I may be dating some of us here, but do you remember how the “Wide World of Sports” began every week? It would start with that familiar music and the words, “Reporting the thrill of victory!” Then it would go into shots of hurdlers and sprinters and long-distance runners triumphantly lunging toward the finish line, and pole vaulters clearing extraordinary heights and then floating gently back to earth, And then…then there was that one poor lone ski-jumper who every week would be seen starting down the ramp and then suddenly veering off to one side — arms, legs, skis flailing, head violently ricocheting off the snow packed surface just as announcer Jim McKay would say, “and the agony of defeat.” For an entire generation that one poor lone ski-jumper represented “the agony of defeat” in all of its infamous pain and humiliation.
What’s that got to do with Palm/Passion Sunday? Well, on this day, when the church commemorates our Lord’s entry in Jerusalem, we are reminded that things are not always what they seem. What seems like a victory may well lead to agony, while what initially appears as to be defeat may well be a threshold to triumph. This is true for Palm Sunday because it’s also Passion Sunday. For today is all about the agony of victory and the triumph of defeat.1
A little background might prove to be helpful here. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on young colt. There is rich meaning in this choice of animal. Kings would ride this animal as a sign that they were coming in peace, as opposed to a horse which meant they were coming to conquer. So Jesus’ choice of animal ride was symbolic, he was making a point. In this one symbolic act Jesus proclaimed himself a king, he proclaimed himself the Messiah who came in peace.
The Pharisees tried to shush the disciples and the people because they knew what Jesus was saying. The Pharisees were either insulted by the thought of Jesus being the King/Messiah and the people accepting him as such, or they were worried that the Romans would see this as an act of treason and hold the people accountable.Whatever the Pharisees feared, they were actively involved in trying to stop Jesus.
But what about the people? How did they interpret Jesus’ act?
Well, the people were in Jerusalem for the Passover. Scholars believe that as many as 100,000 people had come for the Passover Celebration. So the crowd was surely a mix of people from all over the region. Their common bond though, was their Jewish faith. They knew and understood the symbolism of Jesus’ act. They knew of the prophesy of Zechariah,
“Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion!
Shout, daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King comes to you!
He is righteous, and having salvation;
lowly, and riding on a donkey,
even on a colt, the foal of a donkey”2
The people were educated in their faith. The people had been raised to be on the look out for the Messiah/King. The people knew what to look for so they shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
But the question quickly becomes what kind of king, what kind of Messiah did the people understand Jesus to be? That’s still a question that resonates today. The Jewish crowd lived under Roman rule. While they were not enslaved as they had been in Egypt so many years ago, they weren’t free either. They were under the careful watch of the Romans. Pontius Pilate was the representative for the Romans, the regional governor in that area, and his power over the Jews were fairly sweeping. This meant that, for the average Jew, the Romans were the ones they felt they needed to be delivered from. So when Jesus comes into Jerusalem proclaiming himself king, many in the crowd must have said, “We’ve got a king! Glory to God! Hosanna! This king will deliver us from the Romans!” Many in the crowd wanted to overlook Jesus’ riding the colt, the symbol of peace, they wanted to see past that and think of Jesus as a military king, someone who would soon be leading an uprising against the Romans.
1Fred R. Anderson, March 31, 1996, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City, New York.
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Think how this must have made Jesus feel. This is the agony of victory. Jesus came to deliver the people not from the Romans, but from a much more dangerous enemy, sin — and sin’s consequence, death. But here he is riding into Jerusalem in kingly peace and the people don’t understand. They don’t get it. They want Jesus to be something he is not. The mob mentality takes over and soon the crowd grows to the point where this is not just an entrance but a parade, complete with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” In a single instant Jesus had become the object of great hope and expectation. How disappointed the people must have been to discover Jesus was not the kind of king they expected, not the kind of Messiah they wanted. How disappointing for Jesus to discover the people still did not understand, they still lacked the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Such disappointment led Jesus to cry over Jerusalem. Such disappointment led the people to move, in just a few days time, from shouts of “Hosanna!” to shouts of “Crucify Him!”
But Jesus knew what he was doing. He had, time after time, proclaimed his death to be near, proclaimed his death would come in Jerusalem, proclaimed that his death was necessary. But here was the city of Jerusalem welcoming him. How tempting it must have been for Jesus to give in to the will of the people and say, “O.K., I’ll be your kind of king, your sort of Messiah.” How tempting it must have been to simply respond to the expectations of the people, give them what they want. But Jesus stayed the course laid out for him by God. Jesus knew that what the people wanted, what the people expected, was different than what they needed. Jesus would be the only one who would go against the wishes of the crowd and say, “No. I will not be that kind of king. No. I am not that sort of Messiah.” And by doing this, Jesus knew full well it would cost him his life. But from the Cross comes our victory. From the Cross comes the triumph of defeat.
You know, as much as I’d like to think things have changed in 2000 years I don’t think that a lot has. We are still the people in the crowd. We still have our own set of misguided expectations of who God should be. We still have our demands that we place upon God and threaten God with our “leaving him” if he doesn’t meet our demands.
Just consider our call to be Christ’s Church right here at John Knox Presbyterian Church. How do we live out our calling? What is our focus? Who is our focus? Is the standard of success measured in worldly terms: a large membership, a fat budget, a full sanctuary?
Or, is our focus Biblical? Is our focus on others: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned?3
Put that way, the “right answer” seems obvious and most of the time we’re happy to give lip service to the “right answer” while we go on living self-centered lives and bargaining with God to get what we want out of him. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Do you know how tempting it is to stand up here each Sunday morning and simply offer up comforting good advice, rather than challenging Good News? Do you know how tempting it is to preach a gospel of success, rather than servanthood; a milk-toast Gospel of “God loves you and so do I, so go and live a happy life,” rather than preach the Gospel of the Cross that challenges us to worship and serve the Lord of our lives with the whole of our lives? Do you know how tempting it is to simply give you entertaining stories and humorous anecdotes, rather than proclaim the Word that promises to transform our lives in ways we may not expect and maybe don’t even want? That’s what I wrestle with weekly.
It’s tough for me to realize that some of the sermons you like the best are actually the weakest — that’s the agony of victory; While some of the best sermons I have preached you didn’t like, or you didn’t get, or they made you angry, yet the Word was faithfully proclaimed — that’s the triumph of defeat.
Think about your own lives. Where is it that you know the agony of victory and the triumph of defeat? Raising children? At work? At school? In personal relationships? When have you lived victory but been misunderstood in the process? When have you experienced apparent defeat only to discover you were really winning. Remember those times and you begin to catch a small glimpse into the mind of Jesus during Holy Week.
The Good News, the Gospel for today, is what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. The Good News, the Gospel for today, reminds us that we are the crowd on this Palm Sunday, we are the ones who seldom understand, we are the ones whose fickle nature often has us turning on our God when our demands are not met, when our expectations are not lived up to.
We are the ones who shout not only “Hosanna!” but also “Crucify Him!” Nevertheless, the Good News, the Gospel for today, drives us to give thanks that God’s love for us is bigger than our misguided demands and flawed expectations. The Gospel drives us to give God thanks for the love that will not die in Jesus Christ. The Gospel drives us to give thanks for the agony of victory and the triumph of defeat that makes life possible today, tomorrow, and in the age to come. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.