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Who Is This Jesus?

March 25, 2013

“Who Is This Jesus?” Luke 19:28-40 Palm Sunday C © 3.24.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Palm Sunday marks the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. There’s a feeling of triumph on this day as it’s traditionally observed. The somber mood of the season just past gives way to celebration as we welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. Yet there is a subtext of sadness, another theme played in a minor key. Friday is coming. Today marks the beginning of the end for Jesus.

It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic moment for the entry this day commemorates. Passover had brought literally millions of pilgrims into Jerusalem from the surrounding country and all over the Roman world. No doubt the military garrison was on full alert, equipped for crowd control and riots. People talked about revolution in back alleys and bars and even openly on the street. Their thoughts kept turning to the man from Galilee who had done such mighty works. Surely someone who could give sight to the blind and new legs to the disabled, who could even raise the dead, could put an end to Roman domination. The time was right and ripe for a new conqueror, a Savior-King, to lead an army of farmers, fishermen, and shopkeepers against the oppressor.

As Jesus approached, many in the throng gave vent to their excited hope with an abandon that forgot inhibition and dry-cleaning bills. Others stood back, embarrassed at the shouting, maybe angry that they were not getting attention. There seemed to be no middle ground today. You were either for this man who rode a humble animal into the holy city or you were against him and all he stood for. Either you shouted your praise or you urged Jesus to rebuke those who couldn’t contain their joy. There was no way you could sneak off in a corner and wait things out or pretend you didn’t know what was happening. This was a crisis, in the root sense of that word—a time for decision, for action, for commitment to a cause. The burning question that would not go away was: “Who is this Jesus?”

Luke has his own answer which he invites his readers to consider. This Jesus is first of all a leader of the best and greatest sort. Echoing the words of the prophet, the writer told us earlier that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. Now he has arrived, and he will not turn back. With a courage and determination that inspires and challenges, he goes ahead of his disciples. He will not rest until he reaches his destination, though it be a cross. He will not compromise the values to which he has committed himself, even to save his own life. He will not sell out to those who urge on him a different agenda. If death is coming, then it comes. Jesus himself had said that the one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is a mirror into which he intends his readers to stare for a long time. The writer’s church in around 90 AD was a minority community, as was every church in that day. It would be centuries before Christians became dominant in the Western world, and the Church turned into a powerful and sometimes power-hungry institution that could make even kings submit to its vestment-covered and incense-perfumed fist. Right now, the viewpoints of Luke’s fellowship did not enjoy validation by the surrounding culture. Their neighbors thought of believers as a little strange or dangerous or both. The daily experience of these faithful men and women was pressure, writ large, pressure by their neighbors to conform, to give up the way of Jesus. Luke wants to remind readers tempted to give up and give in that Jesus did no such thing; he remained true to his mission even to death.

Perhaps Luke’s words are more caution than they are encouragement for us. I suspect we have become so secularized and so comfortable with our culture that we may not notice, believe, care or be concerned that the values of contemporary American society sometimes, even often, conflict with the gospel. We may even equate being American with being Christian, as if nothing else but birth is required to be a believer. But consider, for example, how we measure the value of a project or a person Isn’t it with numbers? How many attended, how much money was raised, what is his income, how many children or grandchildren do they have, how many entries on her resumé and with which companies? Would the gospel message be untrue if the opinion polls did not support it? Is the church that does not attract great crowds on a Sunday morning judged a failure, like a sports team that doesn’t win games or the company that has few clients? If the dominant value of our culture is autonomous individualism and the gospel is about being faithful in a community, even caring about the welfare of others before your own, which would we choose?

Jesus did not give in to pressure to be someone other than who he was called to be. And if he kept on, determined to be true to his mission, his disciples can do no less. That one is a true disciple who remains loyal to the Lord and his cause through thick and thin. That one is a true follower who knows that the validation for the message of the church is woven into the very fabric of creation. I mean that if not even one of us remained to sing the praises of our Sovereign, the very stones would cry out.

So, then, Jesus is a leader with a courageous devotion to his mission. He calls all who follow him to stay the course, though the cost be high. But you and I know there have been many visionaries, prophets, and revolutionaries who have done and said as much. I could have been describing a committed terrorist or a crazed school shooter. So it is not enough for Luke to claim that Jesus is one leader among many. There is something unique about this man from Nazareth. That’s the tune the evangelist has been singing since chapter one. Jesus is the Christ, the hinge of history, the deliverer of God’s people and all creation. This Jesus is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one long-expected. Did you notice? The crowds echo the song of the angels at Bethlehem. Could Luke be telling us that as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem to die, the promise of that nativity night has been fulfilled?

Like the crowds two millennia ago, we long for a new day to dawn. There are too many times when the dark forces seem to be in complete control. The world is full of violence and fear and hurt, hatred and lies and conflict, and the arrogant presumption that comes from power, whether those holding power are in corporations, the government, media or the church. And it seems to be more so all the time. On a more personal level, life has told us “no” too many times, with too much illness, too much grief, too much disappointment, and we are weary of the fight. But God’s word in this humble man entering Jerusalem is that the shadows will not succeed in their bid for domination. One writer puts it this way: “In Palm Sunday, a window opens, quickly, for us to see something higher, better, and more beautiful than the troubled ways of this world—a window through which we see God as one who rides with us into a new city where there is neither temple nor tear, suffering nor despair. Like all Scriptures, the Palm Sunday story names something about our journey of faith: it says amid struggle, anguish, denial, and forgetfulness we have a wild and soaring anticipation, a vision of a new way, a glimpse of a new world” (Rebecca Chopp).

But as we talk of victory, we must realize that God’s way to prevail is not ours. Jesus comes on a humble, unadorned donkey, not on a prancing, armored horse, the ancient world’s equivalent of a tank. We know he will be put to death by those threatened beyond endurance by his message and his manner. Yet Luke insists this is the way God comes to us. It is in this humble yet triumphant Sovereign that we discover the things that make for peace in a chaotic and hurtful world.

Who is this Jesus? He is the leader who stays the course, even to death. And he is a leader in a class by himself, the humble One who conquers by love. But finally, he is the One who calls on us to serve him from our resources. “The Lord has need of it,” say the disciples. And that word is enough. The owners let their animal go, destined for holy purposes.

“The Lord has need of it.” What do you and I put at our Lord’s disposal? Each of us has resources of some sort we can lay our hands on readily and use for the glory of the Lord. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive. Nothing hard or involved. The people took off their cloaks, their jackets we would say, and laid them in the road like a carpet. They lifted their voices in enthusiastic praise. They gave what they had at hand; they used with imagination what was available.

Each of us has some gift that alone or in company with the gifts of others can make a difference. Maybe that will be our time or our funds. Could be some special artistic talent. Might be our insights or our deep spirituality. Maybe our gift is nurture or care for the hurting and left out and lonely. And with these and so many other gifts we can welcome and praise Jesus! God wants what you and I have to give.

“The Lord has need of it.” We place what we have at Jesus’ feet and in his hands so he may come into our town and into our lives and show the world who he is. Let our hearts be dedicated to him, pure, without a rival, where no one but he has ever sat or ever will sit as Sovereign. Let us put our cloaks in the road to hail him as king, giving what we have as symbols of our devotion. Let our voices be raised in praise, lest our silence be indicted by shouting stones! Welcome his coming! Roll out the red carpet. Jesus has a claim upon us, an absolute, irrefutable claim. We belong to God!

Will Christ enter our hearts and lives this day, to reign without a rival there? Will we grant him all we have and are, knowing he has need of us? Let it not be said of you or me that when we could have cried out in praise, we were silent, or when Christ called on us to serve, we held tightly to the reins of our colt and said “no.” Rather, in joyous abandon, may we welcome him as he who brings peace, as the blessed One who comes in the Name of the Lord.

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