By all appearances and for all practical purposes, Jesus seems like he’s finally made it today. Palm Sunday is the only day in his entire life when “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” are given to him; the one and only time the crowds come to him – not looking for free food or healthcare (or to kill him), but to hail him as the king who comes in the name of the LORD. Today Jesus looks every bit the King he came to be. The caution for us today is not to mistake the King we want for the King we need.
Finally, Jesus is acting like a king should act. Kings send their servants to do their bidding – and Jesus sends two of his disciples to retrieve a colt. Kings don’t ask for permission to use their subject’s property, they demand it – and Jesus tells his disciples to say the Lord needs it. You may think that a donkey doesn’t appear to be a very kingly mode of transportation – Air Force One or at least a white stallion might seem more appropriate – but it’s interesting to note that this is the only time in the Gospels where we hear that Jesus is riding at all; otherwise he got where he was going the old fashioned way: his own two feet. And when you combine this with Zechariah’s prophecy that Jerusalem’s true King would come into the city riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) it’s clear that Jesus is making a statement with this mode of transportation: he was openly claiming to be the King of Jerusalem, the rightful successor of David, who would bring peace to Israel.
And the people went crazy. They loved it. This is what they’d been waiting centuries for. Just like cities throw parades for their victorious sports teams today, the people of Jerusalem gave Jesus a welcome fit for a king. They threw their coats down, so that he rode into Jerusalem on a carpet. John says that they took palm branches and went out to meet him. (John 12:13) The palm branch was like the national flag of Israel. As people wave the stars and stripes before the President, so they waved their palms before their king. And this wasn’t blind or undeserved praise. Luke says the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. They had seen him give the blind sight, feed thousands, defeat demons, heal lepers and, last, but certainly not least, they had seen him bring Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. (John 11)
Never before had Jesus received this kind of welcome. Never before had they publicly and boldly proclaimed all that Jesus had done. And, unlike before, Jesus accepts their praise. He doesn’t tell them to keep his miracles to themselves, as he had before. (Luke 5:14) He didn’t turn around and go into hiding as he did after they tried to make him king after he fed the 5000. (John 6:15) He doesn’t tell them my kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) as he would tell Pilate. In fact, Jesus tells his enemies that this praise is so fitting and necessary that if the crowds didn’t do it the very stones would cry out.
Today it looks like the baby born in a stable in Bethlehem and raised in the backwoods of Nazareth has finally lived up to the hype, right? Finally he has the glory, the crowds, the praise; finally Jesus isn’t worshipped by just a few lowly peasants in rural Galilee but by a huge crowd in the capital city; finally it seems Jesus has come to do something more important than just preach and teach, he’s come to take power and control; finally Jesus is acting like the king the people want.
This is the Jesus you will find proclaimed in a vast number of churches. This is the powerful, life-changing Jesus who rescues people from their slavery to drugs and alcohol. The Jesus who came down from heaven to deliver people from the prisons of sickness and depression. The Jesus who will save your marriage, entertain and educate your children, get you that promotion and vacation, make sure you have more than enough money for retirement and liberate you from life’s greatest burdens: student and credit card debt. This Jesus sounds an awful lot like a political candidate. And doesn’t this Jesus sound great? Who wouldn’t want this kind of Jesus? This Jesus is helpful, useful, practical, and always relevant. Even the unbelieving world can get behind this Jesus.
Finally Jesus was acting the way the people wanted him to…and that’s why that crowd grew so big so quickly – they thought that he was getting ready to reestablish David’s throne in Jerusalem. Just a few verses before our text Luke says the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once…because he was near Jerusalem. (Luke 19:11) (That might tell you something about the quick numerical growth of “prosperity gospel” churches.) They were expecting Jesus to be the king they wanted; a king who would throw the Romans out of the Holy Land and restore prosperity and power to Israel. That’s the version of Jesus the world can – and does – gladly accept. No more of this bloody Jesus and his cross. No more of this Jesus who builds his kingdom through foolish things like words and water, bread and wine. The biggest and most successful churches wouldn’t dare mention this kind of Jesus. Why not? Because they know that this Jesus doesn’t sell tickets or fill seats, the world isn’t buying a crucified King.
But lest you think this sermon is a diatribe on how wrong the rest of the world is and how right we are, I have a confession to make: the Jesus the world wants…that’s the Jesus I want too. And I suspect the same is true of you. I don’t really want bloody Good Friday Jesus. I want glorious Palm Sunday Jesus. I don’t want a king who is rejected by the world, and says that the world will reject me too if I follow him. (Matthew 10:22) I don’t want a Jesus who picks up his cross and then tells me that if I’m going to follow him I must pick up my own cross, too. (Luke 9:23) I want a Jesus who stops at Luke 19:40. I want a superhero Jesus that I can brag about at parties – not a bloody, beaten, loser Jesus who says that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) Is that really true? Consider your prayer life. When you pray do you plead with Jesus to save you from God’s wrath or to save you from health issues and financial insecurity? Do we understand that Jesus distributes his greatest blessings right here at church or do we imagine that coming here is kind of like putting our coins into some divine vending machine which ensures that blessings keep rolling into our lives out there? Perhaps the coldest, hardest evidence is that just like that first Palm Sunday the crowd is here shouting praise to King Jesus in his time of glory, but where will this crowd be on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday when King Jesus bleeds and dies? The truth is that if we want Jesus to be a King who comes to make this life and this world better, then we don’t want the true Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. And this is more than just a mistake, this is sin, this is idolatry. It’s time to repent.
Repent for your own good; repent, change your mind about the King you want, because idol Jesus, the Jesus the world wants, the Jesus we secretly want, won’t save anyone. There is no salvation to be found in a Jesus whose work ends at Luke 19:40. Oh sure, Jesus has done some wonderful miracles and preached some mesmerizing sermons and fulfilled some OT prophecies. But if Jesus had stopped there, the devil would still control our souls, our sins would still condemn us, and we would still have every reason to fear death – because the yawning gates of hell would still be open. The Jesus who “makes” it in the world doesn’t make it as a Savior.
It’s easy to make mistakes about Jesus on Palm Sunday because the appearances can be deceiving. He appears to march in as David’s legitimate heir who has come to be the earthly King the people want. But if you look past the palm branches and adoring crowds, you can see the real reason Jesus came. Jesus specifically sends his disciples to find a colt which no one has ever ridden. Why does that matter? In the OT, whenever there was an unsolved murder, whenever a dead body was found and no one knew who did it, God commanded the citizens of that city to find a red heifer which had never been yoked, never been used, and slaughter it as an atoning sacrifice. (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) That heifer had to die to bear the burden of the people’s guilt.
Jesus isn’t riding into Jerusalem on a war horse to establish his kingdom on earth, he’s riding on a colt as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He comes not to slaughter his enemies but to be slaughtered. Even as the crowds shout his praises and prepare to install him as King – he knows what really lies ahead: that he is going to be beaten, tortured and crucified. He knows that the palm branches brushing his face today will be replaced by the Roman whip tearing open his back. He knows that each step on that carpeted path is one step closer to Calvary where his hands and feet will be nailed to a cross.
On Palm Sunday, it’s easy to be mistaken. It looks like Jesus comes to be the king the world wants. It looks like Jesus belongs on the throne so much that even the stones have to admit it. And the stones would. But they do not cry out today. No, when do the stones cry out? Good Friday! Only after Jesus is lifted up on the throne of the cross; only after the notice is nailed above his head identifying him as The King of the Jews (Luke 23:38); only after King Jesus has given up his spirit do the stones shake and quake and split and shout out the truth oh, sorrow dread! God’s Son is dead! (Matthew 27:50-51 & CW 137:2)
And finally, not the Palm Sunday crowds but the Good Friday stones proclaim the King we need. We don’t need a Jesus who hangs out in a palace, we need a Jesus who hangs on a cross. A Jesus who is popular in the world wouldn’t want anything to do with you or me. We don’t have the power, the money, the looks, the talent, the charisma the world values and praises. A Jesus like that would be out of touch and out of reach – just consider how many Christians think that only their pastor can get to Jesus on their behalf! We need a Jesus who meets us where we are; who knows what it is to grieve and weep; who knows what it means to be weak and helpless; who is despised and hated by the same world we are. When we are suffering, we find comfort in a King who suffers too. When we are burdened by sin and haunted by demons, we run to a King who knows sin’s weight and the devil’s fury. More than we need a King who is popular with this world’s elite, we need a King who isn’t ashamed to associate with sinners; because that’s what we are.
The Jesus the world wants comes and demands to be served. He expects people to give him the shirt off their backs. He expects them to sacrifice everything for him. This Jesus fits the paradigm of power and glory in this world. But this is not the Jesus I need. I don’t need a Jesus who demands the shirt off my back; I need a Jesus who offers his back to take the beating I deserve from God and covers my shameful nakedness with the robe of his righteousness. I don’t need a Jesus who will take over the world but a Jesus who willingly loses the world to save me. I need the Jesus of Philippians 2 who lets go of heaven to grab hold of me. Let the rest of the world have health and wealth Jesus; I need the Jesus who gave up his health and wealth to defeat sin, death and the devil and win eternal life for me.
This is the Jesus who saves the world. A Jesus who never suffered and died could save no one from death. A Jesus who is everything the world wants in a King would be no King at all – he would just be another imposter. The world turns in disgust from this King and his wounds, his blood, his cross, his death. Nothing in the universe is more offensive to the world than Christ the crucified King. The world might not want a Jesus who comes to Jerusalem on a donkey to die, but I do. Because there is nothing in the world I need more than for Jesus to suffer and die for my sins. May the Lord help us this Holy Week to never mistake the King we want for the King we need. Amen.