April 6, 2016

March 20, 2016 - Palm Sunday

The Palm Sunday Worship Experience
1) Sustained by the unstoppable Word
2) Expressed by simple obedience

Dear friends in Christ, our text for study this Palm Sunday comes from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 19, verses 29-40. We begin with the very last verses of that section:

39 And some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, "Teacher, rebuke Your disciples." 40 But Jesus answered and said to them, "I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out."

We know the Palm Sunday story well. It’s an important event in our faith, so important in fact, that it’s included in all 4 Gospel accounts. Not many of the events in Jesus’ ministry are recorded in each Gospel, that alone, should help us recognize its significance for our lives. There are many things about the Palm Sunday story that are unique, and therefore it’s pretty easy to remember. You have the colt. You have the palm branches. You have the shouts of praise upon entering Jerusalem. The purpose is easy to grasp. Palm Sunday is about the glory of our Savior as He approached the cross. In a way, it’s the victory processional of our King, riding on to defeat sin, death, and hell. That’s probably what most people think about when they consider Palm Sunday, and for good reason.

However, I’d like to adjust your focus to something else this morning, something that we also clearly see through the Palm Sunday story, even if we don’t always think of it. God also teaches us about worship through these words and He has a lot to say. That’s why we began this morning with the last two verses of our text. They provide the backbone of the Palm Sunday Worship Experience by reminding us of the power of God’s Word.

Even though it was the people who were speaking and it was their own praise of Jesus, our Lord’s reminder centers on the power of the Word. It was the message of God’s Word that would not be held in silence. The peoples’ praise only applied to this in so far as they were speaking God’s truth. The Pharisees complained that this praise was improper, but Jesus’ response was as stunning in application as it was in illustration. The very idea that the inanimate stones would cry forth with God’s Word was a powerful thought. Jesus’ message was clear: The Word of God must and will go on – nothing will stop it.

The Pharisees wanted to suppress the word of God. They wanted to keep it concealed. We see the same thing often in our lives from many different adversaries of God. At times it may seem that they are successful in this. The Bible is often despised and even more often misused. Even the sincere followers of Jesus unintentionally shroud its glory at times. And often have even we, who cherish the Word, have been led to doubt its effectiveness and reliability.

Yet, in His final moment of popularity, Jesus took an unwavering stand in defense of God’s Word. It was a stand of defiance against the Pharisees’ misguided self-righteousness. Nothing they could do could stop the Word of God. They could threaten. They could persecute. They could lie. They could complain. They could even kill the very Son of God. But they would not be able to stop the powerful Word from moving forward. And along with the Word, they would not be able to stop Godly worship.

But why would the Pharisees complain? Didn’t they trust in the Word of God too? Weren’t they also the scribes, tasked with the duty of protecting the sacred texts? The truth is the Pharisees cared deeply for the Word of God. They didn’t want to see it hindered either. In fact, their unrivaled zealousness for their cause was a direct result of their devotion to the Word of God. But there was one main difference, and that difference was obedience. The Pharisees were self-preservationists. They kept an outward semblance of loyalty to God but it wasn’t in their hearts. They boasted in their use of the Word of God but they didn’t obey it. They said the right things, but didn’t live them. That kind of outward loyalty was nothing more than hypocrisy.

True obedience that comes from the regenerated heart of faith is produced by the Holy Spirit when His effective power comes into contact with the gospel Word. True obedience does not seek to add or subtract from the absolute truth, rather it finds ways to conform itself to that truth, regardless of the outcome. The Word of God moves forward undefeated precisely because it had the ability to create obedience in the penitent heart. There will always be those, like the Pharisees, who want to look the part without the obedience of faith. We see this clear division everywhere in Jesus’ ministry. In every part of His life there was acceptance and rejection. But regardless of the outcome, this truth remains: the Word of God continues on. And wherever the Word of God is, obedience follows. Not always in everyone, but it’s present. We see this as the final word from Jesus on Palm Sunday. And we who trust that Word have great reason to worship the Lord in obedience. That’s where we pick up with verses 29-38:  

Luke 19:29-40 And it came to pass, when He came near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mountain called Olivet, that He sent two of His disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village opposite you, where as you enter you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Loose it and bring it here. 31 "And if anyone asks you, `Why are you loosing it?' thus you shall say to him, `Because the Lord has need of it.'" 32 So those who were sent went their way and found it just as He had said to them. 33 But as they were loosing the colt, the owners of it said to them, "Why are you loosing the colt?" 34 And they said, "The Lord has need of him." 35 Then they brought him to Jesus. And they threw their own clothes on the colt, and they set Jesus on him. 36 And as He went, many spread their clothes on the road. 37 Then, as He was now drawing near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, 38 saying: "`Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!' Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"

How does a story about finding a young donkey have anything to do with worship? The answer is that it’s a lesson in obedience. I’m sure it puzzled the two disciples whom Jesus commanded. They were probably thinking, “Why does His selection of colt require so many details?” Surely, the owner of the colt had questions two, when a couple of strangers started untying his animal. Yet, in both cases, they obeyed. What was it that led them to do this? It was the simple word of their Lord. They didn’t have to know every single detail of why Jesus wanted it done this way, for they trusted their Savior and they obeyed His Word.

But there’s more about obedience in these verses than just the disciples’ actions. In a much greater way, Jesus was showing obedience to His Father. Matthew tells us about this in his account of Palm Sunday, when He informs the reader, All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: 5 "Tell the daughter of Zion, `Behold, your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey (Matthew 21:4-5).'" Long ago through the prophet, Zechariah, God had made a promise about the way His Chosen One would enter Jerusalem. He did this so that people would recognize that Messiah when He came. Jesus showed obedience by fulfilling this promise.
We don’t often think about Jesus having to be obedient, since He is God. In that sense, He doesn’t have to obey others, because He is the authority. And in that sense He is not like us. But, Jesus came to achieve a victory over sin in our place, therefore He had to be subjected to everything that we are. He had to obey God’s law the very same way God expects us to. Through this obedience Jesus not only earned righteousness for us, but He gave us a proper example of what our attitude should be as well. To worship God means to obey God. And it’s the Word of God that tells us what He expects of us and what He’s accomplishes. Something as simple as finding the colt on which He would ride was important enough to Jesus that He obeyed it. We could learn from that same mindset too. Instead of trying to reason within ourselves as to why God would ask something of us, we should simply listen and obey.

This attitude spilled over to the people as well. There are many who doubt the validity of the crowd’s faith. Many who question where they were on Good Friday, and how many of them had an earthly view of the Messiah. Perhaps their faith was weak or somewhat immature, but one thing you cannot question is the sincerity of how they expressed their faith. They showed that expression in their actions, as they lined the streets and laid palm branches and even their own clothes down for Jesus. They expressed their faith in what they said, using common worship terms such as: “Hosanna!” and “Blessed!” And most importantly, their worship was a direct quotation from God’s Word; from a psalm of praise in the Old Testament. “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  

Before the Pharisees questioned this worship in verse 39, and before Jesus even responded in verse 40, they had their answer in the peoples’ actions. The very thing they were complaining about was exactly what they needed to hear to quell their doubts – the word of God and the expression of obedient worship. Throughout the entire Palm Sunday story, we see the Word of God moving forward. And in each instance it led to obedience. The Word required a colt for Jesus to ride upon. He spoke to His disciples and they obeyed. The Word promised that shouts of praise would be given to the Chosen One. The people saw their Savior and they were moved to obey. The Word is always effectively working on people and therefore even the stones would cry out if they had to.

We can learn the same for our worship. A lot of people today talk about a church’s worship experience. What is it like? How does it make me feel? The thought of an “experience” makes it sound as if church worship should be some magnificent spectacle. If our expectation is for church is in this kind of an experience will consistent, weekly worship be able to hold up to that? Very often, the value of Sunday worship is underappreciated because it fails to deliver on the human experience. Churches are constantly trying to find the next great idea to captivate peoples’ attentions and make them feel as if they’ve had the experience.

True worship always involves feeling and expression of faith, but those things alone are not what true worship is all about. True worship is about an experience, but not the man-made experience. Not the feeling-driven experience. Not the entertainment experience. Worship is at its best when the experience is your connection with the truth, long ago established by God. No outward feeling, good or bad, can be greater than the intrinsic peace of knowing with certainty about the work of God for you.

So, what do we need more of in our worship? Is it too outdated? Is it too boring? Does it lack emotion? On the outside it might seem like it does. Perhaps we have a hard time concentrating during the service. Perhaps we are sick of listening. But why? Is it because the Word has changed? Is it because God’s method of converting and strengthening people has changed? Is it because we aren’t experiencing God? Is it because what He has recorded for us in defective? The Word must and will go on. The question is, are you with it?  
We don’t want to push a shallow, outward, and temporary experience in our worship. God wants us to reach deeper into His Word for every question in life. We see how that looks in the Palm Sunday story and we’re reminded about what true worship leads to – obedience. That’s really what it’s all about. Obedience to God. Obedience to those whom God has put over us in our lives. Obedience to what His Word says in all matters. So often we are tempted to sacrifice obedience for the self-centered experience. But is that really what we need? Nothing can replace the quiet and solemn time to deeply meditate on God’s Word; a Word so powerful that if people chose to stop speaking it even the very stones would cry forth. Do you want to give that up for entertainment and popularity?

A simple phrase in our text shows us that we don’t need to set obedience and joy at odds with each other. Without a close and careful observation, we might miss it, from v. 37: Then, as He was now drawing near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen. What we see here is that the obedience of the people showed itself through joyful worship. A more accurate translation for “began to rejoice and praise” is “began to joyfully praise.”

When’s the last time you said that about your worship experience? Joyful praise is not often associated with the liturgical Lutheran service. Our services are often produced with a great deal of solemnity. But what kind of joy do you think the Holy Spirit was talking about? Were the people upbeat because they really felt the human experience? Were they joyful because of energetic music or because they were entertained? Were they excited because of the coffee rush? Hardly any of these things. They joyfully praised God because of what Jesus had done for them and what He meant to them.

Each time we use the Word of God in our worship, we are connecting to Jesus. If we can’t be joyful about that what’s the real problem? If our attention can’t last long enough to think about the Word for one hour each week, who’s to blame? What experience are we looking to connect with? Jesus’ message on Palm Sunday was simple. The Word is moving forward and nothing is getting in its way. He showed that quite literally as He, the Word made flesh, proceeded forward through the gates of Jerusalem, a journey that would continue on to Friday as He was lifted up on the cross, and conclude one week later as He broke forth from the tomb. That’s what we want to experience in worship and to have that, we must use the Word.

No matter how boring the pastor may be. No matter how repetitive the hymns and liturgy are. No matter how familiar you are to the Bible lessons; worship based on the Word of God is the best experience. Whenever the precious gospel Word is present, and it should be abundant each week, you can connect to Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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