Do You Understand?

I am at Ridges/Roxbury UMC and the United Methodist Church of  Springdale (both in the Stamford, CT) area this Palm Sunday.  The service at the Ridges/Roxbury church is at 9 and the service at the Springdale church is at 10:30.  You are welcome to attend.

The Scriptures for this Sunday are Luke 19: 28 – 40, Philippians 2: 5 – 11; and Luke 22: 14 – 23: 56.

This is a dramatization and presentation by Nathaniel Bartholomew.


The video of this sermon is at “Technology Update” – 14 June 2010


It is Palm Sunday; the people are singing songs of praises and shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” As the singing and shouts die down, a man enters.

“Do you understand what you are saying? Do you understand why you are shouting ‘Hosanna’?”

“Do you understand what this all means?”

“Do you understand what is going to happen in the next few days?

“Are you prepared for what is to come?”

I am Nathaniel Bartholomew and I was one of the twelve disciples. Speaking for my friends, I can say that we didn’t totally understand what was to come nor were we prepared at all for what happened this week two thousand years ago. You would have thought that after following Jesus for three years we would have understood, we would have been prepared; but we didn’t and we weren’t.

Maybe I should have understood. All my life I studied the Torah; sitting under a fig tree searching for meaning in the words that we were taught in temple school. It was there my friend Philip found me one day three years ago when he came to tell me how he and Andrew had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

You know, maybe I shouldn’t have answered that call. When Philip told me that the Messiah was from Nazareth, I could not help but say, “What good can come from Nazareth?”

You see, Nazareth was nothing; it didn’t even get a mention in the history books. If it were not for this week and what happened in Jerusalem, no one would have ever known about this little town in the Galilee. To grow up in the Galilee was one thing; the people in Jerusalem would go out of their way to avoid us. Only the Samaritans were treated worse. But if you grew up in the Galilee, you treated the people from Nazareth as the lowest of the low. And when Philip told me who he had found, I let my feelings show.

But I knew that God’s promise of a Messiah was true and that this Messiah could come from anywhere but we would have to look for Him. He would not come boldly with a mighty army but singularly and quietly. And when this Jesus of Nazareth told me how He had seen me, Nathaniel Bartholomew, studying under the fig tree; I knew that He was the true Messiah. And so I picked up my scrolls and I answered the call and joined the others He had called.

Such a group you could have never imagined. There was Simon, who would become Peter the Rock and his brother Andrew, John the beloved disciple and his brother James, my friend Philip who invited me to meet Jesus, Thomas who would go with me to Georgia, Matthew the former tax collector, James the Less (who hated it when you called him that), Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. Here we were, four fisherman, a tax collector, a scholar (sort of), two farmers, and two revolutionaries, with nothing in common, nothing that could have brought us together except a call from Jesus to follow Him. It was a call and still is a call that transcends all divisions and establishes a new fellowship, even today.

But we didn’t understand what that call meant then; even today, there are many who don’t understand what this call means. We had no idea what He was going to do, where He was going, or what we would learn from all of this. In fact, it wouldn’t be until this week was over that we would even begin to understand.

But still we answered the call and left our homes, our work, our studies, our families and followed Him. We would walk from town to town, listening and watching and helping. We would be there for all of the miracles; we would watch in amazement and wonder as He healed all those people, gave sight to the blind, gave the lame the power to walk again, returned lepers to society free of disease and infection, and let the deaf here again. We twice helped feed the multitudes. We should have understood; we should have known what was coming.

We were even sent out on our own and did many of the same things, just as He had taught us. But we still didn’t understand.

We heard Him speak in cryptic tones of rising from the dead, just as Lazarus had come back, just as the little girl had come back. But we still didn’t understand.

It was not easy following Jesus. It was a hard life and each day we were reminded that we were an occupied country and subject to foreign laws. We would pass squads of Roman soldiers marching in formation, oblivious to the surroundings and to the cries of the people.

We were not in charge of our own lands or our own lives. And when we came home, we would hear the cries from our families, of how the authorities had raised the taxes and how another family had been sold into slavery because they couldn’t pay the taxes. We would watch as our own leaders, the ones who had taught that the Messiah would come and deliver His people from oppression and hunger and sickness would consort with the Roman authorities to keep their positions of power.

How many times would the authorities tell us we had sinned because Jesus had healed someone on the Sabbath or because we ate with the “wrong” people? The authorities tried to keep us from speaking out against their alliances with Rome that kept them in power. Even today, as the crowds cheered as Jesus entered the city, they were telling us to keep the people quiet.

We were the ones blamed for undermining family life and leading the people astray. We were called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The authorities constantly sought a reason to arrest us for breaking some religious or political law.

Once there were many of us but each day some would leave, complaining and grumbling, expecting great things but never, never expecting that they would have to work for God.

“Turn the other cheek,” they asked, “We’ve turned the other cheek so many times we are spinning in circles.”

“Walk another mile”, they screamed, “We’ve walked so many miles we are almost in Damascus.

“Give our enemies our cloak?” they screamed, “They’ve taken everything else, what’s left for us?”

Each day we would see fewer and fewer people coming to hear the message or following us to the next town. Each day we would hear from the people that “We don’t want sacrifice; we don’t want to be servants; we don’t want the kingdom tomorrow, we want it now. And I don’t see this Jesus doing anything to bring us this freedom that He keeps teaching about. I’ve had it with this movement; I’m going home.”

They would say that it was one thing to have to work for the Romans but to have to work for God was ridiculous; God was supposed to work for them and free them from all of this. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and I am not certain that many people understand today.

And our friends, neighbors, and families would ask us when would this Messiah of ours raise up his army and throw out the Romans and their political allies and set us all free? When, they cried, would this kingdom that Jesus preached about, this Kingdom of God, come to be? They spoke of a revolution and could not understand how Jesus could call for sacrifice or servanthood.

But somehow it made sense to be with Jesus. Even with all of the hardships, even with the rejections, there were those whose lives were changed because they came to Jesus. And each person who came to Christ and had their lives changed because of that single encounter would tell others. And somehow that single person made the effort worthwhile.

But even today, in 2010, there are people calling for a life in Christ where Christ leads a mighty army, imposing spiritual laws that are just another set of man’s laws, not God’s law. They want to throw off what they call the yoke of tyranny but all they really want to do is exchange the power and authority. Let others do the work but give us they power, they cry. There are still those today who don’t understand.

It wasn’t as if we were immune or blind to these cries and these thoughts. James and John came to Jesus and sought assurances that they would have the favored seats of authority in this new kingdom. Simon the Zealot so hated the Romans and so wanted them out of our country that he would have done almost anything to throw them out of our country; he and Judas Iscariot often talked about how they could inspire the people to rise up and throw off the yoke of tyranny that so burdened our country and our people. But Simon would always hold off as if there was something about what Jesus said that made armed revolution seem wrong. We would find out too late that Judas Iscariot never could accept the alternative to armed revolution.

And then there was last week. We had gathered at a friend’s house in Bethany to begin planning for our celebration of Passover in Jerusalem this week. This was going to be the best Passover ever.

Jesus told James the Less and Thaddeus to go and find a room where we might hold a Passover meal. It had to be a place where we might gather in one group. It would not be just us, the twelve with Jesus, but with our families, our wives and children, and our friends. It was going to be a celebration.

He told Thomas and me to go into Bethany and get a young donkey for him to ride into the city on. Now, that didn’t seem quite right. If Jesus was to enter Jerusalem triumphantly, shouldn’t it have been on a proud white stallion? But He wanted a donkey and that is what we got.

And we began to think about what it would be like to walk into Jerusalem to the cheers and shouts of the people, to have the roads covered with palm branches so that the dust would not swirl around our feet and legs. To proudly walk into Jerusalem, to hear cheers instead of jeers, to be welcomed instead of ignored, these were our thoughts. It almost seemed as if a great burden had been lifted from our souls.

And then this woman came into our midst and sought out Jesus. Time and time again, through out our travels, people would come up to us and beg us to heal them or heal their children or give them sight. Some would just try to touch his cloak in the hope that a brief touch would cure them or bring relief to their pain.

But this woman was different; she didn’t say much. She came and knelt at His feet and began crying and with her tears she washed His feet. And then she dried his feet with her hair and anointed his feet with an exotic oil. It was the most expensive oil in the land and was saved for the preparation of the dead; it was not to be wasted or frivolously used and yet this woman gave it so freely.

Judas Iscariot was furious. He came up to Jesus and complained how this was a selfish and wasteful act. The poor would have been better off if she had sold the oil; she could have gotten one year’s salary for what she poured on Jesus’ feet. But Jesus just shook his head and said to Judas that we would always have the poor with us but we would not have Him for much longer. And as we heard Jesus speak of His death as if it were tomorrow, we still didn’t understand what he was talking about.

Judas was the group’s treasurer and he had a right to think about the money but it always seemed like it was the present, never about tomorrow. We didn’t understand it then but that was when Judas decided that he would not be a part of our group much longer.

So James and Thaddeus went to reserve the room where we would eat the Passover meal and Thomas and I went to get the donkey. And we made plans to enter Jerusalem in triumph and celebration.

But instead of being a week of celebration and joy, of one where our burden got lighter; it was almost as if our burden got even heavier. Oh yes, the people cheered as we entered the city! But you could see on their faces a look of confusion. They were cheering for Jesus and they were calling Him the King but you could see that they didn’t understand. What king enters a town on a donkey with a bunch of itinerant Galileans as his entourage? When Pilate entered Jerusalem, it was on a beautiful white stallion and he was accompanied by a thousand Roman troops. Where was the army that would bring in this Kingdom that Jesus spoke of? How could He and his twelve students create this New Kingdom?

On Tuesday, we went to the temple and we watched in horror and disbelief as Jesus erupted in violence against the money-changers and those who had turned the temple into some sort of general store where goods were bought and sold. This quiet, so gentle man from Nazareth, exploded with anger as He watched business men and religious people take the money from the pilgrims and say that their coins were no good, that they must use the temple money.

We knew that the people were being robbed. Matthew had been a tax collector and he knew the tricks that they used; he taught what to look for so that the people wouldn’t get cheated but when you have so many people coming into Jerusalem, it wasn’t possible to help every one of them.

The people would bring a young lamb or a calf for sacrifice but the religious authorities would find some sort of blemish in the skin of the young calf or lamb that was brought for sacrifice. They would tell the pilgrims that only certain lambs and certain calves could be used and you could buy what you needed from the businessman over there. They would buy the one you brought, of course; but it was a deal that always favored the businessman. And we wept as we watched the businessmen cheat the poor; we wept as we watched the religious authorities stand by the side and do nothing but laugh.

And it seemed as if it was only the poor who had to pay. In all the time we were there, we never saw someone rich pay more than they should have; in fact, it always seemed that the more money or power that you had, the better your treatment by the businessman in the courtyard and the priests in the temple. And we wondered and we watched and we began to understand why Jesus cared for the poor and the weak and the old and the hungry. And we began to understand why the poor and the forgotten sought Him out; those who should have done so ignored them and sought to curry favor with God through material goods, wealth, position and power. We began to understand that the Kingdom of God was not about power and position on earth but a new life.

And then Thursday would come and we had our Passover meal. The Passover Meal is a celebratory meal and yet this did not seem like a celebration. What good did it do to celebrate our entrance into Jerusalem when Jesus spoke of His death, of his body offered in sacrifice for us, of his blood sealing the covenant?

And the authorities would arrest Him that night and try Him in a kangaroo court and find Him guilty and then torture Him. And the authorities, religious and political, would parade Jesus before the masses, the very masses that today cheered Him as He entered the city. But now they would call for His crucifixion.

As we hid from the authorities, we watched as they crucified Him and we wondered how soon it would be before they came after us. And we would hear the people say that He saved others but He could save Himself.

As Jesus died on the Cross that Friday, we would remember all that He taught us and the frustration that He had as we never could seem to get it right. We would remember the long, dusty roads that we walked but we also remembered those whose lives were changed because of a brief encounter with Jesus. We would remember the fellowship and joyfulness that surrounded us as we went from town to town.

And now it was all gone. We didn’t understand how it could turn out this week. How could a week that started with cheers and celebration end so sadly and so bleakly? How could a week that started off so triumphantly end in sorrow and shame? Had all we done for three years, all the hope that we had brought to the people, been left to die on a hill outside of town?

What were we going to do? I couldn’t go back to the temple school. What could I learn from the most learned men in all of Israel that I hadn’t already learned from my friend and teacher? How could Peter, Andrew, James, and John ever return to the boats that sat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee or Thaddeus and James L. return to their farms when they had been part of this great movement? Was this movement that we had been a part of for three years and was as much a part of us to end on a hill far away?

But then there would be Sunday Morning and the news of the Resurrection.

We, the twelve and our friends and families didn’t understand what that Palm Sunday some two thousand years ago was about. There are some today who still don’t understand.

There are those today who claim to speak in His name. We hear the words of so many but they are the words of the false prophet, clothed not in the robes of an itinerant preacher or his disciples but the finery of some temple priest. These false prophets use the Bible to affirm and sanctify the present order of things. But Jesus Christ challenged that view. He taught us that we had the power to change the world.

These false prophets say that the answer is to raise up an army and fight the enemy with guns and bombs. But armies cannot feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick or free the oppressed; armies only keep the hungry without food and the naked without clothes and let the sick die and the oppressed still suffer. These false prophets would call upon God to destroy the enemy and bestow riches on all those who listen to them.

God could have easily destroyed the Romans who occupied our land and God could easily destroy our enemies today. But that was never the message nor is it the message today. And that is why people didn’t understand then and perhaps still don’t understand today.

But know this; the moment that Jesus entered Jerusalem on that lowly little donkey, the world began to change. A world that wanted a king to rule over them on earth received a Servant, one who called them and each of us to be a servant as well. People who wanted everything were shown that you must truly give everything up if you wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And the people would see that this Jesus, whom they would crown King on earth was willing to give up His life so that we would be free from slavery and sin.

It is hard to see Christ as the servant when we so much want Him to be some powerful and mighty king leading a might army that will drive away evil and let us live in wonderful luxury. It is even harder to be called to follow the servant and be a servant when it seems so much easier to seek a life of glory and power and ignore the suffering of others. We don’t want to suffer; we want to enjoy life.

Throughout the ages, it has always been the case that those who have never want to give it up or share it with those who do not have. When you are in power, the last thing that you want to do is give up or share your power. And yet that is exactly what Jesus did when He entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

He accepted the cheers of the crowd knowing full well that many in the crowd would call for his crucifixion on Friday. He knew that a call to be a servant before one could be a king would not be acceptable to either the authorities or those who sought power and glory.

We didn’t understand it that Sunday and most certainly what transpired during the week only added to our confusion. But when the week was over, we would begin to understand. We had been taught to love one another and offer our lives for the sake of the world. We were being sent out into the world to offer a new vision that was a visible and concrete alternative to the world of the present. In the Gospel message was the message that those who have been alienated from society were now welcome.

The old ways of power, position and might would no longer work. A world that placed its faith in the power and might of its military and its technology and its economic power was unable to defeat a man who preached hope and equality, who offered the same opportunity to all who would seek Him out and follow Him.

The world was defeated by the One who unmasked the illusions, exposed their lies, and showed them for what they truly were and are. He defeated them by letting them do their worst to him; and then He vanquished them by the power of God’s love and truth, weapons that are stronger than all the weapons of the world.

So today, we celebrate the triumphant entrance of the One and True King into the city, even though we know that He will die and it makes no sense to us that He should die.

But in His death, we will be set free. And if we do not celebrate Palm Sunday today, if we do not acknowledge Jesus as both King and Servant, then there can be no Holy Week, there can be no Good Friday and there will never be an Easter Sunday and a Resurrection.

And if we have no Easter Sunday, there is no hope. Now, do you understand?


2 thoughts on “Do You Understand?

  1. Pingback: Technology Update « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: How Do We Do Palm Sunday? | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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