In his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus announces to the world that he is king. Do we live our lives as if Jesus is king? Or do we live as if God’s kingdom were a democracy, and we get to vote on the question? If the latter, now is the time to repent, while we are still in this “season of mercy.” As I warn in this sermon, while he comes as a merciful king the first time, he comes as a king who judges and punishes the second time.
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There was a story in the news last week that gave me a chill: A University of Virginia student named Otto Warmbier, who was visiting North Korea as part of some organization, was boarding an airplane back to the U.S. when he was arrested. Allegedly, he stole some kind of propaganda sign from the hotel he was staying in. He confessed to doing it, but for all we know, he did so under duress, at gunpoint. I don’t know if stealing this sign was the moral equivalent of stealing hotel bathroom towels, but it didn’t seem much more significant than that. Yet the North Koreans immediately tried him and sentenced him to 15 years hard labor. Fifteen years!
The story gives me the heebie-jeebies because I can’t help but think, “What if that were me?” Not that I would ever go to North Korea—and there’s a good reason the State Department warns Americans not to go there—and if I went, I hope I wouldn’t steal anything while I was there, but still… Even if Warmbier did it, 15 years in a North Korean concentration camp is a terrible price to pay for such a seemingly small and foolish decision! It’s so unfair!
But that’s what you expect with a country whose ruler, Kim Jong Un, is above the law—a ruler whose word is the law! A ruler who has absolute power—combined with a lack of compassion, a lack of proportion, and a lack sound judgment. A deadly combination!
Well, I’m sure we can all sympathize with Otto Warmbier—even if he did the foolish thing the North Koreans say he did.
But I suspect we have a far more difficult time feeling much sympathy, for example, for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. Hours later, he was captured by the Taliban, and for the next five years experienced torture and deprivation as a POW before being released last year in a controversial prisoner swap. Now Bergdahl is facing a general court martial and possible life imprisonment. Is that fair? Or has he suffered enough? Was he delusional when he left his base camp, suffering from a mental illness, as many say he was? Or does that even matter? Is he a traitor?
Who knows? These are the questions the Army is trying to sort out.
Believe me, I’m sympathetic with the many Americans who think that Bergdahl’s actions amount to treason and the law should show him no mercy… And yet… who do I think I am? Who do we think we are? After all, we who are Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom. We serve a king, King Jesus, who is King of kings—infinitely greater, infinitely more worthy than any earthly king, or president, or nation. A king to whom we have sworn absolute allegiance. A king for whose sake we have promised to lay down our lives, if necessary. A king for whose sake we “put on the full armor of God” and fight a war every day—a spiritual war, but a war nonetheless.
And yet… and yet… and yet… In the heat of battle, when the going gets tough, when enemy forces threaten far less than our life—when they threaten only our comfort, our reputation, our pleasure, our convenience— how often and how easily have we deserted our king?
And when we do desert our king, we say, “Have mercy on me, King Jesus! I’m a sinner.” We expect nothing but mercy, nothing but grace, nothing but compassion, nothing but forgiveness—and we desert him again, and the cycle repeats itself.
And here, I’m only talking about that small minority of the world’s population who have actually laid down their rebel arms against this king, who have surrendered to this king, who have pledged their lives in service to him—so much of the world hasn’t even done that.
Maybe we have difficulty thinking of our lives being ruled by a king because most of us in here are Americans, after all. At the Republican debate a couple of weeks ago, Sen. Ted Cruz criticized Donald Trump for something he did at a recent rally. Trump asked his supporters to raise their right hands and pledge their support to him—promise to vote for him, no matter what. Cruz said, “To me, that’s exactly backwards. This is a job interview. We are here pledging our support to you, not the other way around.” So from the perspective of our political system, the presidential candidates are all about convincing you what they can do for you, how they can meet your needs. And if they’re not giving you what you want, you can abandon them and support the other guy. It’s all about us voters, and what we want.
But when it comes to following our King Jesus, it’s all about him and what he wants. We don’t get a vote! And yet, if we examine our thoughts, words, and actions, it’s as if we vote against our king every day! We vote against him, for example, when we don’t go to him every day in prayer. We vote against him when we don’t spend time every day hearing him speak to us through his Word. We vote against him when we don’t make worship at church a priority on Sunday, much less any other day of the week. We vote against him when we’re unable to tithe, yet we always find the money we need for every other financial priority. We vote against him when we’re too embarrassed to witness for him. We vote against him when we make other things king in our lives—whether it’s career, or school, or money, or popularity, or relationships, or sports, or hobbies. We vote against him by things we watch at the movies, or on our smartphones, or our web browsers. We vote against him when we are unfaithful to him in our sex lives.
How are you voting against him in your life right now? It’s time to repent!
Because when it comes to Jesus, we do raise our right hands and promise to support him no matter what! He is our king!
And the crowds who’ve gathered on on this first Palm Sunday understand that he’s the king. They acknowledge that in verse 13 when they cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” They are hailing him as the Messiah, in the line of King David, prophesied by scripture, who will come at long last and defeat Israel’s enemies—particularly the Roman Empire and its king, Caesar—who invaded their land in the first century B.C. and put an end to Jewish independence. For a hundred years, the Jews have lived under the oppressive yoke of a hostile occupying power. And many people in this crowd of worshipers had recently seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead—or at least they had heard credible reports about about that miracle. Surely a man with this kind of power, they think, can defeat the Romans once and for all—and give Israel back its freedom. Give them peace. Give them prosperity. No more high taxes. No more senseless killing.
Jesus is telling the crowd on Palm Sunday that he is the king… and in five days, on Good Friday, he will wear a crown… only, it will be a crown of thorns. His throne will be a bloody cross. And from that throne, he will defeat Israel’s enemies, and the world’s enemies—enemies who are far more powerful than mere flesh and blood humans. He will defeat sin, Satan, and death.
The crowd doesn’t understand that, of course. They’re waving palm branches because that’s how they greet conquering military heroes. That’s how they greeted a Jewish priest named Judas Maccabaeus, two hundred years earlier, who led a military victory over invading Syrian forces and who cleansed the Temple after these Syrians had set up pagan statues there. That’s what Hanukkah commemorates, by the way.
But unlike Judas Maccabaeus, Jesus does not ride a war horse into Jerusalem. Instead he rides a donkey. But not only a donkey: a donkey’s colt—a baby donkey, in other words.
What kind of king does that?
The kind of king who’s going to be slaughtered by his enemies. The kind of king who is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The kind of king who is prophesied in Zechariah chapter 9, which is quoted here. Today’s scripture foreshadows the cross.
Remember what happens on the cross: An exchange takes place: Jesus takes our sins upon himself. He agrees to suffer the death penalty for them. He agrees to suffer God’s wrath for them. He agrees to suffer hell for them. In our place. In return he gives us his righteousness. It’s a cliché that I say often, but it’s true: Christ lived the life we were unable to live and he died the death that we deserved to die—in order that God’s enemies will now become his friends. And not only his friends, his beloved children.
If you’re a parent, think of how you love your own child or children. Think of that unbreakable bond of love that you have for your children. Would you take a bullet for them to save them? Of course you would! Would you jump in front of a bus to save them? Of course you would! Would you jump on top of a hand grenade to save them? Of course you would!
O.K., but would you sacrifice your life to save Osama bin Laden, for example? Or what about that terrorist who helped kill 130 innocent people in Paris last November, who was arrested last week in Brussels? Would you die for him? Or what about any number of people in our country over the years who have gone into schools and universities and public places and massacred people?
Would you lay down your life in order to save them? Of course you wouldn’t! No one is that merciful, that compassionate, that forgiving.
No one except God… God in the flesh… Jesus Christ. Scripture says that Christ died for us, the righteous for the unrighteous, while we were still his enemies. As we say every time we receive Communion, this “proves God’s love for us.”
Indeed it does.
That’s the kind of king who comes riding a donkey’s colt.
At least the first time he comes.
Because, friends, I need to warn you from God’s Word that when our king comes the second time, he will not be riding a donkey’s colt. He will be riding a white horse—a war horse. And he won’t come to make peace with his enemies, to show mercy, to forgive. He will come to judge and punish and finally put an end to all evil and suffering and death. John, the author of today’s scripture, writes about the Second Coming of our King Jesus, and he tells us, in Revelation 19, the following:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
One pastor put it very well when he said, “We don’t want to meet our king riding on a white horse if we’ve rejected this same king when he rode on a donkey.”
Have you rejected this king? Are you rejecting this king? Repent now. Turn to him and be saved!
Because now is the season of mercy and grace and forgiveness. Friends, please accept God’s offer of salvation—accept the terms of the peace that he offers—while there is still time! Both Jesus and Paul warn us repeatedly that time is running out. That Christ will return like a thief in the night, at an hour when we least expect him. You may only have this hour. You may only have this moment to turn to him, to repent, to ask him for his gift of salvation! And whether Jesus returns in our lifetime or not, our time is up when we die. And we’re not entitled to another moment of life; every moment is a gift of God, and he guarantees us no future moments. When we die, we have no more moments to choose Christ, to choose forgiveness, to choose salvation.
And you know your heart… You know that if our King Jesus judges you and finds you guilty and condemns you to hell because you’ve repeatedly rejected his offer of salvation, you know you won’t be like that college student in North Korea… you know your sentence will be well-deserved. Because time after time Jesus has come to you, has knocked on the door of your heart, and invited you into a saving relationship with him. And you’ve said no… time and again.
And don’t think that just because you grew up in church, or went through the motions of getting confirmed or baptized when you were 12 or 13, that that’s the basis on which you’ll be saved. Don’t think because you “believe in Jesus,” intellectually, as a set of historical or religious facts, you’ll be saved. On the basis of mere intellectual belief, no one is a better Christian than the devil himself. Because in his mind, he knows firsthand the truth about Jesus.
No… Jesus wants your heart!
So test yourself. Examine your life. Maybe you’ve said to Christ, repeatedly, through your actions if not your words, “I don’t want you. I don’t accept your terms of peace. I’m not willing to change my life, to repent of my sin, to make you Lord of my life. I’m not willing for you to be king of my life.” You’ve said that through your actions! You’ve heard Christ call you—plead with you—time and again, and you’ve ignored him. Well, guess what? At some point God is going to respect your wishes. He’s going to finally give you what you say you want—what your life has demonstrated in a million different that you want. God is going to leave you alone. In hell. As C.S. Lewis puts it in his book about hell, called The Great Divorce: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
Which will you be?
 See 1 Peter 3:18 and Romans 5:10.
 Revelation 19:11-16
 John Piper, from his sermon entitled “Jesus Declares His Kingship,” preached March 24, 2002. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/jesus-declares-his-kingship
 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1946), 75.