[Update: this series has been completed. Part 1: the forsaking of God; Part 2: the Grace of Jesus; Part 3: the limits of Grace?; Part 4: the restoration of disciples; Part 5: conclusion & benediction]
This Palm Sunday I had the honor to preach at the prison ministry that my church does. It was amazing. I love those guys so much. My message was scrawled in my journal in outline form, so this will be only a rough and condensed manuscript of what was said. I hope you find it beneficial as you navigate these murky waters of life and spirituality.
“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples… When they brought the donkey to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” —Mark 11:1,7-9
This event is traditionally called the “Triumphal Entry”. It is when Jesus enters into the city of his people in such a way that confirms the suspicions of those around him: he is Messiah; he is King; he is Lord. But we also see that this Palm Sunday begins a week-long process of everything around Jesus forsaking and turning their backs on him, making this a very strange “triumphal” entry.
Sunday: as I found out in my study of this passage, the people crying out “Hosanna” are not the same people that on Friday are yelling “Crucify Him”. These are the Galileans that have been hearing Jesus’ teaching and have been following him on his way to the gates of Jerusalem. As they’ve gone along, they’ve bought into his teaching, they’ve become excited, and they’ve begun to praise him as their Messiah and the Son of God. They adore Jesus, and his presence has brought to a fever pitch the tension of hundreds of years of waiting for him to come.
And yet, after they’ve sung their Hosannas and Jesus has entered the city, we never hear from them again. They simply go home. It doesn’t say they stopped believing. It doesn’t say they were disappointed in Jesus. They just went home. They turn their backs on Jesus just as he enters into his time of greatest suffering and trial. But they’re just the first.
Monday: As Jesus is walking to Jerusalem the next day, he passes a fig tree. It’s Passover time in Jerusalem–this tree should be bearing figs for Jesus to eat. It is not. In this, we see creation itself saying “no” to its Creator, turning its back on Jesus and refusing to bear fruit in the time it was appointed to do so. In a similar way, Jesus goes on to the temple and finds that it has also turned its back on God. This was a place designed by God where the forgiveness of sins was primary. Instead, it has become a place of commerce, going against its original intention and purpose. [Mark 11:12-19]
Tuesday: Jesus spends this day teaching and debating the Pharisees–the religious leaders that were meant to call the people of God back to repentance and faith in Him. Instead, when they look at the clearest revelation of God the world will ever know, they forsake him and begin plotting for his death. [Mark 11:20-13:36]
Wednesday: Judas completes his deal to betray Jesus, but he is only the first of the disciples that will end up forsaking Jesus. [Mark 14:1-11]
Thursday: After Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper, he heads to the Garden of Gethsemane and asks his three closest friends to pray with him. They fall asleep, forsaking Christ in his time of greatest need. Judas comes, the arrest goes down, and all of the disciples scatter, abandoning Jesus. Jesus then undergoes illegal trials where the systems of justice that God had instituted turn their back on Jesus–the systems given to humans to exercise with equity are turned on the God that formed them. [Mark 14:12-72]
Friday: Jesus undergoes trials with the Romans, and here we see the Gentiles forsake their God. And then, during these trials, the people of God themselves, the Jews, turn their back on the Prophet and King of their God in their cries to crucify him. And ultimately, at the cross, God the Father Himself forsakes Christ, turning his face away from him. [Mark 15]
As the disciples of God–if we’re honest–Thursday is what we fear for ourselves. We fear that in a time of great distress, be it internal or external, we will forsake our God, turning away from Him and abandoning Him to our baser desires.
It is this fear, and this desire and need for a very real sense of our acceptance by God, that motivates much of our action. We spend so much of our energy and time trying to fight against the coming of our own version of Thursday.
But the truth is that we can’t. Thursday comes for all of us. We will all forsake Jesus, just as his other disciples (and the rest of the world and the cosmos) did.
I fear that spending all our energy on “sinning less” or “not forsaking Jesus” puts us in the same boat as Peter, who, when Jesus told him he would forsake his Lord, replied “Surely not!” He believed he had structured his life and his heart in such a way to keep him from forsaking his Christ. And yet, he ended up denying Jesus to an even greater degree than the other disciples.
I think if we were to approach our own hearts or other well-meaning Christians with these fears of forsaking Jesus, they would respond with some attempt to literally “scare the hell” out of us. They (or we) would go to passages like Hebrews 6 and say we must bear fruit in order not to fall away. Or they might go to the story of the two builders–one of whom built their house on the rock, the other on the sand–and conclude that they need only build and found their life on the Rock: Jesus. Or they might go to the parable of the sower and say that if we don’t want to be like those that hear the Word of God, spring up overnight, and by the end of the day have withered, we should get the Word of God rooted deeply within our hearts.
And so after hearing these things, we often walk away with this answer to our fear: try harder. We say, “well, my faithfulness to Christ rests upon me being fruitful, building my life on Christ, and rooting the Word deep inside of me.” In the end, though, this sounds a whole lot more like the Law than the Gospel.
But here is the good news in this story of Holy Week: this story is not first and foremost about the people that left Christ, but about the Christ that loves those people that left him.
And so, the right question to ask in response to this story is not “how do we keep ourselves from Thursday?” Rather, it’s “how does Jesus respond and relate to those who will or have forsaken him?”
The answer I want to fight for? Jesus responds to all of our forsaking him with pure, unadulterated, offensive, and scandalous Grace. My main point in this message: A disciple is not someone who never forsakes Jesus; it’s someone who, after forsaking him, comes back.
Tomorrow, we will will explore the ways Jesus demonstrates his grace to us and all of those that forsake him, preparing them and equipping them to come back. And hopefully, this stirs and secures us in order to prepare us for when Thursday comes for each of us.