Palm Sunday Sermon

Maccabees (610x351)Today, we’re saddled with an Old Testament that Jesus and His disciples didn’t use.  They used the Septuagint, which was the Old Testament translated into Greek.  But what distinguishes their Old Testament from ours even more is that it had books that our Old Testament is lacking.  Those were also books that we Lutherans had in our Bibles until we transitioned into speaking, reading, and worshiping in English.  We call those books of the Old Testament the “Apocrypha.”

Now I bring this up, not to yearn for days past, but to help us understand a worldview that people had in Jesus’ day, of which we know little.  Two books of the Apocrypha tell us about a man named Judas Maccabeus, Maccabeus being a nickname meaning “The Hammer.”  We know of him from the Old Testament Apocrypha books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees.

The Hammer emerged when a foreigner was ruling over Judea, named Antiochus Epiphanes.  Now Antiochus was a brutal man who cared little for the religious beliefs or culture of the Jews over which he ruled.  Antiochus decreed that anyone who practiced the Jewish faith would be put to death.   In 167 BC, he set up an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple and sacrificed a pig on it, perhaps, just to infuriate the Jews.

The book of 1st Maccabees in the Old Testament Apocrypha tells us of his tactics: “They put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them, and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks” (1 Maccabees 1:60-61).

If you were a Jew back then, how would you have reacted?  That set off a firestorm.  Outraged by such barbarity, an older man of priestly lineage, named Mattathias, called his five sons and gathered all the weapons he could find.  That was the beginning of a guerrilla campaign against Antiochus and his soldiers.  Although Mattathias died shortly after that, his son, Judas, took over the campaign.  Three years later, in 164 BC, Judas cleansed and rededicated the Temple that Antiochus had defiled.

But it took another full 20 years before Judea became an independent nation.  Then Judas’ brother, Simon, was the ruler.  Through his diplomacy, he achieved Judean independence, setting up what would become an independent Jewish nation for a full century.  Of course, when Judea became an independent Israel, a massive celebration erupted.  The Old Testament book of 1st Maccabees tells us:

On the 23rd day of the second month, in the 171st year, the Jews entered Jerusalem with shouts of praise, the waving of palm branches, the playing of harps, cymbals, and stringed instruments, and the singing of hymns and canticles because a powerful enemy had been crushed and cast out of Israel [1 Maccabees 13:51].

Later, this independent Israel issued its own coins, which would have palm branches emblazoned on them.  Palm branches then became the symbol of a free and independent Israel.

Knowing 1st and 2nd Maccabees allows us to read the minds of those who are waving the palm branches.  They are going out to meet Jesus, hoping that He is coming to cast out and defeat another powerful enemy from Israel, this time Rome.  What do the palms tell us?  They announce: “We are tired of being subjugated.  We want our country back once more.  And you look like the man for the moment.  Welcome, our conquering king!  Hail to our hero!”

The crowd of Palm Sunday also reminds of another multitude in Matthew’s Gospel: The 5,000 men whom Jesus miraculously fed.  That crowd also got Jesus wrong, which John Chapter 6 tells us about at length.  The crowd wanted an earthly king to fill their bellies.

On that Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago, the crowd was clamoring for an earthly king who would free Judea from Roman rule.  Now we could guess this could be the case without reading and knowing about the Old Testament books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees.  But after reading those books, we understand the meaning that palm branches had for the people back then.

Those waving their palm branches correctly see Jesus riding into Jerusalem as a triumph–except they wanted the wrong Jesus and the wrong victory!  They wanted the Jesus of their own making.  It’s true that Jesus did come to conquer, but not Rome.  No, He came to conquer sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus rode into the Jerusalem, not to deal in death or to sidestep it, but to meet it head-on.  And He would conquer death itself by dying.

The people’s confusion was even further increased when, after riding into Jerusalem, Jesus cleansed the Temple.  That, too, reminded the people of Judas Maccabeus who cleansed the Temple for the proper worship of God.

Like the crowd of 2,000 years ago, which Jesus do you seek?  Which Jesus do you want?  The crowd wanted a Jesus to meet their earthly expectations.  Is that your Jesus, or does your Jesus view life from an eternal perspective?  What good is a slice of bread, if it leaves you dry for eternity?

Then why did Jesus do what He did?  Why did He go around healing?  Why did He feed two different crowds, one with 4,000 and another with 5,000?  Why did He restore the dead to life and cast out demons?  Why did He cure people of blindness?  Why did He ride into Jerusalem?  It’s because He is the Lord of Life, who came to bring true and endless life through His death to us fallen beings.

Jesus hates sin, and the horrendous aftermath that sin brings to your life.  That’s what He came to conquer.  That’s why He came riding on a humbled foal of a donkey.  He came to conquer, not earthly rulers and powers, but Satan and death, bringing us back to God.

Our hearts have changed little over the last 2,000 years.  In the Palm-Sunday crowd that was shouting “Hosanna,” we see a picture of ourselves.  The people were wandering about in spiritual poverty; yet, they didn’t even recognize it–and so they sought for earthly power and gain.  We, too, are wandering in spiritual poverty–and that’s why our earthly wants and needs make up most of our prayers to God.

That day, the shouts of “Hosanna” didn’t fool Jesus.  He knew that those shouts of praise would have a short lifespan.  For they were based of false expectations of Him.  Jesus knew that before the week would be over another cry would come from the fickle lips of the people: “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!  Let his blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25).  Jesus even knew that His own disciples would deny Him and that one of them would even betray Him.  Yet, Jesus rode on.

He rode on, not because of the momentary popularity that it would give Him but because that act would culminate in the cross.  That is, after all, why He came into the world.  That’s why He, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophetic word, rode on that donkey into Jerusalem as the King going to His throne, as a bridegroom going to His bride.  For “the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2).

And that is why you are here, even if you don’t realize that.  You are here to learn of–not the Jesus you may be seeking or wanting–but the Jesus you need.  You are here to get the real Jesus.  For you don’t need a Jesus who panders to your earthly wants.  You need a Savior who heals sin itself.

So, where do you get a Savior who doesn’t just provide for the flesh, but even changes the heart?  Where do you hear of a Savior who willingly bears the sins of the world and endures all the suffering that we deserve, so we might have life?  For that’s the Savior we need.  That was the Savior the crowd needed.  And that was the Savior Jesus was.

Jesus didn’t meet the expectations of the crowd that day.  Instead, He gave them more.  Jesus also gives us more.  Instead of pandering to our earthly wishes, He brings to you His resurrected life!

So, where do you get a Savior who doesn’t just provide for the flesh, but even changes the heart?  It’s in holy baptism.  There, the Holy Spirit marked you as one whom Christ the crucified has redeemed.  In baptism, God “saved you … through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), who brings you with Christ Jesus through death into new life as a firstborn son of God.

So, where do you get a Savior who doesn’t just provide for the flesh, but even changes the heart?  It’s in holy absolution.  That’s the part at the start of the service where you hear, “I forgive you all your sins.”  In absolution, the Lord Christ proclaims you to be saved and sets you apart for holy service.

So, where do you get a Savior who doesn’t just provide for the flesh, but even changes the heart?  It’s in the holy supper.  There, we feast on the true body and blood of the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  Then, He sends us out in His Name to serve others with the blessings that He places into our hands.  And we do so as if it we are serving the Lord Himself who has need of them.

Behold, your Lamb comes to you.  He is righteous and has salvation for you–today.  Come now to receive Him.  Hosanna to the son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!  Amen.