Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) | Streaming Licensing # 20105663Worship Guide Children's Sermon Guide
Making the Most of the Time: A Time For Clarity (Palm Sunday Worship Service)
Luke 19:28 - 19:48
April 5, 2020
Reverend Jason Harris
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As the coronavirus crisis deepens here in New York and around the country, and as the economic fallout remains uncertain, I’d like us to stop and ask ourselves: What are we learning from all of this?
Amidst all the doom and gloom, we can certainly see some positives—which is encouraging.
First, we’re learning the importance of kindness. If nothing else, this health threat is helping us see our common humanity and it is forcing us to focus on the things that really matter. Many people are demonstrating simple acts of kindness and radical acts of generosity. Members of our own church have purchased groceries and supplies for high-risk people living in isolation. Some have helped set up the field hospital in Central Park. Just this past week a small group of volunteers prepared 350 bagged lunches to be passed out to the homeless. We’ve also received several generous gifts which have enabled us to continue to pay our part-time people and to provide financial support to those in need—despite the disruption to our economy. In some ways, we’re seeing the best of humanity on display.
Second, we’re learning how much we crave connection. Even though we have had to coop ourselves up in our homes, we’re figuring out ways to connect with one another using the technology at our disposal. “Zoom” has become a household word almost literally overnight. We can be grateful that families have a little more time to spend with one another than they ordinarily would—rather than rushing around to all their divergent activities. Many of us find ourselves reaching out to old friends to check in on them. Maybe we are even using this as an opportunity to give and receive forgiveness, to reconcile broken relationships, and to heal the past.
We’re also learning something about creativity. School has moved online. News anchors and talk show hosts are broadcasting from home. Even I am learning how to frame a shot and film myself on camera.
We’ve all seen videos of Italians singing together from their balconies complete with accordions to lift each other’s spirits. Who knew every Italian household has an accordion? Perhaps you have seen on social media how someone recently tried to reenact the magic of Italy on the Upper East Side by singing out his window. But he received a classic New York response to this poetic moment. He was promptly told to “shut up”—although the verbal barrage he received included much more colorful language that that!
We’ve also learned the importance of levity. We’re going to have to maintain our sense of humor even in the midst of hardship in order to get through this.
What else are we learning? In addition to the positives, we’re also realizing that our situation is a bit more precarious than we might have thought. The coronavirus has stripped away our false sense of security, leaving us feeling a bit exposed.
Before this moment, you might have thought you had zero health concerns, your social connections were strong, your financial outlook was positive, your prospects for moving up in the world were good, and—as a society—our advances in science, medicine and technology made us virtually unstoppable.
But this crisis is calling all of your expectations into question—in which case—what you need is Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is all about clarifying expectations.
The famous biographer James Boswell tells us that Dr. Samuel Johnson once said “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
There’s nothing quite like a crisis to give you a little clarity on your situation. So with that perspective, I’d like us to see what we can learn from Luke’s account of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the week prior to his death.
This Palm Sunday reading has a lot to say to us about our expectations about life and how Jesus clarifies them—which leaves us with a decision to make. So let’s consider each of those in turn—the Expectations—the Clarification—and the Decision.
Jesus had spent a considerable amount of time preparing his followers for this moment when he would return to the capital city of Jerusalem. Now that it finally arrives, what were the crowds expecting? We are given three clues in the form of the transportation Jesus uses, the welcome he receives, and the timing of his arrival.
First, the transportation. Once Jesus arrives on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he sends two of his disciples ahead of the others to procure a colt upon which no one has ever sat. Jesus and the other pilgrims from Galilee have already traveled 60 miles or more by foot. So why does Jesus choose to ride on a colt for the last 2 miles of the trip?
Matthew’s gospel explains that this was not the colt of a horse, but of a donkey—recalling the words of the prophet Zechariah who said that Israel’s promised king would ride triumphantly into Jerusalem on a young donkey. Additionally, this colt has never been ridden by anyone—which is meant to be a sign that it has been selected for a special purpose.
We receive a second clue in the welcome Jesus receives. The disciples place their cloaks on the donkey as a makeshift saddle and the crowds proceed to give Jesus the “red carpet treatment.” You don’t cut down palm branches and throw your clothes on the dusty ground for just anybody—no matter how important they might be to you. This is how you treat royalty.
The adoring crowds shout “Hosanna” which roughly means “save us” and they sing as Jesus approaches the city. People always sang the Psalms when they were going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But the words of Psalm 118 take on new meaning as Jesus rides into the city. They do not simply sing: Blessed is he—but blessed is the King—who comes in the name of the Lord. And they direct those words towards Jesus. Jesus receives a royal welcome.
Then we see a third clue in the timing of Jesus’ arrival. This is Passover time—the most important festival in Ancient Israel. At Passover, people thought about the Exodus – when God liberated his people from their slavery in Egypt. Now God’s people were living under oppression again—only this time it was the Romans rather than the Egyptians who had subjected them.
So what were people expecting? What did they want? They wanted a liberator. They wanted a national hero. They wanted a political and military conqueror who would save them from the domination of Rome and restore their political independence. They wanted Jesus to be the one who would make everything go back to the way it was before.
So what about you? What are your expectations?
I’ve got a rubber band in my hand right now. I suspect many of us feel pretty stretched right now like this rubber band. Our normal life has been disrupted and we’re not sure how much more of this we can take. We can’t go to work—we can’t go out to see our friends—we can’t go shopping or eat out at restaurants—we can’t go to the gym. We can’t even get a haircut. We’re all going to be looking a little shaggy before too long.
What are we hoping? What are we praying if we find ourselves praying? We are praying if God is out there that he will bring an end to this virus so that everything can snap—right back to the way they were before. We want our health back—we want our friends back—we want our jobs back—we want our routines back—we want our economy back—we want our life back. At this moment, my family is 1,000 miles away from me right now. My wife wants her husband back. My kids want their dad back.
And I want all those things, too. Those are all valid things that we should be praying for. But at the same time, I want you to stop and think about what else Jesus might be trying to teach us at this moment in our life.
We want God to make everything go back to the way it is was before. But maybe there is something more we are supposed to get from all of this.
Jesus has a way of challenging our expectations. That was certainly true during Jesus’ final week. The crowds were right that Jesus was a king. But they were completely wrong about what kind of king he would be. Jesus has come to save, to bring freedom, and to establish peace, but not at all in the way they expect.
No sooner does Jesus arrive in Jerusalem when he allows himself to be arrested, tried and killed by the very ones they thought he had come to overthrow. As a result, the admiring crowds shout “Hosanna!” at the beginning of the week, but the enthusiasm is short-lived. Many of those same people will form an angry mob and cry “Crucify him!” before that same week is out. They reject Jesus in the end because he didn’t fulfill all of their dreams.
I want you to see how Jesus clarifies our expectations about what it means for him to be king. Notice how Jesus enters the city.
First, he comes humbly. Jesus certainly doesn’t look like a King. He doesn’t ride into the city on a powerful war horse but on a clumsy borrowed donkey. He is not accompanied by dignitaries and soldiers, but by peasants and pilgrims.
Second, he comes compassionately. Luke tells us that as Jesus draws near to Jerusalem and sees the city laid out before him, he begins to weep. Why does Jesus cry? Jesus knows what is going to happen when he arrives in the capital, but that’s not why he is crying. He is not distraught because of what will happen to him—but because of what will happen to the city itself.
He has come to usher in the new age of God’s peace, but the city does not recognize the hour of God’s coming. He warns that one day the enemies they so despise will surround the city and lay it to waste—leaving not one stone upon another. But Jesus utters this message of judgment without a hint of vindictiveness. He doesn’t say: “I told you so!” or “Serves you right!” No, he issues this warning of what will happen in between sobs and tears.
But lest we think Jesus’ compassion renders him a pushover or a weakling, we should note thirdly that Jesus comes sternly. He can be serious and severe. He means business. The first thing Jesus does once he arrives in the city is go to the Temple, in fulfillment of the words spoken by the prophet Malachi who said: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple.”
Jesus enters the outer courtyard of the Temple to get rid of the merchants who profited off the Temple system through the exploitation of the poor by selling pigeons and livestock or by changing Roman coin for Jewish shekels. What made matters worse was this outer courtyard was the only place where non-Jewish people were permitted to pray. It was called the Court of the Gentiles—and it was as close as the rest of the world could ever get to God’s holy place—but these merchants had turned God’s house into a veritable zoo. They have turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves.
So what does Jesus do? He doesn’t turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, but he doesn’t fly off the handle either. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus deliberately, methodically makes a whip of cords and uses it to drive the merchants out of the temple. He’s filled with zeal for God’s honor.
Jesus knows full well that by doing all this, he is giving his opponents even more reason to destroy him and put him to death. But Jesus allows it to happen because this is precisely how Jesus will become King.
Like those crowds that turned against Jesus, we might not like this. The crowds wanted Jesus to restore things to the way they were before the Romans. We likewise might want Jesus to restore things to the way they were before the coronavirus.
But simply going back to the way things were before is not necessarily the answer. Jesus wants us to see that while the Romans were a real problem, and the coronavirus is a real problem, neither of them represent the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem is not a virus that infects our cells but the sin that infects our hearts.
Jesus doesn’t want us to go back to our self-absorption and self-centeredness —our materialism and greed—our obsession with sex and power—our petty grievances and political divisiveness—our neglect of the poor and the suffering—or our fixation on technologies that are intended to distract us rather than connect us.
Jesus doesn’t want to take us back to the way things were before because that would only be a partial fix. Do you see that? He doesn’t want to take us backwards— he wants to take us forward—to the new creation. Jesus is bringing about a whole new world where human sin no longer taints our hearts, where evil no longer threatens our lives, and where death is transformed from a dead end into a new beginning. But the only way in which Jesus can usher in that new world is through his death and resurrection.
That is why the moment Jesus becomes king is not when he sits on a beautiful golden throne and raises an army, but when he hangs on a rugged wooden cross and rises again from the grave. He establishes peace not by destroying the Romans, but by vanquishing the ultimate enemies of sin, evil, and yes, even death itself.
In light of all of this, we have a decision to make: Which crowd will we join? Will we join the crowd that says “Away with him!” because Jesus doesn’t meet our expectations. Or will we join the crowd that says, “Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord” because Jesus offers us something better.
Now is the time to make your decision and choose which side you are on. As you consider your options, know this.
Jesus continues to come to us the same way he did on that first Palm Sunday. He does not come to us on a domineering war horse but on a humble donkey.
He will not force himself into your life. You’ve got to open the door. But don’t let Jesus’ humility fool you into thinking that he is a pushover or that he is here simply to indulge your own desires.
Jesus continues to be Stern as well as Compassionate. He comes to us in judgment as well as grace. He’s not messing around. He means business. He is not someone to be trifled with. He issues warnings because he doesn’t want you to miss the time of God’s coming into the world. Now that he has come, it is not possible to remain neutral. You’ve got to choose which side you are on.
And yet, as one person put it years ago, before you see the whip in his hands you must see the tears in his eyes. The God who weighs your life in the balance is the God who weeps over you. If he must ever speak a severe word to you, know that his eyes will be brim full of tears. He doesn’t want you to miss what he is offering. Jesus longs for you to change your mind—to change your life—and to put your full faith and trust in Jesus as your King.
That’s the only way. That’s the only way – not to go back to the way things were – but to go forward to the way they are supposed to be. Jesus is ushering in a new world where there will be—no more death—no more mourning—no more crying—no more pain. Isn’t that what we really want? If so, now is the time to choose which side you are on.
Will you pray with me?
Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have lived our lives for ourselves rather than for you. We have been focused on our own needs, our own desires, and our own goals. Help us not to miss the moment. Open our eyes to see you for who you really are – the world’s true king – and to give you the allegiance of our hearts and the commitment of our lives. Help us to recognize that we are powerless against the ultimate enemies of sin, evil, and death. Therefore, enable us to turn to you in faith and to change our way of life so that you might lead us – not back to the way things were before – but forward to the way things are supposed to be. Amen.