Palm Sunday- Almost!
by Melvin Newland
On the southern border of the empire of Cyrus, there lived a great chieftain named Cagular who tore to shreds & completely defeated the various detachments of Cyrus’ army sent to subdue him.
Finally the emperor, amassing his whole army, marched down, surrounded & overwhelmed Cagular’s forces, captured him & his wife, & brought them to the capital for execution.
On the scheduled day for their execution, he & his wife were brought to the judgment chamber – Cagular, a fine looking man of more than 6 feet, with a noble manner about him – a magnificent specimen of a man.
So impressed was Cyrus with his appearance, that he said to Cagular: “What would you do should I spare your life?”
“Your Majesty, if you spared my life, I would return to my home & remain your obedient servant as long as I lived.”
“What would you do if I spared the life of your wife?”
“Your Majesty, if you spared the life of my wife, I would die for you.”
So moved was the emperor by Cagular’s words & attitude that he freed them both & returned Cagular to his homeland to serve as its governor.
Upon arriving home, Cagular reminisced about the trip with his wife. “Did you notice the marble at the entrance of the palace? Did you see the tapestry on the walls as we went down the corridor into the throne room? And did you see the throne on which the emperor sat? It must have been carved from one lump of pure gold.”
His wife replied: “I really don’t remember any of that.”
“Well,” said Cagular in amazement, “What do you remember?”
His wife looked at him & said, “I remember only the face of the man who said he would die for me.”
(Adapted from the sermon “The Love of God” by John Redpath, Abingdon Press, 1979)
And this morning, folks, I want to talk to you about the one who did die for us.
As you know, today is a day celebrated throughout Christianity as “Palm Sunday,” the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was a spectacular day, a day of celebration for many.
His arrival was so much a celebration by the people that the leading Pharisees of Jerusalem exclaimed, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 11:19)
And for the next few days the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, & the chief priests tried again & again to trap Jesus with trick questions in an effort to turn the people against Him. But in that they failed miserably.
Well, you know about some of the events of that week: the people wanting to crown Jesus as their king, the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus washing the disciple’s feet, the Last Supper & their partaking of the Passover meal together.
Following that meal they went to the Garden at Gethsemane where Jesus spent time in prayer, & where Judas, the betrayer, brought the Temple Guards to arrest Him. For the rest of that night Jesus had to endure the scorn & abuse heaped upon Him during the illegal night-time trials before the Jewish Sanhedrin.
The witnesses couldn’t get their lies straight, but the priests were so filled with hatred that their verdict was that He was certainly worthy of death because He called himself the Son of God.
But since only Roman authorities could order the death penalty, just as soon as it was daybreak they took Him to the Roman governor, Pilate, accusing Jesus of sedition, seeking to incite the people to rebellion.
All of that is already familiar to most of you here. So this morning I want us to turn to the Gospel of Luke & view that scene where Gov. Pilate tries to release Jesus. It is found in Luke 23:13 24.
“Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers & the people, & said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined Him in your presence & have found no basis for your charges against Him.
“Neither has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; as you can see, He has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish Him & then release Him.’
“With one voice they cried out, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!’ (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, & for murder.)
“Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify Him! Crucify Him!’
“For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in Him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have Him punished & then release Him.’
“But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that He be crucified, & their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection & murder, the one they asked for, & surrendered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:13 24).
A poet once wrote, “Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.'”
If that is true, then one of the most tragic words in human language must be the word “almost.”
“Almost” speaks of aborted opportunities & missed chances. And I’m sure that as long as this world exists, “almosts” will dot the pages of human history. “I almost climbed the mountain.” “We almost reached our goal.” “I almost closed the deal.” “We almost got there in time.” We have all had those “almost” experiences, haven’t we?
I suppose that the most infamous “almoster” in history would have to be Pilate because he almost released Jesus. He almost lowered the gavel & said, “I dismiss all the charges because this man is innocent.” He almost set Him free.
What a change that would have made in our perception of Pilate. Why, we might be calling him “St. Pilate” today. He almost did it, you see. But he didn’t. Yet he could have, & that is his tragedy.
He had the authority to do it. He wore the signet ring that said he had the power to do it. All he had to do was speak the word decisively, & Jesus would have been set free. And he did it, almost.
Verse 23 says, “But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that He be crucified, & their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand.”
He listened to their voices. We could even say, I suppose, that he listened to the voices of evil, to the voice of Satan.
We’ve heard such voices, too, haven’t we, voices saying, “Go on – do it! No one will ever know!” Satan beckons us into paths we should not go.
But Pilate didn’t have to listen to those voices. There were other voices he could have listened to.
He could have listened to his wife who sent a note that said, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19). He could have listened to her voice. And he almost did.
He could have listened to his own voice. Pilate was no dummy. He knew what was going on.
He knew that Annas & Caiaphas, the chief priests, were corrupt & greedy. He knew they were lying about Jesus. He could have listened to his own voice, to reason & common sense. He almost did, but he didn’t.
Pilate is not the only one who has played the game of “almost.” Some of us have played that game, too. “Preacher, I almost made the decision today, I almost accepted Christ today.” “I almost said, ‘Here I am, Lord, use me.'”
But the Bible very clearly teaches that there are no “almosts” with God. There is no “almost” heaven, no “almost” place where we can go. It is either heaven or hell. And Pilate’s tragedy could be our tragedy too.
FATHER, FORGIVE THEM!
So when we open our Bible & continue reading the story of Jesus, we read about a crucifixion. Even though Pilate came that close to freeing Jesus, he didn’t do it. So, as we view that scene we see soldiers going about their tasks. They were used to crucifying people. They had done it many times before.
First, they laid the crosses down upon the ground. Then they placed Jesus & the two thieves upon them, driving sharp spikes through their hands & feet. Then they hoisted the rough wooden crosses into the air & dropped them into the holes that had held crosses before.
They probably even drove some stakes into the ground around the crosses to steady them, & then they were done. Jesus was crucified.
You would think that by now the chief priests Annas & Caiaphas would have been satisfied. But there was something about the sign placed on the cross that angered them. It read, “Jesus, King of the Jews.”
Once again they stormed into the presence of Pilate. And we could only wish that Pilate had been as firm & decisive earlier, as he shows himself to be now. For when they come rushing into his presence, protesting the wording of the sign, Pilate says, “That’s enough. What I have written, I have written. The sign stays. ‘Jesus, King of the Jews.'”
So there He hangs between heaven & earth. Looking through tears & blood He could see the faces of the people who had gathered around Him. It was an unusually large crowd, perhaps, for there were no football games or soccer matches to watch in that day. So they went to watch the crucifixions.
And as we view that scene & look at their faces, we look for a friendly face, someone we might recognize. Where was Peter? Surely Peter would have shown up, but Peter is not there, nor James nor Andrew nor Bartholomew.
The soldiers gather underneath the cross & begin throwing dice, gambling. And every time we look at them we see a little bit of ourselves, don’t we?
Sometimes we’re so close to the cross, & yet so far away. They were right there, right next to the blood that was dropping to the ground.
They could hear the cries of pain. They could look up any time they wanted to & see Jesus dying there. And yet, their minds were someplace else. They were rolling dice to see who would get His robe.
Listen, Jesus is praying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) “Father, forgive the soldier who drove the nails into my hands. Forgive Pilate who found me innocent, but sentenced me to die anyway.
“Forgive Annas & Caiaphas & the Sanhedrin & all the rest. And Father, also forgive the Christians who will meet in a church building in Flint Ridge in 2015 because their sins nailed me here too. Yes Father, forgive them all.”
I don’t know if we could ever pray that kind of prayer. Sometimes we have a hard time getting along with our neighbors. Sometimes we have a hard time forgiving our spouses, or our children, or even our brothers & sisters in the church.
But yet Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHINI?
The gospels tell us that Jesus spoke 7 times on the cross. Three times he spoke before the darkness came. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Then He responded to one of the thieves & said, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) He also looked at Mary, His mother, & John, the apostle, & said, “‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ & to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
Suddenly darkness covered the earth. The winds started to blow. Lightning & thunder rolled across the sky, & even the ground began to shake.
And when the storm was at its height, Jesus cried out, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthini?” (Matthew 27:46) Those who stood in the distance could barely hear His words. Some said, “Maybe He calls for Elijah. Lets see if Elijah comes.”
But those who were closest heard what He said. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “Why have you left me alone?” At that moment the sins of this world your sins & mine caused God the Father to turn His face from His Son.
Then the darkness left, & 3 more cries came from His lips,”I thirst,” “It is finished,” & “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) Then it is all over.
The greatest victory of all had been won. On a hill that looked like a skull, outside of Jerusalem, everything that God had worked for & planned was finally realized in the death & burial &, three days later, in the resurrection of Jesus.
THE MESSAGE OF CALVARY
You know, there is probably nothing more consistent about life than its inconsistencies.
The world says: “Life is like a tossed salad. You stick in your fork & you never know for sure what you’re going to get.”
The world says: “Life is like a roller coaster with its ups & downs & twists & turns, & you never really know what will happen next.”
But if there is one very strong message that comes to us from Calvary, it is that God is able to take all the inconsistencies, all the fragments & pieces of our life & weave them together into a beautiful tapestry, just as He planned.
And that is a message we need to hear. Because one day the sun shines, & the next it rains. One day we think everything is going our way, & the next our world comes crashing down around us. One moment we’re young & healthy, & the next the doctor tells us that he has some bad news for us.
Yet, Jesus is saying, “It really doesn’t matter because all of you who have really committed yourselves to Me will find righteousness, & goodness, & victory, not defeat. You’ll find that your despair is replaced with eternal hope, because that is the message of Calvary.”
So in the light of all that, our prayer this morning ought to be, “O God, almighty God, help us never, ever to look at the cross & see the One who died there without feeling the touch of a tear on our cheek, without feeling our hearts strangely moved & broken.”
“Let us never come there, Lord, & just casually look at it, & almost be moved by it. But then turn away from it & go on with life as usual.”
You see, the ultimate tragedy in every worship service is that there are people who are almost ready to make a decision.
There are people who stand right on the brink of saying, “I surrender all. I’m going to follow Jesus.” And they almost do it.
Others are just like those soldiers casting dice at the feet of Jesus. They’re so engrossed in what they’re doing that they never look up & let the message sink in & make a change in their lives. They’re so near & yet so far.
So this morning, once again, we offer the invitation of Jesus, praying that if you’re almost there, you won’t turn away like Caiaphas & Annas & Pilate & the soldiers. But that you will look & see & listen & make that decision.
It is the invitation of Jesus, our Savior & our Lord. I really don’t know how anybody can say “No” to Him. But some do. I pray that you will not, that you will answer “Yes,” & come to make your commitment to Christ as we stand & as we sing together, “All to Jesus I surrender, all to Him I freely give.”