March 29, 2015
Mark 14:1--15:47
Philippians 2:5-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16

Temptation Of The Palms

Passion Sunday

from the book
Sermons On The Second Reading
Series I, Cycle A

Richard W. Ferris

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A couple of years ago a popular slang expression came out that said: "Give it up." To show you that like someone who is being introduced or a piece of music that's about to be played, the person making the introduction will indubitably instruct you to "Give it up for...." And you applaud. You scream and yell and jump up and down. You do whatever it takes to show that you really are excited to see this person or hear this particular song. Go ahead; give it up.

If that phrase was around a couple of thousand years ago in Jerusalem, someone might well have instructed the crowd to "give it up for Jesus" as he rode into town on the back of that donkey. Along with waving palm branches and throwing down garments, the hosannas and alleluias of the assembled admirers could definitely have been construed as "giving it up for Jesus."

After all, this was an exciting time. Jesus of Nazareth was an exciting guy. He had the spunk to stand up to the self--righteous Pharisees. He made the little people feel just as important as the powerful and wealthy. He spoke with such authority that even the Roman soldiers seemed to listen to him. He befriended everybody, saint and sinner alike. And those stories about him!

It was said that he healed the sick. That he gave sight to the blind. That he could touch someone's crippled limb and make it healthy. There were even stories of how he made dead people come back to life.

Some people went so far as to say that Jesus was the promised Messiah - the long--awaited Savior of the people; the one who would lead Israel back to the greatness it had known under kings such as David and Solomon.

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So why not "give it up" for Jesus? If all this was true - the stories, the speculation, the miraculous abilities - then Jesus deserved complete devotion and loyalty. This was Jesus' day, and this crowd was Jesus' greatest fan club. Jesus deserved a welcome fit for a king, and more. For Jesus was truly sent by God. Or, so it seemed ... for the moment.

And this is precisely the temptation that Jesus faced on that day: to be who the people wanted him to be and not be who he really was. The temptation to give in to the desires of the crowd; to be worshiped and lifted up as a great charismatic leader; to fulfill the political agenda that others had in mind; to free the people from the Romans, not from their own sinfulness. The temptation was there to exploit his equality with God.

It was at this very point in his ministry, and in his life, that Jesus had to "give it up" for the people. He had to empty himself and become their servant, not their king. He had to humble himself completely, and walk through the next six days not only as one of them, but as one who would be thoroughly humiliated, condemned, and executed as a criminal. Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, handled like a piece of human garbage, so the powers that be might prove him weak and ineffective.

None of us go to a parade to give it up. None of us really go to see anyone famous or notorious to give it up. We go to receive. We stand in line and pay our money to be entertained. We wait in a crowd for hours just to get a glimpse of some celebrity, and if we're lucky, an autograph or some other piece of memorabilia we can take home with us. We want to get something for our efforts.

Those people standing along the roadside on Palm Sunday were willing to give it up for Jesus, only if they got something in return. They would cheer Jesus on as long as he took them where they wanted to go. They would support Jesus as long as he fulfilled the role they had picked out for him. But let Jesus waver from the path they wanted him to walk down, and suddenly he was walking alone.

We human beings are a fickle lot. We listen to speakers to hear what they have to say to us, not about anybody else. We want politicians to tell us things that are going to make our lives better, not necessarily things that will improve the world. We want instructors to teach us things we want to learn, not necessarily things they want to teach us. We want preachers to tell us we're doing good things and that we're headed in the right direction that will ultimately get us to heaven. We don't necessarily want to hear the truth. If a speaker doesn't have something to say to us, something that will directly affect our lives in the way we want them affected, we tune them out.

As a speaker, Jesus was no exception. As long as he kept the people entertained, they were happy. As long as he promised them a better life, they were interested. As long as it appeared he might be the one to set them free from the dreadful Romans who occupied their land, they followed him. But as soon as he was tested, and failed their test, he was abandoned.

How many times have we said, "Jesus could have ..."? How many times have we asked, "Why didn't Jesus...?" We think that if we were writing the script, we could have done a much better job. That's what some of Jesus' contemporary temporary followers thought, too. One of them even tried to rewrite the ending by forcing Jesus' hand. But it didn't work.

Jesus didn't give in to the temptation of the palms. He didn't budge an inch off the course his Father had set for him. Yes, he could have. He could have done a lot of things, and in our imaginations we can conjure up all kinds of different endings to Jesus' mission and ministry.

He could have taken the throne that the Palm Sunday crowd wanted to put him on. He could have led Israel to worldly dominance by crushing the Roman Empire with the mighty hand of God. He could have healed the nation of pestilence and disease. He could have fed all the hungry of the world with a bumper crop of manna from heaven like Israel had never seen before. He could have eradicated evil from the face of the earth and set up his kingdom right then and there.

He could have. He could have. We know he really could have. But he didn't. He didn't because he was Jesus. And that wasn't what Jesus was about. That was what those people were about. They celebrated him one day and condemned him the next. That's what we're about. We're like that when we try to make Jesus into something that he was never meant to be. We're like that when we still try to tempt Jesus by waving the palms and carrying a banner that makes Jesus out to be a leader who exemplifies our politics and our expectations for the future.

Jesus was never what people expected him to be. Jesus was always obedient. But he wasn't obedient to the passing whims and zealous aspirations of people. He was obedient to his Father in heaven, even to the point of death ... death on a cross.

In our human fickleness, we are also controlling. We have even been taught that we should control our own destinies. Hidden behind the Palm Sunday crowd's exuberance, were a controlling people. They were a people willing to manipulate the events at hand in order to determine a future that would be beneficial to them.

Is that any different than what we do today? Individuals use other individuals just to get what they want. Governments use other governments and even their own citizens to bring about the ends they desire. And we have adopted the philosophy that the ends do indeed justify the means, as long as the ends are in our favor.

Jesus didn't give in to that philosophy ... or did he? For Jesus, the means to the end that he wanted to achieve was the path to Calvary; a road less traveled. For Jesus, it was a trail of complete self--denial and sacrifice. To us, it was a mysterious walk that took Jesus from the adulation of the crowds to the glorification of God.

When you look at it that way, perhaps the temptation of the palms was not that great. If you have a choice between being revered by people or applauded by God, which would you choose? Of course the choice is not that easy if you consider that the cross stood between you and the glory that would come from God.

Jesus resisted the temptation of Palm Sunday. And because he was able to overcome any inkling to give in to his ego, he was able to fulfill his purpose on earth. As a lamb sacrificed on the altar, Jesus was given over to the enemy and died for our sins - crucified for us that we might have everlasting life.

And God exalted him. God, not the people in the crowd, gave him a name that is above every other name. He made it so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, not just on earth, but under the earth and in heaven as well; and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord.

We have to be careful not to be lured in by the temptation of palms. We have to be cautious not to jump on every bandwagon and cheerleading squad that puts Jesus up on a pedestal and hails him as the driving force behind whatever cause they have determined him to be "for" or "against."

Jesus' ministry was a demanding ministry. His mission was an urgent mission. He could not be sidetracked by every diversion that he faced. He had to keep focused, always, on the ultimate goal. He came into our world for one purpose. He achieved that purpose by giving it up, giving it all up, for us. "Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be exploited." Instead, he emptied himself.

Let's do "give it up" for Jesus. And the way to do that is not by being his cheering section, not by lining the streets and getting caught up in crowd hysteria. To give it up for Jesus, we have to focus on the same urgent mission that Jesus came to accomplish: the salvation of all humankind. Starting with our own circle of family and friends, and venturing out into the world around us, we give it up for Jesus by professing the name that causes every knee to bow and every tongue to confess - and by living a life that screams and shouts the name of Jesus in every kind act we do, and every caring word we speak.

We give it up for Jesus ... by giving up "ourselves."