Sunday, March 20, 2016

Don't Drop Your Branches: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2016

Can you hear the roar of the crowds? Can you feel the excitement in the air? Think of that scene from the first Palm Sunday! Have you ever wondered what this meant – why the crowd got palm branches when they heard Jesus was riding toward the city for Passover (John 12:12-13)? I mean, of course what Jesus does is a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Zechariah – riding into town on a donkey, at all (John 12:14-15). Jesus wants them to know that, yes, he's the one they've been waiting for. But to really understand the scene, let's turn back almost two hundred years.

In the second century BC, a Greek kingdom based in Syria held power over the Jews. For a variety of reasons, the king Antiochus – the great-great-great-grandson of Alexander the Great's general Seleucus – decided that the Jews needed to stop practicing their religion. So he banned circumcision, commanded the Jews to eat pork, banned ownership of the Law of Moses, and slaughtered a pig as a pagan sacrifice in God's holy temple in Jerusalem. 

A band of brothers – sons of the priest Mattathias – took up arms and led a revolt. They were called the Maccabees. Judah was their first leader: he took back the city of Jerusalem and had the temple purified – remembered each year ever since by the festival of Hanukkah. Antiochus died, but his nephew Demetrius kept fighting, and Judah died in battle. 

Judah's clever brother Jonathan took up the fight and pressured the Greek general into a peace treaty. Jonathan went on to become high priest. Years passed, he fell into a trap and was executed, and his brother Simon took the lead. Simon secured the Jews' freedom from Greek meddling. The book recording these things tells us that Simon – now deemed high priest – set his sights on Jerusalem all over again. It tells us:

They entered [the citadel] 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. (1 Maccabees 13:51)

There it is – the palm branches. That's what may be in the crowds mind here, as they see Jesus riding their way. Their song means, “Jesus, be our new Simon! Set us free!” They cry out, “Hosanna – save now, save now!” Simon's descendants down throughout the Hasmonean Era claimed to be both high priests and kings, holding power until a new David might come. 

Well, here he is! Jesus is on his way: “Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Finally, no more Greek rule, no more Roman rule – finally, no more oppression – finally, the king who can turn back the tides and set the world at peace – finally, the promised Messiah! Jesus is the king in triumph, the king in victory – Jesus is Savior and King, coming in the name of the God of all Israel! “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (John 12:13; cf. Psalm 118:26). Here is Jesus – “the king of Israel” (John 12:13). 

That's the word the crowd is spreading – this is Jesus, who raises the dead; this is Jesus, who works wonders we've never seen, never even dreamed could happen; this is Jesus, the true Son of David, the King long foretold – let's welcome him, let's celebrate him, let's be on his side (cf. John 12:17-18)! No wonder the Pharisees fret and worry: “Look, the whole world has gone after him” (John 12:19).

Now, fast-forward five days. Jesus has come into the city and stirred things up. His greediest disciple sold him out for a slave's price. At night in the garden, soldiers come to take Jesus away. He doesn't resist – we know that (John 18:1-12). A show trial before the Sanhedrin goes the only way show trials ever go. The next morning, the priests and nobles of the people haul Jesus to the courtyard outside Governor Pilate's fortress (John 18:28). Pilate investigates, but he doesn't see a threat in this Jesus, who proclaims a different kind of kingdom (John 18:36).

So Pilate goes back out and calls everyone back – the chief priests, the rulers, and now the people, the crowd. Pilate proposes to give Jesus a slap on the wrist for the sake of peace, and then set him free (Luke 23:13-16). Herod agrees – there are better things they can be doing with their Friday morning. This is no time for nonsense. 

You might expect the crowd to cheer. “Blessed is the king of Israel,” after all. But that chant is gone with the wind. That was five days ago – get with the times! His fifteen minutes of celebrity are over, they say. No, Jesus isn't the one they want back. Jesus is no longer “king,” in their eyes – now, he's “this man” (Luke 23:18). “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!”, they cry. Barabbas is a rebel leader (Luke 23:19). The Romans would call him a terrorist, and with good reason. To the Jewish crowds, he's perhaps a freedom-fighter – the kind of leader who'd fight the Romans – who might be bloody, but he'll get the job done, if you don't care what gets lost along the way.

Pilate doesn't like the thought. “Please, here, Jesus is no real criminal – he's one of you, take him back, he doesn't deserve to die this way.” The crowd has turned dark, malicious, cruel. “Crucify him!”, rings out a cry from somewhere in the crowd – maybe the instigation of one of the priests. It catches on. “Crucify him!”, we hear again (Luke 23:21). The shout travels like a virus, infecting the whole crowd, everyone swept up in the chant. “Crucify, crucify, crucify!” 

Pilate tries to shout over them, pleading as a voice of reason, insisting that Jesus go free (Luke 23:22). But the crowd can't be appeased by anything but bloodshed. “Crucify, crucify, crucify, crucify!” They won't stop until Pilate gives in. He doesn't want a riot on his hands. What the crowd wants, the crowd gets – and the crowd wants a crucifixion. So Pilate sends Jesus toward the cross (Luke 23:23-24).

What happened to the loud hosannas? Where did all the palm branches go? Left by the wayside in some back alley? Tossed in the trash can? Stored on the shelf? In less than a week, the crowd turned from “Hosanna” to “Crucify” – from, “Blessed is the king of Israel,” to, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). How can that happen? How could the crowd turn on Jesus so fast – from adoring worship to froth-mouthed condemnation – from waving the palm branch and calling him king to wanting him flogged, beaten bloody, harsh nails hammered through his hands and feet, thorns slicing his forehead to ribbons, and hung naked 'til his heart gives out or he suffocates under his own weight?

But this is Jerusalem, not Athens. As Chesterton said when paying a visit there a century ago, “This is not a university town full of philosophies; it is a Zion of the hundred sieges, raging with religions; not a place where resolutions can be voted or amended, but a place where men can be crowned and crucified.” And crowned and crucified he was, thanks to the turning hearts of the mob. And I can think of four main reasons why this happened – why the crowd handed Jesus over to be crucified in Barabbas' place.

First, Jesus proved to have a different idea of what a Messiah looks like. When he came to them, they thought, “Now here's Simon Maccabeus all over again, but with power to work miracles.” They wanted a Messiah who'd give them what they wanted: rule by Jews for Jews (and over everyone else), so they could turn the tables on the Romans – have Romans wait their tables, have Romans clean their floors, have Romans look on them with servile awe. They wanted to lord their worldly supremacy over the Romans, as the Romans had done to them. “Do to others as they've been doing to you” – that's not the Golden Rule, but it is what the crowd is hoping for. But that just isn't Jesus' style.

In fact, do you know the first thing that happens after Jesus gets welcomed into Jerusalem with all the palm branches? “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. 'Sir,' they said, 'we would like to see Jesus'” (John 12:20-21). Yeah, Greeks – as in, the people of Antiochus. As in, the people Simon kicked out. And now here they are, and Jesus welcomes them in. 

The crowd wanted a messiah like Simon – a warrior-king who'd make 'peace' at the expense of the nations. But Jesus is a king who wants peace for the sake of the nations – peace, not through war, but through worship. He insists that the corrupt temple regime topple: what's now a “den of thieves” was meant to be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17; cf. Isaiah 56:7). The crowd realizes that the problem with Jesus is, he doesn't hate all the people they hate. He doesn't sign onto their agenda. He makes radical demands – if they want a messiah in him, he gets to define what that looks like. And so they drop their palm branches, and they stop singing hosanna.

Second, the crowd turns their back on Jesus because, in their disaffection and weakness of faith, they let their usual leaders lead them away from him. They buy into what the Pharisees and the chief priests and the scribal class say – and they say, “Don't trust this Jesus, you never know what he's up to.” The crowd lets themselves be talked out of blessing Jesus as king, because they listen to all these other voices – not just give them a hearing, but they give in to them. They deny what they've seen, what they've heard, what they've experienced, what the Voice of Truth has told them, all for the unreason of those in power.

Third, the crowd turns their back on Jesus because, once enough people are doing it, everyone else feels the need to go with the flow. Imagine being in that crowd on Good Friday. To your left, to your right, in front of you, behind you, people shout, “Crucify! Crucify!” You could speak up and shout out, “No, hosanna! Hosanna!” But will it make a difference? And at what cost? What's the price of breaking lockstep with the angry mob all around you? Will they turn violent? Will they shun you? It's safer to go the path of least resistance: to shout, or at least mumble, “Crucify! Crucify!”

And fourth, the crowd turns their back on Jesus because the crowd is fickle. That's just what they are – fickle, deceitful, prone to waver with the shifting of the winds. That's the mob mentality. And crowds are fickle because we're fickle – all of us. We like to give in to our impulses and desires. Self-denial is hard and unpleasant. We'd much rather do what we want, when we want, how we want. So we teach our children for generations, “Just follow your heart.” Do what feels right. Never mind what Jeremiah says: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). The crowd follows their impulses, first to crown a king, then to get rid of him on a cross.

For all their failings, the crowd starts out by doing the right thing – maybe not in thinking the right way, but doing the right thing when they wave the palm branches and shout their hosannas. The priests, the Pharisees, Pilate – they didn't shout hosanna in the first place. But that crowd did. Can you imagine if they'd clenched their palm branches tighter? If they'd stuck it out with Jesus, shouting hosanna on his terms and not theirs, resisting the priests' influence? See, that's where they failed: the moment they dropped their palm branches.

We may not have physical palm branches in our hands this morning. But our hearts still wave them, all the same. If you're a believer, with hearts and hands and voices we, as God's holy crowd of his very own children, are waving palm branches, welcoming Jesus into our lives as the one and only Savior-King. He's the one who sets us free! He's the one who makes real peace! And all authority in heaven and on earth has been given into his hands, and his kingdom will have no end. 

Every day of our lives, we're called to sing our hosannas: “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We look around at danger and evil, we look at the avalanche of our sin rolling out of control – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We're blind to our own pride, our greed, our selfishness – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We lay our loved ones six feet under topsoil – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” The world is broken, twisted as a tornado, breaking all we hold dear and leaving debris scattered messily through our lives – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!” We're sad, we're angry, we're scared, we're alone and desolate and desperate of heart – “Save us, Jesus, save us now!”

In the face of it all, it might be tempting some days to give up hope that Jesus will ever answer that prayer and make all things right. Instead of singing hosannas in faith, we surrender to fear and despair. Instead of clinging to our palm branches and waving them high 'til he comes, we set them aside. Maybe we go looking for our salvation in some other name (though “there's no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]). Maybe we resign ourselves to having no salvation, no rescue, no liberation at all; we just settle for where we are. 

Throughout the centuries, professing believers have tossed aside their palm branches in all these ways: by giving up hope, by leaving the faith, by trusting in other kings, even by imagining that “religion” is just a nice compartment of life for Sunday mornings, and we can check our palm branches at the door when we leave.

If there's one lesson to learn from the crowd in the Gospels, it's this one: Don't stop singing hosanna! Don't drop your branches! Keep waving them, loud and proud! Hold fast, cling tight, to what's good! Our hearts may be fickle and deceitful in this sinful world, but disciples discipline themselves to wave the palm branch, no matter what their hearts whisper. And as King Jesus is welcomed deeper and deeper into our lives, well, God sends “the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6), and so “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). And we live for “singing and making melody to the Lord in [our] hearts” (Ephesians 5:19) – putting hosannas there to stay.

If the larger crowd of culture insists on shouting “Crucify!”, still we sing, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 19:13). “Hosanna to the Son of David! … Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9). We refuse to be peer-pressured or manipulated out of our commitment to celebrating Christ. 

Don't drop your branches. Keep them waving, even when Jesus does what you don't expect. Keep them waving, even when Jesus takes up his whip and causes a ruckus, knocking over tables left and right. Keep them waving, even when the kingdom makes demands and when the King tells you to die to self and store up treasure somewhere less earthly. Keep them waving, even when King Jesus tells you to love and welcome your enemies. Hail King Jesus on his terms – even when his salvation comes in the shape of a cross, beyond which lies resurrection. Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!

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