"When Things Aren't What They Seem"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/28/1999

Psalm 118:1-2, 9-16; Matthew 21:1-11

     Palm Sunday is like an onion. It is a day that has many layers. Most of us remember the meaning we gave to Palm Sunday when we were children. Primary, of course, was that it meant that Spring break was here. No more school for a week! Next came the thought of preparing for Easter, a day that had to do with baskets, chocolate rabbits, and dyed Easter eggs.

     How many of you remember the process of dyeing eggs? While there was never any explanation of what decorated eggs had to do with Easter, the four of us and Mom would gather around the kitchen table to create these works of art. We dipped them up and down in these cups of various colored dyes and then set them aside to dry.

     The third level of the onion for us was the change of colors and music. Outside, the last vestiges of winter were surrendering to the springtime daffodils and forsythia. Inside, the church people were beginning to wear light-colored clothing. We got to sing all those hymns that only came around at Easter time. There were the cantatas, sometimes sung in Latin, that made us cringe, but they were offset by our favorites like The Palms or Jerusalem, Jerusalem.

     Yet we also knew the story. It was always troublesome to hear about this wonderful parade on Palm Sunday, a parade that was attended by thousands of people, and then to listen as the story continued about the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus who had been so popular just five days earlier. For most children that is where the peeling of the onion stopped.

     We were never taught how to analyze this story. We were too young to explore the meaning behind all that was taking place with Jesus following his arrest. We never quite understood how such a hero could become a criminal by the end of the week. What would possess people to celebrate Jesus with shouts of "Praise to David's Son" and later condemn him with shouts of "Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!"? Who could explain that to children without also revealing how easy it is for many adults to change their thoughts and feelings about each other? What causes us to withhold our love from some people?

     Some years ago a gentleman in my former church used to take me to the Quarterback Club that met at the Touchdown Club in Washington. After each home football game, various Redskin players would come and answer questions about the team's performance. One day Mark Mosley was there. His magical toe could kick field goals sometimes from near the middle of the field. He was everyone's hero. . . for a while.

     Some years ago a gentleman in my former church used to take me to the Quarterback Club that met at the Touchdown Club in Washington. After each home football game, various Redskin players would come and answer questions about the team's performance. One day Mark Mosley was there. His magical toe could kick field goals sometimes from near the middle of the field. He was everyone's hero. . . for a while.

     During his parade on that first Palm Sunday, we find Jesus making use of symbols that were well known to the Hebrew mind. Matthew reminded his readers of this when he included a prophecy that the Jews knew well: "Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zechariah 9:9)

     Matthew only mentioned a portion of Zechariah's prophecy. In the very next verse, Zechariah provided the definition of what that king would do: The Lord says, "I will remove the war chariots of your enemies from Israel and take the horses from Jerusalem; the bows used in battle will be destroyed. Your king will make peace among the nations; he will rule from sea to sea, from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth." (Zechariah 9:10)

     Matthew described how the enthusiasm mounted for their long-awaited king. The crowd spread their clothing and cut palm branches. With great fervor the people shouted, "God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord."

     Perhaps the most insightful question in Matthew's passage came from the people who knew nothing about Jesus or his ministry. In verses 10 and 11 we read these words: When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was thrown into an uproar. "Who is he?" the people asked. "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee," the crowds answered.

     That answer only increased the expectations of the cheering people. God had worked wonders through the prophets, perhaps evoking images and memories of Elijah and Elisha. But not everything was as it seemed. Something was wrong. When all the excitement created by Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem ended, nothing happened. Jesus did not deliver what people wanted from their savior. What good is a savior who will not do what we expect, need, or anticipate?

     We need to continue peeling the onion of Palm Sunday for ourselves. We need to ask ourselves, "What was Jesus trying to accomplish through his dramatic entrance?" There is no question that Jesus was drawing attention to himself. The meaning Jesus gave to Palm Sunday, however, escaped the understanding of those attending the parade. We know this now. Yet had you been a part of that crowd, what would you have thought? What do you honestly expect from a savior? What do you want God to do for you?

     When we want God to do something for us or when we have expectations of God, we miss what Jesus was demonstrating. Jesus was demonstrating the power of his Kingdom. Jesus was prepared at that moment to demonstrate his unwavering trust in God who told him at his baptism, "You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." From Palm Sunday to Good Friday, every conceivable attack assaulted his mind and body. In the midst of that experience, Jesus' light never went out.

     Think about this. How many of us are prepared to live our lives without fearing the consequences of life's injustices? How many of us are willing to let go of what we want, of what we expect, and of what we need? How many of us are willing to surrender control over our lives and patiently allow a presence to guide us that we cannot see or anticipate? Only having such faith and trust in God will allow us to pray, "Not my will but thine be done."

     This past year a friend of mine has been in a deep spiritual crisis. He came to a decision that he needed to bring a law suit against a federal agency for the gross misconduct toward him by senior staff. Department heads tried repeatedly to make this case go away, but he was persistent. I watched him go to the edge emotionally time and time again. He was being consumed with bitterness and anger while being driven by his determination to see justice done. With each conversation we had, there was a new wrinkle to the case driving him further into frustration and despair.

     Several months ago we had another marathon conversation. He told me of his disappointment in God's inactivity. He was questioning his faith. I said, "Don't dump all that on God. You are not trusting God! Nor are you allowing your faith to help you find peace! Nothing is working for you because you will not let go of your hurt! And you have hinged your faith to the outcome you think is fair."

     He called again this past week to tell me that he had finally surrendered everything to God. He told me what caused him to reach that point. It all started when his attorney would not return his phone calls. Faxes and letters to him went unanswered. His court date was approaching. Finally his spirit broke and he let go of everything. In essence he prayed, "God, I can no longer deal with this. My life has become unmanageable. I no longer care if justice prevails or not. I just want peace again in my mind and heart. Oh God, please help me find that again."

     What happened next was very interesting. My friend learned from his attorney's mother, that her son was emotionally ill. He had become clinically depressed, a condition that made him unable to function. Jack requested and was granted a hearing before the judge who would eventually try the case. After listening to Jack's circumstances the judge said, "I can bring a judgment against your attorney for abandonment." Jack said, "Your honor, please don't hurt him any more. I have been there myself." After a long pause the judge said, "You are a very compassionate man. In all my years on the bench, I have never had anyone ask me for leniency toward an attorney who had become derelict in his responsibilities."

     Jack said to me, "Right now, I feel so refreshed. My life has returned and I really don't care how this thing works out. I am free. What makes me feel so good is that the judge knows my spirit." Who knows what will happen to Jack's case?

     What Jesus showed us was his complete trust and confidence in a Kingdom that teaches us another way to live in this world. That Kingdom helps us detach. It helps us establish priorities that are more healing to us and those around us. Jesus stood in the midst of the chaos that swirled around him and let his light, his trust in God, shine. Remember, nothing worked out for Jesus in this life as it may for Jack. That was not his intention. Jesus' purpose was to show us the power we can have over life's circumstances by living in his Kingdom.

     We are here in our church this morning because nothing this world could do to him was capable of putting out Jesus' light, not even a cross. This is how Jesus saves us. He taught us that we do not have to allow the terrible injustices of this world to destroy us. By choosing instead to live in his Kingdom, we can make the light of that Kingdom visible here. This is what Jesus did.

     Think of how living in this Kingdom would impact what you are facing today. Remember, we cannot change the darkness. Only light ends the darkness. That light comes from a Kingdom that is not of this world. All we can do is make our complete trust in God visible while we stand in the midst of this world. That is what Jesus did, and he invited us to do the same. Amen.


     Lord God, we confess that our knowledge of the Kingdom of God is very limited. Here kingdoms rise and fall. Our understanding of life is incomplete. Like the seasons, everything we know is constantly changing. Yet Jesus invited us to build our lives on rock instead of shifting sand. Open our minds to opportunities where we may learn how to extend love, patience and helpfulness as qualities that need not change. Lead us to experience what it means to follow your son, Jesus Christ. He knew what it meant to surrender his life for the healing of the world. He taught us how to be servants rather than apostles of our form of justice. He taught us that a forgiving spirit is mightier than all the armies of Rome. Pierce our earth-trained minds with insights which inspire us to look beyond the obvious, that our discipleship might be visible to all who see. Amen.


     Thank you, God, for Palm Sunday and the opportunity we have to remember all that happened on that day. The crowd misunderstood Jesus' mission, yet he remained steadfast in his witness. Such an act challenges us to rethink how often we allow the disapproval of others to change our convictions.

     During the Lenten season we often fall prey to the routine of associating your presence in our lives with hymns, prayers, anthems and sermons. We well understand that the moment we leave our church, our experience here can quickly fade. And sometimes we begin our week as if being with our community of faith made little difference.

     As we now enter the time we call Holy Week, may we bring to mind every hurt we have in life. Then help us, O God, to look at Jesus' life as we hear again about the injustice, the lies, the betrayal, the cruelty, the aloneness, the abandonment, the suffering and pain -- all delivered to him by people who did not understand his purpose. May we realize that he came here to teach us about the power of living in his Kingdom, and he showed us that power by defeating every abuse he experienced, even death on a cross.

     Enable us to remember that power during our trials and tests so that we can experience for ourselves that we, too, can let our light shine in the midst of darkness. We pray these thoughts through the Spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray. . .