"Pliny, Roman governor of Bithynia, wrote Trajan, the Roman Emperor, regarding how he flushed out Christians in his area: ‘I gave these men chance to invoke the gods of Rome, offer sacrifice to the image of the Emperor, and finally to curse the name of Christ. Pliny added, ‘None of these acts, those who are really Christians, can be forced to do.’”
----Peter Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of Illustrations
Throughout the Christian world, today is known as Palm Sunday, the day commemorated by Christians of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and with the cheering accolades of crowds gathered to celebrate the Passover Feast. "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9) To the people surrounding Jesus, it must have appeared that the very Kingdom of God itself was about to break out on the earth. It must have seemed that the hated Romans would soon abandon their cruel military presence, or at least that the iron bands of occupation would be soon thrown off by the triumphant forces of God. Of course, now from the distance of 2,000 years, we know the real story.
The challenge this week for all of us is to see the events of Holy Week culminating in next Sunday’s celebration of Easter through the lens of a steely faith and iron commitment. Today's palm branches and shouts of praise are evidences of our ever-present human propensity to confuse loyalty with popularity. In the passage cited above from John 6, Jesus conveyed in graphic language the central essence of Christian discipleship and deep commitment. The consequences are that "from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." Jesus made it indelibly clear to us that the costs of following Him are high and the stakes are great. The difference in following Jesus with loyalty as opposed to mere popularity is the military difference between marching in parades in handsome dress uniforms and marching off to war! The participants in one are soldiers; in the other they are well-dressed dilettantes.
So, after this experience of "group reduction," we might well assume that the issue for Jesus’ disciples had been put to rest. THEN --- along came Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The process of scrutiny was resumed! In this case, though, religious fervor, spiritual euphoria, and intense religious experiences reveal the duplicity of the human heart and the frailties of inadequate commitment to the Lord Jesus. Simply put --- many among us today who give accolades, compliments, and who sing our praises will tomorrow become our tormentors and crucifiers!
You see, a crucial issue in Palm Sunday for Christians is why they follow the Lord Jesus. What is the nature of their attachment to Him? If their essential link to Christ is due to popularity, then their "commitment" will remain in force as long as conditions are right, feelings are good, and the demands are low. They will enjoy a veritable "hullabaloo" of energetic singing, emphatic pronouncements, and impulsive actions! AND --- what a show they CAN make!
BUT, if their "commitment" is due to true loyalty, then they will continue in spite of fluctuating conditions, cyclic feelings, and the ever-present high demands of faith and service! Even when knocked off kilter in their lives, they will return always, in their ultimate direction of life, to "True North." The foundational quality of their lives is not mere expediency or self-preservation. They serve One Who is greater --- in fact, they serve a King!
John records that the crowds spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread branches from the trees in His path. Their actions were temporarily commendable, but their hearts were still evil. In just a few hours, when the moment has ended and the negative emotions of the crowds have been manipulated to a fever pitch, many of these same people will be shouting, "Away with him! Crucify Him!" We could have no clearer illustration of the difference between loyalty and popularity as sources of commitment!
So, what about you and me? Are we just members of the crowd singing little Christian ditties, participating in the latest Christian fads and marketing ploys? Is our commitment to Jesus Christ any greater in quality or content than the impulsive crowds of the Triumphal Entry? I trust it is so!
This week while we participate in Holy Week activities --- Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday's Lord's Supper, and Good Friday --- let us renew our commitment to Christ Jesus and His life of faith. Remember --- we're in this for the long run. As we will celebrate next Sunday, we have a risen Lord and ruling King. Isn't it time we lived like that?! May God give us clear vision as we scrutinize the nature of our own commitment to Him, and may He give us His strength to continue serving Him loyally!
“Now if we would be Christ’s disciples, we must take care that our hearts are filled with such reverence and obedience to God as He is able to tame and yoke all affections contrary to His will. Hence, it will come about that in whatever trial we may be, in the greatest distress of heart we can possible experience, we will not slacken our firm grip on patience. For adversities will always have their bitterness to gnaw us. For this reason, afflicted by disease, we will groan, complain, long for health; pressed by poverty, we will feel some pricks of perplexity and care. Equally, disgrace and contempt, and every injustice will rend our hearts. When one of our relatives dies, we shall pay to nature the tears we owe. But always we shall come back to this conclusion: ‘Yet the Lord has willed it; let us follow His will.’”