TEXT: Joel 3:1-2; Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:24-29
Today is Palm Sunday, the day that kicks of “Holy Week” and in which we read and remember Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. I say so-called because it was triumphal, but mainly because the crowd didn’t quite get it right about what the Messiah would do and because the week ended in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. And yet we are also finishing up our time in Joel. Someone rightly asked me this week how Joel tied in to Paul Sunday. It does! We’ll look at that, at the false expectations, and at the promises Jesus did fulfill in obedience to God.
What I want to challenge you to listen for and think about is how your own expectations for God might lead you in a direction away from the reality of what God is actually doing in the world and in your life. And consider how you might re-align your expectations with what God does say He will do.
Just a quick recap of the first two chapters of Joel that we’ve looked at over the past five weeks or so. Set about 600 years before Jesus, God’s people endured a locust plague, a drought, some fires, and an invading army. Joel’s message to them was three-fold: lament, repent, and live in hope. These are good prescriptions for us as well when we suffer or face significant challenges or loss. Lament involves being truthful about the situation and grieving the loss or what has happened. But it’s more than grief; it is bringing that grief to the Lord. Repentance is turning freshly to the Lord. And the hope that Joel holds out is the “Day of the Lord” – the time, future to him, in which the Lord would set things right and judge the evil, injustice, and sin of the world.
We talked some last week about how Jesus announced the beginning of the Day of the Lord with his own ministry. He would say, “The Kingdom is here… it is in your midst… the time is now…” But he also held out a future completion of that Day of hope. Scripture teaches that we are living IN that Day, having seen it begin in Christ and waiting for it to finish with his return. In the meantime, we follow after Jesus and God blesses us with His Spirit to be a part of inviting people to the Lord and living out the love of God in this world.
Expectations (Joel 3:1-2; Matthew 21)
All that brings us to Palm Sunday. The people of Joel’s day heard what he had to say and did lament and repent. They believed and hoped in God that there would be a Day of the Lord when things would be set right. And the verses we heard today from Joel 3:1-2 spell out another one of those signs to mark when the day was coming:
1 “For behold, in those days and at that time, When I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, 2 I will gather all the nations And bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat. Then I will enter into judgment with them there On behalf of My people and My inheritance, Israel, Whom they have scattered among the nations; And they have divided up My land.
Do you know what the people of Jesus’ day wanted? The Roman Empire had over-run the known world, providing protection and roads and peace, but at a high cost. Rome took the fortunes of her subjects, taxing them heavily to fund the army and the empire. The lands was divvied up and ruled by Roman governors. And the Jewish people longed to rule themselves again. They longed for the days of King David. And much of their hope and expectation was bound up in an interpretation of the coming of God’s anointed – the Messiah – to accomplish this independence and rule.
Joel mentions where this will happen: in the valley of Jehoshaphat. This is understood to be the valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem before you go up the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives. Joel said to look out for signs in the skies and on the ground and then look right around Jerusalem for this thing to happen.
On the day of what we call Palm Sunday Jesus had come to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives. It was there that he sent his disciples to find a donkey and colt to fulfill one of the Messiah-prophecies in scripture. The hillside would have been covered with people there for the Feast of Passover. Estimates are that the city would grow from an estimated 75-100,000 to 10x that size during Passover. The hillside, valley, and streets of Jerusalem would have been packed with people. And as Jesus rode down the hill, through the valley, through the gate, and into the city, people threw their coats and palm branches on the ground, the sign of a king coming to power.
People had heard about the miracles, had heard some of the teaching and claims to divinity. And for a while Jesus seemed to be avoiding being too public. But now he wasn’t holding back. He was riding the donkey, passing through the valley Joel associated with the Day of the Lord, and coming into Jerusalem heralded as king by the crowds.
And they quoted Psalm 118, shouting “Hosanna!” They weren’t just saying “Jesus, Jesus” or “Here comes the King!” They were shouting the specific phrase associated with the coming of the Messiah-King and they were calling on Jesus to save them now.
The crowds were ecstatic, seemingly convinced the Day of the Lord had arrived. The disciples were caught up in it, too. The disciples included at least one zealot, part of a political party dedicated to over-throwing the Romans by force. And even Jesus’ opponents realized something had shifted and they began actively looking for a way to contain, control, or take Jesus down.
Save Us Now! (Psalm 118)
I want to take a moment to look at Psalm 118 with you, specifically the portion we read as the call to worship (vv.24-29). It begins, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” This was one of the Psalms of Ascent, traditional sung or read during Passover on the way up to the Temple, where the sacrifice would be made for the sins of the people. It also contains language about the Messiah. Follow along with me as we step through it:
This is the day (v.24) – God has made every day, but the Day of the Lord’s salvation would be cause for extra joy and celebration.
O Lord, do save, we beseech you! (v.25a) – This translates ‘Hosanna’; the first part of the word means “save us!” and the -na at the end adds the urgency (‘now’). Interestingly enough, Jesus’ Hebrew name Josua/Joshua is a noun form of the same word, meaning ‘salvation’ or ‘rescuer’. The cry of “save us now” would have also sounded very similar to “Jesus now!”
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (v.26a) – This is the Lord’s anointed, a king, the Messiah.
Bind the festival sacrifice… to the altar (v.27b) – This was the point of the ascent to the city and temple, that the Passover Lamb would be sacrificed. That the one who comes in the name of the Lord would BE the festival sacrifice was not in view before or at the time, but we look back on it in poignant understand of what Jesus was about to do on the cross.
The crowd was shouting the short form from verses 25-26, “Save us now! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” But every Jew there knew and could recite and sing Psalm 118. It all describes what was going on, even if their specific expectations didn’t quite line up with what God was actually doing. But it would all unfold further in only a few days when Jesus was arrested, tried, and killed with the sign “King of the Jews” marking his cross.
I think there are two big takeaways from the Palm Sunday story. One is about who Jesus is. He was clearly more than a teacher or wise man. And it was clear he understood himself to be more than that. He clearly identified himself as the subject of the Messianic teachings of scripture. He was willing to face arrest and death for that. And as you look at all that unfolds throughout Holy Week, he does what scripture said he would do. He gives his life for the sin of the world. And God raises him from the dead. There are witnesses and testimonies and written records and more. C.S. Lewis famously said there are only three things Jesus could be: a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. I think that if you examine all that he said and did, especially within the greater context of God’s promises and character, that he is clearly the Lord!
Secondly, the Palm Sunday story illustrates how our expectations can diverge from what God is actually doing. It is so easy to do something, believe something, or pray for something and then “baptize” that thing with a verse here or there taken out of context. I’m not saying that’s what the people of Jesus’ day did – they knew their scriptures and even then didn’t quite get it right. But it’s so easy for us to get things turned around and proof-text to validate our own behavior or plans without really seeking the Lord’s will. Or sometimes we don’t even do that and just go on a feeling that God is behind what we are doing. Yet I do think it’s possible in most cases to determine the Lord’s expectations and plans. It takes some diligence on our part, especially because our dreams, fears, experiences, and culture can all stand in the way.
Let me suggest some ways to “re-align expectations” so that our expectations line up with the Lord’s.
- PAUSE to take an objective look at your expectations. Where did they come from? Are they rooted in pain or success or fear or someone else’s expectations of me?
- PRAY and ask the Lord to show you His will and direction in the matter. That may involve an entirely different set of questions, considerations, or factors than what was motivating you. (For example, does it matter to the Lord whether you go to a big school or a small school? Maybe what matters more is being in a place where faith can grow and mature…)
- READ the scriptures in context – like we’ve been doing in Joel. Take time to learn what was going on for the author, what God was doing or teaching THEN, and then carefully consider what lasting principles might translate to our time (and what does not). (For example, Joel does not teach us only about what to do when our crops are destroyed by natural disaster, but the transferable concept of lament, repentance, and hope. Neither does it promise us in every circumstance that God will restore each and everything we lose in this life; rather, it does demonstrate God’s compassion and ability to restore what we might deem to be un-restorable.)
- RE-ALIGN: Be willing to re-align expectations to follow the Lord; this might itself involve lament (letting go of my plans), repentance (fresh turning), and hope (learning to delight in what God has in store for us).
If you want an example of this, keep your eyes on Jesus during Holy Week. Jesus serves the bread and cup to his betrayer after washing the feet of all the disciples. Peter was still drawing a sword ready to fight their way out of arrest in the late hours of Thursday night, but Jesus calmly reminded him that Jesus was obeying the Father and he should put down his sword. Jesus forgives those mocking him while hanging on the cross. He greets the women on Easter morning with a mission and a message. What are your expectations of God and how do those need to be re-aligned?
Some Music Used
- Behold Our God
- Hear the Call of the Kingdom
- Hosanna/Praise is Rising
- CHOIR: All Glory, Laud, and Honor (arr. Ijames)
- Prepare the Way (Evans/Nuzum)
- Hosanna (Ligertwood)
- Hosanna, Loud Hosanna