Sermon April 13, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

April 13, 2014
Palm Sunday

“The Jesus Question”

Matthew 21:1-11

The hymn, “All Glory, Laud and Honor”, is a traditional Palm Sunday hymn. We sing it every year. It was written by Theodulph of Orleans. In the early ninth century he had been the Abbot of a monastery in Florence until Emperor Charlemagne brought him to Orleans, France and installed him as Bishop. After Charlemagne’s death, his son Louis, the new king, suspected Theodulph of disloyalty and imprisoned him in the monastery at Angers. It was while in prison that Theodulph wrote this Palm Sunday hymn. There’s a lovely, but questionable, legend that upon hearing the hymn sung the king had Theodulph released from prison.

Palm Sunday is always a special worship service. We look ahead to the events of Holy Week, the drama of the Last Supper, and the suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday. And having relived the passion of Jesus Christ this week, we anticipate with great joy his resurrection on Easter morning.

Donald Miller, who used to be a seminary president, told about a woman who phoned him one Saturday night. “Dr. Miller,” she asked, “what do I believe?” Miller was not sure that he had heard her correctly and he said, “What do you mean?” “I mean,” she said, “what do I believe? You see, I’ve just come from a party where several people got into a discussion about their various beliefs. I was the only Protestant in the group, and frankly, I didn’t know what to say. What do I believe?” “That woman,” said Miller, “must have come into the church on the confusion of faith, not the confession of faith.”

I think that’s funny story, but unfortunately, there are a lot of people today who are suffering from a confusion of faith, and can’t say exactly what they believe. Palm Sunday is a time to decide what we believe about Jesus Christ. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. It was an unmistakable enactment of an Old Testament prophecy. This was the long-awaited moment of decision.

Martin Luther wrote: “Jesus is presented as sheer grace, humility, and goodness, and whoever believes that of him is blessed. Look at him! He rides no stallion, which is a war animal, and he comes not with fearful pomp and power, but sits on a donkey, which is no war animal but which is ready for burdens of work that will help human beings. Thereby he shows that he does not come to terrify people, to drive or oppress them, but to help them, to carry their burdens and take them on himself.”

Jesus’ ministry had mostly been in the northern section of the country, around the area of the Sea of Galilee. But now, for the last time, Jesus had come to Jerusalem so that people might make up their minds about who he was. In the manner of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was presenting himself to the people as their Messiah. Jesus offered himself to Jerusalem as their deliverer and the people responded with the ancient festal cry – “Hosanna”, which means: “please save.”

But what did the people really believe about Jesus? A short time before, Jesus asked this question of his disciples. He said: “‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’” Now, Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the whole city was stirred up. There was a tremendous emotional reaction to Jesus, and we read: “The whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is Jesus Christ? This is the question for all of us – children, youth and adults. Who is Jesus Christ to you? It’s the most important question you will ever have to face. All through his life and ministry, and here at Palm Sunday, Jesus was always arousing curiosity and intense interest. People were led to ask themselves, “Who is this?” People talked about Jesus, but they didn’t really know him. Many people today think of him as a great teacher, a good moral person, a wise man, a prophet. If there was a religious Mt. Rushmore, they would place Jesus right up there with Buddha and Moses and Mohammed. But Jesus refuses to simply let us admire him from a distance. Do we know him as Savior and Lord? Christianity is not simply reciting a creed, but knowing a person. In writing to Timothy, Paul didn’t say – “I know what I have believed.” He said – “I know whom I have believed.”

But today there is a lot of confusion of faith, and confusion about what faith is. In Hemingway’s novel, “A Farewell to Arms,” someone asks Lieutenant Henry, who was wounded in the First World War, if he is a believer. “Only at night,” he replies. In the daytime when his head is clear and his heart is brave, he cannot believe. But at night he must look inwardly at his fears.

What does it take to believe in Jesus Christ? The skeptic says – I need sufficient reasons to believe. However sufficient evidence comes only after the fact. If we want to wait until we have all the facts before we put our trust in Jesus Christ, then we will never do it. St. Anselm, a thousand years ago, put it this way – I do not understand in order that I may believe; I believe in order that I may understand. It’s as if a person who was born deaf wishes to know what sound is like before they are willing to have the surgery which will restore hearing. It can’t be done. And the only way that we will experience the indwelling presence of Jesus Christ in our lives is to accept by faith that when God wanted to convey the truth about his infinite love for all humanity, he made that love incarnate in a single life; that in Jesus Christ we discover God’s love, we experience the forgiveness of sins, and we receive the gift of eternal life.

Dr. Andrew Blackwood of Princeton Seminary used to say: “Faith is human weakness laying hold of divine power for the accomplishment of God’s purpose in our life now.” The great seventeenth century French scientist and mathematician, Pascal, once said: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” Pascal said it is the heart that feels God, and not reason. Pascal referred to faith as the leap or the wager. Faith is not jumping to conclusions; it is the conclusion to jump. Faith is like a leap out of a burning building into a cloud of smoke on the street below. Out of the smoke comes a voice saying: “Jump! We’re holding a safety net. I can see you even though you can’t see me. Trust me! Jump!” The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m being anti-intellectual. There is much about Christianity which is reasonable and logical, appealing to the mind. But ultimately, faith is a matter of the heart. We are to use our intellect in the service of God. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind. In I Peter 3:15 it says: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.”

The older I get the stronger my faith gets. And yet, I’m sure many of you could identify with this, it is not as much built upon theological arguments as it is upon the conviction of my heart. There was a time when it was much more important to me to have proof texts for everything I believed; to have philosophical arguments and theological rationales. My faith in Jesus Christ has grown stronger over the years, but now what I feel in my heart is as important to me as what I know in my head.

Ray Lindquist compared trying to define faith with trying to define love. He said: “Usually love creates its own definition in the person who loves. Ask a dear little lady and her tall lean man on their fifth wedding anniversary what love is and they will smile and mumble something. They know, but they find it hard to put together the words to tell what they know.”

There’s a great scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” where Tom, the slave, is talking to Augustin St. Claire, the man who owns him. Augustin St. Claire says to Tom, “Tom, how do you even know there is a Jesus Christ?” Tom replies, “Why Massah, I know him in my heart, and I know he loves you.” “But Tom, says St. Claire, “how do you know that?” “My soul knows it, Massah.” “But Tom, you know that I know a great deal more than you do. What would you say for example, if I told you that I don’t believe much that is in the Bible? Would that shake your faith?” “Not a grain, Massah. Not a grain.”

Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” Faith is an act of decision, to trust that Jesus Christ is who he claimed to be, that by his death and resurrection we experience the depth of God’s love for us. We can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Pascal urges us to wager on the goodness of God and the trustworthiness of Jesus.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus began his last appeal to the people of Jerusalem. He came openly proclaiming that he was the Messiah who had come to seek and to save the lost. The Palm Sunday crowd ushered in a King greater than they realized. They wanted temporary political relief and were offered everlasting salvation. They bargained for power to overcome the tyranny of Rome and got instead a cross to wipe away their sins.

Palm Sunday points us to the good news of the gospel. We believe in a living Lord. Because of his death and resurrection, we believe that Christ has the power to make a difference in our lives. God’s love knows no limits. There is no failure that shuts us out from God’s love. There is no hurt that his grace cannot heal. There is no sin that God’s love cannot forgive. Jesus Christ is the answer to all of our questions.

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