“Fear Not — Rejoice Greatly"

Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
John 12:12-19

A close comparison between our Old Testament reading for today and the Gospel reading reveals what seems to be a slight discrepancy.  The prophet Zechariah says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! … behold, your king is coming to you.”  But, when St. John echoes the words of the prophet, he changes the wording just a bit. “As it is written,” John says, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming.”   Zechariah said, “Rejoice greatly,” but John replaces thos words with, “Fear not.”  

Now, rather than seeing that as a contradiction, the two thoughts actually go together hand-in-hand.  For, the truth is, if you can remove the cause of fear then the result will be great rejoicing.  And it this thought that brings hope and promise to our lives as we struggle with our own fears.  If our fears can be removed—and they can be through the power of Christ—then we will always have great reason to rejoice.  But that blessing starts with recognizing just what potentially is our greatest fear.

Let’s begin our meditation on God’s Word with the circumstances surrounding the people of Zechariah’s day in the Old Testament, when what they feared most was the threat of the enemy nations which surrounded them.  Zechariah was both a prophet and a priest who lived at a time when the people of Israel had just returned from exile.  Seventy years prior to that, the Israelites had been conquered, deported, and held captive in the land of Babylon.  To say that it was a difficult experience for them would be a vast understatement.

But, now God had opened the door for them to be able to return home.  And, once there, Zechariah, along with another prophet by the name of Haggai, encouraged the people to get to work on the important task of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed.

But, the people weren’t entirely comfortable with the idea of returning home.  They were still looking over their shoulders.  They were still afraid.  Leaving Babylon and going back to Jerusalem was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.  For, whereas in Babylon they had had only one threatening king to worry about, back home in Jerusalem that had a whole host of enemy kings on every side of them—from the Syrians, the Phoenicians, and the Philistines, just to name a few.

And it is to this fear and apprehension, God spoke through the prophet Zechariah and said, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  behold, your king is coming to you.”   That was wonderful news!  God declared that He was sending another King to them—their own king who protect them from all of those threatening kingdoms! They had nothing to worry about; for, God’s very own would fight for them.

But then… then comes that little unexpected detail concerning this King. “Righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey,” (and, not even a full-grown donkey, but, rather, “on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

It was hardly the type of image they had expected.  Instead of a stunning figure, triumphantly mounted on a noble steed or even commanding the reigns of a chariot, this king would be plodding along on a young donkey?  Did Zechariah misunderstand the message from God?  And yet, God did assure them, “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off.”   

So, which was it to be?   Was God going to send a king who would conquer their enemies or was God going to send a king riding in on a donkey’s colt?   It wouldn’t be surprising if the people of Israel said to themselves, “Maybe we should just hold off on the rejoicing for the time being.”

The people in the Gospel reading, however, didn’t hold off.  They were wildly waving the palm branches, shouting at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”  The King had come!  Who cared if He was riding on the back of a donkey’s colt, just as Zechariah said that He would some five hundred years earlier.   There was no question in their mind that, in spite of the humble circumstances, that this was a powerful king.  Many had already seen evidence of that power first-hand; for, the text tells us that this same crowd had been with Jesus when He had raised Lazarus from the dead.  

And, in addition to that miracle, they had also heard of Jesus’ ability to feed thousands of people at a time.  So, the possibilities for the future before them were limitless.  This hero of the people could get rid of the Roman tyranny which now surrounded them and restore their kingdom back to the glory days of the great King David.  It was, indeed, a time to rejoice greatly.

But, obviously, neither group—not the people of Zechariah’s day nor the people of Israel in Jesus’ day—truly understood the prophecy.  The former had the fear alright—but theirs was limited to a fear of worldly enemies.  And the latter, they had the rejoicing part down pat—but, it was a joy based upon shallow expectations.

For, as Jesus would tell Pontius Pilate later on that same week, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  His reason for coming into this world was not to set people free from political enemies and oppression.  Nor was it to serve as some divine welfare agent able to fulfill their every wish.  

But, all too often, that is the litmus test that the world wants to use when considering the value of God for their own lives.  “What is He going to do for me personally?” “Is He going to pay my bills for me?”  “Is God going to cure my illness?”  “Is He going to fix my marriage?” In other words, “How is God going to take care of my fears?” 

To begin to answer those questions, we need to return to the very First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods,”—and the meaning of that commandment is explained in the following way: “we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Dearly beloved, do you fear God above all things?  Or… do you fear for your health, for your finances, or for your personal relationships.  Because, as callous as it might seem to say, allowing any of those things to become the most consuming fear in your life is to be guilty of breaking the First Commandment; it is the sin of idolatry.

There are those who would balk at such a suggestion.  After all, fear is such a commonplace thing that the majority would take exception to calling it a sin.  But when our faith begins to waver, when we feel as though we have to take matters into our own hands because God isn’t getting the job done quickly enough or to our satisfaction, when we doubt that God truly is causing all things in our life to work together for good—then, yes, we are putting other things, other people, and especially ourselves before God.

Have you been perfectly content in your life?  Never prone to worry?  Always at peace?  More than ready to leave everything in the hands of God without and doubts or misgivings?  I think if we were to answer that question honestly, we would have to say, ‘no.’  In fact, we might add, “my life has been far from that.”

And so we see that THE greatest fear that we could possibly deal with is the fear of sinning against God Himself because of my lack of trust, my misdirected worries. 

That must always be our greatest fear.  For, should we ever set that very First Commandment aside, then we will come up with all sorts of reasons to justify or excuse our sinful behavior.  When, instead, as we will hear in the Passion story this coming week, we recall the words of the thief on the cross who rebuked the other criminal, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?   And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

True fear of God begins with the confession of our guilt; that, like the malefactor on the cross, we deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.  Only then will we cry out to Jesus asking Him to remember us through His own cross, on which He poured out His redeeming blood for us.

And your Lord comes to you right now to assure you that He will do everything necessary to keep you safe until that times when He returns in glory to take you into His Eternal Kingdom.   Even as we also sing those familiar words of Palm Sunday this morning—“Hosanna!  Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord”—and then gather at His altar, He will give us His body and blood that grants to us full pardon and peace.  He is truly present for you!

Nothing can harm us—no principalities, dominions, rulers, or authorities.  Jesus Christ rules over all.  And, therefore, by His almighty power—through His humble death and His glorious resurrection, He has taken away all of our greatest fears—the fear of the punishment for our sin, the fear of the power of the devil, and the fear of the hopelessness grave.

One week from today, we will raise our voices in singing that beloved Easter hymn, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” in which we say, 

He lives to silence all my fears;
He lives to wipe away my tears;
He lives to calm my troubled heart;
He lives all blessings to impart.

Jesus has taken away our greatest fears by reconciling us to God.  If God is for us then nothing can be against us.  Therefore, if God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will he not also with Him graciously give us all things?  There is no fear so great, or even so small, that cannot be perfectly removed by God’s loving power in behalf of His beloved children! 

Do more than just admit your fears to God—confess your fears.  And know that God your Father, Who loves you so perfectly and knows everything that troubles your hearts is here to bestow upon you every good and perfect gift that your require so that His will may be done in your life.  Fear not, Daughter of Zion!  Rejoice greatly, Beloved of God!  Your King has comes and is coming again!  Righteous and having salvation is He—so that every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father! 

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