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Sunday, April 13, 2003

The Right Kind of Rescue (Matthew 21, Psalm 118)

PALM SUNDAY Sermon by: Robert Austell - April 13, 2003
Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:19-29

Each year, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday as one of the most jubilant services of the year.  In many churches, children process into the service waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It is easy to get into the spirit of Palm Sunday, because we are no different from the people of Jesus’ day.  We like the idea of a super-hero savior who is strong and brave, who is worthy of a parade. 

We’ve been talking for several weeks about seeing and experiencing God.  And in many ways, it is easier for us to imagine this kind of God, the kind that is announced and heralded and cheered in the streets, than to understand a Savior-God who can be ridiculed, beaten, and killed.  Even with the good news of Easter, it is harder to understand a risen Jesus who has now gone to be with the Father in Heaven than the victorious Warrior-King the Jews were expecting as a Messiah.

Perhaps you’ve heard an explanation of Palm Sunday before – that the Jewish people were awaiting the coming of a Messiah, a combination of a deliverer like Moses, a king like David, and a prophet like Elijah.  In fact, Jesus was not the first to be considered as the Jewish Messiah.  Historians of that time period record others who made “triumphal entries” into Jerusalem – even on a donkey.  There were, after all, prophecies to be fulfilled.  The people hoped for a Messiah, and they knew what to do if one showed up.

Knowing these things, the events of Palm Sunday – or Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem – raise three big questions in my mind. 

First, how could the people’s shouts of “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” so quickly turn into shouts of “Crucify Him!”?  In only a few short days, the people who waved palm branches at Jesus entry into Jerusalem were shouting for the murderer, Barabbas, to be released and for Jesus to be executed in his place.

Second, if Jesus knew who he was, what was going to happen, and that he was not the popular version of the Messiah, why did he allow and even plan for the “triumphal entry” to happen?  Why did he go along with it?

Third, is Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem really something we should celebrate or was it just a big mistake – either on Jesus’ part or on the people’s part?

Finally, if Jesus truly is God’s promised Messiah and Savior, then I want to make sure that we are looking for the right Jesus and not a false one.  I want to make sure that we are seeking the right kind of rescue and not looking for God in all the wrong places.

Hosanna! or Crucify Him!??

How could the shouts of “Hosanna!” turn so quickly to “Crucify him!”?

It may be disappointment on the crowd’s part.  They were looking for a revolutionary – a popular leader who would help overthrow Roman rule in the region.  And though Jesus talked a lot about the coming Kingdom of God, he was not revolutionary in the military sense.  It may be that with his arrest and the realization that the Roman authorities had him in custody that the people just gave up on him or didn’t want to be arrested as sympathetic to his cause.

It may be that the Pharisees finally decided to take care of him and planted people who led the shouts of “Crucify him!”  They had been trying for some time to trap him with words.  They may have finally seen the opportunity to act against Jesus.

Interestingly, the shouts of the people on Palm Sunday were exactly right.  They were shouting “Hosanna,” which means “God save us!”  And they were calling out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”  They were looking in the right place – to God and the one God sent.  They were asking the right question – that they be saved or rescued.  But they were looking for the wrong kind of rescue – by might of sword.  It was salvation on their terms.

How close but yet so far!  And how convicting!  I can’t begin to count the times I have prayed and asked God for something and been disappointed when God hasn’t answered the prayer with MY answer. 

“God save me; help me find a job – and you know just the kind I want.”

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – Lord, send me a close friend, but not one that is judgmental or too talkative.”

“Lord,” I will pray, “Answer my prayers in the way I think is best; and I know you will, because you love me.”

Again, so close – all the right words and I’m asking the right person for help.  But I miss the crucial “thy will be done” and the realization that God’s wisdom is far beyond man’s wisdom.

So, there were shouts of “Save us!” and full expectation that God would send the blessed one to deliver God’s people in a very specific way.  Ironically, God did indeed send His blessed one precisely to deliver and save His people, but when the people didn’t see the kind of rescue they had in mind, they turned on Jesus.

Why the Triumphal Entry?

This begins to answer the second question of why Jesus went through the Messianic motions if he knew he wasn’t in the “popular” mold of the Messiah.  Jesus did what he did because he was, in fact, the promised Messiah.  He intentionally set out to fulfill specific prophecies, particularly those in Zechariah about how the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey.

Further, Jesus didn’t shy away from the shouts of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is He” because those shouts were EXACTLY on target.  God was going to save the people through Him.  And Jesus was the blessed One sent from God.

The people were quoting Psalm 118, which we have heard read today.  That Psalm is amazing and prophetic in its own way.  It is a song about the saving goodness of God.  It was used during one of the great feasts of the people of Israel, which culminated with the people processing to the altar of God with their sacrificial offerings.

During Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the people were re-enacting the events of Psalm 118, from the cries of “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” to the march to the Temple to make sacrifice.  In the Psalm, the people also shouted, “The Lord is God, and He has given us light.”  How quickly that brings to mind Jesus’ words that He is the “Light of the world.”

That Jesus is also following the procession described in Psalm 118 helps explain his purpose in coming into Jerusalem in the way he did.  Following Psalm 118, Jesus, in fact, proceeds on through the streets of Jerusalem to the Temple, to which he returns shortly and drives out the moneychangers.  And only a few days later, he becomes the “festival sacrifice which is bound up” for the sins of the people.  He cleans out the Temple because, bound to the cross, he will become the once-and-for-all sacrificial offering for all of us.

Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday for precisely the same reason the people greeted him – he was the promised Messiah and Savior, on his way to save the people of God.  The only difference between Jesus’ understanding and that of the people of Jerusalem was that he knew the nature of God’s salvation and the people were still looking for the popular hero-Messiah.

God does answer all of our prayers.  God does come to us when we seek Him as well as when we don’t.  But God answers and comes in ways that fit His perfect will.  If we want to see and experience God’s answers, presence, and coming, we must not become blinded by our version of what God will do.  To do so, ultimately, is making ourselves out to be God.

Celebrating Palm Sunday with Understanding

Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem IS really something we should celebrate.  We can shout “Hosanna! – God save us!” with all our hearts, for God has saved us through Jesus Christ.  We certainly can shout, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Jesus not only came in the name of the Lord and is blessed; he also brings the blessing of salvation and welcome into the family of God.

The lesson of Palm Sunday is that God is to be thanked and praised for HIS goodness from start to finish, in every aspect of our lives, particularly related to salvation or rescue.  That’s where Psalm 118 starts and ends – with the words, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

There was a mistake made on that first Palm Sunday.  It is one, unfortunately, that we are prone to repeat.  That mistake was seeking God on our own terms rather than on God’s terms.  That doesn’t mean at all that we should not celebrate Palm Sunday.  Its message is PRECISELY what we need most desperately.  It’s message is “God help us; blessed is your Son, who saves us; thank you for saving us.”  But we will miss it altogether if we make the mistake of saying, “God help me and let me tell you how.”  If not getting things the way we want them then gives way to anger or frustration, then we may soon find ourselves in the awful position of those who would shout for the crucifixion of Jesus.  That God’s will be done is always the best we could ask for.  And God’s good will is exactly what we can be most thankful for.

The Right Kind of Rescue

When we seek God’s help today – in crisis, need, or out of a quest for something more – we are, in effect, calling out “Hosanna,” or “God save me.”  When we welcome Jesus into our lives through a prayer, by coming forward at a service, or simply by a change in our hearts, we join the crowds and the Psalm in saying, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” 

Jesus followed God’s will by going from the gates of Jerusalem to the Temple, and then to the cross as a perfect sacrifice for all that keeps mankind from God.  For us to truly know what it is for God to “save us” we need to believe in and see the RIGHT Jesus – the one who died on the cross, rose on Easter Sunday, and is alive today.  The services this week and the events that happened in this “Holy Week” of Jesus’ life demonstrate how God acted to make things right between us and Himself.

Let us not look for a genie-in-a-bottle Jesus, though he does work miracles; let us not look for a “Superman Jesus” though he is truly the perfect human being and fully God; let us not look for a Hollywood Jesus, though his is the best story ever told; let us not demand God’s presence, action, or salvation on our own terms, for God has sent his only begotten Son once and for all to accomplish these things.

There is just one Savior and just one route to “Hosanna” – only one way that God saves us.  It is through the perfect God-man named Jesus, who humbly submitted to death on a cross so that a perfect sacrifice would be made on the behalf of all humanity.  If you put your trust in Him, you will be saved – rescued from the deadly state of being far from God.

By all means let us celebrate Palm Sunday.  It represents Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s will on our behalf.  Let us celebrate God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.  Let us devour the Bible in search of a clear picture of who Jesus is.  Let us seek God in prayer that in all areas of our life His will might be done.  Let us worship God faithfully that we might be able to say with the Psalm, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”  Amen.