6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:6-9, ESV)
What a scene, huh? Jesus of Nazareth was in town– and boy, were people ever excited to see Him. Many had likely heard of Him- His authoritative teaching, His stunning miracles, His incredible ability to confound His opponents with unrivaled wisdom- but for many gathered here, this was their first glimpse at the man who was turning all of Israel upside down. The anticipation in the air- What would He say? What would He do? What was in store?- was undoubtedly palpable.
Imagine, then, how shocking it must have been that just days later, not far from road on which Jesus entered Jerusalem so triumphantly, that the same rabid crowds would gather again- but this time, with a very different message. From “Glory to God in the highest” to “crucify Him- and give us a murderer instead,” it was a steep and stunning fall. So what happened? Why the sharp, dramatic shift in tone? And what does this all have to do with us today?
To understand the context of the first Easter, a brief history lesson is in order. The Israelites of Jesus’ day were an oppressed people. Far from their glory days under Kings David and Solomon in the Old Testament, they were now occupied and overruled, subjects of the hated Roman Empire. As you might imagine, this was far from a popular situation. The Israelites wanted the pagan Romans out– and as quickly as possible. They were looking for someone to bring their nation, their people, back to the days of old.
This insatiable desire led them to read their Scripture- the Old Testament Law and Prophets, at that point- through a very specific lens. When they read the countless, breathless promises of a coming King, a long expected Deliverer, many had a particular kind of King in mind- one who would, once and for all, throw off the wrongful rule of the Romans and re-establish Israel as God’s chosen, blessed people. They were after a Kingdom all right- their Kingdom.
When Jesus burst onto the scene, it seemed the wait was over. He seemed to be the man– the answer to all their prayers, the fulfillment of all God’s promises. This is what they were celebrating in unfettered exuberance on that roadside in Jerusalem. Quickly, though, they realized that Jesus had not come to free them from their human oppressors, but instead from something much deeper, and much more oppressive- their own sinfulness, their own bent to enthrone and worship themselves instead of God.
And so, they turned on Jesus- they turned hard. Egged on by the jealous and hostile religious leaders of the day, the people angrily condemned Jesus to die. How dare He tell us that the problem isn’t the Romans, but us?! They wanted Jesus on their terms, and when they couldn’t have Him like that, they didn’t want Him at all. They wanted the Kingdom without the one rightful King.
But lest we be too quick to judge those who have come before us, we must recognize that 2,000+ years later, we are tempted in precisely the same way as the ancient Israelites. We, too, have certain expectations of Jesus, and of the “kingdom” that He will bring us. He don’t necessarily talk about it in expressly political terms. Instead, we focus on modern concepts like “inner peace” or a “sense of purpose.” In our more crass (but probably honest) moments, we look to Jesus to make us healthy, wealthy, successful, and as comfortable as possible. Honestly, that all sounds great to us- because most of us see our current circumstances as the greatest problem we face. And if Jesus can lay a divine smackdown on that, we’re all in with Him. “Glory to God in the highest”…right?
Jesus, though, isn’t all that interested in fulfilling our “American dream,” our 21st century self-fulfillment fantasy. While many of the things we look to Jesus to do are well within His reach- and often are byproducts of a right relationship with Him (that sense of peace and purpose, for example)- we will never find the Kingdom which He came to bring until we look for it in the Person of the King. In our zeal for everything Jesus can do for us, we are prone to do the same thing that the Israelites did long ago- that is, to miss the greatest Treasure of all. But Jesus won’t be co-opted for our personal gain. He won’t allow us to turn Him into something He was never intended to be. He loves us far too much to allow us to sell Him that far short.
As we walk through this Passion Week and look ahead toward Easter, ask yourself this probing question- Are you seeking a Kingdom without a King? Are you more interested in and allured by what Jesus can accomplish in your circumstances than you are in what He can do in your soul? Do the Cross and empty tomb ring hollow to you- or at least more hollow than a bigger bank account or a less stressful situation at home or work? It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t care anything about these things; it’s simply that He desires more than you than what you can see right in front of you. As one of His closest followers records in Matthew 6:33, it is only when “Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness” that “all these things will be added unto us.” So what are you “seeking first”- the Kingdom, or the King?