Summary: 1. Jesus’ arms are open as an act of invitation 2. Jesus gives an open invitation to a life of fruitfulness.
It must have been quite a scene as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. First, he is not riding a warrior’s horse, he is riding on the colt of a donkey. His head is bobbing as the colt takes its awkward steps. And all around is a motley crowd. Former prostitutes, shouting children, people who had been lepers who were now cleansed, people who were once blind who now could see, people who at one time had running sores and untouchable diseases, tax collectors, foreigners — all touched by Jesus. The Bible says, “The whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (Luke 19:37). The Pharisees were all about determining who was and who was not approved by God. They worked harder at keeping people away from God than they did bringing them to God. They had set up temple worship so that you could hardly be a part of it. Many could not afford to worship and offer an animal to sacrifice on the altar under this system. Since people from up north in Galilee could not bring an animal, walking all the way over the rugged terrain up to Jerusalem, they had to buy an animal there. They also had to buy wood for the sacrifice and oil. Their standard Greek and Roman currency had to be converted into temple currency before anyone could buy anything, and often there was extortion involved in the exchange. At the same time, a temple tax was also charged. The whole thing had become a terrible distortion of what temple worship was supposed to be. As Jesus came into the temple area, he threw all the merchants and money changers out. He overthrew the tables and scattered the animals. It was one of those things where everyone thought it was wrong, but they all felt powerless to change things. They also lacked the courage to do anything, but Jesus did not lack courage.
All of this is very interesting, because it is the opposite of what we might expect. We would expect Jesus to be on the side of the religious system and its leaders, and you would expect that they would likewise be on the side of Jesus. But, actually, it is quite to the contrary. Jesus seems to be repulsed by the religious, and strangely attracted to the sinners and unacceptable people of society. He drinks and eats with tax collectors so that he is called a drunk and glutton. Women with bad reputations caress his feet, washing them with their tears and drying them with their hair. They anoint his head with expensive perfume. He touches people with leprosy and terrible diseases, things that most people would not get within a hundred yards of. And Jesus has accumulated a strange mix of people in his disciples. There are zealots who want to fight the Romans with terrorism, and whatever other tactics and force are required. On the other hand, you have tax collectors who have collaborated with the Romans. And because of this, and issues like who was the greatest, there seems to be constant conflict among the disciples. How patient our Lord must have been — how open his heart.
There are so many things we could talk about today, but the first point I would like to make is: Jesus’ arms are open as an act of invitation. I see Palm Sunday as one grand act of invitation. Jesus is riding into Jerusalem inviting, not forcing, them to receive him as King — only not the kind of king they wanted. His arms are open wide. The invitation is for them to lay down their political ideas of what the kingdom of God means, and take up his teaching of what the kingdom actually means. This is not an invitation to take over Rome, so that Israel can be free; this is an invitation into new life in the kingdom of God here and now, while Rome is in control politically. This is not just an invitation to be healed, delivered or forgiven, it is an invitation to kingdom living that transforms the world. But would they understand this? Would there be as much enthusiasm for the kingdom of God as there would be for a political kingdom of this world and the national interests of Israel?
Jesus’ invitation was for everyone to come and recognize the King of this new kingdom. I don’t want to call it merely a spiritual kingdom, because it was very much of this world. It was not about floating spirits sitting on clouds, it was about real people standing on real earth living out the principles of this new way of life. This was an invitation to the religious and non-religious. It was for saint and sinner alike. It was not just a life of sin that Jesus was asking people to leave, although that was certainly a part of it, it was an invitation to leave their directionless and self-absorbed lives of confusion and ambiguity. It was more than an invitation to be saved from personal sin, it was an invitation to leave a life of futility and stupidity and enter into the God-life he was offering. It was an invitation to leave a life of dysfunction and have a life that worked, because it was a life lived God’s way. It was an invitation to leave a religion mixed with politics and national interests to enter the kingdom of God for its own sake.