If someone were to ask you to describe the scene in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, what would you say? Would you say that it happened exactly like the Holy Spirit said it would through the prophet Zechariah? Would you point to the message behind the humble circumstances? Many might read this account and consider it somewhat odd, a little bit quaint, maybe a touch confusing. But would anyone read this account and say “This is a victory parade. This is the culmination of thousands of years of promises. This is evidence that in spite of everything arrayed against him, Jesus Christ was a resounding success.” Was Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem a sign of success? It depends on your definition of success, right? So what standard do you use when judging success or failure in your life or the lives of people around you? Don’t say you don’t make those judgments, we all do it. We all know people we would describe as successful and others we would consider failures. Granted, most people probably fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s no question about it: in this world some do better than others.
How do we measure success? If you’re a golf fan, measuring success at this weekend’s Master’s Tournament is pretty easy: whoever has the lowest score wins. But I don’t think any of us are professional golfers, so we need broader set of standards. The first is fairly obvious. In our culture, money makes the world go round. Everyone wants it and the more, the better. Certainly wealth is one way to measure success in this world? But just having money is not enough. Some people inherit or make vast amounts of money, but live and die without accomplishing anything meaningful. So it’s also necessary to have accomplished something – and be recognized for it. Success must be recognized or it’s meaningless – thus we post our lives and accomplishments on social media for all the world to see. Success means rising above your peers, so there must be something to compare it to. If you have great potential, but don’t live up to it, you have failed. If you have alienated your family and friends in accomplishing great things, that diminishes your success. 15 minutes of fame doesn’t count, you must be consistent and leave behind a lasting legacy. And we could go on and on. In this world success is marked by wealth, achievement, recognition, respect, consistency, legacy, and adoration from family and friends – if a person managed to do all that, you’d judge them to be pretty successful, wouldn’t you? Sure. Why so much talk about success this morning?
The reason is this: it’s Palm Sunday and today John gives us a snapshot of Jesus at the very end of his public ministry. His time on this earth is coming to an end. And now he rides into Jerusalem surrounded by crowds of adoring fans waving their palm branches and shouting their praises. All Glory, Laud, and Honor are given to him. It’s wonderful. But when we apply the world’s standards to Jesus’ life, has he been successful? He’s not rich. He’s not riding in a war chariot but on a donkey. A donkey he doesn’t even own – he had to borrow it. He doesn’t live in a mansion, in fact he doesn’t have a place to call home at all. He doesn’t have a standing reservation at Jerusalem’s finest restaurants; rather, he eats whatever his disciples and the women who followed him from Galilee can find and afford. He IS relatively famous – at least for the moment. Two crowds – one from Jerusalem, and one from Bethany – turn out to greet him because they heard that he had raised Lazarus from the dead. An impressive miracle to be sure; but it falls short of his potential. He is the Son of God after all. He could have raised a whole cemetery – or, and this is probably what many of those people on his parade route were hoping for – he could have started a revolution to free Israel from the tyrannical Roman government. That would have been much more impressive, made him much more successful; but he didn’t do that.
The truth is that Jesus made a career of purposely not living up to his potential. For 33 years he had been purposely holding back. Apart from this entry into Jerusalem, he generally avoided crowds and their praise. Sure, he achieved some fame among regular people – fishermen and sinners, but his peers (the Pharisees) didn’t respect him. In fact, they hated him and wanted him dead and gone. As for family and friends; Jesus’ mother and siblings thought he was crazy for spending all his time with sinners and the sick and demon possessed. (Mark 3:21) He did have 12 close friends, but John tells us that they did not understand the significance of this moment and we know that one was planning to betray him and the others would shortly abandon him. There are the people shouting “Hosanna” (Lord, Save Us!) and “Blessed is the king of Israel!” – but many of them would soon be shouting crucify! (John 19:6) Today, the name Jesus Christ is used quite often – in the same context as a lot of other filthy language that shouldn’t be repeated – hardly a noteworthy legacy. So, was Jesus’ life a success? If we judge it according to the world’s standards, we would have to say: No. Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, was a colossal failure.
So it’s with the greatest irony that we call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem “triumphant” right? Not if we try to look at it from Jesus’ perspective. Here he is receiving the glory, laud, and honor of men, but this kind of popularity was never his goal. Why not? He knew that it was fickle and short-lived. He knew that the palm branches would be left there in the road to be trampled into the dust; the echoes of praise would quickly fade away. Jesus knew that the world’s standards for success are just like those palm branches and praise: here today, gone tomorrow. And that’s why he wasn’t pursuing success or glory according to those standards. Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that Jesus was determined to fail; in fact, his goal was to be successful, he was working for acceptance and fame and glory. It’s that both his mission and the standards he strived to meet were not from this world.
The success Jesus was after wasn’t the kind that gets your face on the cover of Time magazine or can be quantified by the number of Twitter followers. He wouldn’t carry out his mission or receive glory through military might or political pandering. It wouldn’t come from the pursuit of wealth, fame, and popularity. Rather he would accomplish his mission by stooping down, by bending low, by setting aside honor, privilege, and power and becoming the lowliest of all servants performing the most dishonorable of tasks. The glory he was working for came from serving sinful mankind. It came by bearing the shame and punishment for sin that we deserved. It came by being falsely accused and mocked and despised and spit on and beaten. To achieve success in God’s eyes, Jesus had to live a perfect, flawless life and then humble himself and become obedient to death; the most miserable and disgraceful death possible: death on a cross.
As he hung suspended from a cursed tree, it appeared to the world that Jesus was the biggest failure who ever lived – that his death was just one more epic defeat. It was, however, his greatest moment of triumph. A life that ended in a criminal’s death was successful because that’s how he saved a world of sinners like us from the eternal suffering we deserved. The writer to the Hebrews confirms that Jesus achieved exactly what he set out to accomplish: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set out before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2) By ignoring every single standard by which the world measures success, Jesus earned for himself (and for us) the never-ending glory of heaven. We are sincere when we call his entrance into Jerusalem “triumphant” because it shows his determination to suffer and die for our salvation. That’s how God had defined success for his Son’s life – and that is the mission Jesus was determined to complete.
Not only did Jesus flip the world’s definition of success on its head by his life, he does it in ours too. We don’t want to be like that crowd who gushed with praise one day then cried for crucifixion the next. We don’t want to be like those disciples who abandoned Him in the moment of trial. We don’t want to be like those Pharisees who resented his popularity and orchestrated his death. But that is what we do if we talk and sing about humility, service, and set our hearts and minds on heavenly things here in God’s house, only to leave and go back to chasing after success as the world defines it in our daily lives. Where does it start? More often than not with the rat race to accumulate wealth. Maybe we don’t call it striving for success; maybe we call it security for the future, or just what we need to be comfortable, or the well-deserved reward of a long, hard career. But then even wealth doesn’t satisfy anymore, and we want recognition for our accomplishments – no, not world-wide fame; we just want our spouses, children, and Facebook followers to recognize all we have done and continue to do – a little gratitude, a little praise isn’t too much to ask, is it? But just like that we have forgotten that our Palm Sunday King has set a different standard for success in our lives, too.
The lasting success Jesus wants you to have doesn’t come by accumulating wealth in this life, but in storing up treasures for the next – faith, believing family and friends; because those are the things you can take to heaven, those are the treasures that last. The lasting glory Jesus won for you doesn’t come when this world praises you for your accomplishments, but rather when after a life of humble service, God lifts you up and say: Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:23) On Palm Sunday 2000 years ago, our King rode on a donkey to the death that earned eternal success for all people. This Palm Sunday, Jesus shows us that a successful life in God’s eyes consists of quiet, humble service to God and to one another.
We started by talking about how our world measures success. Let’s finish with a challenge. Following Jesus challenges us to change our definition of success. Consider how much better God’s way is than the world’s – not to mention; far less stressful than getting caught up in the rat race of this world. If success isn’t defined by how much you have but by how much you can give away, what does that free you to do with the blessings God has given you? If success isn’t defined by how many people serve and obey you, but by how many people you can serve and help – what opportunities do you have at home or at work or right here to be very successful? If success is not defined by being recognized by other people but rather being recognized as one of God’s children – then doesn’t even the lowliest task have great meaning? If you recognize that your status before God doesn’t depend on what you do, but on what Christ has done for you – how does that lift a burden off of your shoulders and simplify the way you prioritize your life? Will following in Jesus’ footsteps be glamorous? Unlikely. Will it result in a life and legacy that the world considers praiseworthy and successful? Probably not. Will it be easy? No. It will be a fight every step of the way. It means not only dying to the world but also crucifying our own sinful natures. So how can we possibly follow a path that’s so countercultural, so uncomfortable, so hard? Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart…fix your eyes on Jesus! (Hebrews 12:2-3)
Today, forget about the way the unbelieving world – the world that is racing at breakneck speed to hell – defines and strives for success. Rather, stand on the side of that road into Jerusalem and watch Jesus riding a donkey on his way to winning eternal glory for you and me and all people. Be assured that because Jesus earned his Father’s stamp of approval by dying on a cross, your sins are forgiven and you too have the Father’s approval. And leave here with the goal of becoming genuinely successful according to God’s holy standards of humility, service, and faith. And, even though this scene in Jerusalem doesn’t look like much, always, always, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus – he is the very definition of success. Amen.