina to conquer. But Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die. And when you rightly understand that you have got a totally new world view. And you have to reject other world views. For they do not lead to getting right with God and glorifying him and enjoying him for ever and, then, true human flourishing and human enjoyment. So, fourthly, in conclusion, we must pull the threads together of …
4. Jesus' Great Lesson
…in John's account of Palm Sunday. We must, therefore, go back to our fundamental question - what did Jesus come for and enter Jerusalem for? The answer now is clear. John, in 1 John 3.5, summarises:
"You know that he appeared in order to take away sins."
And John the Baptist's words regarding Jesus were:
"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
That is why Calvary and the Cross of Christ is so essential to anyone's world view. You, therefore, need to understand it and teach it. And that is, that disobedience to God is wrong and so foolish. For he wants the best for you. His law – his will…
"…is good and acceptable and perfect"
It is like the manual for your car or your washing machine. It is there for your benefit. So, if you disobey God's law, his loving but holy justice inevitably has to be exercised. And the totality of our sins, for which we deserve punishment, will be way beyond our reckoning. For God sees not just our sins of commission, which the Holy Spirit working through our intelligence and education may help reduce. He also sees our sins of omission. And their consequence can be huge, as a 17th century Irish Archbishop, Archbishop Ussher, knew well. For as he was dying, it is reported he prayed to the Lord these words:
"Forgive all my sins, especially my sins of omission"
According to Matthew's Gospel, after Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Jesus taught the Parable of the Talents. In that the one talent man faced eternal punishment for doing nothing (Matt 25.14-30). And he then taught the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. In that there was eternal punishment for those failing to minister to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick or those in prison (Matthew 25.44-46).
I believe we all have to take sins of omission seriously. And for those of us claiming to be biblical Christians especially so. For we have, by God's grace, seen how you need to trust and obey the Jesus of the Bible. We have seen how God's law is good and acceptable and perfect and genuinely for our flourishing. But perhaps we haven't taken a stand for that truth when we should have and others have been waiting for us to take a lead. Sadly, evil prevails when good men and women do or say nothing.
But the good news is that because Jesus was not going to be a warrior King but a King who died for your sins and mine, there can be forgiveness for all sins, however great or small. And no one is too bad to be forgiven or too good to need to be forgiven.
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"
And Jesus did bear the punishment needed for those sins instead of you and me. For Jesus did not die just for one person, as of Friday that unbelievably brave French policemen died for a female hostage. John tells us in 1 John 2.2, Jesus Christ died…
"…for the sins of the whole world."
So if you confess your sins and trust him you know you can receive God's forgiveness. And we celebrate all of that in a moment as we take the bread and the wine remembering his death. Can we believe it? Yes! For next Sunday we will celebrate the amazing proof, in that Jesus not only died but he really rose again from the dead to a new order of existence. And that is a foretaste of what will happen to us one day, if we repent and have faith in him in this life.
Who needs to start on that journey of faith this morning? If that is you, why not do so on this Palm Sunday?