Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 22, 2018
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Great Expectations

Palm & Passion Sunday – Mark 11:1-11, 15:6-15, and Philippians 2:5-11

 We usually call today “Palm Sunday,” but technically, it’s better to call it Palm and Passion Sunday.  This is following the Anglican ritual that followed the Roman Catholic ritual of designating the end of Lent as “Passiontide,” the season looking forward to the Passion, the suffering and death, of Jesus Christ.  

 To be honest, I’ve always thought that it made for a bit of a mess, but that’s okay.  Sometimes the best theology comes out of the biggest messes.  I’ve always thought today was a challenging day to preach because we begin with the reading of the Palms Gospel, which is a very joyous and exuberant text, then we move on to the Passion Gospel, which is a very heavy and serious text.  How do they belong together?  Do they even belong together?  In short, how do we get in such a short time from the shouts of praise on Palm Sunday to the shouts of “Crucify!” on Good Friday?  

 I think the answer to that question is that this is a story of unmet expectations.

 The grand occasions of life almost always create grand expectations, often unrealistic expectations.  We could say that about any number of occasions:  Christmas celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries, family vacations.  But maybe nothing creates greater expectations than a wedding.  My wife Sharon likes to watch these “bridal shows” on some channel.  There’s one called “Say Yes to the Dress.”  And it chronicles young women going to a swanky bridal shop to buy their “perfect” wedding dress.  Talk about high pressure and unrealistic expectations!  If you’ve ever seen the show, you know what I mean.  For so many of these ladies, everything has to be perfect.  The problem is that nothing is perfect.  Makes me glad I just rented a tux, and Sharon even told me what color vest to get.  

 Well, in first century Judea, the grandest occasion of all was the day of Passover.  In Judaism of the time, there were three great festivals:  Passover, Pentecost, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Of these, Passover was the most important.  

 All Jews that lived within a certain distance of Jerusalem, and I think at the time of Jesus it was considered to be a three days journey, were required to come to the city for each of these great festivals.  And many Jews that lived farther away would still go there every year at least for Passover.  And every Jew, no matter where they lived, was required to make at least one pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of these great festivals.  Most that came a long way would stay in the city for several months to attend all three

of them, but certainly they would be there for Passover.  I think I read one time that about a half a million pilgrims came to Jerusalem every year for Passover.  The very act of pilgrimage created expectations.  If you spend four months traveling to some place, you’re going to expect good things when you get there!

 And the very meaning of Passover created all kinds of expectations.  Passover is a celebration of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.  They remembered how God had intervened in the midst of history to set them free from a pagan empire.  And in the first century, they were once again living under the reign of a pagan empire, the Romans.  Many Jews expected each Passover that this would be the year when Messiah would come and set them free.  

 The city was abuzz with expectation.  Riots and protests were common.  The Romans would bring extra soldiers into the city because they knew that many times before, violence had broken out at Passover.  

 Into this context, Jesus came, riding on a donkey’s colt, a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah, who in chapter 9 of his writing, foretold of a king, coming on a donkey’s colt.  Mark even includes the detail that it was an animal that had never before been ridden.  Such an animal would be suitable for holy or royal use.  

 Jesus came through the villages of Bethany and Bethphage, and then rode down into the city off of the Mount of Olives.  The Mount of Olives is the hill directly east of Jerusalem, about a mile away, and about 200 feet higher than the city.  From the top of it, you have a magnificent view of the city.  I was privileged to stand on the Mount of Olives in 1996, and it was a magnificent experience.  As Jesus came down the Mount toward the Kidron Valley separating it from Jerusalem, his procession would have been in full view of much of the city, drawing even more attention.

 As he rode, people laid branches and coats on the ground in front of him, signs of royal homage.  And they shouted “Hosanna,” which is often understood as a shout of praise, but literally it means “Save now!”  It’s a cry for deliverance.  It is part of Psalm 118, which was used every year at Passover, a Psalm about God’s victory and deliverance.  

 In addition to all that, Jesus’ procession was also almost identical to that of Simon Maccabeus, about 150 years earlier.  Simon Maccabeus was the first king of Judea after the time of the Exile.  He and his brothers led a long but finally successful war of

independence against the Seleucid Empire, yet another pagan empire that had ruled Judea for a time.  

 Everything about Jesus’ entrance fit with the most popular understanding of the Messiah, that he would be a conquering warrior-king, like his ancestor David.  People expected the Messiah to defeat the pagans, throw them out, and restore the monarchy.  

 Jesus seemed to fit the part.  Never mind that Zechariah 9:9 foretold of a king of peace, not a warrior-king.  Never mind that a donkey was an animal of peace, not war.  Never mind that Jesus revealed himself to be a man of humility, not conquest.

 We heard earlier from Philippians 2:5-11 about the humility of Christ.  Only the most profound humility could compel the Son of God to lay aside his divine nature and divine rights and become a servant who suffered and died for sinners. 

 Why did Jesus do it?  Why did he enter the city in such a way?  Why did he “announce” his coming like this?  To fulfill a prophecy?  Yes, but I think there’s more to it.  I think the spectacle of Palm Sunday was necessary to provoke the reactions of the religious leadership, the Roman authorities, and the common people that paved the way to Good Friday.  

 Why was there such a quick turnaround of opinion?  We know the religious leaders and the Roman authorities hated Jesus, but why did he lose the support of the common person so quickly?  Is it just because we’re fickle?  Well, we are.  But that fickle?  No, I think the change of opinion came back to the way that Jesus did not meet people’s great expectation of what a Messiah would do.  They expected a conquering warrior-king, and they found a humble servant-king, and they weren’t happy.

 What do we do when God does not meet our expectations?  

 It’s inevitable.  We’re going to expect God to do things that he doesn’t do.  We’re going to expect him to intervene and remove us from a difficult situation.  We’re going to expect him to intervene and bring healing to someone we love.  We’re going to expect him to bring us “success” in some endeavor.  And he won’t always meet our expectations.  What do we do when he doesn’t?  Do we turn our backs on him?

 First, let’s answer the question:  Why does God sometimes not meet our expectations?  Let me propose a few answers:

 Maybe God doesn’t meet our expectations because we’re expecting something that is not in keeping with his will.  Maybe we expect him to give us success rather than us working for success. 

 Maybe God doesn’t meet our expectations because we’ve gotten ourselves into trouble, and then we’re expecting God to bail us out.

 Maybe God doesn’t meet our expectations because he knows it’s better for us in the long term to “go through” the difficulty that we’re expecting him to get us out of.  Jesus showed us by his own example that the Kingdom of God comes by obedience and patient suffering, not by ease or flashy showmanship.  

 And sometimes God doesn’t meet our expectations because he has something better in mind that we can’t even see.  I think that was the case in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.  Which is better?  A temporary earthly “salvation” from the Romans for a small group of people, or an eternal, heavenly salvation available to all?  

 It will test our faith when God doesn’t meet our expectations.  But before we turn our backs on him, we should pause and ask why God didn’t meet our expectations.  It may just be that he has chosen something better for us than we would choose for ourselves.  And no matter what God chooses for us, I believe these words to be true:  God works in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.  

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