Sunday, March 29, 2009
Just one week until Palm Sunday, and just two until the glory of Easter Sunday. For those Christians who go to church next weekend and receive their palm branches, do you know what it is that they are supposed to help you recall and what they represent? The palm branches are representative of those waved by the adoring crowds at Jesus Christ during his triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem in the days prior to his arrest, persecution, sacrificial death, and His rising from the tomb. Before any of these events had taken place, there was a true sense of excitement and urgency among many of the people as the sacred occassion of the Passover approached. The Passover itself is the perhaps the single most important event on the Jewish calendar. It is a rememberance of the night that God struck down the first-born of Egypt in a show of power that led directly to the deliverance of the Jewish people out of the bondage of centuries of slavery. As the angel of death moved about the nation taking the lives of those Egyptian first-born, it passed over those houses whose doors were marked with blood, a sign that God had told Moses to pass along among his chosen people so that they might be distinguished and saved. It became a great custom among the Jews to travel to the great city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate this day, and in fact an entire great festival had been set up around the feast. As the time came, many wondered whether Christ would even show up in Jerusalem at all. It was well known among the people that the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, that person should inform them, so that they could place Jesus under arrest. Jesus had been involved in his public ministry for a couple of years at this point, and his teachings and reputation had grown so strong among the people that the traditional Jewish leaders felt severely threatened. There was talk that Jesus was going to become a king, and was going to establish a new kingdom, something directly threatening to the power of the Jewish leaders, but which would also possibly bring the wrath of the Roman empire down on them should these events leak out. The Jewish leaders wanted greatly to eliminate the threat which they believed Jesus was becoming, either by debunking him or, if necessary, killing him. The final straw came when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, a feat that overwhelmed even those who had already seen Christ perform any number of miracles in the previous months. The scribes and Pharisees saw the swelling numbers and the passion of his following, and plotted to eliminate him as a threat. This word reached Jesus and his disciples, and they went 'underground', no longer moving about in public. So as the Passover feast arrived, the people wondered whether Jesus and his followers would indeed challenge the authorities and come out in public. They got their answer in a big way. Not only did Jesus arrive at Jerusalem, but he arrived in the manner that had been foretold for centuries by the prophets, entering the city while riding on an ass and through the city gate that had also been prophesied. The great crowd which had already begun gathering for the Passover celebrations heard that Jesus was arriving, and they rushed out to meet him, waving palm branches as he passed them. The palm branch was the traditional item used to hail the arrival of a conquering hero from a triumphant battle, and this was how many of the people were beginning to view Jesus. His message of love and peace was taking root. His message of conquering fear and even death itself was spreading like wildfire. The Bible says that one of the Pharisees on seeing this outbreak of affection said to the others "You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him." This is how large and emotional and affectionate the crowds were as they jubilantly waved their palm branches at him and shouted among one another "Hosanna!" which meant "Oh Lord, grant salvation!", a true sign of how they viewed Jesus. Just after Christ entered into the city a group of Greeks came wishing an audience with him, and to them he spoke plainly: "Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." The message was clear to all. Jesus was a wanted man in the eyes of the authorities, a threat to their rule, and perhaps a threat to the entire Jewish nation if the Romans found out about his coming 'new kingdom'. But he entered into the great city not through a back door, but through the front gates in a manner indicating that he was the Messiah, the promised Savior, the coming new king. He entered publicly, and on entering he proclaimed that the current ruler would be driven out. He showed no fear. He had conquered fear, he had raised a man from the dead, and in just a matter of days he would rise and conquer death itself. Many among even the ranks of the authorities began to believe in him, but because of the Pharisees they did not acknowledge it openly for fear of being expelled from the synagogue. They preferred human praise to the glory of God. It is the overcoming of this worldly fear that Jesus Christ showed in his triumphant entry in Jerusalem. It is the overcoming of this fear to which he calls us all. You should not fear shame in publicly declaring your Christianity, in publicly celebrating your belief, and in publicly calling others to salvation in Christ. Conquer your fear as Christ conquered it, directly and loudly and openly, and envision the palms waving around you in triumph as you receive them next weekend.