This week, Pastor John hands over the TAGD keyboard to Pastor Brent Whitefield, Northpoint’s Pastor of Missions and Outreach.
Palm Sunday Reflections
Palm Sunday is typically a time for reflection on Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The narrative as recounted in all four Gospels is the heart-warming stuff of Sunday school flannel graphs. We can imagine Jesus waving beatifically from astride his donkey, much like the pope coming through town in his pope mobile. Far more interesting for the purposes of the grand story, however, is what happened during that week that turned Jesus from a popular hero to an executed criminal abandoned by even his closest associates.
Jesus made his way into Jerusalem and what he witnessed there did nothing to encourage him. From the minute he arrived, he set about, almost single-mindedly, to attack and provoke the religious leaders. By Monday he was making enemies as he famously cleansed the temple in a fit of anger.
His anger was well justified and his actions appropriate. Shifty deal making, money changing, and corruption was happening under the nose of and with the permission of the religious leaders who in fact profited by it. Not only was it a “den of robbers,” but it was a place of privilege where the least of these were not welcome.
If Jesus were to return in a similar manner today, who do we imagine he would go after first? We would like to think that he would attack the hotbeds of iniquity. “If God doesn’t destroy San Francisco, he owes Sodom an apology,” someone once said. Surely he would publicly rail against the hedonists of New Orleans, the Bernie Madoffs of Wall Street, and the atheists of Hollywood. He would round up all pornographers and abortion doctors. He would also go after the politicians and rulers who represent the principalities and powers of this world, the heads of ISIS, and Kim Jeong Un would have their day of reckoning.
But this is not what Jesus did in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. How did he spend his last few days of earthly ministry? Not by going and cleaning out the dens of iniquity and taking on pagan worshippers. Nor did he even concern himself with condemning the political leaders, many of whom were corrupt and wicked. He actually showed deference to them and said to give them what is theirs.
How did he spend his time? Taking on the religious leaders. Pointing out their hypocrisy and showing how they steal from the poor and thus show love for neither God nor neighbor. Nearly all of his parables during that week showed the inadequacy and hypocrisy of the religious elite. They recognized it and accelerated their homicidal plots against him.
Might I suggest that if he returned today, Jesus would pay his first visits to some of the biggest churches and ministries in the land. He would catch the prosperity gospel preachers as they landed in their Learjets and ask them why they have stolen the widow’s mite to make their yacht payment. He would visit the studios of the Christian broadcasters, turning over the cameras and wiping the makeup off their wives’ faces and ask why they implore the poor peasant in India to contribute the dollar she earned that day to pay for his Rolls Royce. Though he would no doubt have a prophetic word applicable to all, he would reserve his harshest treatment for those who claim to represent him; those who purport to be doing his work while victimizing others; those who claim to be ministers of the gospel, who by their lives demonstrate no understanding of it whatsoever.
Jesus actions that week were not those of a man who was concerned about his popularity ratings. Nor were his words. His sermon topics and parables were designed to challenge the religious leadership in the strongest possible terms. After all, Jesus was killed unfairly but not without reason.
So much preaching today is meant to make you feel good about yourself, to give you biblical affirmation for the things you want to do anyway. Don’t want to take the sin in your life seriously? God isn’t that serious about it either. Want to get rich? God wants you to be rich. Want a blessing from God? God guarantees you a blessing. And so on. For Jesus, the more he preached, the fewer followers he had. That’s because he did not tell people what they wanted to hear or affirm their religious preconceptions. We want to see our church grow in numerical terms but never at the expensive of faithful and honest teaching. Here at Northpoint you will not hear sermons that whitewash the truth or seek to please as many as possible. And may it always be so.
Why did the people come out to fete Christ on Palm Sunday? Because they had heard about or witnessed his miracles—and Jesus was popular when he was the miracle man. His popularity began to wane when he became more specific about what it would cost to follow him, what the future might hold, and how radically different the gospel was from their conventional religious understanding.
On Palm Sunday we see the makings of a mass movement. By Good Friday, the masses have cleared out. The very idea that Jesus was trying to assemble as many as possible is a misreading of the text. We more often see Jesus fleeing crowds than attracting them. He deliberately confines his attention to a few. He resists being co-opted into existing movements like the Zealots, the followers of John or the religious establishment.
In the end there were few who followed Christ for the right reasons. There were few who embraced his admonition to seek first the kingdom. The call to follow Christ is not a call to power and privilege. It is a call to community in Christ, a community that may be small and weak and misunderstood and abused. After all, as Jesus stumbled under the weight of the cross on the road to Golgotha, as he looked back over his shoulder, he couldn’t have helped but notice that there was no one with him.