That first Palm Sunday must have been wonderfully exciting for the friends of Jesus.
For Jesus came riding into Jerusalem with all his friends waving palm branches and shouting their alleluias. It was a bit like a victorious football team driving around London in an open-air bus, with all their supporters waving their and shouting their equivalent of ‘alleluia’ (‘Manchester City’? ‘Liverpool’?). I would have loved to have been part of the crowd on that day.
But how did Jesus feel? Did he get carried away by the emotion of the day? Not at all. Far from being over the moon with happiness, he felt desperately sad. So sad, that he began to cry (see Hebs 3.7). Luke tells us that Jesus “wept” over the city, because the people “did not recognise the time when God came to save” them. (Lk 19.41,44).
Unlike many people, Jesus wasn’t interested in personal success. The adoration of the crowds didn’t turn his head. Jesus was only interested in fulfilling God’s purpose for his life. That purpose was to turn the hearts of men and women back to God, and help them discover God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s purpose for their lives.
Four days later Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew that his enemies were out to get him, that Judas was about to betray him, and that the pain and disgrace of dying on a cross lay ahead of him. Knowing all this he began to cry again. Mark tells us: “Distress and anguish came over him”. He said to his disciples: “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me” (Mk 14.33,34). The thought of ending up on a cross must have horrified him: he would not have been human if he had not feared such a terrible death. He “prayed that if possible he might not have to go through that time of suffering. ‘Father, my Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet not what I want, but what you want” (14.35,36).
Anybody else would have done a runner, but not Jesus. Jesus was a man with a purpose – and his purpose was to live for God, whatever the cost. “Not what I want, but what you want”. For Jesus, fulfilling God’s purpose cost him his life.
The very next day – just five days after Palm Sunday – Jesus was crucified. The pain of the nails through his hands, the pain of his body hanging on the tree, must have been immense. Just as bad, if not worse, were the taunts of the passers-by. Nobody cared for him, nobody understood him, instead most mocked him. “The chief priests and teachers of the Law jeered at Jesus, saying to each other, ‘He saved others, but he cannot save himself” (Mark 15.31). The irony of it all was that there was truth in those taunts: it was precisely because he came to save others that he could not save himself. Had he come down from the Cross, he could never have fulfilled God’s purpose for his life.
Some thirty-five or so years after that first Palm Sunday the Letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who faced with increasing opposition, were in danger of abandoning their faith, he tells to look “to Jesus… so that you may not grow weary or give up” (Hebs 12.2-3 NRSV). In the words of the GNB:
Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing about the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right-hand side of God. Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners. So do not let yourselves be discouraged and give up. Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners. So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up.
Or as Peterson puts it in his paraphrase ‘The Message’:
Keep your eyes on JESUS, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s THERE, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. THAT will shoot adrenaline into your souls.
With Palm Sunday and Good Friday coming up, here is a message that we still need to hear.