Palm Sunday

At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.


We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.


The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.

Misunderstood

Mark 11:1-11

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. It actually was one of the great misunderstandings in history, however, with none of the onlookers really understanding what Jesus was trying to communicate.

As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”

And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey colt. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.

Even his disciples failed to remember Jesus’ teachings, however, especially the one about his need to go to Jerusalem, die, and then rise on the third day. The disciples and the common people had their minds set on worldly salvation, failing to grasp how much more they could receive from God. They also missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to come in peace, readied to make the great sacrifice, would become evident as the week progressed.

And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.

There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were experts at accommodation, fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.

There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.

There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.

And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.

When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.

But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.

This Will Get Messy

 

Entry into Jerusalem; Christ (played by Anton Lang) and John, with donkey; at the Oberammergau passion play, Bavaria, Germany, 1900

Entry into Jerusalem; Christ (played by Anton Lang) and John, with donkey; at the Oberammergau passion play, Bavaria, Germany, 1900

Matthew 21:1-11

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. Even today, when we hold Palm Sunday worship, we cannot help but look and sound like a celebration, too, waving palm fronds and shouting “Hosanna!”

It was at best a party of mixed emotions, however, and the man at the center of it all must have been deeply disturbed at what was to come. I wonder if he was able to enjoy the moment at all.

As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”

And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.

We should pause here and acknowledge that the people weren’t fully understanding Jesus’ declaration. They failed to remember his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount—blessed are the peacemakers, turn the other cheek, love your enemies. In particular, they missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to be the king of peace would become evident as the week progressed.

And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.

There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.

There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.

There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.

And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.

Jesus knew what he was doing. He already had foretold his death and resurrection three times before riding into Jerusalem. And as he rode into the city, he must have looked around and thought, “This will get messy.”

We used to debate in seminary whether Jesus had to be crucified to save the world. Was it possible for people to fully acknowledge who he was, and then salvation to occur without his holy blood being shed?

The question is largely unanswerable in this life. I do like Clarence Jordan’s attempt, though: To be in “mortal combat” with the world, Jesus had to be in what Jordan called a “crucifiable situation.”

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

Here’s the sobering part: As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.

When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.

But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.

Life Inside the Gate

Luke 19:29-40

Declaring Jesus king is easy when we’re outside the city gate, marveling at the signs and wonders we have seen, cheering with a like-minded crowd.

The hard part is doing the same inside the city gate, Jesus’ destination. This is where enemies gather and plot, where evil seems to have the upper hand, where our reputations and our very lives seem to be at stake.

Most Christians have an outside-the-gate moment. The truth seems so clear; Jesus makes himself very visible. He is in charge. He is our hope. It’s easy to lift up words of blessing, declaring his kingdom is present. We baptized two young men Sunday at Cassidy UMC, and I pray they had such an experience. I pray they continue to see God walking with them.

They and we need to remember, however, that the real test comes when we as Christ’s followers must live inside the gate, when the situation becomes muddled. Because let me tell you, who’s winning in the battle of good vs. evil can be incredibly unclear at times. That’s just the nature of the time in which we live, the time of waiting, where we look to the skies and say, “Jesus, where are you?”

Jesus’ followers found themselves very confused when the Temple plotters finally schemed a way to get Jesus arrested. We find ourselves similarly confused when we see the church seemingly bound, looking like its glory days are behind, ready to fall to secularism.

Jesus’ followers found themselves in despair when their leader went to the cross, naked and bleeding, dying the most shameful death possible. It was over, over, over. We know what it’s like to be in situations where it seems all over, too. The deaths of those around us, particularly those untimely deaths, can seem so final. A marriage ends, and our sense of trust is vanquished. We don’t reach the heights in life we imagined in our youth, and we’re sure all our dreams were for nothing.

That’s life inside the gate. And it’s how we live inside the gate that defines how fully we believe.

It’s okay to weep. It’s okay to feel an occasional tremor of doubt or fear. But can we cling to hope? Can we carry within us a sense of assurance that what we’ve been promised is real?

Jesus told his followers the whole story of his time inside the gate before he ever climbed on that donkey. He said he had to go to Jerusalem, die, and then on the third day be raised to life. And on the third day—well, I’ll bite my tongue for now. That’s a story for next week, isn’t it? The disciples simply needed to believe and remember what Jesus had told them.

Jesus has told us the whole story of his time inside human history, too. He has told us he will come again. He has told us our pain and the brokenness of the world are only temporary, that they will be put away for good one day if only we believe.

Courage—have courage. We look forward not just to Easter 2013, but to the great Easter, when all is set right. We will rejoice not just in Christ’s resurrection, but in our very own, and our joy will overcome all sorrow.

City of the Blind

Mark 11:1-11

The story of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem proves it is possible to celebrate the right person for all the wrong reasons.

Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt. People lined the road, covering it with their cloaks and palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In other words, they greeted him as a king. In our day, we know this was appropriate. As people who understand the full story, we know that God in flesh, the very source of salvation, rode before them.

But at the same time, we must remember that the cheering crowd and the disciples who walked with Jesus were blind. The people were blind to what was about to happen, to the way salvation would be made possible.

Their blindness didn’t happen because Jesus had left them in the dark. Three times he had told his followers the truth: that the Messiah must be condemned, mocked, humiliated and killed before rising from the dead on the third day.

No one wanted to see this picture he had painted, however. Instead, prestige, power and instant gratification were on the minds of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus told the truth about where the colt was leading him, but not long before the ride, James and John instead tried to maneuver themselves into seats alongside the earthly throne they believed Jesus would soon occupy. I want to scream across 2,000 years and warn them, “Open your eyes, see what’s coming—blood and violence and a cross splintered by nails driven through flesh.”

Jesus told the truth about the road ahead of him, but during the ride, the crowds that would abandon him in just a few short days cheered him onward, believing he would conquer both the corrupt Jewish leaders and their Roman puppet masters. If only they could have seen Jesus’ humiliation and suffering to come at the hands of these earthly powers.

Jesus told the truth about the need for the Messiah’s death and resurrection, but not long after the ride, even nature failed him. Hungry as he left Jerusalem for the evening, the creator of the universe rightly expected a part of his creation, a fig tree, to provide him sustenance. The tree failed to see to the needs of the one for whom it was made, and withered under the creator’s curse.

Everyone had something he or she wanted from Jesus, but no one for a moment seemed to consider what God wanted through Jesus. What God wanted was a complete and total solution to the problem of sin, a repair to the gap between God and the people made in God’s image. God didn’t want Jesus to storm a fortress. He wanted Jesus to retake and ultimately remake the universe.

This solution goes beyond earthly kingdoms, beyond who gets which title once Jesus takes control. It’s a solution no human could see because no human could imagine how far God was willing to go to redeem us and live in harmony with us.

We do know something of the mind of the man who rode that colt into Jerusalem. Philippians 2:5-11 helps. Here, we see the infinite mind humbled, reduced and emptied of any sense of entitlement.

The crowds cheered, but Christ knew he rode toward death. Did the trip into Jerusalem at any time give Jesus a clear view of Golgotha? The cry of “hosanna” must have contrasted sharply with the shout Jesus knew would come just a few days later—”Crucify him!”

But as I’ve said, the people lining the road and walking with Jesus could not see what was in the mind of Christ, and even his closest disciples refused to hear his words. They wanted what they wanted, standing as a cheering mass, thinking they knew everything but actually knowing nothing of God’s plan.

To understand, they would first have to wonder at a stone rolled away from a tomb and see a battered and broken body restored to life. Only the cross and the resurrection would allow them to “come to themselves,” to borrow a phrase from the parable of the prodigal son.

Let me ask you this:

Do you really grasp what God has done through Jesus? Do you know he rode to his death for you, for your sins, the sins committed years ago, the sins committed yesterday, the sins still to come?

Do you cheer and cry hosanna for the right reasons? Do you cry hosanna with every moment of your life, conforming yourself to the one who has saved you? Is your life now his?

Thank God for Easter Sunday and the blindness it heals.