Palm Sunday Reading: Mark 11:1-11
My first appointment was to a 1000-member church as the Associate Pastor. The Senior Pastor and I were appointed there at the same time. I was coming out of seminary and just beginning my pastoral ministry. He was 4 years from retirement and nearing the end of his pastoral ministry.
In our second or third year there, the Sr. Pastor experienced an acute anxiety attack one Sunday morning which resulted in him not being able to come into the church building that morning in order to lead worship. Caroline and I were in Pennsylvania visiting my brother that weekend, so I knew nothing about it.
When we arrive home late Sunday night there was an urgent message on our machine from the chairperson of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee asking me to call her no matter the time. When I called, she told me what had happened, that the District Superintendent had already been contacted, and that the Bishop would be brought in as well the next day. Later that week, upon recommendation from his therapist, it was decided that the Sr. Pastor would be given a 3-month medical leave, effective immediately.
In The United Methodist system, when things like this happen – and they do from time to time – normally a retired pastor is brought in to cover for the pastor on leave. However, for some reason in our case it was decided that the Associate Pastor would assume full pastoral responsibilities since it was only for a period of three months. I guess they must have figured that that wasn’t enough time for a relatively new pastor to do much damage! And so I stepped up to the plate with my bat and got ready for that first pitch to come my way.
Well, those first few pitches were all fast balls. They included:
- plan and oversee the stewardship campaign for a 1000-member congregation
- help oversee the implementation of all the programs and ministries that kick-off in the fall, including Sunday school
- plan Advent and Christmas
- plan worship and preach every week
- attend all the administrative committees that I hadn’t had to attend until that point in time
- assume all pastoral care responsibilities the Sr. Pastor had on his plate at that point in time
- do all this so that when the Sr. Pastor comes back in at the beginning of Advent, he returns to a smoothly running machine, as though he’d never been gone
Like I said, they were all fast balls, one right after the other. And I’m here to tell you it’s a miracle I hit any of them. And the one’s I did hit, they certainly weren’t home runs!
Everything I just told you is the setup for what I really want to share with you, which is a confession of sorts. When it was clear that the Sr. Pastor would not be back for three months, I actually thought to myself, I can do a better job than him.
You see, the truth was, there were some real issues around his leadership, much of which contributed to his anxiety attack. And in my pride and naiveté, I convinced myself that I, just two or three years out of seminary, with zero experience leading a church as the solo pastor, could do at least as good if not a better job than him.
Well, friends, here’s what I quickly learned that fall: I learned that I didn’t have the skills or knowledge or expertise to lead a 1000 member congregation, at least not at that point in my career. And I was indeed humbled in my spirit. Because most everything I thought would happen didn’t happen the way I thought it would. I envisioned my leadership going this way, and in the end it went that way. It simply didn’t go the way I thought it would.
The same thing happened when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that original Palm Sunday. Mark tells us that when Jesus entered the city, the crowd was going wild. His description of the events that day tell us that they thought they were welcoming a king after the likes of King David. Many threw their clothes on the road in Jesus’ pathway, while others pulled down palm branches from the trees and threw them down in his pathway as well. And they were shouting out a victory cry.
Today, fans of a team that wins a championship might shout out in unison, “We’re #1! We’re #1!” When Jesus came into Jerusalem, the crowd was doing something similar. They were shouting out something that was common to shout when a king was returning home after an important battle victory.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our Father, David!
Hosanna in the highest!
‘Hosanna’ is a shout of praise. Originally, it was an appeal to God for deliverance from one’s enemies. When a Hebrew king, such as King David, returned victorious in battle, they shouted their praise to God for giving him that victory. And it was also a cry of thanks for delivering them from their enemy.
When Jesus entered the city, they shouted, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our Father, David!” This was a direct reference to King David, their greatest warrior and king. And in those days, any knowledgeable and good Jew believed that Messiah would restore Israel to its former glory. And how would he do this? He would do it the same way David did it – by taking up arms and going to battle. Messiah would be lead his people in victorious battle over their enemy. And who was there greatest enemy at that time? Rome. The belief at that time was that Messiah would become King of the Jews after their Father, David, and conquer Rome, and God’s people would be at peace again.
When Jesus came into Jerusalem that day, he was given a mighty king’s welcome. They were shouting in joy, because they knew that it was only a matter of time before all would be made right again. Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our Father, David! Hosanna in the highest!
They expected a king. And indeed they got a king. But they got a king of a different kind of crown than what they expected.
They expected a king on a stallion with flowing robes and a crown of jewels bearing a sword. But what came into town that day was a king on donkey wearing filthy, dusty clothes, bearing no sword, and wearing no crown. Within the week, he would be stripped of his clothes, nailed to a cross, pierced with a sword, and crowned with a garland of thorns. And a sign above his head would mockingly read, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.”
Boy, did they get it wrong!
But hold on. Can’t the same be said of us? Isn’t it true that there are times when the Jesus we expect and want turns out to be different than the Jesus that actually is? Or that the God we expect and want turns out to be different than the God who actually is?
Speaking for myself, I’m not someone who believes that every spiritual pathway leads to the same place. The fact is, that there are some major religions that would take offence with that notion. The people who practice these religions would be the first to say that the Christian notion of going heaven after we die isn’t even a goal for them. So in that light alone there’s no integrity in suggesting that we all have the same end in mind. That aside, I do adhere to the belief that Jesus Christ is unique, and his atoning work on the cross is necessary to be reconciled to our Creator, and that he was bodily resurrected from the dead, and that his saving work (his life, death, and resurrection) has to be appropriated to one’s own life in order to experience eternal life. I believe that.
But I also believe that God’s love and grace is probably far grander and way more encompassing than any of us could possibly imagine. When I die and go to be with Jesus, I totally expect to be surprised by some of the people I see there!
My point is this, we’re often guilty of making God in our image, or of trying to make Jesus Christ be someone we want him to be. But the fact is, he’s simply not going to fit into the nice little boxes we’ve made for him. He didn’t do it for the Jews in Jerusalem that week. And he’s not going to do it for us, either. He is who he is. And he always will be.
He came to save his people, but not from the tyranny of Rome. Rather, he came to save us from the tyranny of sin.
He came to deliver them for sure, but not from the grip of Caesar. Rather, he came to deliver us from the grip of Satan.
He didn’t come with a sword of iron, but the sword of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). He came into Jerusalem as a king, but in his own words, his kingdom is not of this world. He came as a warrior-king, yes, but his battle wasn’t with flesh and blood. He went to battle against the powers and principalities of cosmic darkness. There’s a spiritual world out there we can’t see with our eyes or perceive with our five senses. And whether we like to think about it or not, there are spiritual forces of darkness at work all around us. Jesus came to defeat those spiritual forces of darkness.
And that’s exactly what he did at the end of that week. On the Cross of Calvary he destroyed he power of sin. And on Easter morning, he destroyed the power of death.
On that first Palm Sunday, the people didn’t see this truth about Jesus. They thought they were getting one Jesus, but ended up getting a different Jesus.
But before we throw them under the bus too quickly, maybe we ought to cut them a little slack since it’s probably the case that they couldn’t have known what they were getting in the way of a kingly Jesus. What they couldn’t have known then we do know today. He was a teacher, yes, but he was more than a teacher. He was a prophet, but he was more than a prophet. He was a man of God, but he was way more than that – he was God. He was Emmanuel – God with us – in the flesh. He is eternally Lord of all Creation. And he is the Savior of all who trust him.
The thing is, while these things are true, in this life you and I will never be able to fully comprehend the significance of being true. We think it means one thing for Jesus to be Lord, but the implications of his Lordship are probably way beyond what we could ever guess. We think it means one thing for Jesus to be our Savior, but on this side of heaven we’ll never fully understand the true impact of his saving work.
In Isaiah 55:9 God reminds us that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his plans are higher than our plans. Maybe the thing for each of us to do this week is simply this: to allow ourselves to be open to whatever God has in store for us.
- To be open to learning something new about him.
- To be open to trying something for the first time for his sake.
- To be open to hearing his voice in a new way.
- To be open to new expressions of his love.
- To be open to seeing our Lord at work in ways that we hadn’t really given much credence to before. For example, how about opening ourselves to new expressions of praise for God. For those of us who prefer to musically praise God through traditional hymns, how about being open to the possibility of praising him through a more contemporary worship song? And the same goes for those of us who prefer the newer songs – how about we open ourselves up to to the possibility of being able to praise God through an old hymn?
Let do this: let’s give God the room to continue doing whatever he’s doing among us because we’re willing to see him as he truly is. Let’s pray.