Happy New Year everyone. Most things I have read online are filled with the hope that this past year was an aberration. The pandemic and the fallout from it has left many broken and tired, myself included. But as bad as many of us felt this past year was, there are millions around the world whose lives made what we are experiencing seem like a holiday.
How do I know that? I have followed organizations such as Voice of the Martyrs for many years. It is an organization whose role is to keep the church up to date as to the persecution suffered by Christians throughout the world. If you read their magazine, it has many of the updates from VOM. I don’t think many of us truly understand what other people in the world go through for their faith. Many of us have gone through difficult times in our lives. For some, their experiences may have been like a bad dream and for others, it may have been a nightmare. I cannot imagine what many Christians go through today just to survive.
Can you imagine what life would have been like if we lived during the Second World War as a Jew when they were rounded up and put in concentration camps to be slaves and guinea pigs to their Nazi tormentors? To experience years of hardship, persecution, violence and death at the hands of Hitler’s minions would have no doubt been unbearable. Even the stories of people like Oskar Schindler and others who did all they could to save some people from suffering this kind of brutality pale compared to the countless many who lost their lives. Can you imagine what it would have been like when they saw the Allied forces come to their camps, cut off the locks and open the gates? Relief? Rejoicing?
Change can be like that. One of the most important days of the Christian year is Palm Sunday. Now you might think it is strange to talk about it in January, but when you think of the story, you realize what the people of the day wanted and what we want today are not much different.
Someone noted recently that Palm Sunday has all the elements of a classic drama: great characters—frightened disciples stumbling along behind Him, cheering crowds, conspiring politicians—and behind it all the clash of huge civilizations and religions and worldviews. And in the centre—in fact towering over it all—the figure of one man, a young man, riding on a donkey, on His way to His own death.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, some knew a time of change was taking place. This was the day that God’s people had been praying for after living under the boot of Rome. For generations, people had been looking for their Messiah, their Saviour, and Redeemer – the One who would free them from their Roman overlords. At this point in history, Israel had been reduced to nothing more than a puppet state. Their leader was a man, not from their own people, but appointed by the State to have absolute power over them. They were reduced to sub-human levels. Their religious practices and values were all changed. They couldn’t have any high priests that weren’t approved by Rome first. They were like many state churches we see today in Communist nations.
The Romans saw the Jewish people as untrustworthy. Fanatical Jews had formed groups to carry out terrorist acts on their Roman oppressors. Even one of Jesus’ own disciples, Simon, was a former zealot. They acted much like the terrorist groups we see in today’s world, robbing and murdering, all to disrupt and bring chaos to Roman’s desire for order and relative peace. In light of all that, Rome, in an attempt to keep an eye on them, even had the nerve to build a giant fortress on the side of Israel’s temple. Kind of reminds me of the cameras you see everywhere these days… even on the streets of cities. The Romans went so far as to buy off people to work as spies in the synagogues and the Temple to make sure there were no surprises down the road. In a sense, it was Rome’s way of being Big Brother.
Despite the crippling political power of the Romans, the Jews had not given up hope. The ancient prophecies from Zechariah and Isaiah said a Savior would come—that a king would come one day and ride into Jerusalem to deliver God’s people from the evil of the ungodly. They looked forward to the day when the Messiah would free them.
Imagine with me what that day must have been like when the Messiah finally arrived. The Messiah arrived just as the rabbis had said he would: during Passover. There would have been huge crowds in the streets. Jews from all over the world would have made the trip, a pilgrimage back to the Holy City to celebrate the most important holiday in the Jewish year. And no doubt, many of them had heard stories of this Messiah who had been teaching in the area and performing miracles. As hundreds of thousands of Jews filled the streets, a parade starts to form at the edge of the city—a two-mile parade that will go into the heart of Jerusalem.
Now we need to stop here and ask ourselves the question: was all this for Jesus? Not necessarily. Every Passover was a celebration as they brought the Passover Lamb into the city to be sacrificed. I think many there did not realize the significance of this day: The True Passover Lamb had arrived.
Years ago, I was asked to play a role in the stage production of Beauty and the Beast. One guess as to what role I played! I went to a practice and read a scene with the girl playing Belle. All the rest of the cast pointed at me and said, “He’s the one!” With Jesus, it was that and more so. People would turn to each other and say: “This prophet from Nazareth – Jesus – He’s the one. We’ve been waiting for so long! He has to be the one!”
There is a sense of anticipation here in this story. Things were different than other Passovers. All the signs the people were taught about to look for over the last number of centuries were happening. He just healed two people who were blind. Fed 5000! It’s incredible! It must be Him!
As Jesus comes their way, the people wave and shout because he’s riding on a small donkey colt just like the prophet Zechariah had said it would be. As he draws closer, the people yell: “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” The people are excited because the blessed one himself has finally come to judge the ungodly. They think to themselves, The Messiah will finally remove the Romans from power. So as Jesus enters Jerusalem, people began putting their cloaks on the ground. This is reminiscent of 2 Kings 9 when the people declared Jehu as king. Here, they were declaring Jesus as king.
But then something odd happens, something the people weren’t expecting. This text tells us that when the Messiah rides into town, you just never know where he might go or what he might do. Jesus doesn’t go to the Roman fortress. He doesn’t throw the Roman leaders out of their palace. Instead, He goes to the temple. Well, some might be thinking, “Maybe He’s going to rally the troops?” Instead, He goes and drives out the people who are providing a service, a convenience for people coming to worship. Because the Jews couldn’t bring their Roman or Greek coins into the temple to pay the temple tax, there was a currency exchange where a Jew could pay a fee that goes to the local bankers and the high priest’s family. The leaders were skimming off of the people!
Because Jews travelling from a great distance wouldn’t have animals with them for sacrifice, they would purchase animals at a higher price at the temple. They were like the 7-11 of sacrifices. The money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice used to be outside the temple, but when Caiaphas became a high priest, he let them move into the temple courtyard. After all, how would they pay for the temple without a business like this? From a business point of view, it seemed like a good thing to do because the people in a sense paid twice for the same service.
But Jesus had a different perspective. Jesus confronts these practices saying: Who’s violating the Holy Place more—the Roman soldiers who stand in a tower with the high priest’s garments locked inside, or the temple bankers who are making money off of every poor person who comes to pray? You’re interested in religion, but I’m interested in people!
I think that took the whole establishment by surprise. The ones who supported Jesus were probably now confused and the religious leaders were now indignant with Him. He was not only disrupting the religious practices, now He was hit them where it hurt the most – in their wallets.
One of the big keywords, as we go into the New Year, is “hope.” Many people talk about hope in light of seeing change and improvement from this past year. Change equals improvement. Change equals productivity. Change will lead to success. Pastors and churches are not immune to this kind of thinking. We think God wants to change certain things – what we do, how we do things. Now that may be, but sometimes Jesus wants to change the things we can’t see or don’t want to see.
But we can see from this story that when Jesus arrives on the scene, things do happen… including change. If Jesus came walking into the doors here today, what do you think He would do? What would He change here today? I believe Jesus came to bring change, but just as the people of His day, those changes are not what many of us expected.
When Jesus came into the city that day, people had expectations. They expected Him to overthrow the government– they wanted freedom; freedom from their oppressors, a return to being a nation of their own. They also expected Him to do all the miracles He did in the past and then some. Many people believe that when we come to Christ He will do great things for us. We, like they back then, have expectations – many of which are unrealistic and plain and simply wrong.
Some so-called Christian leaders teach that Jesus will make your life better. There are countless books declaring God’s desire for each of us to experience prosperity and perfect health. They teach that if you aren’t experiencing these things you don’t have enough faith or there is sin in your life. Other books tell us that God wants us to be successful, to be the best you can be. Although there is a measure of truth in some of that teaching, that is not what Jesus came to do.
So what changes did Jesus bring? In closing, I want to take a few moments to look at three things Jesus did change for us today. These things won’t make you rich, won’t heal your sickness or disease, or necessarily make you a better you, but they are things that will change how and why we live our lives.
Jesus did come to bring us freedom, but not a political kind of freedom. Before Christ came, we were in bondage – we were slaves. To what? To sin. Scripture tells us that we were under the dominion of the enemy. Christ changed all of that by buying our freedom and bringing us back to Himself and the Father
Jesus came to bring us into His family – when we come to Christ, we are adopted with full benefits. This means we are all related! Strange isn’t it, but it is true. True Christian community means we are never alone because we not only have Christ, we have each other. How many of us would actually be together if not for Christ? But because of Christ, the reality is, we are inseparable! We are united. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Jesus came to bring us a future – because we were separated from God, we had no future. We were condemned under God’s wrath because of sin. But Jesus paid the price so we could have a future, an eternal future with Him. No more sacrifices. No more fear of death. We have a hope of a future home with Christ. A place that Revelation 21 describes this way: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
We can often tell what is going to happen with the weather and the change of seasons by watching the direction of the wind. From the North means cooler. From the South means warmer. The people in Jerusalem knew the winds of change were upon them, they just didn’t understand how great the change would be. As we walk with Jesus and experience His love, may the changes He brought be more of a reality in our lives today.