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Palm Sunday: Celebration Or Confrontation

John 18:33-38

When Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on that first Psalm Sunday, because of the way He entered the city and because of the response He received, He knew that He was signing His own death warrant. Let me explain …

By choosing to ride on a donkey, Jesus was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would come riding on a donkey, and thus Jesus was challenging the power of the religious leaders of the day. Also, the custom of spreading one’s outer garments in the path of a procession was reserved for royalty, and thus the people were creating a royal welcome for Jesus as their King—by shouting “Hosanna,” which literally means “save us,” they were calling on Jesus to save them, not from their sins, but from the hated Romans. And so it was, on that first Palm Sunday that Jesus was openly challenging the authority of Rome. Furthermore, the palm branch was the symbol of Jewish nationalism — it was the equivalent of today’s Israeli flag—and thus the waving of palm branches was an affront to the political leaders of that time. So Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day in such a way as to claim Himself to be both king and messiah, knowing full well that all of the earthly powers of the day would then be turned against Him. In other words, the way Jesus entered Jerusalem guaranteed that Jesus would die in Jerusalem—and He knew it, and He chose it—and we must never forget that.

Will you grant me the privilege of a brief sidebar at this point? For many years, the church taught erroneously that the Jews put Jesus to death, and that errant teaching spawned centuries of anti-Semitic practices culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the holocaust. But what we must remember is that Jesus chose the cross. Therefore, no individual, group, or people can be singled out as responsible for putting Jesus to death. He chose it himself. He says it quite plainly in John 10, “I lay down my life for my sheep. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” He chose the cross. Therefore, let me say as clearly as I know how that anti-Semitic thought or practice is an abomination to God and is anathema to our Christ. That means that if you hold discriminatory thoughts toward our Jewish sisters and brothers and if you are going to call yourself a Christian, then you must purge your mind and your heart of such thoughts. For Jesus, himself a Jew, laid down His life for Jew and Gentile alike. End of sidebar.

So Palm Sunday was not so much a celebration as it was a confrontation, and you begin to see the significance of it all in a conversation which Jesus had later on with Pontius Pilate. That conversation is recorded for us in John 18. Pilate asked Jesus point blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate then asked Him, “So, you are a king?” Jesus answered, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” With those words, Jesus confirmed what had happened on Palm Sunday. He had confronted all the earthly powers of the day, and He declared himself to be King and Savior of the whole world.

He was declaring that His position is secured by Who He is.

Jesus said to Pilate, “For this I was born.” There are two Latin words which may help us catch hold of Jesus’ meaning at this point. First, there is the word, “autoritas,” which is the source of our word, “authority.” That word was used in reference to an office, a position which was conferred upon a person by virtue of achievement, by being elected to it, or by scheming and scrambling to gain the position. Pontius Pilate, for example, had that kind of authority. The other Latin word is “potestas” from which we derive our word, “power.” That word refers to the kind of power which belongs to a person, not because it was earned or seized, but because the person was born to it. That’s the power Jesus had. So Jesus said to Pilate, “I was born to be King. It is not something I sought, seized, or gained by my own efforts. It is something which belongs to me simply because of Who I am—the only begotten Son of Almighty God.” Then Pilate said, “Away with him. I do not want such a king.”

If we are honest, we have to acknowledge that we say the same thing. As I look at the way we are here in America, I see us putting our trust in the authority which comes from political, military, or economic strength. Are you aware of the fact, for example, that we spend more than twenty million dollars a year providing personal services to the President of the United States and nearly that much for personal services for the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House? Our government is a government of, by, and for the people, yes, but our national leaders are treated rather like royalty because of our regard for political power. Our military forces are the most powerful the world has ever seen, and when we flex even just a bit of that muscle, it is overwhelming in its impact. And, of course, it goes without saying that we pay enormous homage to economic power, as well. In America, as the saying goes, business is king and our economic machinery has produced an almost unimaginable affluence.

Yet today, I must remind us of the word of Jesus to Pontius Pilate. Jesus said, “I was born to be King! My kingship does not rest on popular votes, troop counts, or bank balances. It is not built upon the way the world works. It is not founded upon earthly authority.” The implication of Jesus’ words is clear. If we do not bring our political, military, and economic strength under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then sooner or later we are bound for disaster. That’s exactly what happened to Rome. At the time of Jesus, Rome was the most powerful political, military, and economic force in the world. Now I have to tell you that whenever I have the opportunity to visit in Rome, I always love going to see the Colosseum in Rome, and whenever I see that Colosseum, I recognize that it was the symbol of Rome’s earthly power and authority. It was the focal point of Roman Society. In that arena they put to death hundreds of the disciples of King Jesus. Yet, for more than 1,800 years now, that Colosseum has stood empty and unused. Why? Because in the end, the power of King Jesus was stronger than the power of Rome. The tremendous political, military, and economic force of the Roman Empire could not stand in the face of this One Who was born to be King. Before Him, that empire crumbled into the dust.

So I ask: Why oh why, oh why do we seem to be determined to make the same mistakes the Romans made? When, oh when, oh when will we ever learn that there is only one power on earth which shall last, only one power which shall guarantee us life now and life forever? It is the power of Jesus Christ—the one born to be our King and the world’s King as well. His position is secured by who He is.

Also, Jesus was declaring that His position is secured by what He says and what He does.

Jesus said to Pilate, “I have come to speak the truth, and everyone who knows the truth hears my voice.” And Pilate said, “What is truth?” Imagine that. Pilate, of all people, asking, “What is truth”? He knew the truth about Jesus, and he knew it only too well. Five different times, he declared that Jesus was guilty of no crime. Five times -count them! He knew the truth about Jesus, but then he caved into the pressure of public opinion. He knew the truth. He just wasn’t willing to live it. Truth became relative. “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” he said in essence—and so he proceeded to condemn King Jesus to death. He fell into the trap I see us falling into today—the trap of saying that there is no such thing as absolute truth and no constant and consistent moral standards.

Hear this, my friends. The Kingship of Jesus is not built on falsehood, and it cannot be conquered by lies. It is built upon truth. Jesus always spoke the truth and lived the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help Him God. Jesus said, “This is what is true—all of you, like sheep, have gone astray into sin… and this is what is true—the justice of God is offended by your sinfulness… and this is what is true — the justice of God will be satisfied by my death on the cross… and this is what is true—through Me you can have life, life now, life forever. The Kingship of Jesus Christ cannot be stopped. It cannot even be stalled. In the words of my beloved Professor James Stewart, Jesus is “King forever!” That the Gospel and that’s the only Gospel there is: Jesus is King, King forever.

Arnold Toynbee has written what is regarded as the greatest history of civilization produced in our time. In the 5th volume of that massive 12-volume study, Toynbee considers the world’s saviors. Some eras of history, Toynbee says, have regarded creative geniuses as being saviors, but while the creative geniuses have their day, inevitably new ideas come along, their genius is eclipsed, and they are shunted aside. Then there have been those who would save the world by military might, but Toynbee says that the testimony of history is that violence begets violence, the sword which has tasted blood can never be satisfied until it drinks of blood again, and so ultimately military saviors have had no enduring impact upon human history. Then Toynbee says that there have been philosopher-kings who have sought to redeem the world by intellectual power, but eventually such leaders make the mistake of trying to force their philosophy upon the people which is just a more subtle form of violence. Consequently these would-be saviors have disappeared into the mists of history. And finally Toynbee says that there have been those whom various civilizations have regarded as gods. But Toynbee notes that all of these so-called gods were fictitious and nothing more than the stuff of which dreams are made. They were never real historical people who lived and walked on this earth. That is, all but one. And then, Arnold Toynbee, considered by many to be the greatest historian of the modem era, wrote these words. Listen: “When we set out on this quest for a savior, we were confronted by a mighty host of candidates. All but one have fallen out of the race. Only one of the would-be saviors of the world has dared to put his title to the test by plunging into death’s icy river—only one. But now as we stand and gaze with our eyes fixed upon the farther shore, that One solitary figure rises up out of the flood of history and out of the icy grip of death and straightaway He fills the whole horizon! He is the savior and He alone. Jesus is His name.” Arnold Toynbee then declares that the only hope for the survival of the civilization we hold dear lies in a rebirth of the Christian spirit. Jesus’ position is secured by what He says and what He does.

Now…

Do you understand why I say that Palm Sunday was not a celebration but a confrontation? On Palm Sunday Jesus deliberately declared himself to be King and Savior of the world. His position rests on who He is, what He says, and what He does. He is the King of all creation. He is the Savior of the world, of your life, and mine. For this He was born. For this He came. He is King forever! Jesus is His name…

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