April 14, 2019

Steadfast Love

Passage: Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118; Philippians 2:5-11

20190414 Sermon Rev

 

Welcome to worship on this “difficult to name” Sunday.  It’s Palm Sunday, of course, the day we hear about Jesus riding into Jerusalem amidst shouts of blessing from a crowd.  This is also Passion Sunday, the sixth Sunday in Lent, a day that marks the beginning of Holy Week when we remember a series of events including Jesus’ last meal with his disciples; his betrayal and arrest; his appearances before religious and governmental authorities; his death and burial.

 

Even the more familiar name, Palm Sunday, isn’t accurate.  We could even say it isn’t biblical, at least according to Luke.  The familiar story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem that we hear on the Sunday before Easter is actually a compilation of the stories we find in the four gospel accounts, in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Let’s review the version we find in Luke 19:28-40.

 

As Jesus was approaching Jerusalem, he told two of his followers to go on ahead to the next village.  “As you enter it,” he said, “you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden.  Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you why you are untying it, just say that the Lord needs it.”

 

So they did what Jesus told them.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks over it, they helped Jesus get on it.  As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road in front of him.

 

As he began the descent down from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, his large group of followers kept growing.  They began to praise God joyfully and loudly for all the miracles they had seen.  They said, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

 

Some of the religious leaders in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop, get them under control.”

 

Jesus answered, “I tell you, if the people were silent, then the stones would begin to shout out.”

 

Luke’s story contains elements we expect – Jesus riding on a young animal, enthusiastic crowds spreading their clothing in front of him, shouts of blessing, and some opposition.  But note what’s missing – two things we almost always equate with this event: no palm branches, in fact, no branches of any kind, and no hosannas.  I guess we should call it “Clothes on a Colt” Sunday

 

I had difficulty finding a picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem that didn’t have any palms in it.  I settled on a black and white picture.  Two others came pretty close.  But neither one could resist including a few palms.  This is Jesus’ triumphal entry, after all.  It’s Palm Sunday.

 

On a whim, as I was considering the alternate name for this day, I googled “Clothes on a Colt Sunday.”  Most of the first dozen or so images that appeared were clothing items promoting Colt firearms.  No matter your opinion of gun ownership, I hope a picture of a revolver on a onesie is more than a bit disturbing to you.  But, actually, pictures of weapons might help us better understand what the people in the crowd were expecting.

 

The words of the crowd that are almost exactly the same in all four gospel accounts of this event come from Psalm 118. [1]  Some of the verses in this psalm are quite familiar.  1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!   21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.   22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.  26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.  29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

 

The entire psalm was probably written for use when a king returned from a victory in battle and participated in procession that ended in a service of thanksgiving in the temple.”[2]  This is evident from verses in the middle of the psalm.[3]  All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!  They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! (Some translations use the words destroy and defeat instead of cut them off.I was pushed hard so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.  The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

 

The king praised the Lord for giving him strength and might in battle.  The Lord was the king’s salvation.  The Lord saved the king from defeat.

 

The people in the crowd are familiar with this psalm.  It was used in the Passover celebrations of Jesus’ day, helping them to remember past victories.  The images the psalm brings to mind are familiar to people in the crowd.  They have seen their Roman occupiers celebrate their victories and worship their emperor.  Now these oppressed people have reason for excitement and hope.  Here is Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, his mount adorned with the royal symbols of cloaks, and an “instant-made” highway of colorful clothing welcoming the king.  Surely this was the Christ, the anointed one, the long-awaited Messiah.  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” they shouted.

 

But some aspects of the scene were out of sync with the usual practice.  Why a young colt and not a large war-horse?  Where were the soldiers?  Where were the weapons?  This person coming into Jerusalem may be a king, but this is not the king they expect.  This is a different Messiah than what many of Jesus’ followers have hoped for and anticipated.  Jesus does not meet the expectations of the people wanting a violent political revolution.  Jesus does not even meet the expectations of the people wanting a non-violent overthrow of the government.

 

As the story continues, the crowd who cheers is replaced by a crowd who jeers.  There are certainly some, maybe many, people who do both the cheering and the jeering.  The joyful shouts proclaiming Jesus as king are twisted into cries of accusation, contempt, and mocking. [4]

 

The people don’t understand that the steadfast love of the Lord they believe is demonstrated through military victory will be expressed much differently through Jesus, the Prince of Peace. [5]  But when Luke writes his account of Jesus’ life, he highlights this aspect of who Jesus is.  In his version of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, Luke intentionally leaves out the palms, cut branches, and Hosannas.  These are symbols of nationalism.  And the king who is coming is calling for peace, not for rebellion.

 

According to Luke, the crowd shouts, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”  These are familiar words to us.  Think back to Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  The angels worship Jesus as King and promise, “Peace on earth.”  “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they sing, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” [6]

 

Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus the Messiah is the Prince of Peace.  And as events continue to unfold, as the joyful shouts become cries of contempt, in the midst of cruelty and anguish, Jesus remains oriented to the steadfast love of God, which sustains him and endures forever.

 

The events of Jesus’ last week on earth are recorded in Luke 22 and 23.  These two chapters take us from the Last Supper to the death of Jesus.  They include the dispute among the disciples about who is the greatest; Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial; Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives; the betrayal and arrest of Jesus; Peter’s denial of Jesus; Jesus appearing before the council, Pilate, and Herod; Jesus being sentenced to death; and his crucifixion, death, and burial.  We cannot move from Palm Sunday to Easter without reading this entire story.

 

The apostle Paul includes a compact form of this longer story his letter to the Philippians.  Verses 5-11 of Philippians 2 tell the story of Jesus Christ – Jesus, the anointed one – from his preexistence, to his incarnation, to his death, to his exaltation as risen Lord. Most scholars agree that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn in honor of Christ.

 

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.

 

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [7]

 

This is what the steadfast love of the Lord looks like when expressed through Jesus.  As Christians, as followers of Christ, our lives are to be grounded in the character of God as revealed in Jesus.  We orient ourselves and our relationships to the steadfast love of God, which sustains us and endures forever.  Oriented toward God’s ways, not selfish ambition and conceit.  Oriented toward generosity, not materialism.  Oriented toward cooperation, not power and status.  Oriented toward reconciliation, not retaliation.  Oriented toward forgiveness, not revenge.  Oriented toward love, not hate.

 

The story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem challenged the ideas of the cheering crowd. [8]  According to Luke, Jesus didn’t enter the city with hosannas and palms.  This wasn’t a radical, revolutionary entry into Jerusalem.  Rather, it was the Prince of Peace coming home.

 

God challenged their understanding of who Jesus was here to save.  This is not the new king of Israel.  This king is for the whole world.  In fact, Jesus is king all of creation so even if the voices were silent, the very stones of creation would cry out.

 

The story from Luke and the hymn from Philippians challenge us as well. [9]  We too are challenged by God’s steadfast love as seen in the person of Jesus, in his postures, his words, his choices in these days and hours that mark the crux of our faith as Christians.  We too are called to follow Jesus.  On this Sunday, as we enter the gates of Holy Week, the demands and the transforming possibilities of this call are set before us.  How is your faith going to transform you?  How are you going to use your faith to transform the world?

 

I listen to a devotional podcast almost every day.  It always ends with this prayer:  You have given all to me.  To you, Lord, I return it.  Everything is yours; do with it what you will.  Give me only your love and your grace.  That is enough for me. [10]

 

May this be our prayer, especially in this coming week.  And may we respond with this simple song.  Lord, I want to be a Christian.  Lord, I want to be more loving.   Lord, I want to be more holy.  Lord, I want to be like Jesus.

Amen.

 

[1] Psalm 118:1, 21-24, 26, 29, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Information on Psalm 118 comes from Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year:  Year C (Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 167.

[3] Psalm 118:10-14, New Revised Standard Version.

[4] “Worship Resources, Lent-Easter 2019,” Leader: Winter 2018-19, MennoMedia, pp. 47-48.

[5] https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/palmc

[6] Luke 2:14, New Revised Standard Version.

[7] Philippians 2:5-11, New Revised Standard Version.

[8] https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/palmc

[9] “Worship Resources, Lent-Easter 2019,” Leader: Winter 2018-19, MennoMedia, pp. 47-48.

[10] Pray as You Go Podcast, Friday, April 12, 2019.

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