This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the Palm Sunday, 16 April 2000. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11.
A number of years ago, I went back to Truman State University for homecoming. For some reason, perhaps because Truman is a Division II school, the team that Truman was to play that day was not the typical homecoming opponent. Basically speaking, you schedule someone you know you can beat for homecoming in order to please the alumni and, thus, have a happy crowd. But this year that wasn’t the case, or maybe it was just that the other team didn’t want to roll over and play dead that year just the coach could win the game, please the alumni, and save his job.
So it came down to the final minutes of the game and Truman fighting back to take the lead in the final minute with a very long, forty-yard plus field goal. The crowd, naturally, went crazy and there was cheering and celebration on the sideline and in the stands. The only problem was that there was still some thirty seconds left in the game and Truman had to kick off.
The details of that final thirty seconds or so are lost in the passage of time but there was an excellent runback of the kickoff and one, or perhaps two, perfectly executed passes. And with some two seconds left on the clock, the opponent that day kicked an equally as long field goal to win the game and to cause a hush to fall over the previously jubilant students and alumni.
To me, Palm Sunday is a lot like that game. The Sunday before Passover, the crowds are cheering and welcoming the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem. Just as was the case with the cheering at the Truman State homecoming game those years ago, the cheering during Palm Sunday was premature.
The words of the crowd celebrate the seeming coronation of the new king. But within days of the cheering and celebration, the crowds will be jeering and calling for his crucifixion. And, more to the point, it was for something that wasn’t the case anyway. Yes, Jesus was to be king but not a king in the sense that many of the people who welcomed Him that Sunday wanted. And when they began to realize that Jesus wasn’t going to be the earthly king that they desired; when they began to realize that what He was asking them to do, the reason for his entrance on the donkey, they began to turn away from him.
It would seem that even then God’s people had a reputation for making great starts but not for completing them. And in this we are not alone. Many times in the Old Testament, the people of Israel are exhorted to continue onward.
Follow the whole way that God has laid out for you; only then will you live long and prosperous lives. (Deuteronomy 5: 33)
In the book of Jeremiah, which we read from last week, the people are exhorted to “Follow right to the end the way that I mark out for you.” (Jeremiah 7: 23)
Even Jesus warned his disciples about beginning a project without considering the cost. “Can you walk with me the whole way?” He asked Peter, James, and John in Matthew 16: 24.
Our journey in Christ is meant to end in celebration and there are going to be times when we wonder when that celebration is going to occur. We know what the cost of what Jesus asks us is; yet, we don’t always want to pay it.
Even, as we read in Mark 14: 66 – 72, Peter, the most vocal of the disciples, the one upon whom the church was to be built, felt so discouraged by the turn of events that he ultimately denied Christ three times. And Judas Iscariot felt so disillusioned by what Jesus really meant that he betrayed Him.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul was encouraging the young Christians at Philippi to behave in a manner appropriate to the gospel that they claimed to believe. In the text that we read today, Paul helps them to understand what it means to live the Christian life as he points to Christ as the ultimate model for our lives. As a servant Jesus focused on the needs and hurts of others; he listened to them, showed compassion for them, loved them. And he provided us with a model that allows God to build in us an attitude of service.
The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading for today pointed out that though there were times that he wanted to quit, God was there to help him. There were many times when Isaiah wanted to quit but he did not turn back. Whatever was thrown in his path, he found a way to overcome. In the end, Isaiah was able to ask, “Who will contend with me? Who are my adversaries?”
Jeremiah said, “I have stayed in God’s path, following his steps. I have not turned aside.” (Jeremiah 23: 11) Just as there are examples of God’s people not finishing the task before them, there are many visions of people who can and did go the whole way. King David was a man who finished the tasks before him (ask Goliath). He wrote in Psalm 110: 7 “Drinking from the stream as he goes, he can hold his head high in victory” and “Happy the pilgrims inspired by you with courage to make the ascents” in Psalm 84: 5.
Though we can cheer today, and we should cheer today, because we know that the King is coming, we must also realize that our task does not end today. Jesus knew that His business did not end on this day but rather at the end of the week. The same is true for us today.
When John Wesley began his ministry after Aldersgate, he had a confrontation with Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol:
Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.“ (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal)
The cheering will stop but that should not mean that work of the Lord remains unfinished. The challenge for us this day, as we walk with the Lord throughout this week and our own personal journey of life, is to complete that unfinished business.