When I was a kid growing up in Lemmon, South Dakota, we lived about half a block from the town library. Our little library wasn't all that big, but it did boasted something that I haven’t seen in other libraries. On one shelf near the librarian’s desk there were two stacks of ancient comic books, each about a foot high. You could look through these piles of dog-eared comics and pick out as many as ten. The librarian didn't even write down the titles, you just told her how many you had, and she wrote it down on your record.
From reading through those comic books over and over, I learned that the axiom is true – you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Some of the covers on those old comics depicted their super heroes struggling in ways that didn’t actually have anything to do with the story in that particular comic book.
And of course, we find this same thing playing out in our daily lives. What we see on the surface of things, is often very different from what we find below.
This is true of our sermon reading for today. On the surface it looks as if Jesus is being accepted by the masses as the true Messiah. But when we look below the surface, we find a little different story. The part of God’s Word on which we focus our attention today, is found in…
John 12:12-19 (NASB)
12 On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
13 took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.”
14 Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written,
15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.
17 So the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead, continued to testify about Him.
18 For this reason also the people went and met Him, because they heard that He had performed this sign.
19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him.”
Palm Sunday is all about this event: Jesus entering Jerusalem on the first day of Holy Week. This cheerful reception happened just five days before Jesus would be nailed to a wooden cross outside the city.
Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. This religious festival lasted a week long. Thousands of pilgrims streamed to Jerusalem, and to the Temple there, for this celebration.
Jesus would spend the week teaching the crowds of people and battling His enemies. They would engage Him time after time in word wars, trying to get Jesus to say something that would make Him look bad, and would turn the crowds against Him. Palm Sunday was Jesus’ first incursion into the city that week, the city that was home to His most powerful human enemies.
Now you wouldn’t think that just entering the city would be a big deal. But the WAY that Jesus entered Jerusalem ended up making quite a splash. To understand WHY, you have to know a little background about what Jesus had been up to lately.
Not long before Jesus headed to Jerusalem for the Passover, He had raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. Now, this wasn’t the first time that Jesus had raised someone from the dead, but it was the most remarkable time for a couple of reasons.
Jesus had raised a little girl from the dead in Capernaum, but when she was raised she hadn’t been dead for very long. If you were a doubter, you’d just say, “Well, maybe she wasn’t really dead at all”. And this resurrection took place behind closed doors, in the room where this little girl had been sick. There weren’t many witnesses.
Jesus had also raised a young man from the dead in the city of Nain. This miracle had been a little more public. Jesus had met the funeral procession as they carried the young man’s body to the tombs. But even though there were more witnesses on this occasion, doubters might still say, “Well, maybe he wasn’t really dead, and Jesus’ touch just shook him out of his sleep coma”.
But when Jesus raised Lazarus, it was astounding. Not only were there many witnesses, Lazarus had been dead and entombed for four days. When Jesus had told them to open the door to the tomb, Lazarus’ sister protested, saying that by now there would be a bad smell in the tomb.
But Jesus had the door opened all the same. And when He called Lazarus to come out, the dead man listened, and Lazarus exited the tomb alive again, dressed in the grave clothes in which they had laid him to rest.
The resurrection of Lazarus had happened just a short time before Jesus came up to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was fresh in the minds of all the people. Also, Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, had lived in the city of Bethany. That was less than two miles south of Jerusalem!
During the week of the Passover, Jesus didn’t stay in Jerusalem. He would stay in Bethany and would walk in to Jerusalem each morning.
So, on the day before Palm Sunday, a special meal was held in Bethany, in honor of Jesus. The recently resurrected Lazarus was at this meal. So was Mary, Lazarus’s sister. It was at this meal that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with an expensive and aromatic perfume. She was no doubt thanking Him for raising her brother from the dead. No doubt she was also expressing her faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
This, of course, was too great an attraction for the crowds in Jerusalem to stay away. Jesus and the man He had raised from the dead are both in Bethany?! And so people began to shuffle out of Jerusalem to head for Bethany. And many of those who came and saw, left believing in Jesus. (John 12:9-11)
The raising of Lazarus from the dead, was the catalyst which brought about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
As Jesus got ready to head to the holy city on the morning of Palm Sunday, people rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the masses that He was on His way. And crowds came out from the city to greet the man whom they now believed was the Messiah sent from God – the King of Israel.
That they truly believed Jesus was the Messiah is shown by their own words and actions. They went out in droves to cut down palm branches in order to make a green carpet for Jesus to enter the city on. Some even took of their own cloaks and laid them on the dirt so that the little donkey could walk on them – and not on the dusty ground.
They greeted Jesus with bits and pieces of Psalms. There were Old Testament Psalms, which spoke of the Messiah to come. And this crowd of praising people openly called Jesus the “King of Israel”.
Of course, by this they didn’t mean just a lowly king like Herod, who ruled under the Roman overlords. They meant the eternal king that God had promised to old king David. Over a thousand years before, God had promised David that some day, from His family, would come a king who would rule an eternal kingdom. The crowd looked at Jesus and saw this Messiah King.
With their joyful cries that Palm Sunday they were telling Jesus, “We know of your great power! We know who you must be! And we praise you as our great king!”
On the surface, their words and actions sound good and right. They were proclaiming the truth. But under the surface, they didn’t really understand what kind of Messiah King Jesus had come to be.
They just saw the amazing power He had. I think we can imagine what they must have been thinking. The Jews had long chaffed under the insensitive and sometimes brutal rule of the Roman Empire. And now a powerful liberator had come to them. How could Rome ever hope to stand against a general who could heal diseases and raise His soldiers from the dead?!
But this was not the kind of King that Jesus had come to be. His reign would be much more significant than this. Instead of liberating the little nation of Israel from the rule of Rome, Jesus had come to free mankind from sin and sin’s divine consequences.
Jesus hinted at the kind of Messiah He was coming to be by the animal that He rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. That morning, Jesus had instructed two of His disciples to go and get a donkey from a certain place and bring it back for Him to ride into the city. This was unusual. Jesus usually walked.
And it’s all the more strange when you think of the immense power that Jesus had just so recently demonstrated. You would think that the man who could walk on water, heal lepers, and raise the dead from their tombs would choose a more potent symbol of majesty and strength than a little baby donkey. Yes, it was actually not just any donkey, it was a foal.
Jesus’ disciples had no idea what He was doing. But later they would understand that Jesus had chosen this little donkey to fulfill another Old Testament prophecy concerning the Messiah. In the book of Zechariah there’s an ancient vision of the Messiah King, and in this vision He is described as being humble, coming to bring salvation to Jerusalem, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
But at the time, the disciples didn’t understand that Jesus was fulfilling prophecy. And they also failed to see past the surface to understand the symbolism of this shaggy creature.
A donkey is a beast of burden. You use them to carry things you don’t want to carry. Jesus came to Jerusalem in order to bear the burden of our sins.
This particular donkey was a little baby. It wasn’t a symbol of strength and power. It was a symbol of humility. Jesus came to humbly accept the punishment for our sins, and to carry that burden away forever by suffering and dying, in our place.
He came humbly, to bear the sinner’s burden. That’s is the significance of the little donkey.
But they didn’t understand. Not the people. Not the disciples. As was the case with so many of the times that Jesus fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah, the people around Him didn’t understand until after He Himself had been raised from the dead.
It’s a sad thing that when you look past the surface of these events, you find a hollow faith. These people praised Jesus for His outward power, but ultimately they missed the point. They did not grasp the true significance of the Messiah King – that He was there to take their sins away forever.
Faith in Jesus merely as a miracle worker, is not saving faith. This brand of “faith” happened back in Jesus’ day, and it still happens today when people treat Jesus like a good-luck charm, or merely a good person to pray to when you really need something.
Is Jesus these things? Sure. But that’s just the surface. True faith in Jesus, saving faith, starts at the cross. Saving faith clings to the fact that Jesus suffered and died for ME, because more than anything else, Jesus is Mankind’s Savior from Sin.
He didn’t come to end hunger by feeding everyone miracle bread. He didn’t come to end thirst by giving people miracle water. He didn’t come to end governmental brutality by destroying the regimes of tyrannical men. He came to restore sinful mankind to a right relationship with God by absorbing the punishment for sin, thus cleansing sinners from guilt. THAT is the Messiah King that God’s Son came to be.
Let’s be careful not to praise Jesus like the crowds did that first Palm Sunday, merely for His power over death, or His power to help us in our daily lives by getting us out of debt, or landing us that new job, or restoring our health, or whatever thing we might be praying about. Instead, let’s make sure that our praise always begins at the cross.
THERE our sins were suffered for. THERE our greatest debt was paid. The debt we owed to God. THERE we were cleansed by the blood of God’s own Son. There we are made citizens of the Messiah’s Eternal Kingdom.
Prayer: Dear Father in Heaven, help us never to treat Jesus like a good luck charm. Help us not to come to Him only to ask selfish prayers. But instead, help us to see our sins, and to come to Jesus for forgiveness, and to praise and thank Him for this forgiveness. Lord, help us to learn to know who you are beyond the surface, through reading your Holy Word and meditating on it day by day. Thank you Jesus for going to Jerusalem and facing all that you did to make us your people. We praise you from the heart today. Let all who gather here today also praise you in heaven one day, carried there by faith in your cross. Amen.