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Jesus’ preaching ministry is winding down. He has healed the sick, the lame and the blind, has raised people from the dead, walked on water, calmed the storm, fed thousands with a few loaves and fish and taught them about God’s never ending love. He also embarrassed the religious elite repeatedly, while threatening their system of power with all their laws and sacrifices. They want him dead. He told his disciples they would get their wish over and over again before they got there.
His final destination is in front of him: Jerusalem. He could just walk in, but the crowd is ready for a king’s entrance. So he tells the disciples to get him a donkey. He will ride in. It will be a King’s parade, complete with palm branches, the Jewish symbol of independence and strength. There is only one problem. Their new king is riding a donkey, a beast of burden, a symbol of service, not a war horse, the symbol of royalty. You can read about it in Luke 19:28-44. Since he would not be their king they would turn on Him and call for His crucifixion just five days later.
We are not much different from that crowd. When we experience trials or hardships and we suffer through various difficulties, then we can easily get caught up in ourselves and lose track of what God is doing. Our prayers begin to change to something like, “Lord, deliver me, help me, fight for me, defend me,” instead of, “Lord, mold me, use me, grow me through these things, change me, that I may glorify You.”
Too often our desire is for God to change our circumstances instead of God changing us in those circumstances. In time our worship and praise diminishes or even stops. We lose sight of Him and His purpose. We go through the motions praising Him for what we want Him to do for us, instead of praising Him for who He is.
In the second century a Christian leader named Polycarp, who learned the faith from the apostle John was condemned to death while serving as Bishop of Smyrna (modern day Turkey). The authorities called for his death, by torture, because a bloodthirsty crowd in a coliseum demanded to see his dead carcass after watching other Christians being fed to wild beasts.
When the guards arrived at Polycarp’s home, instead of fleeing, Polycarp invited them to lunch and as a final wish asked for an hour to pray. They ended up giving him two hours and thought about not arresting him at all because he was so kind to them.
The Proconsul tried to find a way to release him too, pleading, “Curse God and I will let you go!” Polycarp’s reply was, “For eighty-six years I have served him. He has never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” The Proconsul kept trying to find a way out, but Polycarp would not recant his faith.
The Proconsul threatened, “I will burn you alive!” Polycarp’s reply was, “You threaten with fire that burns for an hour and is over but the judgment on the ungodly is forever.”
The fires engulfed him. The witnesses noticed his faith and joy. He was finished off with a dagger. He was buried for the cause of Christ on February 22, 155 A.D. It was as much a day of victory as it was a day of tragedy.
When life gets hard or unfair do you look to God for strength and seek to glorify God with your obedience, or do you struggle with your faith? Does God use those hard times in our life to make us better? Do we seek to learn the lessons of life God wants us to learn, or do we complain and question God?
Polycarp illustrated the power of knowing Jesus intimately, intimately enough to follow Him into the flames. He glorified God in life and in death. As Jesus said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). As you celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter may your intimate knowledge of Jesus grow and grow.
Al Earley is pastor of La Grange Presbyterian Church. To find out more about Al Earley or read previous articles see www.lagrangepres.com.