Palm Sunday Sermon

Introduction: The Crowd & the Entrance
It’s easy to get the Palm Sunday story wrong. So easy, in fact, that we almost always do just that. There are two important points that we usually miss. And when I say “we” I actually mean “I”.
The first one has to do with the crowd. The fact that the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Sunday was the same crowd that demanded his execution on Friday is a sermon that preaches itself. It speaks of the fickleness of human nature, of betrayal and denial and our need to be like others.
Of course all these are present in the story of Jesus. But it’s not really found in the mob of people that didn’t really know him, but in and among the twelve who knew him best. That’s because the crowd that celebrated him on Palm Sunday was not necessarily the same crowd that condemned him on Good Friday. All four gospels[1] seem to agree that it wasn’t the inhabitants of Jerusalem who welcomed Jesus on the first day of the week, but his fellow pilgrims. In other words, it was probably Galileans who waved branches and laid their cloaks on the road to make way for the coming of the king, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.[2] This is clearest in Luke, who specifically refers to the welcoming crowd as “the whole multitude of his disciples.”[3] Since those who demanded his crucifixion a few days later were probably either mostly or even wholly the inhabitants of the city, the contrast between the two groups is undeniable.

And then there’s the second point that we (or I) seem always to get wrong: the Palm Sunday story happened when Jesus was still outside the city. Matthew makes it clear that when Jesus actually entered, his arrival “stirred up” the people of Jerusalem, who had to be told that he was “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee”[4]—not exactly an endorsement by this new and potentially more hostile crowd. Mark is the most specific in letting us know that the insiders weren’t present for Palm Sunday by telling us that it wasn’t until Monday that he actually entered the city.[5]
A. The Cleansing of the Temple
So if the familiar Palm Sunday story isn’t the real entrance, what is? According to Luke,[6] it was this:
Then Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people selling animals for sacrifices. He said to them, “the scriptures declare, ‘my temple will be a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” [7] After that, he taught daily in the temple, but the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and other leaders of the people began planning how to kill him. But they could think of nothing, because all the people hung on every word he said.
The temple was the religious center of the Hebrew universe. And here we see that it had become its commercial center as well. You see, the faithful were required to offer sacrifices at certain times of year, and the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where such sacrifices were allowed. So those who traveled from afar could not bring the animals that were needed over such a long distance. But some enterprising individuals began to conveniently sell sacrificial animals in the temple courtyard—at a tidy profit to themselves, of course.
And there was also a temple tax required of the faithful, but it had to be made in the local currency.[8] Meaning that people who came from places using other currency had to exchange money once they got to Jerusalem. So other enterprising individuals set up money changing stalls in the temple courtyard—and of course they charged a fee to enrich themselves.[9]
Jesus obviously didn’t approve of using God’s house as a shopping mall or counting house.
B. An Irrelevant Social Club?
And neither should we, of course. I’m not talking here about raising money for the church in the church. After all, technically the church isn’t a building, it’s a people. The building is just a tool the church uses for prayer and fellowship and outreach. But if we were to allow others to use the church’s property as a way to profit off God’s people, then I think we would do well to study the passages in all four gospels where Jesus cleanses the temple.
On the surface, I suppose, it’s an uncomfortable story: Jesus getting angry enough to act violently (though there is no evidence that he committed battery on any individual… and I don’t believe he did). But an angry Jesus is, to us, pretty uncomfortable. I like to compare this Jesus to me when I have to change a vacuum cleaner bag: It’s not something you see very often, and it’s not a very pretty sight, but you can bet that when it does happen, it was long overdue.[10]

The early church wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as we are with this Jesus. “Wherever the early Christians entered a town,” Martin Luther King reminded us, “the power structure got disturbed and [the authorities] immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’” But their bravery made life better for the weak who were victimized by the strong.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound, [and is too] often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.[11]

Dr. King’s view of the rôle of the church was a very wise one—and, incidentally, one that John Calvin would have agreed with. King said that
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.[12]

This is something we need to study, to stick on our refrigerator doors, and to continually remind ourselves of in an era when too many on the one hand advocate for something called “freedom from religion,” while others want use their own religious beliefs to limit the rights of those who disagree with them.

C. Within That Heart of Yours[13]
But I don’t want to close this meditation with an indictment of the church, because the church is both more and less than an institution. When talking to a woman who believed that God was to be worshiped on a mountain other than Mount Zion, Jesus said that God’s presence is not limited to a single location, but is found in all who worship in Spirit and in truth.[14]
Within all who yearn for the truth, therefore, is found a priceless sanctuary, a place where God has entrusted some of the greatest treasures in the universe. The treasure within each of us is unique: My gifts are distinct from yours and each of yours is different from those around you. But the church needs each of these gifts if the body of Christ in this place is to be healthy.
And so let’s not sell ourselves short. Our very presence in worship is an irreplaceable offering. But beyond that there is so much that each of us can give and do to build up the church: Talents both known and undiscovered, gifts that are evident to everyone and those that are unseen or in the background.
But if we shouldn’t sell ourselves short, it’s even more important that we not sell ourselves off. In my daily devotions a while back I discovered the most wonderful quote from a sermon that Thomas Boston preached exactly three hundred years ago this very month: Within that heart of yours, there are buyers and sellers that need to be driven off.[15] And ain’t that the truth? When we don’t appreciate who we are or what our gifts are, we sell ourselves short. But too often, when we do know what we’ve got, we place a For Sale sign on our hearts and hand ourselves over to the highest bidder.
I don’t think God wants our gifts to go to those who can pay the most for them, those who earn them, those who can return tit for tat, favor for favor. God has created and God has shaken the heavens and the earth to make us who we are. Do we really need to measure what that is in titles or dollar signs?
Brothers and sisters, while it’s true that we may be nothing without God, it’s also true that not one of us is without God. Each of us is something: a beloved child of the Ruler of the universe. And each of us has something: A unique gift that only we can share. Let’s not shortchange the church by imagining that we have nothing to offer. And let’s not shortchange ourselves by sharing our gifts only with those who can return the favor.
Conclusion: The Whole Story
Let’s look at the events of the Sunday and Monday before Jesus’ death as though they might pertain to us. His approach to the city among the people who know something about who him or have listened to some of his teaching speaks to us of the person interested in following him, but who doesn’t yet know the whole truth.
His cleansing of the temple speaks to us of what used to be called mortification—which sounds horrible, but it’s really useful. It’s getting rid of what holds us back, making room for God, and allowing the Spirit to sound an alarm when we’re selling out.
But showing an interest and making room are not all there is. There’s also the a cross—when we face the worst that can happen, when the world tells God “no.” We’ll hear about that in a minute when we listen to the Passion.
But when God is part of the story—and God is part of all our stories—then the world’s “no” is not the final answer. Though we leave the sanctuary today beneath the cross of Jesus, Easter brings with it God’s “yes”—and God’s answer is the final answer. The empty grave is the promise of life.
—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

[1] See Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-15.
[2] See Zechariah 9:9.
[3] Luke 19:37.
[4] Matthew 21:11.
[5] To remind me that I’m not the only one who assumes an earlier entry of Jesus into the city, the New Living Translation actually renders Mark 11:15, “When they arrived back in Jerusalem,” which is absolutely unwarranted by the original Greek which says nothing to imply that he was reëntering a city he had just left.
[6] Luke 19:45-48, NRSV. Matthew (21:12-16) seems to agree with Luke on the chronology, but includes a detail not found elsewhere, namely that there were children in the temple shouting Hosanna to the Son of David! John’s chronology (2:13-17) is totally different on this point, placing the cleansing of the temple very early on, immediately following his first miracle (water into wine at the wedding in Cana).
[7] See Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
[8] Luke is the only gospel that does not specifically mention the money changers.
[9] The Jewish Virtual Library’s Encyclopedia Judaica article on Money Changers provides good information on all the reasons for the existence of money changers and an idea of how much they charged for their services (see link).
[10] For a more dignified discussion of Christ’s righteous anger, see B.B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of Our Lord, a chapter in the larger work The Person and Work of Christ (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R, 1989 ed.).
[11] Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.
[12] King, Strength to Love (New York: Harper, 1963).
[13] This entire section is a revision of the conclusion of a sermon I preached in La Jolla, California on November 10, 2013.
[14] See John 4:20-24
[15] Thomas Boston, Complete Works, Sermon preached on March 11, 1716 (London, William Tegg & Co, 1853), p. 369. I actually updated the language. The exact quote is, “There are buyers and sellers within that heart of thine, that need to be driven out in the practice of mortification.”