"For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:38-39 (ESV)
Humans have always responded well to poetry, parable, and symbolism. If the earth itself didn’t testify to God’s artistry, His Word alone would be proof of how brilliantly creative and expressive He is. The Bible is full of symbolism.
Palm Sunday is so named because the Israelites ushered Jesus, the Messiah, into Jerusalem with palm branches–waving them in welcome and devotion, and laying them on the path before Him to be trodden and trampled as He rode into town. These branches were the welcome of a champion. A soldier. A hero. Palm branches have, since time immemorial, symbolized peace, triumph, eternal life, and victory of the spirit over the flesh. Victory of the Spirit…over the flesh. God orchestrated a procession that beautifully symbolized His eternal victory over our hurts, habits, and hang-ups.
This Holy Week, I know that you, like me, are battling against yourself or someone else in these uncertain times. It is hard to see anything but the mess around us. But imagine the scene on that first Palm Sunday. Imagine Jesus, riding in on that donkey, leaving in His wake a stream of palm fronds. The people of Israel thought they were celebrating the One who would be their war hero–the One who would overthrow Rome and bring them peace and autonomy to God’s people.
We don’t like to admit it, but we are so much like those fickle Israelites, who praised Jesus one week and abandoned Him the next. They imagined that Jesus would decimate their troubles and cause them to live in a world without obstacles. They thought peace would come from the vengeance of God. They didn’t realize that Peace was in their midst already, and that all they had to do was fix their eyes on Him. They thought they were praising a warrior who would deliver peace that came at the end of the sword…they had no idea they were praising Peace Himself on the road to Jerusalem.
Our King is Peace. Our King is Triumph. Our King is Eternal Life and our King is Victory of the Spirit over the flesh. When we fix our eyes on Him instead of on our chaos, we realize that the battle is already won–not because of the peace we hope for in this world, but because of the Peace already inside of us.
How incredible it must’ve been for the Israelites to see Jesus in action. They had witnessed healing after healing, miracle after miracle. In fact, it was the memory of Him raising of Lazarus from the dead that made so many of them want to rush out to meet Jesus at His “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. They would’ve recognized the prophecy of Zechariah being fulfilled right before their eyes: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9b, ESV).
There had been various small Jewish insurrections against Rome–the rumblings of a coming battle that would free Israel from the reign of the Roman Empire once and for all, God’s Kingdom come! When Jesus came along, the Israelites were sure they had found their battle hero. He was their salvation–at least as far as they understood what “salvation” meant. The battle was nigh. Freedom was on the horizon.
But then, something happened. In a matter of days, the caravan of devoted worshippers suddenly shifted from chants of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify!” Those who had previously been so enthusiastic for Jesus were now swept up in the Jewish leaders’ hostility toward Him. A couple of compelling leaders did a whole lot of damage in a very short amount of time.
It had suddenly occurred to the crowds that Jesus was never going to brandish a weapon against Rome. He wasn’t going to take over Jerusalem. And if He wasn’t going to start the revolution, well then, He was useless to them and to their cause. Instead of freeing Jesus, who preached a revolution of the heart, they insisted on freeing Barabbas, a charismatic insurrectionist. Barabbas would keep the momentum of the insurgency going.
Jesus was revolutionary, but not in the way they were hoping. Jesus came so that this world would be saved, not by the power of the sword, but by the power of the Word! His version of the Kingdom of God was very different from the one they had been planning, and they didn’t like it.
The Bible says that the Word of God is living and active and sharper than a double-edged sword, judging the thoughts and the attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). The Word of God is what judges us…not the sword. In fact, in Revelation, when Jesus comes to judge, He comes with a sword in His mouth and not in His hand. Are you picking up on the metaphor?
We, as believers, can see now what the Israelites couldn’t see then: It is not a weapon of war that will slay the enemies of the Lord; it’s the judgment of the Living Word of God. Our freedom hasn’t been purchased by securing dominion over our enemies (human or viral!). For us, freedom means living right now as followers of Jesus. We are free, not because we are in control, but in spite of how utterly out-of-control we are.
Pastor Tim Keller says that we all worship something, but that we get to choose what we worship. If worship means having extreme devotion to someone or something, then I must admit that, while I have always been a Jesus follower, I have also spent a lot of my life worshipping other things as much as (or even more than) I’ve worshipped Jesus. I have worshipped good grades, my reputation, my family, social media… it’s so easy to give the things of this world our extreme devotion when there is only One who is worthy.
As Jesus approached Jerusalem in the week leading up to His crucifixion, a throng of people welcomed Him, praising God and hailing Him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” Because it was almost Passover, most of these people would’ve been among the thousands and thousands of Israelites from the diaspora (the scattered Jews) who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to feast and celebrate with their fellow Israelites. They knew about Jesus. They had heard of (and many had even seen) His miracles. The religious leaders, on t he other hand, were aghast at their brazen display of devotion to Jesus. The Pharisees gestured to the crowd around Him and demanded that Jesus do something: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:39b-40, NIV). Jesus will be praised. Whether from my lips or from His creation that breathes worship by its very existence, He will be praised.
At this moment in history, we are experiencing a pandemic. No matter who you are, no matter where in the world you live, this virus has changed your life. We are all facing the temptation to worship the 24-hour news cycle. To worship fear. To worship half-baked prophecies from well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) believers or conspiracy theorists.
Consider what you are worshipping. Maybe it’s your phone. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s politics. We all worship something. This week, choose to turn away from the worship of anything other than Jesus. He alone is worthy.
Riding on a lowly donkey from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, Jesus would’ve had a striking, almost panoramic view of the city below. When Jerusalem came into view, He was moved to tears, saying, “‘If you [Jerusalem], even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:42, NIV). Jesus was so grieved. Jerusalem would not know peace because it had not recognized that Immanuel – God with us – was with them, indeed. Jesus went on to prophesy about the destruction of the temple and the defeat of the Israelites that would take place just a few short years later at the hand of the Roman Empire.
“Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:9b-10, ESV). Jesus, the Prince of Peace had fully embraced Zechariah’s prophecy. He exchanged the warhorse for a donkey. He exchanged the battle bow for a proclamation of peace. He told His people, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!” (“, ESV).
Israel had refused to see Jesus for who He was, and He lamented over her. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus had said, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37, ESV). Jesus desired for His people to sit under His teaching, to learn from Him, to take His light yoke upon themselves, and to accept Him as their long-awaited Messiah, but they wouldn’t. And He wept.
Just like the Israelites, you and I have spent a lifetime trying to fit the Messiah neatly into our box of ideals. The Israelites had fashioned themselves a messiah who would ride in on a warhorse, establishing eternal dominion in Jerusalem in the name of God. The messiah they had conjured in their minds believed everything they believed. He loved the same people they loved. He hated the same people they hated. And when Jesus showed them that the Messiah didn’t look very much like their dreamed-up hero, they dismissed Him. Instead of softening their hearts and conforming to the image of God revealed in Jesus, they had made a god in their own image, and they were unwilling to let it go. Brothers and sisters, we do this too–all of us. This Holy Week, let’s step back and let Jesus be who He is, not who we’ve fashioned Him to be in our minds. Especially in this season of insecurity and divisiveness, let’s not assume that He agrees with us. Instead, let’s earnestly ask Him to show us how we can agree more with Him.
I remember spending the night with my grandparents almost every weekend when I was a little girl. Once, when I was just learning to read, I looked above my grandmother’s bed and saw, for the first time, a framed copy of the “Footprints in the Sand” poem. You’ve probably read it a hundred times. I vividly remember reading through the poem for the first time, feeling agony for the writer – how could Jesus have left her all alone in her times of desperate need? Until I got to the very last line of the poem and read, “It was then that I carried you.” I cried with relief. Jesus hadn’t abandoned her; He had carried her. Jesus’ disciples knew Him personally. They had walked with Him for years. They had taken part in His ministry and had heard Him preach many times that the Son of Man would experience death and resurrection; but still, when they saw that their beloved Savior had died on that cross, they despaired. They lost all hope. They forgot the end of the story.
In February of 2012, after battling infertility and undergoing treatment for years, I discovered I was pregnant, only to learn that I was experiencing yet another ectopic pregnancy. This time, it would require surgery. I thought I had made it through the grief, but when I showed up for church for the first time after the procedure, I ran out of the sanctuary sobbing. There I had been, reading words on a projector about how good God was and how much He loved me, and I just couldn’t do it. It felt fake and forced, and I didn’t believe a word of it. God had abandoned me, and there was just no way I was going to gratify Him with songs about how “good” He was.
That year, I lit a match and burned my faith to the ground in anger and resentment toward God. If He was real. If He loved me. If He was truly good, then He was going to have to prove it. I would never sing another hymn of praise to a God who wasn’t good.
I don’t even know how to write what happened in my heart over the ensuing months and years. All I know is that when I thought I was burning my faith to the ground, God was using that fire to refine me. “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver I have tried you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10, ESV). When the smoke finally cleared from my torching mission, there was only Jesus. The ashes of the “faith” I had built from broken theology and a culture of something-that-passed-for-Christianity had been scattered on the wind, and there He was. He had been there all along. He had never left me, although I certainly felt like I was seeing Him–truly seeing Him–for the first time. Right now, we–the whole world–are living in a season of what seems like utter chaos. But we are not abandoned. We are not alone. Immanuel means “God with us,” and He is, my dear friend. He is WITH us. He promises us that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8). When times are uncertain, He is our certainty. If you are wondering where Jesus is right now, I can promise you that even when you don’t feel it, He’s right here in the middle of your mess, and He’s carrying you.