Cheers & Tears, Hammers & Lambs
A Palm Sunday Sermon
In the second half of the sermon this morning, we are going to take a close look at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After all, today is Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. So, we’ll examine that event and discover together what’s going through the crowds’ mind as they shout hosanna and wave palm branches, and what’s going through Jesus’ mind as the crowds do these things. But before we do that, in the first half of today’s sermon, I want to help us gain a more comprehensive understanding of why Jesus came to earth. What did Jesus come to do?
Now admittedly, the two parts of this sermon seem unrelated. One is a general discussion on why Jesus came to earth and the other is a focused look at Jesus’ triumphal entry. But I’ve become convinced that if we only have a partial understanding of Jesus’ earthly mission, then we are susceptible to tragically misinterpreting what God in Christ is doing through the events of Holy Week. So the first part of the sermon is necessary, and hopefully its usefulness as a safeguard against misinterpretation will become clear as the sermon progresses.
So let’s begin part one of this sermon—What was Jesus’ mission all about? You know, growing up I often heard the saying, “Jesus came to die for our sins.” In other words, the reason Jesus came to earth was so that He could die to save us from our sins. Now, this is wonderfully true, beautifully true, gloriously true. But, it’s also an incomplete truth. Rest assured, it is a significant piece of why Jesus came to earth, but it’s not the entire reason. Jesus came to do more than just die for our sins.
Consider this: If Jesus only came to earth to die for our sins, then he didn’t need thirty-three years to accomplish this mission. Jesus could have shown up as an adult, ticked off a few Romans and Pharisees, gotten Himself killed, and then resurrected three days later. Mission accomplished. All in one week!
In fact, if Jesus only came to die for our sins, then I submit for your consideration that Jesus’ first-recorded sermon would have ended quite differently. Do you remember that sermon? Jesus preaches it in his hometown synagogue. In it, Jesus declares that He’s the long-awaited messiah. And everyone’s ecstatic until Jesus clarifies what His messianic mission will be all about. It is not what His listeners wanted. So they instantly turn on him. The Gospel of Luke tells us that, “all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went on His way.”
If Jesus only came to earth to die for our sins, then forget about needing 33 years to do this. Forget about needing even a whole week. Jesus could have completed his mission in a mere two minutes. Jesus wasn’t even two minutes into His first recorded sermon when the crowds tried to kill him!
And getting thrown over a cliff would have been a death filled with profound spiritual meaning. For you see, every year on the Day of Atonement, on the day when Israel would collectively repent and make amends for their sins, the Jewish high priest would take a goat, lay his hand upon the goat’s head, and confess all the sins of Israel thus transferring those sins onto the goat. Then this scapegoat was led out of the city and left in the harsh wilderness to die. But a problem started occurring. On more than one occasion, the goat made his way back into the city. There were probably a few chuckles from more than just the kids as people watched Israel’s sin venture back into their midst. So, to remedy this situation, a new tradition emerged. The priest took the goat out of the city and killed it by throwing it over a cliff!
So, if Jesus only came to die for our sins, then getting tossed off a cliff would have been a theologically rich way to die. Jesus would have forever been remembered as the perfect and ultimate scapegoat who bore our sins and died in our place. Yet, Luke writes that Jesus miraculously passed through the midst of the crowd. Evidently, Jesus was not willing to die at that point in time. Apparently, Jesus had more to accomplish before he’d voluntarily lay down His life on our behalf.
Perhaps a more comprehensive way of describing Jesus’ earthly mission is to say that Jesus came to restore and make right all that had been made wrong by the Fall, by our Fall. Jesus came on a mission of restoration. And a major piece of this restorative work was to heal and correct our distorted views of what God is like. In our sin, we have maligned the very character of God and assumed He is like us. Our understanding of who God is and what He is like desperately needs restored. So, part of Jesus’ earthly mission was to heal and correct our distorted view of God. This mission could not be accomplished in a week. It took years of teaching and modeling the ways of God. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus is the definitive revelation of what God is like. Jesus is the clearest image of God. Jesus is God in the flesh. This is why the Church has always taught that if you want to know what God is like, if you want to discover the very heart and character of God, look to Jesus. As pastor and author Brian Zahnd often remarks, “God is like Jesus. He’s always been like Jesus, we just haven’t always known this.”
When we overlook that Jesus came to earth, in part, to be the definitive revelation of what God is like, then we become susceptible to interpreting the events of Holy Week in ways that make God and Jesus appear very different from each other. In fact, we may even pit the Father against the Son. Take for instance, this visual explanation of Holy Week that a preacher once gave at a summer youth camp. He said:
We sinful humans are like this glass [place the drinking glass on table]. God the Father is like this hammer] [pull out hammer and show for all to see. Because God is just, He must punish us, for we have all sinned [Raise hammer and start to strike glass … stopping at last second]. But in an act of pure grace, Jesus came to earth to save us from God the Father. In other words, Jesus functions like this metal bucket.
[Take metal bucket out from below table and cover the glass with it]. Jesus is our protective covering. So God the Father [hammer bucket] satisfies his just wrath [hammer bucket] by unleashing the punishment we deserve [hammer bucket] upon His Son [hammer bucket].
Wow! Talk about an effective way to evangelize. That demonstration is guaranteed to bring a dead audience to life! It’s literally designed to scare the hell out of people. In fact, when the evangelist who used this demonstration finished, the youth at that summer camp flooded to the front in droves to be saved. But since when is our message, “Cling to Jesus so He can save you from God!”
Friends, this is why it is so important for us to remember that Jesus is the definitive revelation of what God is like. God is like Jesus. He’s always been like Jesus. Thus, we cannot pit the Father against the Son. Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals that God is our Savior. And this makes all the difference in the world. We do not cling to Jesus to be saved from God; we cling to the God who saves us through His Son, Jesus Christ.
So if God is not like a hammer wielding His destructive vengeance, then what does Jesus reveal God to actually be like? Well, now that we know God is like Jesus, we’re ready to look at Jesus’ triumphal entry. And as we do so, we’ll discover that Jesus uses this scene to unambiguously declare that God is not like a hammer. So let’s study Jesus’ triumphal and discover how Jesus corrects this distorted view of God.
For starters, it’s important for us to know that Jesus’ triumphal entry occurs during the Passover festivities. Historians estimate that two hundred thousand Jewish pilgrims made their way to the capital city every year for Passover. And as you may recall, the purpose of Passover was to celebrate and remember the time God liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt. For a people once again enduring the humiliation of a foreign occupation, no longer to Egypt but to Rome, Passover season became filled with strong patriotic overtones. On more than one occasion, Jerusalem became quite volatile during Passover. A spirit of insurrection hung in the air.
So Rome charged Pontius Pilate with the task of ensuring no uprising occurred during these Passover festivities. Each year, Pilate would leave his palace in Caesarea Philippi and march his entire army south “in a massive show of force meant to deter the Jews from any thoughts of rebellion.” Many would line up each year outside Jerusalem’s western gate and watch as Pilate and his army made their triumphal entry into the city. As Pilate rode into the city on his warhorse, he was in essence saying, “Don’t mess with Rome! If you do, you’re messing with raw power.”
But on this particular Passover, word spread that another man also filled with power was making his way to Jerusalem. The Gospel of John tells us that the crowds came out to meet Jesus precisely because they knew Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps Jesus had more power than Rome!
So, as Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem, the crowds start chanting hosanna, hosanna, hosanna! Now, I always thought hosanna was a religious word used to express praise and thanksgiving to God. But it’s actually a political word formed through the fusion of two Hebrew words. The first word, hosa, means “help us, deliver us, liberate us, save us” and the ending na conveys a sense of urgency. When fused together, hosanna means something like, “Oh help us now!” or “Deliver us, we plead!”
The Gospel of John goes on to tell us that the crowds quote a Psalm of blessing over Jesus—“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”—and then they add a few words that are not part of the Psalm. They declare Jesus to be their king—“the king of Israel”! Matthew’s version of this event adds that the people lay their coats on the ground for Jesus to walk over. Now that is an unmistakable act. That’s how you coronate a new king; that, for example, is what the Israelites did when Jehu was crowned king back in 2nd Kings chapter 9. Suddenly, this whole triumphal entry begins to look less like a jubilant pep rally and more like the start of a political rebellion.
And what’s with the crowd waving palm branches. What do palm branches signify? Well it turns out that palm branches carried a very specific meaning and were connected in the Jewish mind with a very important historical event.
Two hundred years before Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Greek Seleucids ruled over Israel. In 169BC their king ransacked Jerusalem and desecrated the Holy Temple by slaughtering a pig upon the altar and sprinkling its blood throughout the Temple. Then the king demanded that all Jews offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. But a certain Jewish priest named Mattathias, upon seeing a Jew volunteer to sacrifice to these false gods, he lunged forward, stabbed the man to death and then fled the scene. This act sparked a massive Jewish rebellion. A year later, before being put to death, Mattathias uttered these dying words to his five sons: “Avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full.”
Mattathias’ dying words inspired his third son Judas to lead a somewhat successful guerilla war against their Greek oppressors. In fact, Judas was so successful in battle that his countrymen named him Judas Maccabeus, which means, Judas the Hammer. Under Judas the Hammer’s leadership, the Jews began to make significant headway in their quest for independence. In fact, at one point Judas the Hammer recaptured parts of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple. The book of 1st Maccabees tells us that crowds cheered and waved palm branches as Judas the Hammer made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He then immediately went and cleansed the Temple of Gentile defilement.
From then on, palm branches became the definitive symbol of Israel’s national aspirations. In fact, as Judas the Hammer’s liberation campaign gained ground, they started minting their own coins. And on those coins they imprinted palm branches and added the phrase “for the redemption of Israel”. So, when we read that the crowds waved palm branches as Jesus walked by, don’t imagine that palm branches were the ancient equivalent of those giant foam fingers we see at sporting events. Waving them did not mean, “You’re awesome Jesus! I’m your biggest fan!” No! Instead of giant foam fingers, imagine that the crowds were patriotically waving their country’s flag. Their palm branches carried the exact same meaning as a separatist movement’s flag does today.
So when Jesus heard the crowds shouting hosanna and calling Him their king, and when He saw them waving palm branches and laying down their coats, the Gospel of John tells us that, in response to what the crowds were doing, Jesus procured a donkey. In other words, when Jesus realized that the crowds thought He was coming to once and for all finish what Judas the Hammer had started, he decided to find a donkey. But why a donkey? What does riding on a donkey signify? Well whenever a ruler made a triumphal entry into a city, he would ride on a horse if his intentions were warlike or on a donkey if he came peaceably.
The crowds would have known that Jesus’ procurement of a donkey symbolized his peaceful intentions. But they assumed Jesus’ peace was limited to Israel. They thought Jesus would bring them peace by bringing a hammer down upon their enemies. They assumed their peace was purchased through violence. It’s at this point in the triumphal entry that the Gospel of Luke tells us that, while the crowds shout cheers, Jesus begins sobbing tears. It’s a very dissonant scene! Cheers and tears. In fact, Luke chose a word that doesn’t just mean a soft whimper. No, Jesus begins to wail loudly and sob uncontrollably as He cries out, “If only you knew the things that make for your peace!” In other words, you think I make peace by wielding a hammer. You have no idea how I will bring about peace!
Indeed, the Gospel of John tells us that even Jesus’ disciples didn’t put two and two together until after His resurrection. They didn’t realize until later that Jesus rode on a donkey in order to fulfill Zechariah’s vision of the coming Prince of Peace. “Fear not, daughter of Zion,” Zechariah prophesied, “Behold your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” The very next verse of Zechariah’s vision goes on to say that this king who came sitting on a donkey will “cut off the warhorse from Jerusalem…and shall speak peace to all nations.” Peace to all nations. Not just Israel.
In hindsight, we can see that there was deep significance in the timing of Jesus’ triumphal entry and crucifixion. For you see, Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first day of Passover, or what was known as Lamb Selection Day. It was the day when sheep were supplied from Bethlehem and brought in through the city’s east gate, which was also called the sheep gate. So too, Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem through the sheep gate on Lamb Selection Day. Five days later, as most Jews slaughtered their lamb and celebrated the Passover meal, Jesus was nailed to the cross. Jesus was not the Hammer of God. He was the Lamb of God.
And since the true character of God is definitively revealed in Jesus, we learn from Jesus’ triumphal entry that God is not like a hammer. On the contrary, God is like a sacrificial lamb. God in Christ did not come to take life; God in Christ came to lay down His own life.
Well, it took only a few days for the crowds to realize that Jesus would not pick up the hammer. When they finally realized this, they stopped shouting hosanna and began screaming, “Crucify Him!”. In other words, when we realized that God refused to wield the hammer on our behalf, we picked up the hammer and we crucified God. We are the one’s holding the hammer, not God.
And when we hammered Him to a cross, how did God in Christ respond? What were his dying words? He did not say, “Avenge the wrong done to me. Pay back these wicked sinners in full!” No! Those were Mattathias’ dying words and the battle cry of all those who wield a hammer. But that’s not how God in Christ responded. On the contrary, when we hammered God to the cross, He absorbed into Himself all our sin and all our vindictive hatred and He recycled it not into retaliation but into forgiving love. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” Those were God’s dying words. That’s what God is like! That is really good news! For that is pure, undeserved love.
If you are willing and able, would you please stand to receive the benediction: As you go from here today, leave your hammers at the door and cling to the God who saves us through His Son. Amen.