Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22
Have you ever had
this experience? It is the Fourth of July. You take a firecracker, a
nice big one. You take
your match and you light the thing. You throw it over there, wince
your body, cover your ears, wait, and…nothing happens. So you walk
over to the firecracker, kick it with your feet, look at it a little
more carefully, you sense it is out, so you pick it up, break it in
half and you know for sure it is a dud. Have you ever had that
experience? I am sure many of you pyromaniacs have.
Or, have you ever
had this experience? It is the Fourth of July, and you go to one of
those firework stands in the neighborhood and you spent some ten
dollars for this special rocket. You have never spent that kind of
money before for a rocket. This one goes three hundred feet into the
air, explodes, and makes an enormous sparkle. This is the best
rocket you have ever purchased in your whole life.
You go to your favorite beach for setting off firecrackers
and rockets; you put it into the rocket launch; you strike the
match; you are as nervous as a cat as you light the wick. You spin
away; and you watch and watch and watch and then it goes up about
ten feet and goes sssssssssssssssssss and all the sparkles just
sparkle on the ground. What a dud! Have you ever had that
experience? Several here today have.
Well, that is what
Palm Sunday is all about. Jesus
came into town riding on a donkey and it all ended up being a dud,
just a plain fizzle. Let me explain.
I would like to
tell you the story of how it happened.
It was a very usual day, but unusual in that it was Passover
time. Jesus came riding
into town on this jackass and he was at the head of the
were literally millions of people in Jerusalem at that time. The
rumors about Jesus had spread; that he was coming to town and soon.
As Jesus slowly entered that city, there were millions jamming the
streets and they were yelling, “It is the Messiah. It is the
Messiah. The coming
Messiah promised in the Old Testament.” Soon their million voices
became one and they chanted together, “Hosanna to the Son of
David. Hosanna to the Son of David.”
They ripped the clothes off their backs and tossed their
clothing on the ground. They grabbed palm branches from the palm
trees and were waving their palms with holy hilarity. They took the
blankets off their mules and laid them on the dirt roads in front of
them, in order to make a carpet for his feet. And the millions
chanted together, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Hosanna to the Son
of David.” They knew
the promised Messiah would bring them peace and freedom and justice.
Jesus approached the center square of the city. The crowd was
intense, shoulder-to-shoulder and arm-to-arm; they could hardly
breathe, they were so tight together in that hot Palestinian sun.
Jesus got down off the donkey, and the crowd became eerily silent.
The crowd was wondering, wondering what he was going to say.
Wondering what he was going to do next. Wondering if all the angels
from heaven were going to come down right now. Wondering if the
heavens were going to open up right above them. Jesus simply got off
his donkey, and then walked into the Temple where he had taught so
many times before. “Ha, that’s good,” they said to one
another. “Maybe the temple will fall apart; maybe it will explode.
Who knows what will happen?” He went into the temple; all eyes
were watching; all eyes were on him.
He looked around. He came back out of the temple.
And did nothing. He looked around, got up onto his donkey and
said to his twelve disciples, “Let’s go to Bethany.”
What a dud.
What a dud! Here
they were expecting the promised Messiah, the promised Messiah to
save them. And nothing happened. What
a dud! The crowd slowly
began to leave, one by one, and there came an eerie silence, and
that silence started to get angrier and angrier and angrier. The
next day, it started as a whisper, “crucify him, crucify him,
crucify him,” and by Good Friday, they were all shouting at the
top of their lungs in unison, “Crucify him, crucify him, crucify
him. Crucify that common and ordinary carpenter. He is no Messiah.
He is a dud.”
So it was on that
first Palm Sunday. What
happened? Why did it turn out to be such a fizzler? Why did it turn
out to be such a dud?
It seems as if once
again, the people of God had misunderstood the promises of God. This
has happened throughout history, and it happens again today. Once
again, we misunderstand the promises of God.
We think we understand those promises; we then twist those
promises to meet our needs; we hear those parts of the promise that
is pretty; we hear those parts of the promise that meets our
expectations. And so
when the promise of God is actually fulfilled, we never see it
because we have so twisted the promises of God that they are no
Let me explain
this, about twisting the promises of God. In the Old Testament, God
promised the people to give them the Promised Land.
Doesn’t everyone agree? God promised to give his people the
Promised Land. A good land. A beautiful land. A lush land.
God made that promise, and everybody agrees. But what did the
Promised Land turn out to be? It was filled with giant Philistines
and it took 200 years of warfare to conquer the land. 200 years of fighting to conquer that land.
Well, was that part of the promise? The Jews heard only the
part of the promise that they wanted to hear. The pretty part. God
will give you the Promised Land. The Jews didn’t hear the part or
want to hear the part that it would take 200 years to conquer it.
Let me give you
another example. The Jews were in Babylonian captivity. God promised them a New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem was to be their new shining capital. All
the people of the world would be drawn to this New Jerusalem and
they would stream into this new capital city to marvel at its
beauty. This is what God promised them, right? Do we not all agree,
that God promised them a New Jerusalem and the entire world would
flock to it? What did the New Jerusalem turn out to be? A trip
across a hot desert and what did the New Jerusalem turn out to be? A
new glass cathedral, with a spire shooting into the air? A new
temple with vaulting walls and a vaulting ceiling? Is that what they
found? No. The temple was in ruins, flat on the ground; the capital
city was in ruins, flat on the ground; and it took them 300 years to
rebuild the temple and the city.
Now, was that part of the promise? Why is it that the people
of God always hear the pretty parts of the promise? We twist the
promises of God and only hear what we want to hear, omitting the
hard parts of the promise.
Let me give you a
third example. Everywhere in the Old Testament there is a promise of
the coming Messiah; was there not? Does everyone agree? The Messiah
was going to be a wonderful counselor, mighty God, an everlasting
father, and the prince of peace. This new Messiah was going to bring
justice and peace to the land. Does everybody agree? Yes, I think we
all agree. And so this new Messiah came riding into town on a
donkey, just like the prophets foretold. But what did the promise
turn out to be? Did this person riding into town on a donkey turn
out to be a wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father and
prince of peace? No. This Messiah turned out to be a carpenter who
rode on a jackass and got himself killed by Friday afternoon.
What a dud! Truly a dud! It didn’t work at all. He did not
meet their expectations. Once again, the Jews picked only the pretty
parts of the promise, the pretty parts of the passage, the pretty
parts of the rose, the pretty parts of the Bible, omitting all the
other parts of the promise.
So what have we
always done throughout history? We take the promises of God and
twist them to meet our own ends; we twist the promises of God to
meet our own happiness. We twist the promises of God to meet our own
middle class expectations.
Why do the promises
of God turn out to be dust and ashes in our mouths? Because God is a
liar? Because God baits us with false promises? Because God tricks
up with pretty words? No. The problem is that we misunderstand the
promises of God. We distort the promises of God so they meet our
needs and private pleasures.
So what do we want?
We want to avoid anything, and I repeat, avoid anything, that has to
do with suffering, death, struggle or sacrifice. No suffering. No
death. No struggle. No sacrifice. We omit all those parts of the
promise. I can use a common analogy: that is, we want the rose
blossom but we don’t want the thorny stem. We want the top
glorious red blossom, and even the leaves and we will live with its
roots, but we do not want the thorns. Give us a rose without the
It is not unlike a
young couple who are getting married. Do you remember when you got
married? Do you remember that? You got married and heard the promise
that you would live happily ever after. Do you remember how that was
implied; marriages are to live happily ever after? It is a phrase we
all use. Well, what did “happily ever after” turn out to be? A
stubby beard. In the old days, a woman with hair curlers and curling
irons. No make-up in the morning and they both looked like you know
what. Hot tempers. Kids vomiting in the toilet. Eighth graders
looking surly. Teenagers mouthing off . Bills, bills, bills. A
shortage of money. Then strokes and heart attacks and cancer. Aging
together and Alzheimers together. As they say, growing old is not
for wimps. I ask you: is this what God intended to be? Is this what
God intended to be in a great marriage? You better believe it. Yes,
you better believe it and be grateful if you live in such a great
marriage. A great marriage has all these struggles and more.
Vomiting in the toilet, rebellious teenagers, a shortage of money,
growing old together. It
is all part of the package. But
we want only the pretty parts of the promise and not the problems
that go with the promise. We want the rose but not the thorns. We
want the blossom on top but not the prickly stem.
In other words, we
always want Palm Sunday and not Passion Sunday.
That’s what happened on that first Palm Sunday.
God promised Passion Sunday but the people wanted the circus
of Palm Sunday. Anything
that had to do with executions and crosses and suffering and death,
the people of God did not want.
What are some of
the other pretty promises that God makes to his people? God promises
peace, does he not? God promises the abundant life, does he not? God
promises freedom, does he not? Let us briefly talk about each of
God has promised us
peace. The promise of peace permeates the whole Old Testament and
the whole New Testament and its promises. We are promised peace, are
we not? We all agree. But does this promise mean that you will never
fight with your brother or sister; that a husband and wife will
never have a fight? Does
this promise mean that you will never experience a divorce? That
life will be organized in such a way that you will never have
conflicts with other people? Is that what it means to live in peace?
My goodness, peace for the Apostle Paul was to argue with people
every day of his life; he was in perpetual conflict with his
opposition all the time. Can you tell me of a day or time in the
Apostle Paul’s life where he didn’t have conflict with people? Anytime you are passionately involved for truth and justice,
you get into conflict with others. To be involved with the peace of
God is to be embroiled in conflict with other people. … Peace is
not some inner tranquility within my inner self? Peace is not an
escape to Mount Rainier and all the hassles of the world. Peace is
not sinking one’s head into the sand and escaping the awfulness of
the world around us. That’s not peace. When you live in the middle
of a sick society and corrosive culture such as ours, working for
the justice and peace of God will inevitably bring you conflict. If
you think peace is escaping to Mount Rainier and escaping all the
troubles of the world, you had better go there alone. Because if
there are other human beings there, you eventually will find
trouble. So we twist
the promises of God’s peace and convert it into a false inner
tranquility that is found only in some rich walled off suburb, and
even in that rich, walled off suburb, there won’t be much peace.
In fact, the divorce rates may be higher behind those rich high
Let’s talk about
God’s other promise of the abundant life. Jesus promised his
disciples the abundant life, and he promises you and me the abundant
life. Isn’t that correct? Isn’t
it true that we are promised the abundant life in God? We all know
what that means. The abundant life is to live here in America. It is
coming to America. The abundant life is to have life abundantly:
health, wealth, happiness, a husband or wife, happy kids, a house, a
color TV, dishwasher, microwave, video games, computer, and a new
car. We all know what
the abundant life is here in America. Fed, fat, feeling good, living
in America. But in the New Testament and the book of Acts, Stephen
had the abundant life and he got killed. The abundant life for
Stephen was to be the first martyr. The abundant life for Nelson
Mandela, one of the greatest human beings of this generation is
almost everyone’s estimation; the abundant life for Mandela was
twenty-seven years in prison in South Africa. The abundant life for
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an assassin’s bullet. We know that the
abundant life for the majority of Christians today is to live in
Africa. The majority of Christians in the world are black, is that
not right? The majority of the Christians in the world today are
black and living in Africa, our brothers and sisters, and so the
majority of Christians in the world today go to bed hungry and
lacking the basic necessities of life. Isn’t that correct? Do
these Africans live the abundant life?
Do they have the abundant life? Right now? Yes, you had better believe it. They know God; they love God;
they walk with God. All
the members of our congregation who visit our sister church in
Haiti, the poorest land in the Western hemisphere, say that they
have never met so many happy and Spirit filled people; that these
Haitian Christians have something that we do not have on this richer
side of the border. The abundant life is not to live a middle class
life, but we somehow twist the promises of God. And if I don’t
have a middle class life, or it is taken away from me, God is
cheating on me. God is not good if I don’t live a middle class
life in America, so some people think within themselves. So we twist
the promises about the abundant life.
A third promise
that God has made to us is freedom.
Doesn’t everyone agree? Jesus said, “If you know the
truth, you shall be free.” “The Son shall make you free and you
shall be free indeed.” Everybody agrees with that. God has
promised us freedom. What does God mean by that? As in the past, we
hear only the pretty parts of the promise and we distort the
promises to meet our own expectations.
What does it mean to live in freedom? It means to live in a
democracy, right? God has promised all people everywhere that they
are going to have the privilege of living in the United States,
Canada, or some other democracy on earth.
God promises us that we would be free and that means to live
in a democracy. If that is true, how come the earliest Christians in
the first two hundred years of Christianity were being killed by
Roman emperors like Nero, Vespasian, and Caligula who had never
heard of democracy? How
come Christians through out all generations have been killed and
murdered by dictators who oppose the faith? In Russia, the great
author Solzeneitzen lived in prison camp for decades, but while in
was in prison camp, he was a free man. Meanwhile, his prison guards
were the slaves to the Soviet system. Mandela in prison was a free
man, while his guards were slaves to an evil political system called
apartheid. Many Christians who are politically free are slaves to
their bellies and beautiful suburban lives.
So, the people of God are consistent: we twist the promises
of God to meet our own personal expectations, and then are
disappointed when these promises do not meet our own private
We distort and
misunderstand the powerful promises of God in other ways. A
close-knit family becomes upset and cannot understand why the family
is riddled with cancer. A teenager cannot understand why his parents
are getting a divorce. A child dies of leukemia at age four. There
is a severe car accident that results in severe brain damage.
There are heart attacks, strokes, and loss of jobs.
You name it. Life is painful, and we say, “God has promised
to protect us. God has promised to protect us from these things. How
can bad things like this happen to us who are good people?”
So many people
become disillusioned with God because they misunderstand what God
has promised. God says in the Psalms that God will protect us from
the wickedness of life, and we hear only the pretty side of the
promise. We hear only the side about the rose blossom and nothing
about the stem with all the thorns. I never recall anywhere that God
promises to protect us from all the evils of this world. To be
privileged to be a human means to live with inordinate pain
throughout our whole life.
It seems to me that
the fulfillment of God’s promises always involves suffering and
struggle, whether it is a promise about peace or the abundant life
or freedom. All these
great promises from God involve struggle, suffering, discipline,
death, and injustice. There are always big thorns on that rose bush,
and we the people of God intuitively want to avoid that. We want to
delete that part of the promise.
We want Palm
Sunday. O Lord, give me
a life of Palm Sundays but I don’t want to have a Passion Sunday.
But…people discover the mystery of the passion: the suffering in
marriage, the suffering with children, the suffering with friends,
the suffering with refugees, the suffering with the starving, the
suffering that goes with peace, the abundant life, and freedom. All
the great things in life involve suffering. There is no exception.
Today, is it Palm
Sunday? Today, is it
Passion Sunday? Passion Sunday is every Sunday and every day for
those who believe, who walk the way of the cross. Amen.