April 9, 2017
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
SIMPLY JESUS: PALMS WAVED
The sixth in a series of seven.
Ron Heifetz is an expert on leadership. He’s written many books on the subject. He’s given many lectures. He’s found his way into my preaching before. Today I want to open with my favorite Ron Heifetz saying: “Leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” Because leaders – true leaders – do not take people where they want to go. They disappoint people.
Jesus was a true leader. And in the last week of his life, he departed from the wisdom of Ron Heifetz. He disappointed people at a rate far greater than what they could stand. And it got him killed.
People love Palm Sunday. What’s not to love? A children’s parade. All these nifty palm branches. Everyone is happy. No one gets hurt. No controversy or conflict or anything remotely unpleasant. I hate to rain on your Palm Sunday parade. But the real Palm Sunday was not like that at all.
To understand Palm Sunday, we have to go back in time. It’s the period of time between the Old and New Testaments, so even you Bible scholars may not be real familiar with it. There is a 400 year gap between the Old and New Testaments. The last Old Testament book to be written was Nehemiah, not Malachi. And it was written about 400 BC. It’s the book about the wall that was built around the city of Jerusalem. That wall was built to protect the people of the city but also to protect the new Temple that had been completed about a hundred years earlier.
During that period of time between the Old and New Testaments, the bad guys are not the Babylonians of the Old Testament or the Romans of the New Testament. They are the Greeks. You’ve heard of Alexander the Great. He basically conquered the whole world. The story goes that he wept because there were no more worlds for him to conquer. Part of his conquest was Jerusalem and the Jews.
Later, about 165 BC, a man named Antiochus Epiphanes came along and defiled the Temple in a most offensive way. A pagan altar was built on top of God’s altar and pigs were sacrificed on that altar. This triggered a Jewish revolt against the Greeks. Maybe you’ve heard of the Maccabees. It’s their victory that is celebrated every year about the same time Christians celebrate Christmas. It’s the holiday known as Hanukkah.
So what does this history lesson have to do with Palm Sunday? When the Maccabees won, palm branches were used to re-dedicate the Temple. And ever since, palm branches have been more than just palm branches for the Jews. They were symbols of the power of the Jewish state. They were symbols of Jewish nationalism. In fact palm branches are found today in the national emblem of Israel. Along with the menorah of Hanukkah.
Between the Old and New Testament, world power transferred from the Greeks to the Romans. This happened not long before Jesus was born. So the Jews were still revolting against their foreign occupiers, only now it was the Romans they were revolting against, not the Greeks. And the palm branch was still their symbol of resistance.
Jewish rebels illegally minted coins that looked exactly like Roman coins, except they had palm branches on them. And Rome didn’t think that was very funny. In fact, as far as Rome was concerned, the Jews had declared war against them.
All this was going on behind the scenes during those three short years of the simple ministry of Jesus. And the reason I’ve told you all this is to help you understand what was really going on when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. His “triumphal entry” was not a harmless children’s parade. It was a defiant military statement. Or at least it was interpreted that way by the crowds who were waving those palm branches.
They were shouting “Hosanna!” That’s a harmless word that we’re sure to say, sing, or hear dozens of times every Palm Sunday. But do you know what the word really means? It means “Save now!” In other words, “Save Our Nation!” It’s a political slogan. It’s a demand. It’s a threat. Those were fighting words, as far as Rome was concerned.
This word, “Hosanna” is found in Psalm 118. Here’s a Bible trivia question. You’ve heard the verse that goes: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it”? Do you know what the very next word after that familiar verse is? It is “Hosanna”. “Save now.” The crowds on Palm Sunday are quoting Psalm 118.
Next Psalm 118 reads, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (118:26). And that’s what the crowd says, too. They are still quoting Psalm 118. “Hosanna, save us . . . Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Then Psalm 118 says, “We bless you from the house of the Lord.” But the crowd doesn’t say that. They are done quoting from Psalm 118.
The next line is an original line. And it crosses the line as far as the Romans are concerned. The crowd says, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (11:10). In other words, a new kingdom is on the way in. Which means the current kingdom is on the way out. King Jesus, like King David, is going to defeat any and every enemy of Israel. And enemy number one obviously is Rome.
So the simple act of Jesus riding that donkey through the streets of Jerusalem, that adorable children’s parade, is really the lighting of a powder keg. It didn’t blow up that day. It’s a wonder it didn’t. But it was ready to go.
A little more background. All Jews hated being under Rome’s thumb. But there were three different ideas on what to do about it.
There were the Zealots. They were there on Palm Sunday. The palm branches as symbols of Jewish independence – the “hosannas” and other words of defiance – all that fit into their strategy. There was only one thing to do about Roman occupation as far as they were concerned. A military revolt. Fight and win. No more mister nice guy. These were not peaceful protesters. They believed in violence. They were terrorists, or they were freedom fighters, depending on your point of view.
Then there were the Essenes. They aren’t in the Bible. If you’ve heard of them it may be because you’ve heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were found in an Essene community. The Essenes hated Roman occupation is much as anybody, but they responded to it by withdrawing. They kept to themselves. They believed that everything in their world had become so corrupt – not just Rome but also Israel – that the best thing they could do was to devote themselves to a life of purity. They believed that God would destroy their enemies and reward them for refusing to be tainted by the corruption all around them.
And then there were the Sadducees. They were collaborators. They didn’t like Rome either, but their attitude was “if you can’t beat them, join them”. The Sadducees did not believe in angels or resurrection. They believed in the here and now. They believed in whatever it took to get along with the Romans. Basically they believed in staying alive, taking care of themselves, and preserving their position of wealth and privilege.
Remember what leadership is? Disappointing people at a rate they can stand? Jesus disappointed every one of these three groups.
One day he spoke to a centurion. He said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith like this” (Luke 7:9). Jesus praising a Roman soldier – not exactly music to the ears of the Zealots. He also encouraged his followers to pay taxes to Rome. And he said if a Roman soldier orders them to carry their pack for a mile – a law universally hated by the Jews – they should do what they are told without arguing. In fact, they should also go a second mile. The Zealots were just waiting for Jesus to morph into the military leader they all wanted him to be. But Jesus would not be that kind of a leader. The Kingdom of God will not come in with violence.
The Essenes no doubt hoped Jesus would take their side. When he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” they may have thought they had him. He was one of them. But Jesus quickly made it known that he did not favor withdrawing from the world. Just the opposite. He engaged with the world, especially wherever there was injustice or hurt or need in the world. He touched lepers, spoke with prostitutes, ate with sinners. He was well aware of all the purity rules in the Bible. But he ignored them. He was not bound by them. Purity is OK, but people matter more. The Kingdom of God will not come by withdrawing from people.
And Jesus would have nothing to do with the Sadducees. That is until the scandal of Palm Sunday. Then the Sadducees joined forces with the Pharisees, a group they didn’t have much in common with. They could agree on one thing. Jesus was a threat. If those crazy Zealots could persuade Jesus to lead them into battle, it would be a bloodbath. It would be the end of their cozy little arrangement with Rome. So the way the story is told, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Romans all ganged up to put an end to Jesus. Because Jesus wouldn’t go along to get along. That was not how the Kingdom of God would come.
So he basically disappointed everyone. He was a big disappointment. He didn’t lead any of these groups in the direction they wanted to go. And beginning with Palm Sunday, he disappointed them at a rate greater than they could stand.
Here’s Jesus on Palm Sunday, riding into Jerusalem, seemingly ready for his coronation as King of the Jews, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has something else entirely on his mind. He gets his disciples together like a coach giving a pre-game pep talk. He says, “Here’s our plan: We don’t have any money, or status, or power, or buildings, or soldiers. Our opponents have all of that. But that’s fine. We have them right where we want them. So here’s what we do. We offend everyone. We make them all hate us. The Romans, the Zealots, the Essenes, and the Sadducees. We’ll tell them all they’re wrong. And when they hate us, we will love them. We won’t fight back. We won’t give in. We won’t back down. We’ll just keep loving them and keep inviting them to join us.”
Does that sound like a winning plan to you? Nobody else thought so either. Especially on Thursday when he was arrested. And on Friday when he was crucified. And on Saturday when it was so apparent to every follower of Jesus that all their hopes and dreams had amounted to nothing. Less than nothing.
It was a crazy plan Jesus had. Anyone could have told him that. He wasn’t very smart. He wasn’t very practical. He wasn’t very well versed in the ways of the world. He was too simple. Love is nice, but love is no way to win when the whole world is stacked against you.
This time of the year, we always come face to face with that question that will not go away: Are we going to follow a loser like Jesus? Are we going to believe that love is stronger than hate, and then live accordingly? Or are we going to go along with the ways of the world that, let’s face it, have become our ways, because it’s so easy for us to belong the world more than we belong to Jesus?
If you were here for the Lenten service our church hosted a week and a half ago, you heard this story. Phil Bence told it. It was about a young marine who was being bullied mercilessly. He was an easy target. He did not fit in. He was different. And he was assigned to a barracks with an unusually high level of meanness.
One day someone came up with a new idea for humiliating this new recruit. Maybe even make him quit. They would scare the living daylights out of him by throwing a disarmed hand grenade through a window. They would make sure it would land right in front of him. Then they would all yell: “It’s a live grenade! It’s going to explode! We’re going to die!” And if they were lucky, he would get hysterical, make a fool of himself, maybe even jump out the window.
So they did it. The grenade was rolling on the floor. Everyone was pretending to panic. Everyone was watching to see what the target of their cruelty would do.
He did not do what they expected him to do. He didn’t panic. He didn’t get hysterical. He didn’t jump out the window. He calmly but quickly covered the grenade with his own body. And he told the room full of bullies to hurry and get out. He would die, but perhaps they would live. He would lay down his life for those who had scorned him.
You might say that young marine was a simpleton. He just wasn’t very smart. He wasn’t very sophisticated in the ways of the world. Or you might say he was Jesus. At least he had internalized the simple message of Jesus. The way to respond to hate is not with more hate. The way to respond to hate is with love.
Lord Jesus, today we wave palm branches as an expression of our praise. And today we remember how this week ended and how quickly the shouts of “hosanna!” were replaced with shouts of “crucify him!” Some of us would rather keep our faith on the level of children waving palm branches on a bright and happy day. Light and easy, that’s what we want. But Lord, following you is often anything but light or easy. There are crosses we must bear. There is ridicule we must endure. There is a new kingdom that is coming that threatens everyone who feels at home in the present kingdom. Today we wave our palm branches and then put them down because following you means so much more than that. Amen.