A sermon preached this morning at Sts. Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral in Nairobi.
It’s Palm Sunday, and everyone’s confused. We celebrate Palm Sunday here the same way we celebrated it in my Presbyterian church when I was a child. We sing special songs, especially the ones that remind us of the children singing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ We think about Jesus riding on a donkey to the gates of Jerusalem. We think about the disciples putting their cloaks and tunics in the road for the donkey carrying Jesus to walk over. And we think of people cutting down palm branches and waving them as Jesus passes by, just as we are going to do. And somehow you and I have it in our heads that this is a good thing. That somehow you and I are meant to celebrate Jesus coming into Jerusalem for what will be the last five days of his life. Somehow we are meant to join in with the hosannas, with the cloaks and palm branches.
On Saturday, we celebrated Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. On Sunday he comes the couple of kilometers from Bethany over the Mount of Olives, across the Kedron Valley and towards the massive Roman gates of Jerusalem. The dead man Lazarus is alive and walking around and talking to everyone who is crowding around to see him. Nothing like this has ever happened. And now Jesus is going to Jerusalem. Why is He going? What is He going to do?
The disciples have never understood Jesus. They have seen his miracles, his healings, they have heard his preaching and his teaching. But they’re still fighting over the money. They’re still arguing over who’s first and best. And if that wasn’t enough, they still think that Jesus is, after all is said and done, going to overthrow the Roman occupation and set up the kingdom of God right here and right now. And they get to be the first in line when Jesus divides up the spoils! When Jesus tells them to love their enemies, however, they don’t get it. When Jesus tells them that the greatest among them must be the one who serves, they don’t get it. When Jesus says not to be like the Gentiles who lord it over everyone else, they are pretty sure that they actually want to be like those Gentiles, they actually think that lording over everybody else is a pretty good idea. So as Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem these disciples are pretty excited. They’re thinking, ‘Finally, Jesus is doing what He’s needed to do all along. Now we’ll see some real action. Bring on that Kingdom, Lord!’ The disciples may be leading the cheers for Jesus as He draws near to the city, but they don’t know what they are talking about. They are trying to make Jesus fit into their agenda. They are so very confused.
The ordinary people that are thronging around Jesus, rushing to get a glimpse of Lazarus, wanting desperately to get a picture of a miracle, or even better, get a selfie with Jesus, they aren’t doing any better than the disciples. They are drawn by the spectacle, they are drawn by the excitement; but really, they’re there because of what they think they are going to get. They remember when Jesus fed the multitude with a few loaves and fish. They all know someone who has been healed of this or that. And they’re here now because they think Jesus is going to do something really big, and they want to be there when He does. These people are all crowding around Jesus, they’re all following and watching and listening to Jesus. But they don’t have a clue who Jesus really is or what Jesus really is all about. A big crowd of people looks impressive enough. But these people are trying to make Jesus fit into their agenda. They are so very confused.
And the children are running around shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ They think Jesus is going to be king. But Jesus is not riding in to Jerusalem to take up some earthly throne, to become some earthly SOMEBODY. He’s coming to be rejected by His own people. He’s coming to be handed over to the Gentiles. He’s coming to be crucified as a criminal. These children running around and shouting, they are so very confused.
And all those religious people, those Pharisees and Synagogue leaders and priests and Temple hierarchy, they are too busy making people be religious. It’s about keeping rules, it’s about doing all those things they say God wants us to do. But when Jesus shows up, they don’t know what to do with him. He keeps putting people first. He keeps reaching out to prostitutes and collaborators and tax collectors. And he keeps focusing a laser on their hypocrisy. He keeps saying things like You people are really good at shining and polishing who you are on the outside, but inside you are filth and decay. Your words are sweet, but your heart is bitter and corrupt. Jesus catches them out, and so many of them are really angry at Him. They feel like they deserve more respect. Sure there are miracles, sure He’s a good preacher, but He’s overturning our little game. Jesus is fulfilling all the Scriptures they say they believe. But they don’t want to change. So they close their eyes, they close their ears. And as Jesus makes this entrance into Jerusalem, the very ones who should have recognized His coming, who should have understood and been the very first to repent, they refuse because Jesus won’t fit their agenda for him. They are so very confused.
Some of us are like the disciples this morning. We want Jesus to serve us. We want to be the powerful ones here in this church, the ones in control, the ones that everyone else serves. We are waving our palm branches like everyone else, but we have never understood that it’s our heart that Jesus wants to ride into and conquer. We’re too busy trying to make Jesus fit our agenda, our plans, our purposes. But we are just as confused as the disciples.
Some of us are the people crowding around. We are here this morning not because we want to follow Jesus, not because we want to give our lives to Him and love Him and serve Him with everything we have. We’re here because of what we think we can get, either from Jesus, or the priest, or other faithful. But Jesus and church are not about what you and I can get. It’s about knowing Jesus and loving Jesus and being transformed in how we live our lives by Jesus so that we become more and more like Jesus. No wonder so many of us this morning are so confused.
And lastly, some of us are like the religious leaders that Jesus tried again and again to talk to. We think that making a show of being religious is what it’s about. We come to church on all the special days, we learn the right gestures, say the right things and think we are somehow being good Orthodox. But Jesus doesn’t care about how many signs of the cross I make; He cares about what’s going on in my heart. Jesus doesn’t care about how many prostrations I make; He cares about what I just said or thought about my neighbor. He doesn’t care that you gave this much at a harambee or that much in the offering; He cares if you have surrendered everything you have and are over to Him and if you are using everything you have and are for His glory. It’s not about religion; it’s about Jesus. No wonder so many of us this morning are so confused.
Who are you this morning? Are you like the disciples? Are you like the ordinary people who gathered around? Are you like the religious people.
Some of these same people who are so happy today, in just three days they will be conspiring to betray Jesus to His enemies. Some of these same people, in just four days, will be abandoning Jesus to His fate, denying that they ever knew Him. Some of these same people shouting praises today will be shouting ‘Crucify Him’ on Friday. And many of the crowds that surround him today will disappear as soon as they see Jesus carrying His cross. They are only here for what they can get, and the last thing they want is a cross.
As Jesus comes up to the gates of Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, the good news is this: He’s actually coming up to you. He’s coming up to your heart. He wants to come in. He wants to clean out what’s wrong. He wants to heal what’s hurt. He wants to mend what’s broken. He wants to make alive what’s dead. And He wants to fill you and change you and transform you with His love. Will you open your heart to Him? Or are you still confused?