Here's a sermon by Kevin Miller that might inspire a few ideas for your own Palm Sunday sermon (April 5, 2009). As you read the sermon, notice how Miller effectively captures the emotions the Jewish people must have felt that day—emotions that ranged from pure joy ("The Messiah is finally here!") to deep shock ("And he's come to confront us and not Rome?"). Also notice how Miller then bridges the gap between the world of yesterday and the world of today. His points of application are especially potent given the current economic climate in which we find ourselves. One thing to note: the church where Kevin serves took up a special offering on last year's Good Friday service. Though we've edited out some material to make the sermon more universally applicable, Kevin used the last half of the sermon to challenge his audience to give to the special Easter collection in a manner that was above and beyond what they normally give. Perhaps it's an idea you and your leadership should discuss in this time of great need in our communities across the nation!
Introduction: The desperate need for a Messiah
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, everyone knew a regime change was taking place. This was the day that God's people had been praying for. They had been under the boot of Rome. They had been reduced to nothing more than a puppet state. They had no king, because the Romans wouldn't let them have one. They could still appoint a high priest, but the Romans said, "We have to approve whoever you choose—and to make sure your high priest never gets any ideas about leading a revolt in an effort to create a Jewish state, we're going to keep the ceremonial robes of your high priest locked up in our guard towers. You can get them out for Passover and other holy days, but only if you behave yourselves. And in case the people who come to the temple get any crazy ideas, we've built a giant fortress named after Marc Antony—the Antonia—on the side of your temple. That's right—we built it on the side of the heart of your nation; your most precious building; the structure that means the world to you. Now your temple will fall under the long shadow of our fortress. When you come for Passover, look up! On the rooftops, all around the temple, we've got Romans soldiers with their spear tips gleaming in the sun. There are 600 soldiers on duty there at all times. This fortress has four giant columns that are fourteen stories high. We can look down on your temple area to make sure nothing gets out of hand."
But despite the crippling political power of the Romans, the Jews had not given up hope. The ancient prophecies said a Savior would come—that a king would someday ride into Jerusalem to deliver God's people from the evil of the ungodly. They knew what the prophet Zechariah said:
I will guard my temple and protect it from invading armies. … Rejoice greatly, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—even on a donkey's colt. I will remove the battle chariots from Israel and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
The great prophet Isaiah had confirmed this prophecy:
The LORD has sworn to Jerusalem by his own strength: "I will never again hand you over to your enemies. Never again will foreign warriors come and take away your grain and wine . … Within the courtyards of the temple, you yourselves will drink the wine that you have pressed. … Tell the people of Israel, "Look, your Savior is coming. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes."
Imagining what it was like the day the Messiah finally came
Finally, it was happening. Imagine with me what that day must have been like for the gathered crowd …
The rabbis had said it would happen on Passover—that the Messiah would come and judge the ungodly. Well, it's Passover week. There are hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover. As they fill the streets, a victory parade starts to form at the edge of the city—a two-mile parade that will go into the heart of Jerusalem. People turn to each other and say: "This prophet from Nazareth—Jesus—he's the one. He has to be. He just healed two people who were blind. It's incredible!"
Jesus is coming this way now, rocking slightly as he rides down the steep hill from the Mount of Olives. People are waving and shouting. He's riding on a small donkey colt. That's just like the prophet Zechariah had said it would be: "Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—even on a donkey's colt."
Jesus isn't coming like the arrogant Roman generals on their war horses. He's coming in humility like Solomon did—the son of King David who rode on a mule through this very same Kidron Valley when he came into Jerusalem to take up the throne as king. Jesus is coming from the Mount of Olives, where the prophets had said the Messiah would come.
Overwhelmed with joy, the people begin to cry out: "Jesus must be the one! He's the new king of Israel! Wow! Praise God! Hosanna! Quick! Take off your coat and lay it down on the road in front of him. Run and cut branches from that tree and lay those down, too. Let's roll out the red carpet!"
He's closer now, and people are yelling: "Bless the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise the new Son of David! Blessed is the King of Israel!" All the pilgrims to this Passover are singing their ancient Passover song out loud: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
And there's the blessed one himself, finally come to judge the ungodly. The crowd can't wait to see what happens when he rides into Jerusalem. They think to themselves, The Messiah will judge the ungodly. He will finally remove the pagan Romans from power. He will ride right up to the Antonia, make his way into their fortress—the very heart of the ungodly—and he will drive them out. Then our glorious temple will finally be free and cleansed from the ungodly.
A surprising turn of events
But then something odd happens. Jesus doesn't go to the Roman fortress. He goes to the temple:
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.'"
Jesus doesn't go to the Roman fortress, the heart of the enemy occupation. He doesn't go to the barracks to drive out the ungodly. He goes to the temple, the heart of the Jewish religion, and drives out the people who are providing a service of convenience for people coming to worship.
The Law of Moses commands that every male of Israel must redeem his soul by giving half a shekel as a temple tax. The Jews couldn't bring their Roman or Greek coins into the temple, because such coins had pagan images on them that were blasphemous. Those coins didn't belong in the temple. So, there was a currency exchange where a Jew could pay a fee that goes to the local bankers and the high priest's family.
The Law of Moses also required the people of God to offer animal sacrifices. If they had traveled a long way to come for Passover, they weren't going to bring their animal with them. They would just bring some money and buy an animal for their offering after they got to Jerusalem. Prices were a little high, but they could get a bull or a pair of birds in a wicker basket—whatever was needed.
The money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice used to be outside the temple—out in the Kidron Valley. But when Caiaphas became high priest, he let them move into the temple courtyard. It was much more convenient that way. After all, how would they pay for the temple without such business? In fact, the religious leaders felt it was the most important business in the city.
As the people had prayed for years, the Messiah did come at Passover to judge the ungodly. But to their shock, he confronted them and not the Romans, saying: Who's violating the Holy Place more—the Roman soldiers who stand in a tower with the high priest's garments locked inside, or the temple bankers who are making money off of every poor person who comes to pray? It's bad enough that you try to make money off of people coming to pray, but you shouldn't be doing that here. You're undercutting the very reason the temple exists. You think you're essential to the way the whole temple runs, but really, you're keeping poor people from worshiping. It's like the prophet Amos said: "Why do you people long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. … I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. … But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" You're interested in religion, but I'm interested in people.
Cleansing today's temple
When the Messiah rides into town, you just never know where he might go or what he might do. We think he's got to be for us and against "those evil people." But in reality, he's against sin, wherever he finds it. He's out to destroy anything that separates people from God. He's out to remove any evil—especially the evil we explain away as a part of our religion, the way we do things.
When the Messiah rides into town, he finds evil things right in the heart of his people. He finds it in the things we accept, in the things we don't think a thing about. He wants our worship, but he wants even more than that. He wants the daily worship of a changed life. He wants the daily worship of us lifting up others around us, welcoming them as God would. When Jesus returns in triumph to judge the ungodly, he will start with us.
Peter says clearly, "Judgment begins with the family of God." And today we know that the temple, the place where God's presence is, is in his people. So I wonder—what would Jesus cleanse from God's people today?
I think Jesus would cleanse some things that we widely accept—things we wouldn't think anything about, like the currency-exchange folks in the temple. I think Jesus would go after any practice or attitude that somehow keeps out "outsiders." Remember that when Jesus cleared out the temple, he quoted from Isaiah 56, which is a passage about God welcoming the Gentile outsiders ("My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations"). I think Jesus would also cleanse us of our dark greed and our selfishness. Jesus also quotes from the prophet Jeremiah: "You have made my temple 'a den of thieves.'"
You might be thinking, "Ah! The televangelists! Jesus would go after folks like the televangelists whose ministries have provided them with a $10 million, 80-acre, eight-home ranch near Dallas. He would go after the couple who bought a $5 million ocean-front estate in Newport Beach, California." But that indictment is too easy, because none of us are televangelists. The whole point is that Jesus would go after what we assume and accept. So, what are those things?
I've thought long and hard about that question. Let me humbly suggest two possibilities. First of all, Jesus might want to go after a sin that's very common among those of us in the Anglican tradition: the sin of loving our liturgy more than people. It's also common in every church, because every church has a liturgy, whether they admit it or not! We love our liturgy, so it's painfully easy for us to focus on it—to put our best time and energy into making this liturgy perfect. But do we put the same time and energy into opening ourselves to people outside our Body—to people in pain, people who are without hope and without God? Would we ever change anything we like in order to help them connect with God, or do they have to do all the awkward and uncomfortable work of coming our way? How would we feel if reaching out to others means we have to change the time we worship? What if it meant we would have to embrace a new service that isn't exactly like the old? Will we turn inward and grasp what we want, or will we stay open and flexible so that we can become a house of prayer for people of all nations?
If that doesn't make you squirm, then here's a second possible point of application for you in this text. A husband and wife research team in Champaign, Illinois, has estimated that $70$80 billion a year would meet the most essential human needs around the world. They write: "Projects for clean water and sanitation, prenatal and infant care, basic education, immunizations, and long-term development efforts are among the activities that could help overcome the poverty conditions that now kill and maim so many children and adults." Now consider this next point they share: "That figure of $70$80 billion may sound like an impossible amount, but if church members in the United States would increase their giving to 10 percent of their income, there could be an additional $86 billion available for overseas work."
We often don't want to think about what we are giving. Most of what we do give stays here for our church. After all, we need to worship well. But maybe now is the time to have a special offering in which we challenge ourselves to go against that grain. Maybe it's time to donate money that will go toward building a seminary in Rwanda, one of the fastest-growing areas for Christianity in the world—while also one of the poorest countries in the world. And maybe we should take up the offering on Good Friday. It seems fitting. Good Friday is the day Jesus was killed because the religious leaders couldn't handle his indictment on Palm Sunday. They took thirty pieces of silver out of the temple treasury—which they'd gotten from the tax on worshipers—and used it to hire an informant, a betrayer.
When Jesus comes to town, you just never know where he might go or what he might do. He might challenge the things that are most dear to us—the things that are keeping us or others away from God. The new King has come—Hosanna! And when he rides into town, he's going to judge the ungodly! It just might not be the people we think.
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?