On The Road To Calvary
This Palm Sunday Sermon reminds us that the road to Jerusalem’s celebration was also the road to Calvary.
28After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30″Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’ “
32Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
35They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38″Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40″I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
The Illusion of Victory
We know this story that we celebrate today. It’s the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Luke transports us back in time to the last week in the earthly ministry of Jesus. And what a week it will be!
With his instructions to the disciples to go and find the colt in the village, Jesus seems to be doing exactly what his disciples expect him to do — take charge, make a bold statement, enter Jerusalem as the Messiah that he is.
And, so the colt is brought to Jesus. The disciples create a makeshift saddle, layering their cloaks on the colt’s back. And Jesus rides this colt into Jerusalem.
The crowds in Jerusalem have swelled to several hundred thousand, crowding the streets of Jerusalem as pilgrims and residents of the city prepare for The Feast of Passover, the most memorable feast in the history of the Jewish people.
For it is this Passover feast that memorializes God’s deliverance of the nation from the slavery of Egypt.
The seder meal of lamb and bitter herbs and other symbolic foods will be eaten that week, reminding the first century Jews that God freed their ancestors from the oppression of Egypt. The prayer in Jesus’ day was, of course, that God would free the Jews from the oppression of Rome.
The subversive nature of the Passover was not lost on the Jews either. Languishing in prison were several insurrectionists, those who had attempted to overthrow the rule of Rome in Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding regions. One of them was named Barabbas, and by today’s standards he would have been labeled a “domestic terrorist.”
But Barabbas was by no means the only insurrectionist in Judea. Thoughts of freedom and memories of the Maccabbean Revolt about 150 years earlier were still in the hearts and minds faithful Jews.
Just like we look back to our war for freedom, The Revolutionary War, and still hold onto those images, like the Boston Tea Party, and the Sons of Freedom, first century Jews kept alive the hope of freedom.
And so when Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on the first day of Passover week, the crowds are looking for someone to rally around, someone to carry the banner of freedom and liberation for the Jewish people.
But Jesus is not traveling the road to revolution, he is traveling the road to Calvary. And along the way several things happen.
On The Road To Calvary, Jesus Picks Up Some Admirers
Of course, not even the disciples comprehend that Jesus is heading toward his death by the end of the week. Every time Jesus mentions the possibility that he will be mistreated, the disciples protest that he is even speaking of such a thing. Each vows to defend and stay with Jesus regardless of the outcome.
And so as Jesus rides into Jerusalem that Sunday morning, the disciples are joyous, the crowd is energized, and shouts of “Hosanna” ring out as he rides slowly and carefully through the crowds.
These are the crowds longing for freedom. The residents of Jerusalem, and Jews from all over the Mediterranean area who have arrived for the Passover, yearn for freedom.
They despise the presence of Roman centurions in their city, the City of David. They are revolted that Antonio’s Fortress, built by their former king Herod the Great, is attached to the north wall of the Temple compound and houses the Roman garrison.
The Jews look away as Roman troops parade through the streets of Jerusalem, holding high the standard bearing the Roman eagle. Every time they shop in the market square, they pay merchants with Roman coins stamped with the likeness of Cesar. Rome’s presence, power, and domination is seen everywhere, even in their court system where the governor of Rome administers Roman law, overriding their own high priest and religious leaders.
So, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem that morning, the crowds that sing and shout and follow him are admirers. They like that Jesus stands up to their own corrupt political leaders and religious figures. They like that Jesus seems to be a man of the people, that he eats with sinners and talks with prostitutes.
They have been looking for a hero, and Jesus is the flavor of the day. And, of course, there were strange reports that he could heal people, feed people, and that when he prayed evil spirits fled from those they possessed.
All the more reason to admire Jesus — he was both a revolutionary and a mystic. A great combination for the nation.
But the problem with admirers is that they see what they want to see in their hero of the day. What the crowds saw in Jesus was the son of Joseph, not the Son of God. They saw him as a revolutionary, not as Redeemer. They wanted another Maccabee, not a new Messiah. In short, they admired Jesus because they thought he was the answer to all their problems.
When Clarence Jordan founded Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia in the mid-1950s, he founded an interracial community that he thought was an authentic expression of the Kingdom of God. It was an experiment in both agriculture and the Gospel, in which whites and blacks worked side-by-side, tilling the fields, harvesting the crops, and sharing life together.
Not everyone in southwest Georgia 60 years ago shared Clarence Jordan’s vision of the Kingdom of God. And, so Koinonia Farms attracted trouble. The farm was shot at by passing cars. Signs and buildings were vandalized. Crosses were burned and Koinonia community members were beaten. Merchants refused to sell supplies to the farm, and eventually, legal troubles mounted for the struggling experiment in Christian love.
Clarence Jordan approached his brother, Robert Jordan, a local Georgia attorney, for help with their legal problems. Robert was an up-and-coming young attorney with political ambitions of his own. He would later serve as a Georgia state senator, and as a justice of the Georgia State Supreme Court.
David Augsburger in his book, Dissident Discipleship, captures the scene as the two brothers talked.
Robert had declined to represent Koinonia Farms with this explanation:
Bob: “Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”
Clarence: “We might lose everything, too, Bob.”
Bob: “It’s different for you.”
Clarence: “Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”
Bob: “I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
Clarence: “Could that point by any chance be — the cross?”
Bob: “That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
Clarence: “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to that church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”
Bob: “Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”
Clarence: “The question is, do you have a church?”
It’s not any wonder that by the end of the week, those who admired Jesus on Sunday were shouting “Crucify him!” on Friday.
On The Road To Calvary, Jesus Picks Up Some Opposition
In what is an otherwise jubilant scene of singing and shouting and celebration, the Pharisees hear all the commotion. Rushing toward the sounds of joy and laughter, they quickly size up the situation: Jesus’ followers are proclaiming him king!
And just as quickly, the Pharisees shout out to Jesus, “Rebuke your disciples!”
In other words, “Tell them to stop this nonsense. You’ll upset the Romans, and besides, you’re no king or messiah.”
Jesus reply is that even if he tells his followers to be quiet, the stones themselves will cry out with joy. Perhaps that’s what Paul had in mind when he said that all creation groans for deliverance and transformation.
Well, either way, Jesus picked up some opposition. This, of course, is not the first time he has encountered opposition. Jesus has been opposed from the very beginning of his ministry:
-In Nazareth, the synagogue crowd didn’t like his interpretation of the prophet Isaiah;
-When he healed the man on the Sabbath, the Pharisees accused him of being a Sabbath-breaker;
-When he re-interpreted the Torah, the Law of Moses, they murmured against him;
-When he proclaimed that he would tear down the Temple and rebuild it in 3-days, they tore their clothes and shouted in disapproval.
No, this wasn’t the first time he met opposition, but now the opposition was determined to stop him. He was too popular, too charismatic, too much trouble for him to be allowed to continue. He had to be stopped, even if they had to kill him.
Opposition to Jesus is nothing new, and sadly, it is not going away. This week Billy Graham wrote an article on heaven which appeared in the Washington Post. Billy Graham is 91 years old now. Last year for his birthday, Franklin Graham had posted on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, an invitation for those who had come to know Christ under Billy Graham’s ministry to send a letter or email of their conversion experience.
On his birthday last November 7, when he turned 91, Franklin Graham presented his father with over 120,000 letters and emails from individuals who said they had made a profession of faith in Christ under Billy Graham’s preaching. The oldest letter came from a woman who said she accepted Christ in 1938, just as a very young Billy Graham had begun preaching.
But back to this article in the Washington Post. Dr. Graham’s article about heaven was both brief and hopeful. Billy Graham said that the best thing about heaven was that God wanted everyone there. And, of course that’s true. Dr. Graham went on to briefly say that we do not get to heaven by our own works, but by the sacrifice of God’s son, Jesus.
I was not prepared for what I read in the comment section that followed the article. Here’s what one commenter said:
“Billy seems to miss that there is no evidence of the reality of Heaven (or Hell) independent of the internally-inconsistent ramblings of a 2000 year old collection of fiction, the morality tales of Dante, and the pre-Biblical folklore they were cribbed from.”
Another commented more briefly:
“Sounds nice, too bad it doesn’t exist.”
And there were a number of comments that attacked Dr. Graham’s character:
“Outrageous gibberish from a totally deluded man of the cloth. When you die Mr Graham you will simply cease to exist. No heaven – no hell. Just death and nothingness awaits you and everybody else. For once in your life get real.”
So, it is no surprise that Jesus picks up opposition on the road to Calvary, even as the crowds are admiring him. There have always been, and will always be, those who oppose the work of God, who reject the love of God, and who ridicule the Son of God.
But knowing all of that, Jesus kept going. John 3 :16 tells us –
“For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son…”
That world that God loves includes those who oppose Jesus. They are the ones for whom Christ died, they are the recipients of God’s grace, and their sin is no worse than our own. Jesus said it best, “The well have no need of a physician.” Jesus came especially to those who opposed him, to those who belittled him, to those who ridiculed him.
On the Road to Calvary, Jesus Picked Up the Cross
At this point, the life of Jesus isn’t very different from the lives of other charismatic leaders. Some people follow him for the wrong reasons, others oppose everything he’s doing, even when it helps others. But there is a twist to this story that is unlike any other story of charismatic leaders, Jewish or otherwise.
This unique event isn’t even reflected in the passage we read today. For in reading the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem we can forget the reason for his coming to Jerusalem in the first place.
Jesus did not come to Jerusalem to hear the crowds shout “Hosanna.” Nor did he come unaware of the opposition to his ministry. Jesus came to Jerusalem not for the first part of the week, not for Palm Sunday. No, Jesus came to Jerusalem for Good Friday.
On the road to Calvary, not only does Jesus pick up admirers and opponents, but most importantly, Jesus picks up the cross.
But, you might say, “Today is a day of celebration. Let’s leave the gory details of his crucifixion to Holy Week.” And we could do that. We could gather next Sunday and have two Sundays of celebration in a row. On one Sunday, today, we would celebrate Jesus’ triumphant ride into the city. And on next Sunday, we will celebrate the victory over sin, death and the grave.
But let’s not forget that the road Jesus traveled led not just to Jerusalem, but through its streets where he was mocked and jeered. The road that Jesus walked was a road that did not end in the city. It continued out the other side, through the city gates, to a hill called Golgotha, Calvary, the Place of the Skull.
And it is on this road that Jesus picks up the cross. We usually phrase it in the passive voice grammatically by saying “Jesus was crucified.” And that is certainly true. The Passover crowd demanded it, Pilate confirmed it, and the Roman centurions did it. They nailed Jesus to the cross.
But if we say, “Jesus was crucified” or “They crucified Jesus” we miss the great significance of this week. Jesus picked up the cross willingly, sacrificially, and obediently.
Paul says, “He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus said, “I lay down my life, and no one takes it from me.”
And even though he struggled, and even though he wept tears of sorrow like great drops of blood, Jesus picked up the cross.
Because the road to Jerusalem was not the highway of Hosannas. The road into the city was not the concourse of cheers. The road to Jerusalem was the road to Calvary. Jesus knew it, the disciples didn’t. Jesus walked it, the disciples only followed. Jesus embraced it, his followers fled.
And all of that was for our forgiveness, our salvation, our life.
It is because Jesus picked up the cross and gave his life, that we can live. It is because Jesus picked up the cross that this world was forever changed, that lives were forever made whole, that sin lost its death-grip on humankind.
It is because Jesus picked up the cross to forgive us, that we can forgive.
A True Story of Forgiveness
The Jaeger family was looking forward to their vacation camping for an entire month in the state of Montana. After traveling for a week to get there, they had rendevouz’d with Marietta’s parents, the kids’ grandparents, and had spent three glorious days camping, all a happy extended family enjoying the outdoors together.
On the last night in that campsite, Marietta crawled in the girls’ tent to give them all a good night kiss. Little 7-year old Susie was crammed back in the corner of the tent, with camping gear piled at the foot of her sleeping bag.
Marietta couldn’t reach her for a proper kiss, but little Susie wasn’t settling for anything less. So, she wriggled her way over to her mom, gave her a big hug and kiss, and said, “There, mama, that’s the way it should be!” And with that, crawled back in her sleeping bag in the corner.
Sometime in the night, someone discovered that Susie was missing. A knife had slashed the corner of the tent where Susie had been sleeping, leaving a gaping hole and an empty sleeping bag where little Susie had been.
Frantically, parents and other campers searched with flashlights until the dawn. The local sheriff’s department was called, and they called in the FBI. Divers explored nearby rivers and lakes, but no sign of Susie was found.
Exhausted Marietta Jaeger said, “Even if the kidnapper were to bring Susie back, alive and well, at this moment I could still kill him for what he has done to my family.”
But, she said later, as soon as those words left her mouth, she knew that attitude violated all that she had been taught and believed. You see, Marietta Jaeger was a Christian.
Days turned into weeks with no word about Susie. The family made the sad trip back home to Michigan without their youngest child.
In the next months, Marietta Jaeger made the conscious decision to forgive the kidnapper. In an interview with a Montana paper, Marietta Jaeger said that she felt concern for the kidnapper, and wanted to talk to him herself.
The kidnapper read those words, and in the middle of the night, one year to the minute that he had taken Susie, the kidnapper called her at her home in Michigan.
“You wanted to talk to me,” he taunted. “Well, here I am! Now what are you going to do about it?”
Amazingly, Marietta said she was calm, caring, and expressed concern for him. He seemed to be taken aback, calmed down, and talked to her for over an hour, even though he kept saying he was afraid the phone call was being traced.
Finally, Marietta asked, “What can I do for you?”
With that, the young man began to cry. “I wish this burden could be lifted from me,” he said. Marietta feared what that burden might be, but she said, “As desperate as I was for Susie’s return, I realized I also wanted to reach and help this man.”
The story has a sad ending, as you can imagine. The subject, who had been a suspect early on in the investigation, had given himself away with some of his comments. He was arrested. Little Susie had been murdered. But in preparation for trial, Marietta Jaeger asked that prosecutors not seek the death penalty. A disturbed individual, this young man had killed two others finally took his own life in jail.
But because Jesus picked up the cross, Marietta Jaeger was able to pick up her cross of grief and offer forgiveness to the man who killed her daughter.
So, if we want to celebrate this morning, we celebrate the transforming power of Jesus’ life and death. The heart-changing power of Jesus’ forgiveness. The eternal difference made in our lives and the lives of others because on the road to Calvary, Jesus picked up the cross.