Palm Sunday is one of the great festivals of the Christian Year. However, I have often wondered just what this day really does signify for most Christians. Is it simply a reminder that fickle human beings can shout “Hosanna” one day, and then a few days later, those same people cry, “Crucify him”? That’s certainly a part of the Holy Week story. But then it struck me that Palm Sunday’s real purpose is to remind us of the necessity of making a choice. Making a decision about who Jesus Christ is, and what claim Christ has on our lives.
When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, he made it abundantly clear that he was claiming his title as God’s Messiah! From that moment until now, people have had to decide: Do we believe him or not? Do we accept him or reject him? And that choice is still ours to make – whether it be today or at some point in the future.
There are, of course, always those voices that would like to eliminate this matter of decision from our faith. There is something in our human nature that just hates to make an ultimate decision of “Yes” or “No.” We have made such a virtue of openness and neutrality that we forget that it is the fundamental choices we make that actually shape our lives. The simple fact is you cannot remain neutral on the issue of who Jesus Christ is for you. Was Jesus of Nazareth a psychopathic fool, or was he the voice of our Creator trying to show us the best way to live out the gift of this life we’ve been given?
In this particular quandary, I have always felt sympathy for Pontius Pilate. Pilate tried as hard as anyone in history to avoid having to make a decision about who Jesus of Nazareth was.
For Pilate, accepting Jesus as the “Son of God” was preposterous. But crucifying an innocent man was equally distasteful. Why, wondered Pilate, did he have to do anything at all? Why couldn’t he just wash his hands of the whole disturbing affair? But even though Pilate was a powerful Roman Governor, and Jesus was a humble carpenter, Pilate stood confronted with this issue he could not get away from. We’d all like that, right? Life would be so much simpler without choices. But Palm Sunday confronts us with the reality of making choices.
As individuals, we make choices every day. The choice between sobriety or not. The choice between being honest or cheating. The choice between a life lived for God or a life lived for our self. At every turn, life confronts us with realities that we can no more wash our hands of than could Pilate wash his hands of his responsibility for Jesus of Nazareth. And today, Palm Sunday, we, too, are confronted with that choice, is Jesus Christ the Messiah or not?
Let’s consider those who on that first Palm Sunday chose not to accept Jesus as the Christ. For many people, Jesus was simply not the kind of Messiah they expected. He just didn’t live up to the promise! They wanted a king who would praise their lifestyle, denounce their enemies, justify their selfishness, and confirm their prejudices. They wanted a king who would triumphantly enter a royal city and stake his claim to authority. But by contrast, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was a pretty shabby affair. Instead of an army, there was a following of ragged peasants. Instead of generals and courtiers, there was a handful of very ordinary disciples. Instead of a warrior-king, there was a humble man riding on a donkey, a symbol of peace.
Jesus’ whole entrance into the city was a challenge to those who had preconceived notions of who their savior would be. But Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was also important. It said that God’s ways are not the world’s ways. It said that love and not hatred is what God most desires. It said that God’s power and God’s grace can save us, not human strength and wisdom.
The gospel writer tells us that Jesus wept over the city because of the people’s unwillingness to choose life over death. I believe God still weeps over the conflicts in this broken world of ours: the conflict between rich and poor; the conflict between people of different races or ethnic backgrounds; the conflict between those who worship the Living God in different ways and who are alienated from each other because of the differences in the way they worship.
But for those who chose to receive Jesus as their Savior and Lord on that day, it was a decision that transformed all of life.
There was Zacchaeus who had mishandled money. There were James and John who had mishandled their desire for recognition and power. There was Peter who in a moment of weakness had betrayed his best friend. And you have to wonder, what actually happened to change their lives? Well, I think what happened was that in Jesus Christ they each saw themselves more clearly than ever before. In Jesus Christ, they saw the possibilities of what it means to be fully and truly human – the way God created us to be. In Jesus Christ, they saw the love that forgives our past, and the transforming power of God that makes us into new people. So, what did they do? They made a choice — a choice to let Jesus Christ be the Savior of their broken lives, and the Lord of all! And that choice – that single choice – transformed their lives (and the lives of the people they encountered) forever.
I once heard a story about a new pastor who was called to a spiritually dead church in a small town in Oklahoma. The pastor spent the first week calling on as many members as possible, inviting them to the first Sunday service. But the effort failed. In spite of many calls, not a single member showed up for worship! So, the pastor placed a notice in the local paper stating that since the church was dead, the pastor was going to give it a decent, Christian burial. The funeral for the church would be held at 2 p.m. on the following Sunday. Morbidly curious, the whole town turned out for the “funeral.” In front of the pulpit, there was a large casket, smothered in flowers. After the eulogy was given, the pastor invited the congregation to come forward and pay their respects to the dead church. The long line of mourners filed by. Each one peered curiously into the open casket, and then quickly turned away with a guilty, sheepish look. They turned away because inside the casket, tilted at just the right angle was a mirror. As they looked into the casket, each person saw her or his own reflection. And in that moment, they thought about who they were as members of Christ’s body, the Church, as perhaps they never had before.
That is still what happens today when we allow the Living Christ to confront us in our brokenness. Each year, this special day, Palm Sunday, invites us to make a choice. We can continue to stand with the crowds that welcomed the savior they thought they needed. Or we can receive God’s Christ who was sent to us by the Father, and let our lives be made whole again by the power of God. As you begin this Holy Week, what is in your heart when you proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The choice is up to you!