Lay Reader = Luke 19:28-40
28After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
This is the last week in our series looking at the Art of Forgiving. Starting on Easter we’ll have a new series looking at the Heroes of the Faith and what we can learn from them. I bet you can guess which Hero of the Faith we’ll talk about on Easter.
With forgiving, we’ve talked about why we might want to forgive. We learned that forgiveness is meant to be something we can slip into as easily as a comfortable pair of slippers. We talked about how hard it can be to grant or ask for forgiveness, and we remembered that God’s forgiveness for us wasn’t cheap, either. This week we’re closing it out by looking at the results of forgiving. What’s the upshot of God forgiving us? And what are the potential long-term outcomes when we grant or ask for forgiveness from others?
Today is Palm Sunday, in case you hadn’t noticed yet. And Palm Sunday is, to me, one of the most ironic Sundays of the whole year. It reminds me of my boys driving their little electric car in our back yard. Caleb is actually pretty good at it – he can weave between the trees, he can back up when he gets stuck, he can avoid the dog or chase the dog depending on his mood. Charlie, however, takes a different approach. With the biggest grin in the world, he puts the pedal to the metal and then raises his hands above his head and cheers as the electric car careens into whatever happens to be in front of him.
He’s having a blast, but kind of misses the point of “driving” the electric car, right? It’s so funny that it’s sometimes worth letting him do it even if it imperils our trees and fence.
The crowds on Palm Sunday are kind of like Charlie driving the electric car. They are enthusiastic. They are ready for a party. But they’re missing the point of the activity at hand.
The text we read from Luke says the crowds were shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” And that’s where they missed the point. Jesus was a king, all right, but not the kind that they were expecting. The crowds thought their problem was the oppression of the Romans. But Jesus actually came to heal our separation from God. The crowds thought Jesus was going to lead an armed revolt. But Jesus actually offered forgiveness to everyone, including the Romans. The crowds are excited. But they don’t have their hand on the wheel.
Our second text today starts off with the Apostle Paul writing to a church that we no longer regard each other from a human point of view. The crowds on Palm Sunday were seeing Jesus from a human point of view. They were looking for their desires, their wishes, and how Jesus can fit into their expectations. But Paul gives us a different point of view thanks to the forgiveness of Jesus.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
There’s a wonderful concept, a fantastic idea. It’s such a good idea that humans have implemented it across almost every field of human endeavor. This idea is found in schools. This idea is found in sports. This idea is found in cooking. This idea is even found in the United States Constitution – and it has its own amendment. Any idea what this idea is?
Substitution. What a great idea.
Substitute teachers are way better than bringing in the regular teacher while they’re violently sick. Substitute quarterbacks are way better than the starting quarterback who just broke his throwing hand. Substitute ingredients are way better than consuming something you’re allergic to. And the 25th Amendment to the Constitution tells us the order of people who can be substitute president if needed! Substitution is such a great idea.
When I was in seminary studying to be a pastor, a group of my fellow students went on a Reformation Tour of Europe. When we were in Geneva, we stayed at a retreat center. This was a bit of a step down from the fancy hotels we enjoyed in Germany, but a bed’s a bed, right? Now my friend Patrick has a litany of food allergies. They did OK in Germany, though it seemed to annoy them to have to substitute ingredients. But as we sat down for our first meal in Geneva, Patrick reminded the waiter about his food allergies. The waiter seemed hesitant, but he nodded and delivered the message to the kitchen.
After a while, our meals came out. Mine had a nice medley of seasonal vegetables, some buttery sides that Patrick definitely couldn’t have, and a halfway-decent cut of meat. Then Patrick’s came out. To make sure they had properly accounted for his food allergies, the kitchen had made a few substitutions. In fact, they had decided to play it safe and just substitute the entire meal. They delivered on a plate about seventeen cubes – yes cubes – of steamed spinach from a can stacked neatly into a pyramid. And that’s it. Vegetarian was not one of his requirements. Sometimes substitution isn’t what we want.
Other times, we desperately wish we could find a substitute, but we can’t.
I have had so many variations on this conversation, but here’s one specific one. I was talking with a grandparent a few years ago, and we were talking about his grandkid. The one with seizures. The one with developmental delays. The one who had to go to the emergency room just about every week. And he told me, “I wish I could take her place. She has so much of her life in front of her. I’ve already lived my life. I would trade with her in a moment. Lord, take me instead!” I know there are a bunch of parents and grandparents in this room who have thought the same thing about someone in their family.
“Lord, take me instead! Let me be the substitute! Please!” (LONG PAUSE)
But imagine – imagine if you will – imagine if he could. Imagine if he actually could take her place. Imagine if he actually could be her substitute. Can you imagine that? What would her life be like? How different would her life be if she didn’t have seizures again? How different would her life be if she didn’t have developmental delays? How different would her life be if someone else had to worry about not being able to breathe?
EVERYTHING would be different! If he could actually be her substitute, she could drive when she gets older. She would have different friends. She could go to college some day. She could have a normal job. A substitute would dramatically reshape her entire future.
And that’s what Jesus did for you and for me. Our text today says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus took our place. Jesus was our substitute. And “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Why does this matter?
Well, let’s take a look at some of the people in the story of Palm Sunday. The crowds who watched Jesus enter into Jerusalem thought their #1 problem was that Rome was in control of their country. They thought their problem was a political one. “If God would just fix our political situation, everything will be better!” Some people might be thinking that today.
Did you know that the crowds got their wish about thirty years after Jesus? Someone led a revolt, and they actually defeated the Roman garrison. Good times! Until the Roman Emperor Titus rolled up with his extra legions, laid siege to Jerusalem, and eventually destroyed the Temple of God. The death toll was possibly as high as one million.
So getting our way politically may not actually solve our problems.
How about the Romans? They were part of a vision. A destiny. They were trying to bring the greatness of Rome, the culture of Rome, the order of Rome, the control of Rome to everyone everywhere. It’s a grand vision – and they did it pretty well. In fact, just before Jesus was born, they went from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. They had men of vision to lead them! But they reached their peak about 75 years after Jesus’ death. After that it was a diminishing Empire. They held on in one form or another for over a thousand years, but the grand vision devolved into a desperate attempt to keep the pieces together.
So having a perceived grand vision or purpose may not actually solve our problems.
How about the Jewish religious leaders? Well there were two groups. One, the Sadducees, were in charge of the Temple. They thought that if everyone just could worship perfectly at the Temple – and pay them a handsome sum of money along the way – then everything would be fine. Perfect worship – that’s what we need.
The other group of religious leaders, the Pharisees, sought to perfectly follow all 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Not just the ten commandments you know about. 613! How would you like a checklist for your life that has 613 boxes? Perfectly following the Law of God – that’s what we need.
And we know that later this week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, these religious leaders who sought spiritual perfection would kill the very Messiah they were seeking. Because he wasn’t what they expected. He wasn’t what they wanted. He wasn’t the right kind of Messiah.
So pursuing perfection may leave us living out the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
So let’s return to that grandparent. Politics won’t save his granddaughter. Even if he got laws changed to fast-track every medication that might help her – it might help, but it’s not going to give her a completely new future.
Grand visions won’t save his granddaughter. Even if he became a nationally-recognized advocate for epilepsy – it would be great, it would help a lot of people, but it’s not going to give his granddaughter a completely new future.
Perfection won’t save his granddaughter. Even if he went through every medication, every alternative treatment, every dietary change, every new therapy, everything humanity’s got – it might help, but it’s not going to give his granddaughter a completely new future. That’s her reality.
The only way he could give her a completely new future is if he could really, actually, take her place. Become her substitute.
That’s what our text means when it says that in Christ we are a new creation. Everything has become new. Jesus took our place. He didn’t just help a little bit. He took our place. We are forgiven. We are right with God right now.
Jesus’ substitution means you don’t have to follow all 613 commandments in the Old Testament to be able to receive guidance from the Holy Spirit. You can hear from God right now as imperfect as you are.
Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday for you! Jesus decided to allow himself to be captured on Maundy Thursday for you! Jesus stayed on the cross even though he could step down at any time for you! It’s not like Jesus said, “I’m on the cross for Mary and James and Karen and John…but Cody? No way! I’m stepping down from here!”
This is the shocking and fairly unique message of Jesus. Most religions give us a set of rules we need to follow so that we can eventually enjoy the divine presence. But Jesus is so different! Jesus shows us that we can’t follow all 613 commandments and so God comes to meet us instead! This is a total reversal! Instead of having to earn your audience with God, God is standing in front of you inviting you in.
This is the great substitution. We are the ones who are imperfect, yet Jesus is treated as the imperfect one. Jesus is the one who is perfect, yet we are the ones who are treated as if we were perfect in God’s eyes.
This is kind of like taking a course in college. Imagine that the professor tells you on the first day of class that you have two options. Option #1 is the standard approach – you can do everything yourself, all the homework, all the tests, all the labs. But if you don’t get a perfect grade on everything you do, you’re going to fail. That’s option #1. High stakes.
Option #2 is pretty different. If you show up to class and participate over the semester, you can choose to have the professor take your tests for you and take that grade instead of yours. Just show up and participate, and you can substitute the professor’s own grade on the test instead of your own.
Which option are you taking?
Jesus is giving us Option #2 with God. If we believe in him, we can take his life grade instead of our own. If we believe in him, we can take his relationship with God instead of our own. I like Option #2, do you?
And we know we have Option #2 right now. Today! We don’t have to wait until we think we’re good enough. We don’t have to wait until we’ve reached the end of our rope. We are new creations right now! You have the great substitute! You have Option #2! What does that free you to do right now?
If you’re waiting to fix some things in your life before you can forgive yourself, take Option #2. Take Jesus’ grade instead of your own. God forgives you right now. Believe it.
If you wish some relationships in your life could change, what freedom might you find in forgiveness?
I’ve got two kids, and both of them have learned how to push our buttons. Both of them know how to do things that will evoke a response from us. And sometimes they even know how to tailor their button-pushing depending on whether it’s my wife or me. They know how to get a reaction from us.
That’s what happens to us when we’re holding grudges against people. Any time we interact with them and they push our button, we must react! But what if we didn’t have to react that way?
What if you forgave your spouse or your sibling or your parents or your cousin or your co-worker or your neighbor? What if you decided that it’s not worth reacting like you used to – it’s no longer a button that the other person can push? That’s power! If you forgive someone, you can choose a different way to react! That’s freedom!
Sisters and brothers, Jesus decided to grant us the forgiveness of God in the most dramatic way possible – by becoming our substitute. He gets our grade, and we get his grade. That changes everything. We are new creations because of that. Our relationship with God is secure – there is great freedom to be found in that.
Jesus’ substitution also means we can forgive ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect if we get to hand in Jesus’ paper to the professor. We can stop trying to prove to God that we’re worthy and just try to learn and grow. There is great freedom to be found in that.
And Jesus’ substitution means we can forgive others. Because we don’t have to win every battle. We don’t have to always react the way we used to. When we release the grudge, we can choose a different way to react. There is great freedom to be found in that.
On Holy Week, Jesus became our substitute. What part of your life would you love to have Jesus’ grade instead of your own? He’s ready to do it. Will you let him? Amen.