Growing up in a Southern Baptist Church, the “church calendar” had more to do with potlucks and picnics than with holy days. Ultimately, there was Christmas, Easter, and a vague notion of the value of Palm Sunday. After pastoring for six years in the same church, I was approached and asked why I never make mention of Palm Sunday. The most honest answer I can give is that I simply didn’t realize that it was Palm Sunday. The day held no significance with me, so I brought no significance to the day.
Looking back, I have to admit that I was wrong about Palm Sunday. Moving forward, I will be certain to make much of the day.
This change of heart came while reading the Jonathan Edwards classic Religious Affections. The light Edwards brings to the measuring of true religious affection helped me to see the value of rightly acknowledging the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. I emphasize that we are to rightly acknowledge the event because I have come to believe that it is a time that is, more often than not, wrongly celebrated. Palm Sunday is a time of preparation for Easter. It is a time for examining our hearts and measuring the sincerity of our worship.
Persons having religious affections of many kinds, accompanying one another, is not sufficient to determine whether they have any gracious affections or no. Though false religion is wont to be maimed and monstrous, and not to have that entireness and symmetry of parts, which is to be seen in true religion: yet there may be a great variety of false affections together, that may resemble gracious affections.
Not all worship, even worship done in the name of Jesus, is true and good. Prayer and song, love for one’s neighbour, sorrow for sin and the reading of Scripture can be outpourings of true faith. The point Edwards reminds is making is that these outpourings do not prove true faith.
We might find ourselves willing to question one who would love to sing songs of prays but fails to receive their guidance form the Lord through prayer or reading the Word, but those who express a multitude of religious affections tend to carry a greater believability. And, why shouldn’t they?
It is not that we sing, pray, and study that is virtuous. People of all religions do these things in vain and with great devotion. It is not even to whom we sing, pray, and submit ourselves to study that matters. All who lined the streets that morning shouted and sang for the same Jesus. What mattered was not that they would cry, “Lord, Lord.” What mattered was whether or not their hearts were far from him.
They seem to have been filled with admiration, and there was a show of a high affection of love, and also of a great degree of reverence, in their laying their garments on the ground for Christ to tread upon; and also of great gratitude to him, for the great and good works he had wrought, praising him with loud voices for his salvation; and earnest desires of the coming of God’s kingdom, which they supposed Jesus was now about to set up, and showed great hopes and raised expectations of it, expecting it would immediately appear; and hence were filled with joy, by which they were so animated in their acclamations, as to make the whole city ring with the noise of them; and appeared great in their zeal and forwardness to attend Jesus, and assist him without further delay, now in the time of the great feast of the Passover, to set up his kingdom. And it is easy, from nature, and the nature of the affections, to give an account why, when one affection is raised very high, that it should excite others; especially if the affection which is raised high, be that of counterfeit love, as it was in the multitude who cried Hosanna.
In the same way that a multitude of affections can falsely portray gracious affections, passion in worship can be equally misleading. The Pharisees were zealous for the Law, yet they were callused to the Christ who would fulfill the Law. In the end, they were no better off than those pagans who would shout and sing and mutilate their flesh with true passion in the worship of false gods.
God is not devoid of emotion and neither are his children. In his commentary on Acts 18, John Calvin condemns teaching and practices of doctrine devoid of zeal. However, Jesus warns us not to think that praying louder and longer will equate to praying better. When Jesus taught the woman at the well about true worship, he didn’t talk about the Father’s desire for extravagance. True worship, says Jesus, is worship done in spirit and in truth.
As from true divine love flow all Christian affections, so from a counterfeit love in like manner naturally flow other false affections. In both cases, love is the fountain, and the other affections are the streams.
To this point, we have simply stated that how we worship is not a sufficient measure of the truth of our worship. In this final point, Edwards shows us that the only true measure of our worship is found in the object of our worship.
As Jesus entered the city that day, the streets rang with unanimous praise for the coming of Jesus. However unified the celebration might have been, the hearts that powered those cries were divided into two camps.
On the one hand, there were those who understood Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life. They had followed him and believed in the message of the kingdom he had preached. In their worship, Jesus was both the end and the means to the end.
The heart of the majority was quite different. Their love was not for Jesus so much as for what they believed Jesus could deliver. In their desire to see the Romans removed from Jerusalem and the kingdom of Israel restored on earth, they worshiped Jesus as nothing more than the means to their end. The object of their worship was self.
In short order, Jesus made it known that his kingdom was not of this world and that he had not come to free Israel from Roman occupation. For those worshiping self, this was unacceptable. In that moment, those same passions that caused them to cry Hosanna were rekindled. This time, however, their lips would cry out, “crucify him!” These Jews did not experience a change of heart from one week to the next. The object of their worship never changed. Rather than a change of heart, this is a story of the heart exposed.
As a part of our Easter preparation, let us stop and reflect on our own hearts in worship. Are we worshiping Jesus for who he is and not for who we want him to be? Is he seated firmly as the object of our worship and not as the means to the desires of our flesh? When we gather on Palm Sunday, let us gather and cry Hosanna for the coming king, but let us do so as those with true religious affections.