John 12:12-19, 1 Maccabees 13:43-48, 51-52, Zechariah 9:9-12: The Jesus You Need

Palm Sunday Aranthulas (610x350)Lent began with Jesus fasting.  Immediately after He was baptized, the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness to face down the devil.  During those 40 days, Jesus chose not to eat food, spending time in prayer and meditation, battling against the tempter.

Now those 40 days of temptation, of Lent, draw near to their end, which is the day of resurrection, Easter.  But before Lent finishes, we enter its most brutal week.  Lent began with Jesus alone, fasting.  But now, we find Jesus, not alone, but in a crowd.  A crowd gathers at Jerusalem, not to fast, but to eat the feast of Passover.

And this crowd will also tempt Jesus.  They will tempt Him to be what they want Him to be, not what God the Father would have Him be.  But how do we know that?  Ah, we have to go back to the time when Israel was a free nation, that span of time after they threw off the yoke of the Greeks but before Rome made them part of its empire.

We learn about this from some books that used to be in our Bibles, the Apocrypha.  Just open up your grandmother’s Lutheran German Bible and you will find them there, just like the other Old Testament books.  We learn of a Greek ruler, Antiochus, who was a vicious man, who cared little for the religious beliefs of the Jews.  He wanted the Jews to become culturally and religiously Greek.  And he would kill to make it so.

Antiochus decreed that he would put to death anyone who practiced the Jewish faith.  In 167 BC, he set up an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple and sacrificed a pig there, just to provoke the Jews.  The book of 1st Maccabees tells us of his tactics.  It says: “They put to death the women who had their children circumcised, the families of the women, and those who had performed the circumcisions.  Then they hung the infant boys from their mothers’ necks” (1 Maccabees 1:60-61).

Such religious oppression had so enraged the Jews that they began to revolt against Antiochus and his soldiers.  The battle raged for three years.  Then, in 164 BC, the leader of the resistance, Simon Maccabeus, recaptured Jerusalem.  He then cleansed and restored the Temple that Antiochus had defiled.

And what a joy that freedom was!  The Old Testament book of 1st Maccabees tells us:

On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the year 171, the Jews entered the citadel with shouts of praise, the waving of palm branches, and with lyres, cymbals, and stringed instruments, singing hymns and canticles.  A great enemy had been crushed and cast out from Israel. [1 Maccabees 13:51]

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

The crowd was waving palm branches, declaring the Messiah they wanted Jesus to be.  We want you to free us from the yoke of Rome, to make us, once again, a powerful and independent nation.  That’s what we want from you, Jesus.

We don’t care about you freeing us from sin.  Who cares about that?  We want heaven, right now, right here, in the way we want it!  Are you that Messiah, Jesus?  Be that Messiah for us!  The crowd tells Jesus who He should be.

And Jesus will be their king, but not as they expect.  Why were they there?  They came to see Jesus because they had heard that He had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 12:9).  Oh, good!  Now, we can fight against Rome, and we don’t have to worry.  Our Messiah has the power over death.  So they proclaim Him to be their king, the king who will ride into battle and slay the forces occupying Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

They sang their psalms to Jesus, words we know well:  “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  But those joyous shouts would soon turn to hate, even if they were later from a crowd whom the Jewish leadership had assembled.  They will shout, “Crucify Him!”  Earlier, the Jewish leadership had decided, “It is better that one man die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (John 11:50).

After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jewish leadership knew the people would look to Him to free them from Rome.  They foresaw a blood bath, knowing they could not defeat the Empire of Rome.  Jesus would have to die to save the nation of Israel.  They would manipulate events to kill Jesus.  Little did they know that their conspiring, treachery, backstabbing, and manipulation would lead—not to some temporary independence for Israel—but for the salvation of the world!

And so the hymn we sing, “My Song is Love Unknown,” becomes a reality:

Sometimes they strew his way and his sweet praises sing; resounding all the day hosannas to their King.  Then “Crucify!” is all their breath, and for His death they thirst and cry. [LSB 430, stanza 3]

We want you Jesus, but only if you’re the Jesus we want.  We are the crowd.  We want to make Jesus in our image, instead of letting Him make us in His image!  Like the people that Palm Sunday 2,000 years ago, we want Jesus on our terms.

Pastor, don’t preach about sin and death, tell me something practical, something relevant to my life, right now.  Oh, you mean like being free from Rome was relevant to the crowd, but not a Messiah dying for their sins.

And so our wants and wishes push Jesus away, for that’s what happens when what we want drives the show.  Give us what we want; free us from Rome.  And what we want then controls the Church as we say, “I want Jesus on my terms!”

But Jesus loves you too much to do that.  He won’t let you make Him into a Messiah shaped in your image.  Why would you think that Jesus would let you have spiritual ice cream and chocolate when you need broccoli and brussel sprouts?  No, He comes to give you what you need, not what you may want.

But even when we say “Yes” to Jesus, that He is my Lord no matter what, that my desires and wishes don’t matter, but only His do, we still fail.  And when we fail and realize it, fear can overtake us, for even when we trust God, there’s a part of us that does not.  We say we want a dead-on-the-cross Messiah, but our hearts want one who will give us the victory now, the one who frees us from the yoke of Rome.

And so Jesus enters Jerusalem to claim His kingship—not in palace or temple, but on the cross.  He speaks to us through the prophet Zechariah: “Fear not!”

But we who are weak and afraid, with as much doubt as belief, cannot come to Him.  We don’t even know where to look for this King, if He would not come to us and tell us.  We stumble around, pitching a fuss to get our way.  Then desperate, not knowing where to turn, we do what our sinful nature tells us to do, “Get what you want!”

We are the crowd!  We shout “hosanna” when it suits us, only later to shout “Crucify!”  Our songs of praise quickly become screams of rage and spite.  Free me from Rome, or I’m going to leave, Jesus.  We shout “Crucify,” not to Christ, but to the presence of Christ in our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

So we take our cue from, of all people, the Pharisees.  When they heard the shouts of “Hosanna,” they despaired: “Look!  The whole world is following Jesus!”  Jesus has called us to follow Him, the real Jesus, not the Jesus we want Him to be.  He calls us to follow wherever He leads.  That is why we celebrate Holy Week, every year.

Christ goes to His death, and He leads us to ours.  All that is sinful, all that is unholy within us must die with Jesus on the cross.  The shape of Holy Week is to become the shape of our Christian lives: We learn to praise the humble Christ as King and God in the flesh on Palm Sunday.  On Thursday, we receive Jesus in His body and blood, which gives us strength to bear our cross, even to face death, which is Good Friday.

Then, the life we live becomes a Holy Saturday, the time between death and Easter, the resurrection of our bodies.  It’s as the Apostle Paul says:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried with him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  [Romans 6:3-4]

Walking is a physical act.  So, walking in newness of life is walking in our sinless, resurrected bodies, no longer burdened with the fallen flesh of death.  That’s the great day of resurrection, our Easter, for all the baptized in Christ.

Jesus loves you too much to be the Jesus that you want Him to be.  He says, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; Your King comes to you.”  He comes to us.  We confess that every week in the Lord’s Supper liturgy, in those Palm-Sunday inspired words: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth adored!  Heaven and earth with full acclaim shout the glory of Your name.  Sing hosanna in the highest, sing hosanna to the Lord; truly blest is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

But those Palm-Sunday shaped words won’t let us remain stuck to the Jesus we want.  No, they point us to the real Jesus, to His real presence, the Jesus that He wants to be for us!  Jesus says, “Why do you want freedom from Rome when I give you eternal life, even a new heaven and new earth when I return in glory?”  “So, take and eat; this is my body; take and drink, this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The only Jesus you need is the dead, crucified, and risen Jesus, who gives you Himself in His Supper.  Jesus says, “Why do you want freedom from Rome, when you can have me?  And in me, all that is mine is yours.”  Amen.