HOW DO WE RESPOND TO UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITIES

HOW DO WE RESPOND TO UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITIES

On the day of rejoicing called Palm Sunday, a storm cloud was approaching, that within a week, Jesus would be crucified. But a greater triumph would be secure: the resurrection and yet; Jesus was weeping as Luke tells us.

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-’ but now it is hidden from your eyes.

The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.

They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls.  They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.[i]

God was in their midst in the person of Jesus but they didn’t know the hour of their visitation. Fast forward three decades and Josephus an eyewitness tells the story:

You would have thought the hill on which the Temple stood was boiling from the bottom upwards, that everywhere was a mass of flames, that there lay a sea of blood deeper than the fire, that there were more killed than killers. You could not see a single piece of ground anywhere because it was so thickly covered with bodies, forcing the soldiers to climb over them in order to reach further victims.

…Most of the noncombatants in the precincts stayed behind, however, climbing up onto the outer colonnade, which was twelve feet wide, some priests among them tearing railings from the Sanctuary to hurl down at their enemies.

As the Sanctuary had been destroyed, the legionaries could see little point in preserving the Temple’s other buildings so they torched the lot, including what was left of the colonnades and the gates.  They lit fires beneath the terrified people cowering on top of the outer colonnade mainly women and children, many of whom jumped to their deaths to escape the flames; Josephus says that about 6,000 perished in this way. They had taken refuge here because earlier in the day yet another so-called prophet had told them, ‘Go up onto the Temple where you will receive a sign of your deliverance.’

Josephus points out that, ‘Citizens of Jerusalem who perished during the siege were the lucky ones. While the Romans were deciding what to do with their captives, 11,000 of these penned inside the Temple ruins died from hunger-some because the guards deliberately starved them, others because they refused to eat.  In any case, as Josephus tells us, there was not enough food to feed so many prisoners.’

Josephus continues: “Although the prisoners were dying in countless cruel ways, from fights with wild animals, being burned alive and in combat with each other, the Romans thought it was far too mild a punishment for Jews.[ii] 

The triumphal entrance of Jesus on Palm Sunday was marred with the foreknowledge Jesus had of the judgment coming against the people who He knew were about to reject their only means of salvation: Himself.  He knew they were about to have Him crucified. 

Palm Sunday was not only a moment of foreboding of the ultimate reception Jesus was about to receive, but a courageous declaration by Him. By riding into the city on a colt, Jesus was not only fulfilling O.T. prophecy, but also Jewish expectation. It was an announcement the He was the king of the Jews, and was coming in peace.  Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom of peace.

Two thousand years ago, we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem in broad daylight surrounded by a loud and joyous crowd shouting praises to God.  It was a moment of unique opportunity.  In this triumphant entrance Jesus was coming to set His people free from their sins. The crowd assumed that an earthly kingdom was about to be established through the overthrowing of the Roman yoke, but Jesus had a greater agenda in mind. He was coming to set people free throughout the corridors of all time, from the oppression of sin and all sin’s ugly consequences.

In Matthew 21:1-11, he records for us the events surrounding the triumphal procession. Just as Jesus was communicating something very special that day almost 2,000 years ago, He is here today speaking to us regarding the same issues.  We are continually confronted with Who He is, and how we are going to respond to Him.  Here we find four things that Matthew reveals to us about Jesus.

THE FIRST THING THAT MATTHEW SHOWS US IS THE CERTAINTY THAT JESUS FULFILLS THE PROPHETIC PROMISES OF THE O.T.

Jesus’ coming was fulfilling what had been promised through the prophets.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[iii]

            In selecting a colt and riding into Jerusalem, Jesus was making a declaration of Who He is. It is evident by the responds of the people that they understood to some degree the significance of this moment. In our western minds, we would envision a king riding on a great white horse. But a glimpse into Israel’s past shows that kings rode on donkeys.  When David was anointing his son, Solomon as King, he rode on a mule (I Kings 1:33,34).

Jesus was declaring that He was the promised king. This gesture of Jesus going public with His kingship had two responses. The one was of celebration. The other was one of outrage and indignation. One was the fulfillment of a lofty aspiration, the other, a threat to the power base of the Jewish leadership of that time.

The people felt the freedom that Jesus was bringing. The religious leaders felt the loss of control, and therefore we read of the indignation and anger. It is still true today, that when Jesus comes, people that long to be free, rejoice. Those that refuse to surrender to Him, resist.

In Luke’s account found in Luke 19:39-40, we read the reaction of ‘Some of the Pharisees in the crowd [which] said to Jesus, Teacher, rebuke your disciples! Notice Jesus’ response.

I tell you, he replied if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out. Not only does Jesus give us a certainty of promises of prophecy fulfilled, but the change in the human heart when we surrender to Christ’ lordship.

THE SECOND THING THAT MATTHEW SHOWS US IS THAT JESUS CREATES A HEART OF CELEBRATION.

The condition of our soul is directly related to our understanding as to who Jesus is. When we discover His love, His forgiveness, His grace to us, love, joy and peace overflow in our hearts. Praise will arise from within. Our greatest need in this life is a revelation of the person of Christ.

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, Who is this?

The crowds answered, This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.[iv]

            Talk about the red-carpet treatment.

Here the crowds are ahead of Him shouting Hosanna (which means save now!) 

Jesus was about to bring salvation to His people in a way they had not expected. A greater salvation and deliverance. It is not just mastery over external situations, but the greater challenge of finding peace within the human heart. That is what Jesus came to do, and is still doing today.  What we want is change from our outward circumstances, but what Jesus brings is transformation within the human heart. We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can experience peace and comfort in life’s most tragic moments. As we surrender to Him, peace comes into our lives. However, not all were celebrating, there were some who were questioning, even as there are some today. 

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, Who is this?[v]

The word stirred here is where we get our word seismic, which suggests something significant was happening. When Jesus reveals himself our lives are shaken. When Jesus comes into a life, He impacts that life. Here Jesus is entering the city of Jerusalem during the Passover. The city had swelled with Jews from around the world awaiting the feast. It was an exciting moment. The city was stirred. The miracle of the past few days of raising Lazarus from the dead, was being whispered from ear to ear.

Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word.

Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.[vi]

Luke describes the crowds response was a result of all the miracles that they had seen.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:[vii]

The signs were all there, pointing to Jesus. The miracles, the expressions of the supernatural gifts were all signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. But in the midst of all this wonder and excitement, Jesus was looking ahead. He knew that His time was nearing the end. In just one short week, the crowds would be shouting for his crucifixion. He foresaw the rejection of his ministry. He was grieving over the blatant abuses in the temple. He saw people being ripped off financially in the name of God. Unfortunately, this has occurred over and over again in every generation, and it grieves the heart of God. Not only do we see the certainty of biblical promises fulfilled and celebration in hearts.

THE THIRD THING THAT MATTHEW SHOWS US IS THAT WHEN JESUS COMES A CLEANSING TRANSPIRES.

Jesus brings cleansing into that place before there can be genuine communion with God. Here in our text, Jesus cleansed the temple. Today the earthly temple is gone, destroyed by the Romans, but the apostle Paul tells us that God’s temple is now within the hearts of believers. 

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.[viii]

When Christ came, He cleansed the physical temple, but He currently comes to cleanse the temple of our hearts.

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

It is written, he said to them, My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.[ix]

Jesus was disturbed by what He saw in the temple. He went directly to the money changers, the merchandisers, those who were cheating people in the temple courts. This was not the temple proper but the surrounding courts known as the Court of the Gentiles. Here the chief priests were charging exorbitant amounts in exchange for a special temple currency. They were cheating and defrauding the incoming worshipers. These men who knew better were taking advantage of others.  They were a stumbling block particularly to those Gentiles endeavoring to establish themselves with God. 

How tragic it is when believers are a stumbling block to hungry hearts seeking their way to truth. Too often in our dealings with people, we are more concerned about what we are getting out of the situation then about the people themselves.

This grieves the heart of God. Sometimes it is simply expressed by an attitude where we are more concerned about what we get out of a service, rather than what we are contributing in our worship toward God and enabling the hungry hearted to experience God in their lives? Can it be that our understanding of the Christian faith is more about what pleases us rather than what pleases God? Look at these worshipers in the story once again.  There is a wholesome delight and self-abandonment in serving and celebrating Jesus.

Friends there are moments in our lives that we need to take inventory of where we are really at, examining our hearts. How are we responding to Jesus being in our midst today? For we know that Christ is here today just as He was that day in Jerusalem. He comes to us. Are we celebrating his presence or are we resisting His presence? Are we praising or complaining? Is our heart cleansed and ready to offer worship to Him. Or are there rip offs happening in our relationships with others? Are we taking advantage of others? Are we a hindrance to people coming to Christ?

Often our judgments and anger toward others are more often a reflection of ourselves. We must guard against becoming self-righteous. I am convinced that there is a little bit of Pharisee in all of our lives. Many times we get indignant by something, when in reality we are often in wrong.  It is amazing what happens when love fills our hearts, and forgiveness rules within us.

There are moments when it is our hearts that needs cleansing. Like the temple there is a need for renewal. It is so easy to allow our lives to become cluttered by all kinds of things, that are peripheral to our relationship with God. We need to ask ourselves from time to time are we allowing earthly pursuits to impair our vision of God?

Jesus is committed to examining our hearts and cleansing it by overthrowing those things in our lives that are offensive to Him, which also hinders others from coming to Him. Like the Psalmist we ought to ask God to search us and see if there is any anxious or offensive way in us.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.[x]

In Luke’s account of this incident, he gives us an insight to Jesus before the cheers of the crowd, we see the tears of our Lord.  

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it

And said, If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.[xi]

Jesus saw a city given a great opportunity in His coming, but they were unable to fully respond.  Jesus saw the natural result of such blindness, in the impending judgment.

There is a moment in each of our lives when Jesus comes. It is a moment of great opportunity.  It is a moment to embrace Him. It is a moment to surrender to Him. It is a time to worship and praise Him. Jesus had initiated the ride into Jerusalem, and had anticipated a response. Fortunately some responded. 

The same is true in each of our lives. Jesus comes to us through a maze of circumstances and expects a response. We can either accept Him for who He is or else we reject Him. His touch can be soon forgotten, and like those money changers of old, it’s business as usual. The tragedy is that the potential for judgment is also there. Jesus brings certainty, celebration and cleansing or we can experience condemnation.

THE FINAL THING THAT MATTHEW SHOWS US IS THE CONDEMNATION THAT REJECTION OF CHRIST BRINGS.

The judgment, guilt and shame that comes to people is based on rejecting of God’s forgiving love and acceptance of who He is. John points this out in his gospel.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.[xii]

In our culture, we struggle with the idea of judgment. Yet, we experience the consequences of lifestyle, which is a form of judgment. One reason we struggle with judgment is because we have God on trial. We evaluate God according to our values. However, God is transcendent. That means, He is beyond our thoughts and ways. God is evaluating all of our lives based on His standards and His values. We either surrender to Him or else we rebel against Him.

To reject Christ is to be without a savior because He is the only means of salvation then you are left with the consequences of sin, which is death. Once again Jesus communicates this thought in symbolic form.

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.

Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, May you never bear fruit again! Immediately the tree withered.[xiii]

            Mark adds in his gospel, the reason for not bearing figs was that it wasn’t the season for them.  But Jesus was looking for the first ripe fruits.

            David McKenna points out, “…The fig tree is cursed for the pretense of its leaves, not for its lack of fruit. Hypocrisy is more than being what a person is not; it is also failing to produce what is promised.”2

The disciples wanted to understand the mechanics or the how to’s of cursing fig trees. In other words, How did you do that, Jesus?  But what they failed to ask was the intent of Jesus?

Just like the temple, the fig tree outwardly appeared to be healthy, but what was promised was not being fulfilled. The temple which ought to have been a place to worship God, a place of communion with God, a place to be enriched was a place that stripped the worshiper and left him empty. Whereas, the fig tree promised bodily nourishment, it lacked any substance and left one still hungry.

God looks into our lives to see the fruit of righteousness. What can be disturbing is if what may look good outwardly isn’t supported by what is in our souls. Often people talk a good talk, but do not back it up with a fruitful life. God is looking for genuine Christianity. Our society is looking for reality. It only comes as we are abiding in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus may not be riding on a colt at this moment, but He is here. Today is a special moment. A moment of opportunity. How will we respond to His searching gaze upon our hearts? Will we respond in praise or indignation? Will we allow this moment to pass like the money-changers, and just continue to set up shop as if we have never been interrupted by His passing.

Like the temple and the fig tree, Jesus is gazing into our inner lives, examining our hearts.  What is the condition of our heart at this moment?  He is here to heal, to touch, to cleanse, to renew, to restore and revitalize our lives. 

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel awoke one morning to read his own obituary in the local newspaper: Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who died yesterday, devised a way for more people to be killed in a war than ever before, and he died a very rich man.

Actually, it was Alfred’s older brother who had died; a newspaper reporter had bungled the epitaph. But the account had a profound effect on Nobel. He decided he wanted to be known for something other than developing the means to kill people efficiently and for amassing a fortune in the process. So he initiated the Nobel Prize, the award for scientists and writers who foster peace. Nobel said, ‘Every man ought to have the chance to correct his epitaph in midstream and write a new one.’ Few things will change us as much as looking at our life as though it is finished.[xiv] 

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[i] Luke 19:41-44, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.

[ii] Desmond Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea, (Cambridge, Ma: Da Capo Press, 2009), 223-234.

[iii] Zechariah 9:9.

[iv] Matthew 21:8-11.

[v] Matthew 21:10.  

[vi] John 12:17-18. 

[vii] Luke 19:37. 

[viii] 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

[ix] Matthew 21:12-13. 

[x] Psalm 139:23-24.

[xi] Luke 19:41-42.

[xii] John 3:17-18.

[xiii] Matthew 21:18-19.

[xiv] Doug Murren and Barb Shurin, “Is It Real When It Doesn’t Work?” Leadership Magazine, (Summer 1991), 49.

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