FEELING LENT…EXHILARATION ON MT. OLIVE ROAD
March 1, 2020 1st Sunday in Lent
Over these next six Sundays we are going to be feeling Lent! We are going to be exploring the waves of emotion that wash over Jesus during his final days in Jerusalem, while also encountering how these emotions speak to us in our journey as Christian folk.
This morning we begin with that glorious day on Mt. Olive Road which has become known to us as Palm Sunday:
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a donkey tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the donkey, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the donkey?”
34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37 When Jesus came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, even the stones will cry out!”
EVEN JESUS WELCOMES A MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCE…
I, like many of you, have had a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia for the 38-year-old JMU Convocation Center that is hosting its final games this weekend. I was there for the opening men’s basketball game against VMI on November 28, 1982, and I have sat in those hard, baby-poop yellow seats that impart enough static electricity to start a Dodge Ram truck for countless sporting events, concerts and graduations.
Kenny Brooks, now the head women’s basketball coach at Va. Tech, led the JMU women’s program for 13 years and a school-record 337 wins, 6 NCAA appearances and 5 NIT trips.
On the Last Call at the Convo series on radio station WSVA, he spoke wistfully of his memories of the arena, of how it had been like a second home to him. Not only did he coach there, but he played for Lefty Driesell in the arena. He also attended concerts and family graduations. His daughters played high school games there.
Kenny said that one of his most exhilarating moments in the Convo was that Midnight Madness game that Lefty instigated against the University of Richmond in the winter of 1990. ESPN was on hand. 7,700 raucous fans were on hand, including my father-in-law Bobby and me.
Kenny said that when he and his teammates came out of the locker room they didn’t know what to expect, if anyone would be there for that late gam. But as they started down the ramp to the playing floor for warmups, they were literally knocked backward by a wall of sound!
The earsplitting roar of the crowd literally elevated them, making them feel like they were running on air.
Kenny said it was the most amazing, spinetingling emotion he had ever felt, and he led JMU to a resounding thrashing and smashing of the Spiders that night!
What has been your most memorable mountaintop moment?
The gospels record certain mountaintop experiences in the life of Jesus that defy description: The day of baptism that launches his three years of ministry, when he emerges from the waters of the Jordan River and hears the voice of his heavenly Father – “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased!”
– Luke 3:21-22
And then comes that surreal occasion when Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up on a mountain to pray. Suddenly his appearance is transfigured to a dazzling, blinding white, and Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the lawgivers and prophets, appear and converse with Jesus. And once again, there is a resounding voice of divinity shaking the ground, “This is my chosen Son, listen to him! – Luke 9:28-36
And now, like Kenny Brooks running down the ramp to the erupting cheers of the crowd in the Convocation Center, Jesus crests the hilltop on the Mt. Olives and begins to descend the dusty path down to the gates of Jerusalem. There to welcome him is a great throng of people lining the roadway, screaming admiration.
Jesus is swept up in surfing the joy and affirmation of this inaugural Palm Sunday! He didn’t know what to expect when he left Bethany and Bethphage earlier that day and started over the hill. He is shocked by the electric crowd that has turned out to greet him!
Yes, I am sure that reverberating in the back of our Lord’s mind is still the sobering valley reality that he voiced the day before to his disciples, that as they arrive in Jerusalem the words of the prophet concerning him would be fulfilled, that he would be mocked, insulted, spit on, flogged and killed.
But, for a fleeting moment, perhaps all this is forgotten as Jesus basks in the glory of this joyous, boisterous and surprising welcome!
It is truly an exhilarating mountaintop experience!
And yet, it is
A MOUNTAINTOP PERMEATED WITH MISGUIDED EXPECTATION…
The Passover Festival is the major religious observance of the Jewish faith. The city of Jerusalem, normally inhabited by a population the size of Harrisonburg, is inundated with nearly 2 million pilgrims celebrating Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt.
Passover is also a prime time for messiahs to enter Jerusalem – larger-than-life figures promising to return Israel to its glory days.
You see, these are not happy times for the people of Israel. For nearly two centuries they have lived under heavy-handed Roman domination. The occupying army is brutal, treating, beating, often killing them as common animals. They are taxed up to 80% of their meager incomes. Starvation and disease is rampant.
Their faith teaches them that God is going to send a messiah to right all the wrongs, to overthrow their hated enemy, to restore Israel to its former prominence as a nation.
The crowd lining the parade route along Mt. Olive Road on this particular Passover Festival day is longing for regime change.
Could this Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited messiah coming in conquest? And so, as he rides over the crest of the Mt. of Olives and down the pathway into Jerusalem, they grab palm branches to wave and to cover the roadway—palm branches—the symbol of defiant Jewish nationalism.
Hosanna!!! they shout to the top of their lungs….a beautiful sounding word with a desperate meaning—“Save us now!!!”
In their deep oppression and poverty, they hope-against-hope that Jesus is indeed the blessed one who has come in the name of the Lord—the divine Rambo they have been anticipating. As they cheer on Jesus they surround themselves with children—for protection—for even as ruthless as the Roman soldiers are, they will not harm children.
Hosanna!!! the cries reach a crescendo as Jesus makes his way down toward Jerusalem. And yet, theirs is a case of misguided expectation, of mistaken identity. There is one vital detail that goes unnoticed – Jesus is riding a donkey, a humble beast of burden, the subcompact of equestrian transportation…he is not saddled up on a mighty stallion of conquest. What gives? What kind of messiah is this?
Well, first of all, the crowd, like us, is a bit biblically illiterate—they have forgotten that the prophet Zechariah foretold that the Messiah would indeed enter Jerusalem on a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9).
But moreover, Jesus has chosen the donkey because it is a visible, striking symbol, a living, moving billboard, of peace—declaring to all our Lord’s intention as he moves ever closer to Calvary.
Jesus’ mission is not to incite revolution but to impart redemption. God has a bigger plan than just a small military victory in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.
God’s ultimate plan encompasses all people in all times and in all places—a cosmic victory over the diabolical forces of sin and death, a victory that will be won through his Son Jesus Christ on an old rugged cross and a vacated tomb, a conquest that will bring peace to humanity’s heart and reclaim us as God’s beloved children.
For God so loved the world, for God so loved you and me, that he gave his only begotten Son that we would not perish but have everlasting life!
Would you dare consider the grace of these words?
Would you dare open your life to the amazing, saving grace of these words?
Yes, there is great exhilaration on Mt. Olive Road on that Palm Sunday so long ago. We can see the elation etched upon our Lord’s face as he is greeted by the thrilled throng lining the dusty path down that hillside into Jerusalem.
Pharisees are perturbed by the raucous demonstration. “Teacher, tell these folk to back it down a bit!”
To which Jesus responds over the deafening din, “If they hush, even the stones will cry out!”
It is indeed a wonderful thing to see Jesus smiling, laughing, basking in the sheer, unadulterated joy of the moment.
We know it will be the last time he will hear such shouts of welcoming affirmation.
For you see, the crowd lining that Mt. Olive Road is a fickle crowd. The winds of jubilation, adulation and exultation will soon be turning southward in allegation, confrontation and dehumanization.
I suspect that, deep down, Jesus feels it coming. Stay tuned….