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A Day of Applause

People respond to Jesus' arrival with joy, betrayal, or the offering of their lives.

As you study the life of Jesus on the pages of the four Gospels, you discover that of the material about the life of Jesus focuses on the last week of his life. Those who wrote the stories of Jesus were saying that the most important part of the disclosure of who he was, and who he is, is revealed in the last week of his life.

The words that describe the experiences of the week are a litany of emotions that represent the ups and downs of the week. We know them: hosanna, confrontation, betrayal, denial, trial, scourging, crucifixion, tomb. Then the most electrifying sentence ever uttered—"He is not here! He is risen!"

Palm Sunday is at best, says Wallace Viets, "a day of temporary triumph." At worst, it is an illustration of the "fickle nature of the voice of the people." 1

A week that lifts us with shouts of praise. A week that reveals the abyss of denial and betrayal, the duplicity of Judas, and the unfaithfulness of Peter. We see the weakness of all of his disciples who fled the city, the ambivalence of Pilate, the agony of death between two thieves—one who cursed him, the other who asked for his forgiveness. The bleakness of the "final things" at a borrowed tomb. Then on to the glory of Easter and his resurrection.

It all began on Palm Sunday, a day of applause. Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time. I believe, and many scholars believe, that he planned his own parade. He had studiously, up until that moment, avoided public acclaim and publicity. Now, he reached out for it. It was Passover time. The city was jammed with pilgrims from all over the world. He entered Jerusalem in a way that would focus the whole city on his arrival.

He secured a beast of burden. The donkey was a noble beast in that culture. Generals and kings rode a horse only when they went to war. When a king or a general came in peace, he rode a donkey. In this case, Jesus rode on one that had never been ridden. He was not the martial figure that the populace anticipated and wanted, but one who came in peace. The simple statement to the owner of the beast was, "The Lord has need of him." If it had not been prearranged and this phrase had not been some kind of a signal, the owner might have said to the disciples, "The Lord may need this donkey, but he hadn't mentioned it to me!"

The cheers that greeted him were tremendous. The disciples were caught up in the spirit of things to such a degree that the Pharisees rebuked them and said to Jesus, "You should really get a handle on the extravagant claims your disciples are making."

Ann Weems, in her wonderful little book, Kneeling in Jerusalem, captures the spirit of this monumental entry into Jerusalem in a poem entitled "Between Parades":

"We're good at planning! Give us a task force and a project and we're off and running! No trouble at all! Going to the village and finding the colt, even negotiating with the owners is right down our alley. And how we love a parade! In a frenzy of celebration we gladly focus on Jesus and generously throw down our coats and palms in his path. And we can shout praise loudly enough to make a Pharisee complain. It's all so good, the parade! It's between parades that we don't do so well. We don't do so well from Sunday to Sunday. For we forget our hosannas between parades. The stones will have to shout because we won't." 2

Wallace Viets calls it a day of temporary triumph. It is an indication of the way in which the day leaves us with a sense of ambivalence. It begins with joy and hosanna. It ends with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. What can we say about this first day of the Holy Week that will be helpful to you and me?

His arrival was greeted with deserved joy.

Jesus had been drawing huge crowds for some time. The people heard him gladly. There is every indication that he was met by a great rush of people wherever he went. His words spoke to the heart and had the ring of truth, as they do today. The authority of his presence was commanding. The things that he did were electrifying. Blind eyes could see again. Lame legs surged with vitality and strength. And those confined to pallets of affliction were up and about! The word that surged through the hearts of everyone who pressed to touch him was the word hope! For one in his presence could dream the impossible dreams, and they came true.

Parents brought their children for him to bless. Relatives brought their loved ones, a veritable caravan of the needy, so that he might touch them and heal them! Depressed spirits were lifted and made whole. Hopeless hearts dared to hope again. Make no mistake about it, he was greeted with joy as he entered the city—and should have been.

His arrival preceded betrayal.

The triumphal entry on Palm Sunday was to mark the end of the spontaneous public approval for Jesus of Nazareth. As the week unfolds, you will see that it's downhill all the way to Good Friday. A deadly coalition of temple hierarchy, Roman government, and betrayal within the disciple band would lead to his death. The challenge that Jesus issued during the week would prompt many to abandon his cause and to forsake him. While he sweat blood in Gethsemane, his disciples snored, having promised to watch with him one hour.

He had asked them earlier when he noticed that some were slipping away, "Will you also go away?" They assured him through Peter their spokesman that though all should abandon him, "We will not go away." But now they sensed danger in the air. They made promises that they would watch with him for one hour, but they didn't keep the promise. They were the inner circle: Peter, James, and John. While he sweated blood, they took naps. They made all kinds of promises to Jesus by night, but by day they made tracks.

And here we are 20 centuries later still feeling the ambivalence of Palm Sunday. An electrifying moment of public entry and confrontation, and a powerful statement about what he stood for—a kingdom of the heart where men and women would be changed forever. Palm Sunday was the end, though, of any public affirmation for his ministry.

When he was on the way to Calvary, carrying the burden of his cross, back lacerated from scourgings, a crown of thorns on his brow, he stumbled. He needed someone to bear the weight of that cross. Surely one of his disciples would leap from the crowd and volunteer. But no, a stranger, Simon of Cyrene, had to be "volunteered" by the command of a Roman soldier. Where were those enthusiastic disciples who had proclaimed that "God has given us a King. Long live the King! Let all heaven rejoice!"

They were nowhere to be found. They greeted him with joy. But note secondly with me the reality that the applause always ends.

Illustration: We hear about vox populi, the voice of the people, but let me tell you that the voice of the people is a fickle voice. If you don't believe that, ask the relatives of Marvin Griffin. He ran for governor against Carl Sanders. His strategy was to have great gatherings around barbequed dinners all over the state of Georgia. In the early '60s I went to Statesborough. His campaign manager was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Hinesville. I was deputized to say the prayer. Twelve thousand people gathered in Statesborough to eat Marvin's barbeque. But when the election was over, he had lost decisively. He held a news conference in which he said, "They ate ol' Marvin's barbecue, but they didn't vote for me."

The voice of the people cannot be relied upon; it's a fickle voice. Today's hero is tomorrow's goat. Crowds have a short memory. They are usually asking the question, "What have you done for me today?"

Illustration: Napoleon, traveling through Switzerland with his army, was greeted with thunderous applause and enthusiasm. One of his supporters said, "It must be delightful to be greeted with such demonstrations of enthusiastic admiration."

"Bah," said Napoleon, "this same unthinking crowd under a slight change of circumstances would follow me just as eagerly to the scaffold!" 3

That happened to Jesus. The same folks who cheered him on Sunday cried, "Crucify him and give us Barabbas" before the week was over. They greeted him with joy, but the applause ended.

His arrival was accompanied by tears.

He wept because he knew the condition of the people and their need. He had come to change their hearts, not their government. Ann Weems captures the moment:

"There is but one face / whose holy eyes won't turn away / but focus on us and weep!" 4

There are two instances in the New Testament when Jesus wept. The first was when he heard of the death of his friend Lazarus. He wept, but he provided life for Lazarus. The second was when he wept over Jerusalem because he saw it as a place of lost opportunity. He explained his mission over and over, but they never got the message. Even his close circle of followers, his disciples, were a hopeless muddle. Each with his own agenda, his own ambitions, jockeying for power one would deny him, another would betray him, and all would flee the city when the chips were down, save one. It was enough to make anybody weep!

His disciples knew: "There's danger there. You should not go." But he persisted. Why? Perhaps a story will help.

Illustration: Her name was April. She had been placed in one foster home after another. She seemed more and more to retreat into a world of fantasy and dreams. Those who studied her feared that she was retarded. Actually, her withdrawal was simply a coping mechanism that helped her cope with so many temporary things in her life.

She finally landed in a home run by an elderly couple who had 15 children committed to their care, because they were paid to do it. They were hard and demanding and sometimes cruel in their dealings with the children. April found joy, and I suspect sanity, in a world of fantasy where she hummed little tunes and sang songs that she made up.

She pretended to write them down and put them in an envelope and mail them to someone. The couple who kept her was bothered by this writing and mailing things, because they were afraid a letter that was critical of them would fall into the hands of the authorities. The children would be removed, and hence the loss of revenue. So they forbade her to write any more notes or to sing any songs.

But it wasn't long before April was writing down her songs again. She was scribbling a note one day, and the woman saw that when she finished, she put it in an envelope and walked out into the yard, not toward the post office, but toward a tree. She climbed the tree, and between two limbs she placed her song. The foster mother immediately summoned her husband, who secured a ladder, and they got the note out of the fork of the tree. He handed it to his wife, and she read this: "Whoever finds this note—I love you." 5

That's why Jesus persisted in going to Jerusalem. He went with a powerful renewing, transforming message: "Whoever reaches out to me—I love you!" He wept because he knew they would not respond. It would be rejection, an opportunity missed.

We are still missing that opportunity. He's still weeping because of that reality. The most arresting phrase in the morning lesson is the crisp sentence, "The Lord has need of it!" He sought a beast of burden to ride as he entered the city. The owner was told, "The Lord has need of it." The needs are no less today. There are people to be reached.

There are persons who need our love and help. I'm happy to say that 571 members of this church visited 28 different places yesterday doing good things for God and for people. Building and repairing houses, visiting the night shelters, going to the Salvation Army Red Shield Lodge and to Fowler Elementary School. The Lord has need of our love and our help.

His arrival demands our response.

The question that challenges us as this holiest of all weeks begins is this: Do we have anything that we are willing to share with him, to give to him?

Look at the inventory of the gifts of hand and heart that you've been given. What can you give to the one who has given us everything, including life? All of us should be asking that question not "Does he have need of my gifts?" He does. But where can I give my gifts to his glory?

Illustration: It brings pleasure to the heart of God when we give to him. I've always loved the story of Eric Liddell. His life was immortalized for many who'd never heard his story in the movie Chariots of Fire. He had felt the call of God to go to China as a missionary with his sister.

The most gripping scene in the movie, to me, was when he told his sister that he was going to delay going to the mission field so that he could continue training for the Olympics. She was crestfallen. He sought to help her to understand by saying, "Jenny, Jenny. I know God created me for his service, but he also made me fast! When I run, I feel God's pleasure!" 6

When we give to him the gifts of heart and hand, God feels pleasure, and so do we. We know the rest of Eric Liddell's story. He participated in the Olympics, he refused to run on a Sunday, and his subsequent winning of a gold medal turned out to be a witness for Christ to the whole world.

The Lord has need of you. Have you answered that question of late? You begin by saying, "I give him my heart." That's why he came.

G.A. SKennedy, the poet chaplain of World War I, penned some unforgettable words and labeled them "Indifference":

"When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree. / They drove great nails through hand and feet, and made a Calvary. / They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds and deep. / For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap. / When Jesus came to Buckhead, we simply passed him by. / They never hurt a hair of him, they only let him die. / For men and women had grown more tender, and they would not give him pain. / They only just passed down the street, and left him in the rain. / Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do.' / And still it rained the winter rain and drenched him through and through. / The crowds went home in Buckhead and left the streets without a soul to see, / And Jesus crouched against a Buckhead wall and cried out, 'Give me Calvary.' "

When we look at all the gifts God has given us, the gifts we are indifferent about, that has consequences. The Lord has need of your heart and mine.

The late W. Frank Harrington was senior pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church, in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, from 1971 to 1999.


  1. Wallace T. Viets, Seven Days that Changed the World (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1962), p. 11.
  2. Ann Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem (Louisville, Westminster / John Knox Press, 1992), p. 69.
  3. "The Gospel According to St. Luke," Volume III, The Speaker's Bible, edited by James Hastings (Aberdeen, The Speakers Bible Office, 1934), p. 213.
  4. Weems, Kneeling in Jerusalem, p. 70.
  5. Best Sermons, Volume 6, edited by James W. Cox (New York, Harper San Francisco, 1993), p. 9.
  6. John Trent, Lifemapping (Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family Publishing, 1994), p. 84.

W. Frank Harrington pastored Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and wrote several books, including First Comes Faith: Proclaiming the Gospel in the Church (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1998).

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Sermon Outline:

Introduction: Palm Sunday began with joy as Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, but ended in his weeping over Jerusalem.

I. His arrival was greeted with deserved joy.

II. His arrival preceded betrayal.

III. His arrival was accompanied by tears.

IV. His arrival demands our response.