This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on April 1, 2012. To listen to the audio of this sermon, just click on this link – Palm Sunday 2012.
WHAT DO WE UNDERSTAND ABOUT MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCES?
The Triumphal Entry was a Mountaintop Experience: John’s description of the Triumphal Entry is different from the other gospels. They tell the story from Jesus point of view – He sends his disciples out to get the colt. But John tells the story from the crowds point of view: they heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, so they picked up palm branches and went to meet him – those who had seen Lazarus raised, spread the word so that even more people went out to meet him.
John is showing us the mind of the crowd so that we are able to have a sense of what they were experiencing.
1) The crowd was getting caught up in a great worship experience. They were seeing Scripture fulfilled (Zech.9), and the Messiah riding like a king into Jerusalem. In their minds this was the final return of God to his people. They believed that everything was going to be made new – after all, they had just seen Jesus defeat death by raising Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps they were all about to be caught up into heaven.
2) The disciples were caught up in the experience of seeing all their fears dissolve and all their hopes come true. John, in previous chapters, has shown the increasing hostility of the Pharisees. The disciples knew the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus. In fact, when Jesus decided to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, in order to heal Lazarus, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Now the crowd was proclaiming Jesus as king and the Pharisees seemed to be giving up, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him.”
3) Even some greeks, who had come to watch the feast, now wanted to meet Jesus. They came to Philip – (a Jewish disciple who had a greek name – and who was accepting of Greek culture), and he was excited that they wanted to join in. This must have looked, to Philip, like the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, that all nations of the world were going to be blessed through the Messiah. Philip might easily have believed that, eventually, all the nations of the world would be impressed by Jesus and then become his followers, and that he would set up a new world order of peace.
We Understand a Small Part of What God is Doing: We, of course, know what the crowd did not know – that Jesus is going to be executed as a criminal. So are they wrong to be excited? Was the Triumphal Entry a wrong thing to do? No! This mountaintop experience is obviously God’s will – it is just not all of God’s will. The disciples and the crowd were right to worship Jesus in this way. In fact, according to Luke.19:40, Jesus says that if the crowd were to keep silent, the stones themselves would cry out in worship.
So, what are we to understand about mountaintop experiences like this? That God does, from time to time, give us such experiences, but that they are relatively few, and that they should not guide our whole discipleship.
The Triumphal Entry is a brief episode in the life of the disciples. Many of those who were worshiping Jesus that day, stopped following him and turned against him after his arrest – because they had put all their hope in this brief mountaintop experience. When they found that Jesus had been arrested their faith in him disappeared because they wanted a glorious experience only – and so were not true followers.
HOW ARE WE TO UNDERSTAND MOUNTAINTOP EXPERIENCES?
We Should Reinterpret Them with the Passage of Time: What God is doing through great moments and mountaintop experiences becomes clearer to us with the passage of time – as God reveals their meaning. John says, “These things his disciples did not understand at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to him.”
This is a telling statement. What John is saying is that the disciples were caught up in the experience. The disciples were right in there with the crowd – not because they wanted to fulfill prophecy (they didn’t understand that they were fulfilling prophecy) – but because of their hope and expectation that Jesus was going to make himself king.
Realization came on the disciples only after Jesus had been glorified – only then, in hindsight, did they understand what the Triumphal Entry meant. Only then did they realize that they had fulfilled prophecy. Only then did they realize that their praises had proclaimed the truth about Jesus – (that he was already a king). Only then did the disciples realize that they had put false expectations on what Jesus was going to do – they themselves, the disciples had done these things to him.
Our understanding of the mountaintop events of our lives should grow over time – they should mature. We should reinterpret them, in faith, and come to a clearer understanding of what God was doing at the time – of what God truly wants for our lives. We should not throw them away in disgust, merely because God did not do what we wanted him to do, or what we thought he should do. We should recognize in them a greater faithfulness from God than we expected.
We Should Recognize that Beyond Mountaintop Experiences, God Calls Us to Dying that Leads to Life: In the middle of this mountaintop experience, at the feast, surrounded by everyone who is following, and the prospect of Greek converts wanting to join his movement – making him an international figure – Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
What does Jesus mean? He means that this mountaintop experience is leading him, not to other great experiences, but to his death. The main thing that God is doing is not the adulation of the Triumphal Entry, but something much more important. Jesus has come, mainly, to die. And it is by his death – much more than by his being praised – that he is going to bear fruit. In fact, Jesus says that his hour to be glorified has come – not the hour of the Triumphal Entry – but the hour of the crucifixion.
In other words, while God may use mountaintop experiences in our lives, the real work of sanctification comes through the painful process of putting to death the sin of our lives. The real fruit, the real growth – that which becomes a blessing to other people – comes not in our moments of excitement, but at the point at which we obey God in the difficult things: showing love or kindness to those who have hurt us, or who hate us – forgiving and letting go of the grudges we hold – turning away from spitefulness, greed and arrogance and humbling ourselves. And it is in this dying to ourselves that grace and new life are renewed in us.
To depend on moments of excitement and mountaintop experiences to cause real growth in our lives, is to stop short of the work that God truly desires to do in us and through us.
We Should Not be Led Astray by Mountaintop Experiences: “He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves me, let him follow me; and where I am there shall my servant also be; if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
Finally, Jesus warns his disciples of trying to maintain this exciting experience. Their lives are not to be spent in pursuit of mountaintop experiences. Those whose lives are centered around being caught up in the excitement of the moment do not make good disciples, but tend to be ruled by their passions. Jesus is not calling his disciples to a life of mountaintop experiences, but to a life of service, in which they are dying to the passions which control their lives. Just as Jesus is going to give his life for others, so his true disciples will be those who lay down their lives and take up the sacrifice of Christ: living a holy life of service to others. The servant of Christ is called to leave the self-serving life of living for the excitement of the moment, and to live a life of careful discipleship.