We celebrate today the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus who taught with authority, the great healer, who had authority over demons, came into Jerusalem with a large, exuberant crowd. They followed him and ran ahead of him as he rode in the midst of this celebration on the colt of a donkey. As Jesus made his way on the road into Jerusalem, people honored him by cutting down palm branches and taking off their cloaks to lay on the road in front of him. They shouted (Matthew 21:9)
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This was a true celebration but what the people celebrated was not what was in the mind of Jesus. The people anticipated that Jesus would lead a rebellion against the Roman occupiers of Israel and return Israel to the grandeur it had experienced under King David. The Messiah had finally come! This is why they were so excited. They were right about Jesus being the Messiah, but only Jesus knew he was entering Jerusalem to die for men and women God loves.
There is a sermon in that, but I want to pay attention to another part of the parade. Who were the people who followed Jesus into Jerusalem? Who were the people running in front of Jesus and following him from behind, shouting out praise, more dancing than walking?
There were the twelve inner core of disciples. There was a much larger number of other disciples. And there were many more who were willing to follow Jesus anywhere he went. In Matthew’s account, just prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, two blind men had been given their sight and they were following him. In Luke’s account, in addition to a blind man receiving his sight, Zacchaeus the tax collector had just become a follower of Jesus. Perhaps he was there. In Mark’s account he gives us the name of the blind man who had just been healed, Bartimaeus. In the early church this was a part of the story Bartimaeus told, this day when they had all celebrated without knowing what was going to happen later in the week.
Who was in the parade with Jesus?
There was Matthew, the tax collector. In the eyes of the religious Jews he was on a moral level with prostitutes and there were lots of women who had been prostitutes in the parade with Jesus as well. There were men and women who had been possessed by demons and then delivered. These people had lived on the despised fringes of society until Jesus had brought them safely back. There were lepers who had also lived on the despised fringes of society until Jesus healed them. There were men and women who had lived their days begging in the streets until Jesus healed them, giving them back the ability to walk and the ability to see.
Tax collectors, prostitutes, demon-possessed, lepers, beggars. These are the people who celebrated with Jesus, shouting out Hosannas, and dancing more than walking as they followed Jesus into Jerusalem.
How did these people come to be in the parade?
In the years to come, many more people came to be in the parade, following Jesus, shouting out praise to Jesus. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth he tells us a bit about some of these people who decided to follow Jesus, (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were.
These are not people who were welcomed into the synagogues. So how did they come into the family of God?
We have been focusing on major emphases in the ministry of Jesus in these Sundays of Lent. Elliot began by talking about Jesus’ pattern of going away to be alone and pray and how we need to do the same. I talked about Jesus healing people and how we need to also pray for healing for people. Clement talked about Jesus casting out demons and how we need to learn how to discern the presence of evil spirits and then claim the authority that has been given to us to do what Jesus did. Last week I talked about how Jesus discipled men and women and how we need to also share with others what we have learned about following Jesus.
Today we come to Jesus, a friend of sinners. This is how Jesus was known to his critics – and it was not a compliment. The religious leaders were critical of him and hurled their accusation. (Luke 7:34)
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
The Pharisees took the Law of Moses and its 613 commandments and then added thousands of sub-commandments to be followed. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us not to work on the Sabbath. But to clarify this, the Jewish scholars created 39 separate categories of what “work” means, and within those 39 categories there are many sub-categories. So to follow the rule of not working on the Sabbath, there are literally thousands of sub-rules to follow, including how many steps you can take, and how many letters you can write on the Sabbath.
There were many laws about keeping pure. Contact with Gentiles made you unclean as did contact with prostitutes and tax-collectors. Contact with lepers made you unclean. Religious people, good people, were not to come into contact with these unclean people. Religious people had to keep their distance from sinners or they became defiled and had to take actions to become purified.
The problem for the Pharisees was that Jesus was viewed as a rabbi, a teacher, but he violated the law they lived for. When Jesus violated the Sabbath by “working” on the Sabbath by healing someone, when Jesus sat at a party next to tax-collectors, or allowed a prostitute to wash his feet, the Pharisees were highly offended.
But Jesus was a friend of sinners. He talked with those who were considered to be unclean. He ate with them. He hung out with them. He talked with a disreputable Samaritan woman at a public well. He touched lepers and beggars. He touched the body of a dead man and raised him to life. He invited himself to eat with Zacchaeus, a tax-collector. He called Matthew, also a tax collector, to be his disciple, and later chose him to be one of the inner circle of twelve. (Mark 2:13–17)
Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” That is a good question and the answer is that he ate with tax collectors and sinners because he loved them and wanted to rescue them. (Luke 15:1–7)
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
1. Jesus is a friend of sinners. There is not a person on this planet he does not love. He is working to bring every person on earth into his kingdom. The people you do not like, Jesus loves. The people that disgust you, Jesus wants in his kingdom. The people you consider enemies, Jesus died for. Jesus is a friend of sinners because he loves them. He is a friend of sinners because he wants them to live with him for eternity.
2. This is great news for us because we are all sinners.
We know this is true but we forget it is true. We know Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but we tend to think of that as a past event. “We were sinners but now we are followers of Jesus,” that is what we think. But we still sin. We still rebel against God, choosing for ourselves before him. This is why we struggle so much in our life with Jesus.
Paul wrote in Romans 12:1
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Paul wrote this to “brothers and sisters”, those who were already followers of Jesus. Our offering of ourselves to Jesus is a daily sacrifice and the problem is, as has been said, that living sacrifices keep crawling off the altar.
We are saved by Jesus and because of the work of the Holy Spirit in us we become better people. We become good citizens, hard workers, good neighbors. The church loves to have us as we use our gifts in the church. We begin to think we are moral people. We forget that we are sinners in desperate need of a savior and crawl off the altar.
We first come to faith in Jesus because we see our need for a savior, but then become wrapped up in a view of ourselves as good people, not like all the bad people in the world. But if we continually offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, as we persevere in faith, we grow and our spiritual growth helps us to see more clearly the holiness of God. And as we see his holiness more clearly, we see our own sinful nature more clearly.
Paul followed this pattern. In the beginning of his ministry he was very full of himself, bragging in his letter of Galatians that he received instruction straight from Jesus and not indirectly from the disciples of Jesus. But by the end of his life he talked about himself as the least of the apostles and then in 1 Timothy 1:15–16,
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.
We are all sinners in need of a savior. Those who follow Jesus are fortunate because Jesus has rescued us. But we are not better than sinners who do not follow Jesus; we are just more fortunate.
3. How did we come to Jesus?
Did someone come to us and tell us how bad we were? Did someone tell us how wicked we were? I don’t think so. We came to Jesus because someone told us that Jesus loves us. We came to Jesus because we were told he loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.
Love reveals sin; sin does not reveal love.
We see this with Peter. Peter fished all night and caught nothing. When Jesus told him to push off from shore and cast his nets, he protested. Jesus was a carpenter; Peter was a fisherman. Peter knew more about fishing than Jesus but nevertheless he obeyed and when the nets filled with fish, Peter saw a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus and then his own sin. (Luke 5:8–9)
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,
We see this also with Isaiah. Isaiah was in the temple when he had a vision of the glory of God. Seraphim called out to each other (Isaiah 6:1–5)
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
As with Peter, Isaiah had an experience of the holiness of God and then he saw his own sin.
I was stealing books from stores when someone came to me and told me Jesus loved me. I was encouraged to pray and ask God to reveal himself to me which is what I did. That is how I came to be a follower of Jesus. The love of Jesus pulled me to him and then began the process of my becoming a more righteous person.
4. In the same way, we are called to love people with the love of Jesus.
The message we carry is not a message of condemnation; it is a message of love. We carry the message that Jesus loves us and died for us to every person on this planet. Regardless of who we meet and regardless of how horribly we view the behavior of the person we meet, our message is “Jesus loves you and died for you.”
5. The problem is that we don’t do this very well.
We err on one of two sides. Either we are judgmental, considering ourselves better than these sinners. Or we lower the standards of the Bible and minimize their sin.
Those who claim to be followers of Jesus shout angry words at women going into an abortion clinic to abort their baby. Those who claim to be followers of Jesus shout angry words, condemning lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, and transgenders. They view these people as enemies of the gospel and, judging by what is on the internet, many people who say they are followers of Jesus condemn these people to hell.
On the other side some followers of Jesus have watered down what the Bible says about sin and say that it doesn’t really matter that much. In the end, because of the love of God, we will all come into his kingdom. These people argue that what matters most is that people are happy and if what they do makes them happy, it cannot be wrong.
Jesus did not take either of these positions.
When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did not dismiss her sinful life. He acknowledged that she had had five husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband. But he did not condemn her. He spoke words of life to her, treating her with respect, and she responded by becoming an evangelist, calling the people of the town to come and see this man she thought might be the Messiah.
A woman was caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted to trap Jesus and used her as a pawn. (John 8:2–11)
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
This scene in Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ, is his greatest contribution. I love the way he depicted this scene.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees treated her as an easily dispensable pawn, but Jesus treated her as a person. She came expecting to be stoned but she was left alone with Jesus who told her, “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus did not minimize her sin but he did not condemn her either. This is the balance we have to keep. Loving people without accommodating to sin.
6. When we judge someone, we put up a wall that blocks that person from coming to Jesus. When we love in the name of Jesus, the way is opened up for that person to come to Jesus and allow God’s love to begin the process of transformation that is also taking place in us.
Once again: Love reveals sin; sin does not reveal love.
Those who are heading in to an abortion clinic listening to the angry accusations of Christian protestors or homosexuals who hear the condemnation of Christians put up a wall to protect themselves from these angry accusations that makes it more difficult to experience the love of Jesus. These Christians are angry at the killing of innocent babies and angry because what the Bible considers to be sinful is being promoted as socially appropriate. There is a lot of anger, but where is there any love being expressed?
The biggest problem someone has who is not a follower of Jesus is not any particular sinful behavior. The biggest problem is that the person has not submitted and accepted the rescuing hand of Jesus. The most important first step for any person is to enter into a relationship with Jesus and receive his gift of salvation. There is nothing more important than that.
When we love we open up the way for that person to come to Jesus and then the Holy Spirit can begin to transform that person, just as the Holy Spirit is at work transforming us.
At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the passage in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 where Paul describes who some of the people in the church were: sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who have sex with men, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers. He writes:
And that is what some of you were.
What happened to them?
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
They came to Jesus because someone told them they were loved by Jesus. They accepted the gift of salvation Jesus offers. They were washed and then the Holy Spirit began the process of making them holy. Five years, ten years afterward you would never have guessed where they had come from. I have met many people at RIC over the years who have had horribly difficult pasts but have been rescued, washed, sanctified, justified, and been transformed.
It all starts with someone coming alongside and letting them know they are loved by Jesus, that he forgives all sin, and that he gives every person a new start.
Let me share a story Tony Campolo tells about his experience of loving in the name of Jesus.
Tony is a professor of sociology and a well-known Christian speaker. He was in Honolulu and at three in the morning found himself unable to sleep because of the six hour time difference between his home state of Pennsylvania and Hawaii where he was attending a conference. Since he was restless, Campolo left the hotel in search of a place to get something to eat. Eventually he found a tiny coffee shop. He walked in and sat down. Here is his description of the events which followed.
The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What do you want?” I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut. As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door suddenly opened, and to my discomfort in marched ten or eleven provocative and rather boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was garrulous, loud, and rather crude. I felt completely out of place. I was just about to make my getaway when I heard the woman sitting next to me say, “You know, tomorrow is my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”
Her friend responded in a rather nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Do you want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?” “Come on,” said the woman next to me, “why do you have to be so mean? I’m just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you that its my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He talked with the man at the counter and asked if these women came in every night. When the man said they did, including the woman Agnes whose birthday was tomorrow, Tony said he wanted to throw a birthday party for her. The man thought that was a great idea and insisted on baking the cake himself.
Two-thirty the next morning, Campolo was back at that diner. He writes, “I picked up some crepe paper and other decorations at the store, and made a sign of big pieces of cardboard that read, ‘Happy Birthday, Agnes!’ I decorated that diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking great. The word must have gotten out on the street because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place. There were wall to wall prostitutes—and Campolo.
At 3:30 on the dot the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. Everybody was ready. When they came in we all jumped up and screamed and we sang, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” And you know, I’ve never seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned, so shaken. Her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, her friend had to offer her arm to steady her.
When the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that’s when she just lost it. She started sobbing. Harry, the guy behind the counter, gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes, cut the cake.” Agnes looked down at the cake, and then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I… I mean, if I don’t… what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?” Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure, Agnes, that’s fine. You want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want.” “Oh, could I?” she asked. Looking at Campolo she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home to show my mother, is that OK? I’ll be right back, honest.” She got off her stool, she picked up that cake, and she carried it out of that diner like it was the Holy Grail. When the door closed behind her, there was stunned silence in the place.
Not knowing what else to do, Campolo broke the silence by saying, “What do you say that we pray together?” Looking back on it now, Campolo remarks, “It seems more than a little strange that a sociologist from Eastern PA would be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her. And when I finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice he said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of preacher are you anyway? What church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Campolo answered him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry thought a moment, and then almost sneered his answer, “No you don’t; there is no such church like that. In fact,” he concluded, “if there was, I’d join it.”
That is the kind of church Jesus created. Jesus created a church that welcomed outcasts and sinners and treated them with dignity. We have turned it into a comfortable environment where we all put on a religious face and pretend to be moral, respectable people. But that is not the church Jesus died for. Jesus did not come for the righteous. He came for the sick.
And he calls us to go out into the world and seek the lost, the broken-hearted, the beaten-down and bring life and joy into a joyless world. He calls us to go to the people who are rejected and offer them the love that comes from Jesus. He calls us to go to people who reject our faith in Jesus and to love them in the name of Jesus.
When we come into the church and pull the doors shut to keep out people we don’t like, we work against the work of Jesus who loves the people we don’t like.
We do not go out into the world to do what the world does. We do not accommodate to sin. We do not join in with sinful practices. We no longer do the things we used to do. We go out into the world to bring good news that there is hope and meaning to life. There is joy even in the midst of sorrow. There is hope even in the midst of great suffering. We are loved by a savior who is remaking us into the person he designed us to be. He wants to do the same with every person in the world. May we work with Jesus and not against him.