The Beginning of the End

We begin in the twelfth chapter of Exodus, verses twenty-nine through thirty-two. Do you remember the story? We cover it annually. The descendants of Abraham had been spared from a great famine by following Joseph into Egypt. During his life they had been shown favor, but time changed things. Joseph died and his descendants had fallen into disfavor. They were enslaved by the Egyptians. Their lives were hard, and they cried out to God. The Almighty heard their cries and sent them a great liberator, Moses. Their freedom does not come in an instant. It comes at the end of a series of great plagues. The last was the worst, the death of the first-born sons. The will of the Pharaoh was broken, and the Hebrew people were given their freedom. It was a great day for God’s Chosen People. That day was such a great day that the people held an annual festival to remember what God had done just for them. The highlight of that festival was the Seder. It is a meal with a message. That whole annual feast is called the Passover.

Fast forward the clock thirteen hundred years. The people came to Jerusalem to remember what God had done for them one more time. This brings us to the scripture lesson for today. It was Passover, and the crowd was energized. The crowd was energized every Passover. I am not being critical. I am being honest. You cannot blame them. They were energized for the same reasons we are energized during our annual festivals, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Some were energized because they were away from home! There is some truth to that statement. Their lives were hard. Every day looked about the same. Every week looked about the same. Sometimes it is just nice to get away. There was a law that said all Jewish males within a fifty-mile radius of Jerusalem were required to attend the Passover in Jerusalem. That law wasn’t needed. People didn’t attend the Passover because they had to go. They attended the Passover because they wanted to go. It would be like passing a law that everyone was required to celebrate Thanksgiving. It isn’t necessary. We look forward to Thanksgiving and they looked forward to Passover. If nothing else, it was a time to just get away. Have you ever gone away to just get away?

I have a good friend who went to North Carolina to celebrate his brother-in-law’s 50th birthday. (You know how some have to make a big deal out of their birthday!) When he returned home, I asked him, “Rick, did you have a good time?” He answered, he said, “Yes, I guess.” Then he told me about his trip. They were in complete isolation. The restaurants didn’t serve his favorite adult beverage. The weather was cold and foggy. His bed was lumpy. The party, itself, was attended by some shady characters. At the end of his stories I said, “So you didn’t have a good time?” He said, “Well, it was nice just getting away.” It isn’t just his story; it is our stories. Maybe it was their story? Sometimes, just getting away can be exciting! Maybe the crowd was excited because they had just gotten away? If you like getting away occasionally say, “Hosanna!”

Some were energized because they were with the most important people in their lives! Passover had both a religious and a secular side. The religious side had to do with remembering what God had done for the Hebrew people. The secular side had to do with that day. It was a reunion. Everyone was in Jerusalem. People you had not seen in a year or longer were there. They were excited because they were with the most important people in their lives. Passover was like a great family reunion. It is exciting to see family. (It is more exciting to see them go home.)

Several years ago, the news was filled with the story of Katheryn DePrill. Do you remember her story? She is the young woman who was looking for her biological mother on Facebook. Years earlier, her biological mother had left her as an infant in the bathroom of their local Burger King. Katheryn was looking for her to fill a void in her life. When her biological mother stepped forward, she openly admitted her mistake and told her side of the story. She had been sexually attacked at the age of sixteen, had the baby alone in her bedroom and headed to Burger King. She is relieved to know her baby is such a wonderful young woman. Katheryn’s biological mother cannot thank her parents enough for what they have done for her baby. Katheryn said when she met her biological mother there was a lot of emotions and everyone was excited. Maybe the people were just excited on Palm Sunday because they were reunited with the people in their lives? If you like seeing the most important people in your life, occasionally say, “Hosanna!”

Some were energized because they had renewed hope! The source of that hope was Jesus. Everyone knew the name Jesus. Everyone had heard about his teachings. Everyone had heard about his healings. Jesus was the one who brought Lazarus back to life! Some had felt his powerful presence. Everyone believed Jesus was going to usher in something new, and they were hungry for change. There is no other way to say it. The crowd was energized because Jesus was offering them hope. They had grown tired of Roman rules and domination. They longed for political change. Everything they did that day was political. They laid palm branches on the ground and waved them in the air. That is what previous generations did for their conquering heroes. They yelled political things. “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” They were excited because they knew change was coming. They were right, yet they were wrong. Change was coming but it was not political change. Jesus did not come for political change. Jesus came for spiritual change. Jesus came to lead a spiritual revolution. You know the story.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end. For Jesus, there would be no turning back. This is the truth. Holy Week means nothing for those who believe they can earn your salvation. It is nothing more than a celebration Spring or an excuse to eat ham. However, for those of us who understand our only hope for salvation is in the sacrificial death of Jesus, Holy Week means so much more. It is not enough to just return next week and celebrate the resurrection. This is so much more.

This year, I challenge you to take a few minutes out of each day this week and remember what Jesus did on that day. It will change the way you experience Palm Sunday. It will change the way you experience Easter. This is what the scriptures tell us:

          On Palm Sunday, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem by the crowd. He was the eye of the storm. It was the point of no return. He spent that night in Bethany.

On Holy Monday, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. On the way he cursed the fig tree because it was not baring fruit, like the Hebrew faith had stop bearing fruit. It would be the only thing Jesus ever cursed. Then, he drove the money changers out of the temple. It was a place of prayer, not profit. He returned to Bethany that night.

On Holy Tuesday, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and saw the dead fig tree. He went to the temple and frustrated the authorities. He went to the Mount of Olives and taught about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of time.

On Holy Wednesday, Jesus rested. Jesus did nothing of note on that day. However, it was on Wednesday, Judas Iscariot agreed to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, and Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume. The Master was preparing to die.

On Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and had his last supper with them. He transformed the traditional Seder into something new, communion, a living memorial. In the evening, Jesus went to the garden to prayer. It was there Judas Iscariot betrayed him with a kiss and was arrested. He was taken to the home of the High Priest, Caiaphas. They made their case against Jesus.

On Holy Friday, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pitot sentenced Jesus to death. The order was carried out and Jesus, the sinless one, was executed between two criminals. He was the perfect sacrifice. His sacrificial death covered the sins of the world. That means he died for you. Jesus’s corpse was claimed by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They placed it in a tomb.

On Holy Saturday, some call it “Silent Saturday,” nothing happened because Jesus was dead.

On Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, Jesus returns to life and changes our world forever. Without Jesus there is no hope of eternal life. He died for all of us, and it all began on Palm Sunday, the beginning of the end.

Last week, I told you about the cathedral in Milan, Italy. Do you remember? It is

such a large structure with five front doors. Each door leads to a different aisle in the sanctuary. The center three doors have carvings of note. Over the arch of one of the side doors is a carved wreath of roses, and underneath it is the legend, “All that which pleases is but for a moment.” Over arch of the other side door is sculptured a cross, and there are the words, “All that which troubles us is but for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “Only the eternal is important.” Jesus came to save our souls.

Cheers and Tears

We find ourselves today in the eleventh chapter of Mark. (Mark 11:1-11) Like visiting an old friend, we find these words to be comforting. According to the text, it was time for the Passover. A time to remember their proud past as God’s Chosen People. The law required the people to attend within a certain radius, however no legislation was necessary. Everyone wanted to be a part of the great holiday. It was a time to do three things. First, they made their annual animal sacrifice at the temple. Second, they paid their annual taxes. Third, it was a time to reconnect with family and friends. It is for that reason that everyone wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. Over the years, preachers, including myself, have emphasized the massive cheering crowd. Let me say this clearly.

It was a great crowd of people! The size of the crowd cannot be over emphasized. Mark says many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut palm branches from nearby fields. Some people followed Jesus; some people ran ahead of Jesus (Mark 11:8-9). Matthew calls it a very large crowd (Matthew 21:8). Luke says the crowd was so great that the religious leaders encouraged Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 19:39). John tells of a great crowd that had gathered for the festival (John 12:12). You cannot question the size of the crowd.

It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to 2,500,000 on that Passover. That is based on the number of animal sacrifices made. That was a massive crowd at that time in that place in history. That was 1% of their world’s population. According to the United States Census Bureau, the total world population in the year 33 AD was approximately 285 million. If 2.5 million people were present in Jerusalem on the day Jesus entered, then approximately .9% of the world’s population was present. Those numbers are hard to comprehend, but it is safe to say approximately 1% of the world’s population was present in Jerusalem that day. (1% of the world’s population today is 7.8 million.) The largest Christian gathering in the history of the world is six million. That crowd gathered in 2015, when the Pope went to Manila. It was a great crowd of people. However, the size of the crowd was not everything. You can question the integrity of the crowd. They were selfish. They all wanted something from Jesus.

There is an old preaching story about a rabbi who was visiting a friend. He took the friend to a window and asked him what he saw. The friend replied, “I see men, women and children.” Then, he took his friend to a mirror and asked, “What do you see now?” The friend replied, “I see myself!” The rabbi replied, “That is the choice we must make in life! Are we going to look through the window and see others? Or are we going to look at the mirror and only see ourselves?” You are a disciple of Jesus Christ! You have no choice. Jesus looked through the window and saw the needs of this world. You must look through the window too. That was not the case of the crowd. That is not the case of many in our world. Selfishness blinds us of the real meaning behind Palm Sunday. Just think about it.

Some cheered for Jesus for political reasons! Some in the crowd expected a political Messiah. They had grown tired of foreign domination. They had grown tired of Roman ways and laws. They longed for independence and believed Jesus had everything needed to lead a successful political revolution. Just like their ancestors did in the past after a successful military campaign, they waved palms and chanted political slogans. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” Hosanna in the highest heaven.” They were not wrong. Jesus did have the right stuff for political success, but they missed the memo. Jesus did not come with a political agenda. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. Jesus came to be the bridge between mankind and God. Do you know of anyone who tries to use Jesus politically? They say true Christians are their political party.

Some cheered for Jesus for personal reasons! Jesus’s miracles were well known. They had heard how Jesus brought sight to the blind. They had heard how Jesus got the lame to walk. They had heard how Jesus had exercised demons. If Jesus could do that for others, then why not them, or a loved one? The crowd was filled with the blind, the lame, and the limited. They cheered for Jesus to get his attention because they wanted a healing. The problem is they did not get the memo. Jesus did not come to improve their health care system. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. He came to be the bridge between mankind and God. If you get the point say, “Hosanna!” Do you know of anyone who is mad at God because a sick loved one was never healed?

Some cheered for Jesus because Jesus was popular! In 1997, Hanson had their one hit wonder, MMMBop. The song was nominated for a Grammy because everyone was listening to that catchy tune and those clever words. Hanson even sang the National Anthem the 1997 World Series between the Indians and the Marlins in Cleveland. Their father predicted they would become more popular than the Jackson Five. He was WRONG! Their popularity faded and no one has heard from Hanson in years. Rumor has it they are singing at birthday parties and grocery store openings. However, in 1997, they were trending. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus was trending.

On the lips of everyone was the name Jesus. Everybody seemed to have an opinion about him. Some believed and some did not believe, but everyone had an opinion. The problem is they did not get the memo. Jesus did not come to be a celebrity. Jesus came for spiritual reasons. He came to the bridge between mankind and God.Do you know of anyone who must be in the middle of the action?

For years preacher, including myself, have made a big deal about the size of the cheering crowd on that day. Perhaps, there is more. After all, the cheering crowd disbanded after a short time and the streets of Jerusalem grew quiet. However, the committed stayed near Jesus. It is safe to say a small minority in the crowd understood what was happening on that day. The Apostle Paul said it best nearly 30 years later in his letter to the Philippians. Speaking of Jesus, he said, “And being found in the appearance of a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” 

Annually, I attend the Mahoning Valley Spring District Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is not favorite part of my job. Our district is made up of 57 congregations. It is an afternoon filled with reports and voting. It is as exciting as it sounds. It never disappoints. The meeting rotates annually. This year, we host in on April 18. Several years ago, it was held at Warren Grace. On that day, a woman came up to me when the meeting concluded and asked, “Did you go to McKinley School?” I said, “Yes!” McKinley was my elementary school. She said, “I was your first-grade teacher!” I drew a blank. I had to look at her name tag. Her name is Mary Fuller. I thought, “Are you still alive?” I said, “You were a lot taller in those days.” We talked for a few moments about my experience in the first grade and then it was over. I enjoyed talking to her.

As I drove home, I thought about Mrs. Fuller. I do not have many memories. It was a long time ago. To be honest, I only have one clear recollection of the first grade. The date was November 22, 1963. The public address system crackled on. I can still hear our principle’s voice, Mr. Yerman, telling the school that President Kennedy (1917-1963) had been assassinated in Dallas. I remember looking at Mrs. Fuller. She seemed stunned. She walked out of the classroom and into the hall. She gathered with the other teachers. They were talking about the sad news, then something happened that caught me off guard.  I can remember one of the teachers began to cry. I do not think I will ever forget that sound. Those tears pierced my heart. Maybe we give too much time talking about the cheers of the massive crowd, and not enough time talking about tears of the committed minority? The crowd cheered on Palm Sunday. The committed cried on Good Friday.

On Friday evening we are going to gather at Green Haven Memorial Gardens. It is one of our local cemeteries. For what it is, it is a nice place. But what is it? It is a place for the dead. Some people will not go because it is a cemetery. They will be there soon enough. However, I think it is a place we must go. It underscores the fact that Jesus died. We will read the final words he uttered, and we will remember his pain. It is five days from now, but I know what I will hear when I leave. It happens every year. As I walk through the silent crowd after the closing words, I will hear someone crying. It will hit them like a ton of bricks, Jesus died for them! Jesus died for us! Jesus died for you and me. There will be no cheers on Friday evening, only tears. How many tears will you shed for Jesus on Friday? Rick Warren (born 1954) of the Saddleback Church in California said, “Nothing will shape your life more than the commits you make.” How committed are you?

Do You Remember?

We find ourselves today in the twenty-first chapter of Matthew. Like visiting an old friend, we find these words to be comforting. According to the text, a great crowd had gathered in the city of Jerusalem. The size of the crowd can’t be over emphasized. Matthew calls it a very large crowd (Matthew 21:8). Mark says many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut palm branches from nearby fields. Some people followed Jesus; some people ran ahead of Jesus (Mark 11:8-9). Luke says the crowd was so great that the religious leaders encouraged Jesus to rebuke them (Luke 19:39). John tells of a great crowd that had gathered for the festival (John 12:12). You can’t question the size of the crowd. It was great.

They had all come to celebrate the Passover, a time to remember their proud past as God’s Chosen People. The law required the people to attend, but no legislation was necessary. Everyone wanted to be a part of the great holiday. It was a time to do three things. First, they made their annual animal sacrifice at the temple. Second, they paid their annual taxes. Third, it was a time to reconnect with family and friends. It is for that reason that everyone wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Passover. It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to 2,500,000 on that Passover, and the name on the lips of everyone was “Jesus”. What was on the mind of the many was revolution.

They had grown tired of foreign domination. They had grown tired of Roman ways and laws. They longed for independence, and Jesus seemed to be the best person to lead a revolution. He seemed to have it all. He had the power to heal the sick. He had the power to control nature. He had the charisma to win over any crowd. The crowd seems to be trying to draft Jesus for this military position. Don’t ignore the next line. The crowd did political things. Just like their ancestors who experienced military victories, they spread cloaks and palm branches on the ground. Others waved palm branches and yelled, “Hosanna to the son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” They did all they could do to enlist Jesus, but there is something wrong with the picture. Two thousand years later, we see the imperfection clearly. Jesus wasn’t interested in the political scene of that generation. Jesus was only interested in eternity. That is why Jesus rode in on a humble animal and not a mighty steed. That generation was nearsighted and missed the reason why that day was so important.

I hope you don’t miss the significance of that day. Palm Sunday is not just the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. During Holy Week we remember what Jesus did each day. It is a spiritual pilgrimage. If you just show up next week and celebrate the resurrection, then you have cheated yourself of an opportunity to draw near to Jesus. In the history of the American church, there has never been a Palm Sunday like this one. Due to the pandemic, our daily routine has been upset. We suddenly have extra time. I would challenge you to take some of that time and remember what Jesus did every day of Holy Week. It is important for you do it this year, because we may never have this opportunity again. So, let me ask you this question: what do you remember?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Monday? According to the Bible, two significant things happened on that day.  The first event of Holy Monday was the cleansing of the Temple. It had nothing to do with fundraising to help some good cause but had everything to do with using the faith for personal gain. The Temple was a place of prayer, not profit. The church is a place of prayer, not profit. The second significant event of Holy Monday is the cursing of the fig tree. It was the only thing Jesus ever cursed. Like the bald eagle symbolizes America, the fig tree symbolized Israel. The cursing of the fig tree was an act of judgement upon Israel. God was doing something new. Do you remember what happened on Holy Monday?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Tuesday? According to the Bible, Jesus went back to the Temple, where he was challenged by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It was also there that he taught about the Kingdom of God. Two great stories came from that day. He taught about paying taxes to Caesar and he noticed a widow’s slim donation. He also told the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants and others. Then, he went to Bethany, near Jerusalem, where he was anointed. He was being prepared for death. Do you remember what happened on Holy Tuesday?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Wednesday? Some call it Spy Wednesday. It was on that day the plan to trap Jesus was conceived. One of his own, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Some say, he did it because he was greedy. Some say, he did it because he had grown tired of being an outsider. He was the only non-Galilean of the twelve. Some say, he did it to force Jesus’ hand. He never dreamed Jesus wouldn’t fight back. We don’t really know why he did it, but he did it. In the end, Judas Iscariot regretted his betrayal and committed suicide. There is nothing else to say. Do you remember what happened on Holy Wednesday?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Thursday? We call it Maundy Thursday. That was the day Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, showing true servant leadership. Then, they observed the Seder. It was a meal with a message. Everything they ate and everything they drank reminded them of their people’s past. After all, they were God’s Chosen. During the meal, Jesus changed the words and created a new memorial, Communion. The bread is his body and the wine’s his blood. After the meal was completed, Jesus comforted the disciples and went to the garden to pray. It was in the garden Jesus was arrested. Do you remember what happened on Holy Thursday?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Friday? We call it Good Friday. It was good for us, but bad for Jesus. He had two trials on that one day. The first trial was in front of his own people. It was a “kangaroo” court. Jesus never had a chance. He was found guilty. They wanted to execute Jesus, but they lacked the legal authority. For this reason, they sent him to the Roman Governor, Pilate. He knew Jesus was an innocent man, but he feared the mob. They rejected Jesus and accepted Barabbas. The order was given that Jesus must die. It was a public affair. It was a way of deterring crime. First came the whipping. Then came the crown of thorns. Finally came the cross, a Roman way to execute. Jesus was not tied to the cross; he was nailed to the cross. He was hung between two common criminals. His death came quickly, and they put his body in a tomb. The sky grew dark and the people wondered. His family and friends cried, because he was dead, and their dreams were gone. Do you remember what happened on Holy Friday?

Do you remember what happened on Holy Saturday? Some call it, Silent Saturday. Others call it Black Saturday or Easter Eve. There is nothing to remember about that day, because Jesus was dead. The people who loved Jesus, both family and friends, struggled with his death. Some of them were in shock. Some were in denial and some of them cried. Their great dreams of a bright future were over. Jesus was dead! Even today, people are uncomfortable with the death of Jesus. How comfortable are you with the death of Jesus? You know what happened on Sunday. It is the worst secret in the history of the world. It is also the very foundation of our faith. It changed everything.

One of the most beautiful places in the world is the cathedral in Milan, Italy. I had the good fortune to worship there several years ago. Worshippers are welcomed by three magnificent doorways. Over the first one, is a carving of a beautiful wreath of roses, and underneath it is the legend, “All which pleases is just for a moment.” Over the second is a sculpted cross, and the words, “All that troubles is just for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “Only the eternal is important.” The message is clear. We should live for the permanent and the eternal. How much time do you spend worrying about the temporary? The great pandemic has forced millions to worry around the world. How much time do you spend worrying about the eternal? The only things that really matter are those things that will matter in 100 years. What matters in 100 years? The only thing that will matter in 100 years is Jesus. Rick Warren (born 1954) is the founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in California. He once said, “Nothing will shape your life more than the commitments you make.”  How committed are you?