For two years in High School, I worked on the summer staff of Alabama’s Baptist Conference Center. It was a great experience. It was fun to be on staff with 25 or 30 fellow high school and college students and to live at camp for the whole summer. It was also very hard work which was its own reward in several ways. One of the summers, our staff was overseen by a retired fellow by the name of Lowell Ledbetter who had spent his career working with college students. Of the things I remember vividly about Mr. Ledbetter, one is that he led us in a weekly Bible study with our main emphasis for those summer studies being Philippians chapter 2 and the passage referred to as The Christ Hymn. As I recall, he challenged us to memorize the passage and to really embrace it. He was passionate about it like no other biblical text.
Honestly, up until that point in my young life, it was a passage of scripture that I was relatively unfamiliar with and yet Mr. Ledbetter believed that at the heart of faith was the ability to grasp and live into the notion that Christ’s very coming to earth was a tremendous act of humility and utter obedience. One of the hallmarks of that section of scripture are verses 7 and 8 where we hear the words “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” Hear those words again, “…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death…”
This morning, I want to be very straightforward and give you upfront the whole point of this Palm Sunday sermon. The truth I want to call us to embrace is the idea that, just as Philippians 2 verse 7 and 8 says so eloquently, success on this earth for Jesus was measured in one thing and one thing alone – obedience. And, as people of faith, success for you and I in this life is also found in this same act of obedience to God. Nothing we do is a bigger indicator of what we have ultimately accomplished in this life than the measure of our obedience to God.
Now, why do I make this connection to Palm Sunday? I do so, because it seems to me that the whole challenge of the Palm Sunday moment for Jesus was resisting the temptations of the masses as he entered Jerusalem as he began the last week of his life. As John so vividly points out in numerous places in chapter 12, though he wasn’t really trying to do it, Jesus had succeeded in drawing a crowd. The people were enamored by him, enthusiastic about him and they were ready to follow him. Thus, the palms, the people lining the streets and the shouts of “hossana” were all signs of their enthusiasm and readiness to go wherever he led.
But, their excitement and enthusiasm were all built around their belief that Jesus was going to overthrow the Romans, set up an earthly kingdom and bring peace to Jerusalem and them. This was their vision of the Messiah and apparently they had never been more ready to get fully behind Jesus than they were in this moment as he came into the city on that first Palm Sunday.
In essence, this was Jesus’ last great temptation. If you think about it, we began the Lenten journey with Jesus tempted three times at the very beginning of his public ministry while in the wilderness. And, here, in the last week of his life, Jesus comes full circle and is tempted one last time in the city. This time the temptation is to buy into the crowd’s version of success in terms of what it means to be the Messiah. Yet, once again, Jesus resists. He chooses God’s vision of the Messiah. Said another way, he chooses obedience to God over success in the eyes of others.
Have you ever played Rook? Interestingly enough, Rook was developed 115 years ago in 1906 by Parker Brothers at least in part as a way for Christians to feel good about playing cards. The face cards in a regular deck were replaced and new rules were made. To this day Rook Cards are also referred to as Christian Cards or Missionary Cards because of this unique origin.
When we lived in Kentucky, we had some friends who liked to play Rook particularly in the winter time. I can still remember the first time we got together for a night of dinner and Rook. When we all sat down, one of the first things we did was establish the rules. What was interesting is that all of us had grown up playing Rook but we had all grown up in different areas of the South and thus we had all learned to play our own version of the game. It was sort of like Dominoes where every little area of the country also seems to have their regional nuance on the game. After we talked it all through, we had to decide which rules were going to apply before we ever got started otherwise we would never be able to figure out who ultimately had won.
Life is a lot like this. We have different ideas of what it means to be successful. Some say success is having lots of money. Others say success is having the right family. Still others suggest that being successful is a result of being on the right team, going to the right college or having the right career. Said another way, like that night around the Rook table, we all have our own idea of how we go about winning in life. In turn, this becomes how we define success.
That is what was happening on that first Palm Sunday. The people were trying to define for Jesus what it would look like to win the game for them as a people and for him as this Messiah of their own creation. Again, this was the final great temptation he faced which was to let the crowd set the rules for how he would play the game.
But, thanks be to God, Jesus would have none of it. He defined success in one way and one way alone. It was called obedience. Obedience to God the Father was ultimately all that mattered and nothing else. The question for us on this Palm Sunday 2021 is the same. How will we define success? What will the rules of our game of life be? Amen.