On the Way to the Cross

Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem
by Elaine Maust
Lent Series – Palm Sunday
March 20, 2005

What would you do if you knew this was your last week to live? Would you clean out that closet you’ve been stuffing keepsakes into and decide who gets what? Would you go to Disney World? Have a quiet cup of coffee with your best friend? Duane says if he knew he had only a week left, he would visit a neighbor and ask about the state of this neighbor’s soul.

There’s a popular country song on the theme of preparing for death. I hear it playing on the radio almost every day at the cabinet shop. The singer, Tim McGraw, asks, “If tomorrow was your last day, what would you do with it? What would you do with it? What would you do with it?” The list of things to do with your last days includes sky diving, Rocky Mountain climbing, and bull riding, in addition to giving forgiveness and reading the Good Book. The song ends, “I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

Most people I talk to on the subject of dying talk about a good death. They seem to hope they don’t know when they will die. They say they want to die in their sleep. To die with their boots on. Comments that a good death is one that takes a person by surprise.

I read once that the saints used to pray for a good death. But when they prayed for a good death, they were thinking of a death that was anticipated. So that they would have a chance to say goodbye, to get their affairs in order, to pass along a charge and blessing to those that followed them.

When George (that’s not his real name) knew he was dying, he called for his pastor. Granted, he was over 90, so the possibility of dying could hardly have been startling. But all the same, a few weeks before he passed, he seemed to know it was coming soon. When his pastor came, George asked forgiveness for sins he had kept quiet about all those years. He wrote a couple of checks, too. One was to the descendents of a man whose window George broke when he was a kid. The other was to a church from which George, as a young man, had borrowed a tool that he never got around to returning. George died not long after his pastor’s visit. At his funeral everyone said, “George was ready to go.”

In our passages for today from the Bible, we aren’t talking about someone bull riding or setting the record straight in the last days before their death. We are talking about Jesus, who knows he is about to die and is getting ready to go. He only had three years, such a short time, to teach and heal and demonstrate God to people. And now, he was about to die. Jesus, our God in a pair of sandals, is on his way to the cross. How will he spend his last few days on earth?

All four gospels tell the stories of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. And you know what is going to happen there, right? In Jerusalem, Jesus will die on the cross. Let’s turn to Mark’s version of the story and begin in Mark 10:32.

One of the things Jesus does to get ready to go is to prepare his friends for his death. He prepares for his own death by helping others prepare. They are walking along the path, Jesus and the twelve disciples and the crowd of the curious, the healed, the supporters. The men and women that seemed to accompany Jesus everywhere. This whole crowd was on their way to Jerusalem.

But wait a minute. Jerusalem. Didn’t Jesus stay out of Jerusalem? Isn’t that the place that his accusers were always coming from to ask him those testy questions? Why are they going to Jerusalem?

Look at verse 32 again. Jesus is leading the way. He is facing the last days with decision and determination. People around him were astonished and afraid. Maybe astonished that he would head straight into trouble like that. Maybe afraid of what might happen.

“Again,” verse 32 says, Jesus takes the twelve disciples aside to tell them what’s about to happen. He’s done this before. Anticipatory socialization. Like a mother sitting in the car outside the doctor’s office, quietly explaining what is about to happen to her five-year-old. He takes them aside to tell them what’s going to happen so they won’t be so afraid. I wonder if they will get it this time.

(Mark 10:33-34) Who is Jesus talking about? Himself, right? It seems straight-forward to us. Jesus will die on the cross and rise again. What’s so hard to figure out? But that’s no fair. We can’t be so hard on the disciples. We’ve already read the book and know how it will end.

But bless their hearts, the disciples don’t get it this time either. Here’s what Luke says (Luke 18:34). Yeah, they really didn’t understand. Not that we can be hard on them, of course. God’s tried to tell us a few things we’ve missed, too.

Then in both Mark and Matthew, this prediction of Jesus’ death is followed by James’ and John’s request.

I love this. We are in verse 35 now. Jesus has just made this confounding revelation, and they respond with, “We want you to do whatever we want.” I guess I’ve prayed a few prayers like that in my life too.

And Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” That’s a question God often asks us. So what is it that you want?

James and John launch off with (v 37). Oh, come on, fellows! Jesus is about to die and all you can think about is what you are going to get out of it? Maybe this is why Jesus nicknamed them “sons of thunder.”

Jesus responds with, “You don’t know what you’re asking for.” God ever say that to you? You pray for something and God says, “You sure you really want that?”

Jesus says, in effect, can you go through what I’m about to go through? They were confident: “We can!” And in the end, they did suffer. James and John both served God loyally and died both tragically and faithfully.

But the other disciples were indignant. After all, Jesus just told them he was going to die and how it was going to happen, and now this? I suppose it would be a little bit like me pulling a couple of you into the office after church to tell you that I had only a few more days left on earth. And you responding with, “Have you decided who gets your library yet?” or “That little red car you drive, can I have it?” Well, maybe it wouldn’t be exactly like that. After all, who would want that car? But you get the idea.

Jesus, who always knows what is going on, calls all the disciples back together for yet another lesson on greatness and service. (Mark 10:42-44)

They keep on walking toward Jerusalem and other things happen. In Mark there’s the story about Bartimaeus from Jericho, who was blind, and how Jesus healed him. Interesting, Jesus asks him the same question he asked James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?”

We don’t have any record of this, but I wonder how Jesus was feeling as they walked along. Even though he was always surrounded by people, sometimes practically mobbed, I can’t shake the feeling that this road to the cross was a very lonely journey for Jesus.

And they are getting close to Jerusalem. Mark 11:1, They got as far as Bethany and Bethphage, two little villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem. They are almost there! I wonder if the disciples are still afraid and astonished that they are head this direction. What’s going to happen? Will Jesus be arrested the moment he steps into town?

No, there is something else first. Stand back. Jesus is about to establish himself as King. (Mark 11:2-3) Only a King has the prerogative to confiscate private property.

By the time they get back with the donkey, a crowd is milling around outside the city. And the disciples, I can just see them jabbing each other in the ribs, realizing their teacher’s about to ride into town. Okay. Alright. Go ahead, Jesus. Imagine their relief. Instead of slinking into town like fugitives, they are about to be part of a parade fit for a king! With abandon, they throw off their coats across the colt.

Now a word about the colt. No one had ever ridden it before. No commoner had ridden on it. Like any head of state, Jesus has his own private transportation, humble though it was.

And as Jesus settled onto this unbroken colt, the crowd swept him along. They threw their own coats on the ground in a kind of spontaneous red carpet welcome – well, multicolored carpet welcome. And the crowds that were streaming into town for Passover joined them. It was one of the pilgrimage festivals, so people from all around were coming to offer sacrifices in the temple. Everyone got in on the action. While some folks lined the street with their coats, others ran out into the surrounding fields and cut branches. They laid these down on top of the coats.

And some people went on ahead shouting, “Hosanna!” Which means “save.” Maybe like “God save the king” or “May the king save us.” Then came Jesus, riding along in this royal procession on a colt (or as John says, a donkey) instead of a white stallion you might expect a king to ride. There is no show of power here. What a strange parade this was. Jesus, the king, rides on a colt in his usual upside-down way of doing things.

I picture the disciples walking along, waving to the adoring crowd. I wonder if they recognized people who had been healed or some from the day Jesus fed the crowds bread and fish.

And more people followed everyone shouting, “Hosanna in the highest” (v 10). At last they would be saved from the Romans who were occupying their country.

Whew! What a moment!

But wait one minute. We started out with Jesus preparing for his death. Right? What is this? Is this some sort of strange memorial service? Some pre-death eulogy? He’s going to the cross to die, right? Why the party?

On Maundy Thursday, we will also celebrate Jesus. We will remember his coming not to be served, but to serve, when we gather in the gym to wash each other’s feet. We will gather in the sanctuary for the Lord’s Supper, and we will remember that he came “to give his life a ransom for many.”

But let it be known that we will not be remembering the death of a man who committed some terrible crime and then was sentenced to capital punishment. We are not remembering the death of someone who died a victim of crowd rage. We are remembering our king. Our King the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to die for his subjects.

Yes, he died the most gruesome death imaginable. Yes, he died in a humiliating, public way. But the words that hung over his head as he died on the cross, they were the truth. He was the king.

He was a king with every right to the royal pageantry as they entered Jerusalem in his inaugural parade. The king who had every right to clear his temple when it was being used for profit instead of prayer. A king who deserved to have that expensive perfume wasted on him. And the king who has right to every claim on our lives.

But Jesus was a different kind of king. One who taught that service was the way to greatness. A king who touched people who were poor and dirty and sick. A king who wasn’t afraid to do the dirty work of washing feet. A king who held little children and blessed them. A king who referred to his subjects as his friends.

Jesus, our king, saw that the only way to really change his people was to die for them.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that Jesus knew “the kind of explosion it would take to break through the rock around the human heart. Teaching would not do it. Neither would prayer nor the laying on of hands. If he was going to get through, he had to use something stronger than all of those, and he had to stake his own life on its success…”

She goes on to say, “Self-annihilating love was the dynamite he chose. ‘No one has greater love than this,’ he said on the last night of his life, ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Having explained it to his friends, he then left the room to go do it.” Jesus, ready to go.

Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished. And Jesus the King was dead.

Next Sunday, we look forward to celebrating the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection and rejoicing that this dynamite Holy Spirit power that opened the tomb is available for our lives. But let’s not rush there. This is Holy Week, and it must come first.

I hope for each of us, there will be a moment this week when we will be able to absorb that Jesus, our king and our friend, “got ready to go” and then died for us.

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