Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday: What and Why

Today, is Palm Sunday. It’s a day we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the beginning of the most important week in history since humanity’s fall into sin. We remember Jesus riding on that donkey. We remember the cheering crowds and how they welcomed the anointed of Yahweh. We have images in our minds of what was going on. We remember Palm Sunday.

What I’d like to do this morning is not rehearse the things that we remember about that day, all the things going on around Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem. What I’d like to do, instead, is to consider what was going on inside Jesus. So, the sermon will be about two questions.


Here’s the first. What was Jesus doing? Again, this isn’t about the donkey and the crowds. Rather, as Jesus considered the situation, what was He doing? The answer is clear. He was going to His death. He knew that’s what was going to happen. In fact, He intended that to happen. He was going to His death.

Think of all the times that Jesus talked about this with the twelve. Here’s but one example.

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. Mark 10.33

And there are lots of other times when He said the same sort of thing. ‘I’m going to Jerusalem to die.’

But it’s not that Jesus went unwillingly, simply caught up in the moment. Listen to how Luke describes Jesus’ attitude about this.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Luke 9.51

Jesus wasn’t a passive victim of the situation. No, He was determined to go to Jerusalem to die.

Let’s pause here to think about that death. First, try to imagine, if you dare, what it would feel like to be whipped and beaten, stripped naked and then to have nails driven through your body so that you could hang from those nails until you suffocated and died. Crucifixion was a cruel death, and it was that by design. But, as horrific as that was, it wasn’t the worst of it. While on that Cross, Jesus experienced the wrath of God, the punishment for the sins of an uncountable multitude. While we might have a small glimmer of what the physical pain of crucifixion might feel like, we have absolutely no idea of what it would be to face the full force of the wrath of God. That’s what Jesus experienced.

Now, take all of that and listen again to those verses I read to you.

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. Mark 10.33

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Luke 9.51

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was willingly marching toward His death.

That sets up the second question: Why? Why did Jesus go so willingly to such a horrific death? A normal reaction is to avoid death. But that’s not what we see in Jesus. Why? Well, Jesus had good reasons for what He was doing.

Here’s one reason: obedience. Jesus was obeying His calling, a calling that He received from the Father. Listen to one time He spoke about this.

My food is to do the will of him who sent me. John 4.34

And Jesus quoted this from Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4.18-19

Jesus was a man who had a clear sense of His calling. So, out of obedience to that calling, He went to the Cross.

Then, there’s this. Jesus went to the Cross because of love. First, and always first, was His love of the Father.

… but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. John 14.31

Jesus’ love of the Father was a primary motivation. But there is also His love for His sheep. And Paul expresses his own experience of this quite well.

… the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2.20.

Jesus loved His people and gave Himself up for them. 

Then, there is the matter of reward. I’ve mentioned rewards before. It shows up in the Scriptures more than you might think. Jesus endured the Cross for the reward that would be granted to Him as a result. Listen to this from Hebrews.

… look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12.2

What was the reward that motivated Jesus to submit to the Cross? It was ‘the joy set before Him’. And what was that joy, that reward? It was being ‘seated at the right hand of the throne of God’. The reward was Lordship. It was because of the Cross that Jesus could say,

All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Me. Matthew 28.18

Jesus was rewarded for what He did.

So, why did Jesus go willingly to the Cross? Obedience to His calling. Love for the Father and love for us. A promised reward. That, I think, would be reasons enough for Jesus to act as He did. But, actually it isn’t. There is one more motivation. Jesus willingly submitted to death on a Cross so that He could be an example.

Listen to how Jesus described what it means to be His disciple.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Mark 8.34

Take a minute and think about that very familiar sentence. What does that ‘follow me’ mean? It means, ‘Come with Me and watch how I live so that you can live that way, too.’ Jesus presents Himself as the model of faithful living before the Father, a model that defines what it means to be a Christian. We follow Jesus. And so, riding into Jerusalem to face that death, Jesus is presenting to His disciples - to us - the model. This is Him saying, ‘This is how you live. This is how you face death’.

But please bear in mind that Jesus submitting to death didn’t start with that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem. Submitting to death, in all its many forms, was what His life was all about.

Listen to what He taught His disciples about death.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. Mark 8.35

Following Jesus is all about dying, not just the passing from this life to the next, but about losing your life now, dying now to the things of this life.

That’s what He was getting at when He said,

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross …

What does it mean to deny yourself? It’s letting something you desire to die, no longer wanting it, just because that’s what Jesus wants. That’s self-denial. And the imagery of the cross is clear enough. To follow Jesus involves dying, dying to the enjoyment of things, of good things, of many good things. And it might even include suffering a painful passing from this life to the next, just like so many faithful martyrs of the past and of the present. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

On that first Palm Sunday, and on every day that led up to it, Jesus modeled for us an important - and much forgotten - ingredient of what it means to be a Christian. So, to quote a famous theologian, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

But why would anyone submit to such hardship? Well, Jesus is our model in this as well. His motivation is our motivation.

So, like Him, we submit out of obedience to our calling. We all have been called by the Father. We are not called to die for the sins of the world, but we are called, in specific ways, to die.

We submit out of love. And again, first, and always first, it’s love for the Father. We live to make Him look as good as He actually is, regardless of the cost. But then, there is also love of the saints. We will not save anyone by atoning for their sins. But we can save some by the way that we live.

Then, we submit out of the hope of reward. There really is a reward for living - and dying - well as Christians. The Father understands the good things that we die to and how willing we are to die to those things. He sees all of that, and He will reward appropriately.

And finally, we submit for the sake of being an example. Just as Jesus is an example to us, we can be examples to each other. Let’s face it, words are cheap. Anyone can say the right words. But to live what is right, that’s quite another thing, especially when it costs, when dying is involved. That explains something that Paul wrote.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 1 Corinthians 11.1

We all should make it a goal to be able to say the same thing to other Christians around us.

Now, what’s the point of all of this? Why did I preach this sermon? There are lots of reasons why I wanted to teach you these things. For one thing, it’s important to know Jesus’ definition of a disciple. There are many definitions of being a disciple these days. But, sadly, too many of them have nothing to say about dying. For Jesus, that is an important ingredient. Remember, He said that those who refuse to die will not live. Are you ready to die to some of the good things of this life?

Also, if life for us Christians is going to get hard, as I think it will, then understanding these things will actually help you to respond wisely. Understanding the role of dying in a disciple’s life will help when you face the threat of something good being taken away from you simply because you refuse to compromise the Gospel and the Lordship of Jesus. When that happens, you will face great temptation, and you’ll need all the help you can lay hold of to stand firm and continue as a faithful disciple of Jesus.

And then, here’s an old prayer that adds an important touch.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that I, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Walking in the way of the cross, which is what I have been talking about, is hard. But it’s actually the way of life and peace. And I really want that for you.

I have given you some things to think about and to pray about. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to His church.

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