Don’t Join the Crowd
James C. Denison
“March Madness” has consumed the nation. When our study group left for Greece, the NCAA basketball tournament had started. When we returned, it was still going on. 64 teams began; 63 will end their season with a loss. They will learn the difference between a friend and a fan–a friend is there when we lose. A fan changes the channel.
We’ve seen Jesus with his Father and with his friends. Now let’s watch his fans, the crowds who gathered on this first Palm Sunday. And let’s learn why we must not join them, at the peril of our lives and souls.
What fans wanted God to do
By most historical reckonings, it was Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29 when Jesus of Nazareth rode a donkey into Jerusalem.
A “great” crowd of Jews has come from all over the world for the Passover Feast; some ancient historians number them at more than two million.
Now they have “heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.” They have heard the stories–how he healed the man born blind, and the leper and the paralytic, and raised Lazarus from the dead. For generations they have been taught to pray for their Messiah, the Promised One of God who would liberate his people from their cursed oppressors and establish their nation on earth. Now they believe that their prayers have been answered.
So “they took palm branches and went out to meet him.”
Palm branches were symbols of victory in the ancient world They were printed on Roman victory coins commemorating great battlefield triumphs. They were pictured on Jewish coins during periods of rebellion against Rome. To lay palm branches before a person was the same thing as gathering for a victory parade, welcoming the conquering hero into the city.
Palm trees did not grow in Jerusalem because of the weather. When the people heard that Jesus was coming, they went out into the surrounding areas, cut palm branches, and brought them to the Holy City.
The crowds went out to meet him, shouting “Hosanna!”; “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”; “Blessed is the King of Israel!” (v. 13).
“Hosanna” means “Save us, we pray.” Here the phrase greeted Jesus as their Savior and Liberator.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” can be translated, “Having been blessed and now still being blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The phrase points to the Messiah’s eternal and divine nature.
“The King of Israel” is the conquering hero, the military commander, the revisitation of King David, the ruler who would sit on the Jewish throne forever and ever.
This is the One who would overthrow Pilate and Caesar, drive the cursed Roman soldiers from their streets and cities, and establish the great Jewish nation for all time.
If we were Holocaust camp survivors being liberated by Allied soldiers, we’d be no more excited than these crowds on this day. If we were slaves being emancipated from our owners, or imprisoned East Germans watching in stunned joy as the Berlin Wall was destroyed, we’d feel what they felt.
God was finally going to answer their prayers the way they asked him to. He was finally going to give them what they wanted. He was going to meet their needs. But when he didn’t, how long did their adoration last? How long before “Hosanna” turned to Crucify!”?
What they needed God to do
Jesus knew that they had it all wrong, that the Messiah they wanted was not the Messiah they needed. So he “found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt'” (vs. 14-15).
A military conqueror rode into a city on a chariot drawn by four white horses with a slave holding a crown over his head. Jesus came on a donkey.
He didn’t have to ride at all–he had just walked the 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up 3,000 feet of elevation through some of the most difficult terrain to be found in that part of the world. He could have walked into the city. But he chose a donkey, a beast of suffering, a symbol of peace.
He came to fulfill Zechariah 9, a prediction made 567 years earlier that the Messiah would come as a suffering servant and prince of peace. Zechariah’s promise ended, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10).
If Jesus had been the Messiah the crowds wanted, he would have set them free from Rome. But they would still have been slaves. Slaves to sin, to Satan, to death. As would we today.
So he died for them, and for each of us. Christ “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5.6).
He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3).
He “laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11).
He “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5).
He “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3.13).
He “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1.4).
He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2.14).
He has “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1.5).
He “purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5.9).
He “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3.18).
The word of God is true: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13).
Jesus wouldn’t give them what they wanted, so he could give them what they needed. And they crucified him for it.
Are you a fan or a friend?
Have you been part of the Palm Sunday crowd lately? A fan in the stands, coming to watch your team win? It’s human nature to join them, to come to God for what we want him to do for us. I’ve just returned from my fourth trip to Greece and Turkey. Every time I go I am awed again at the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. These civilizations were the cradle of Western culture, home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other geniuses, some of the most brilliant people of all time. And home to some of the most stunning idolatry and paganism in human history.
You see it at the famous Parthenon in Athens, where a colossal statue of Athena was erected and the goddess worshipped. You see it in Ephesus, where marble statues to the worship of Roman emperors and gods stand in mute attention 20 centuries later. You see it from Philippi in the north to Corinth in the south. You see it as you drive past Mount Olympus, supposed home of the gods. Worshiping the gods so the gods will bless us. Sacrificing on pagan altars so the gods would give rain or sun, crops and flocks, children and protection. Appeasing the gods so the gods would protect and prosper the people.
Coming to church for what we can get out of it. Worshiping to be inspired, encouraged, or uplifted. Listening for advice on handling time or stress or marriage or family. Preaching to be liked and admired. Teaching to be thought wise; singing to be thought talented; serving to be noticed. Shouting “Hosanna!” so long as the Nazarene does what we want, and “Crucify!” if he does not.
All the while, the One who came on Palm Sunday and died on Good Friday deserves our worship not for what he will do for us, but for what he has done. Not so he will love us, but because he does. Not so he will bless us, but because he has. Not so he will give us what we want, but because he has already given us all that we need. At the cost of his own tortured, horrific, innocent execution, dying on our cross for our sins.
A medical doctor described crucifixion in physical terms. This is not for the faint of heart:
“The cross is placed on the ground and the victim is thrown backwards with his shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action. The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed. The victim is now crucified.
“As he sags with his weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms as the nails press on the median nerves. He pushes upward to avoid this stretching torment, placing full weight on the nail through his feet. Again he feels the searing agony of the nail.
“As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through his muscles, knoting them with deep and throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward to breathe. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream, and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. This goes on for hours.
“Then another pain begins: a deep, rushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids as reached a critical level. The compressed heart struggles to pump heavy, sluggish blood through the tissues. The tortured lungs make frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally the victim dies. For you.
That’s what Jesus came on Palm Sunday to do, for you. He deserves our worship and surrender, our obedience and gratitude, not for what he will do but for what he has done. Then comes the irony: the more we worship him for his sake rather than ours, the more he blesses our worship and our lives. When we come not to get but to give, we receive. When we come to honor God, we are honored and blessed. When our souls connect with his Spirit not as consumers but as children, we are empowered and directed and forgiven and liberated. When last did you worship Jesus like that? Will you today?
Jesus is looking for friends, not fans. How can we tell the difference? Not by appearances–they look the same in the stands. Appearance is not reality. I can prove it–I’m wearing my new Rolex watch today. I bought it from a street vendor in Ephesus for 10 euros ($13 American). It looks like a Rolex, but will probably die by this afternoon.
The test is not Sunday but Friday. It’s not in church but when we’re done with church. The test comes when Jesus asks us to refuse a temptation we want to commit; to seek forgiveness when we don’t want to; to share our faith; to give sacrificially of our time and money; to take a step into further ministry by faith. Is this where the Father finds you today? What can you do this morning to prove that you’re not a fan but a friend?
Know that you cannot outgive God. His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain. Whatever it costs you to follow him is more than worth its price.
Traveling in the Aegean Sea last week reminded me of one of my favorite stories. A man spent his entire life on the island of Crete. He never left it. He loved everything about it–the people, the terrain, the beauty of his native land. So when the time came for him to die, he asked his sons to carry him from his stone cottage and lay him on the land of Crete. He reached down, took a fistful of the soil of Crete, and died.
He appeared before the gates of heaven. An angel came out to welcome him inside, but saw his clenched fist. “Old man, what is that?” “It is Crete–I go nowhere without it.” The angel was firm: “You must leave earth to enter heaven.” “Never!” said the man with his fist raised in the air. He turned from the gates of heaven and sat down outside their walls.
A week went by. The gates opened, and the old man’s best friend walked outside. He had gone to heaven some years earlier. He sat down beside his dear friend and said, “Old man, drop that dirt and come inside. We’ll celebrate together.” But the man from Crete raised his hand and said, “Never!”
Another week passed. The dirt of Crete had begun turning to dust, as it slipped through his elderly hands. He sat, cupping one under the other, when the gates opened again. Out came his beloved granddaughter. She had gone to heaven just the year before. She stood at his side and said, “Grandpapa, the gates open only for those with open hands.”
The old man thought about that for a while. Then he stood to his feet and took her hand with his. Together they walked to the gates of heaven. He held the dirt of Crete in his hand, then let it go. It slipped through his fingers to the clouds below. The doors opened. Inside was all of Crete.
Let us pray.