(a sermon for April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday, based on Matthew 21:1-11 and Philippians 2:5-11)
To begin with, we have to understand that there was a buzz about it all; the kind of crowd murmuring that’s reserved for those moments when something really big is about to happen. So not only were people talking, they were showing up in droves!
I remember back in those heady, uncertain and very patriotic days after 9/11 a rumor surfaced one morning that then President Bush was going to be a surprise speaker at a political fundraiser happening nearby, and that his presidential motorcade would, in fact, be passing by on our road that very afternoon! To be honest, when I first heard this I was skeptical; but as the day wore on, and more and more people were calling the church office to let me know that the President of the United States (!) was going to be driving by that afternoon, I’ll admit that things started to get a little exciting! Because word was getting around: by 3:00, the front lawn of the church was filled with people, as was that entire stretch of Black Point Road; men and women, tons of kids from all over town (apparently word had gotten out at school that day!), folks who’d brought their flags and signs and lawn chairs, all lined up to be a part of this big moment and to cheer on the president.
And sure enough, around 4:30, down the road came this rather imposing entourage of long, black and official looking government vehicles… that proceeded to speed down our little road with nary any hesitation and no regard for the posted speed limit! Believe me when I tell you that there was barely enough time to clap our hands, much less cheer and wave a flag! It was only later on that we learned that this was in fact a decoy motorcade, a precaution devised by the Secret Service because the president had opted to drive his boat to this event up the coast from Kennebunkport! Good idea for him, I suppose, and as a matter of security an appropriate strategy; but at the end of the day, all we in the crowd were left with as we returned home was… disappointment!
Well, sometimes the promise of a thing doesn’t live up to the hype… or the hope.
Butmake no mistake, there was no such disappointment to be found amongst the crowds of people who were lining the streets on that fateful morning in Jerusalem; for the one they were coming to see was Jesus, making his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The anticipation and excitement that day was palpable! People had come from everywhere just so they could catch even a glimpse of this processional and the man who at the center of it; but understand that more than simply a first century version of the Macy’s Parade, Jesus’ arrival was a happening of great religious and political significance that, as Matthew tells this story, had quite literally thrown “the whole city [into] turmoil.”
What’s interesting is that if you look at the original Greek of this passage, the word used for “turmoil” is seio, which translated literally means “earthquake;” it’s in fact where we get our word “seismograph.” We are meant to understand here that Jesus coming into Jerusalem was nothing less than an “earth shaking” event, and truly, everything about that day bears out the description: the waving of palm branches in the air; the crowd laying their cloaks on the ground to create a makeshift carpet fit for visiting royalty; children and adults alike leading Jesus along the road and following on behind – the people who’ve come to see the parade have now become a part of it (!) – and they’re singing and dancing as they go, all amidst growing cries of “Hosanna” and joyous shouts of acclamation.
It’s noisy, it’s chaotic, it’s frenzied… and it’s truly a rich and powerful moment of exuberant affirmation and glory; the kind of victorious greeting one would expect to be given to a conquering hero or a returning king; an interesting notion, considering that the recipient of these accolades has come into town not leading a chariot of battle nor riding on the back of a white stallion… but rather after the manner of a servant; riding to town on the back of a donkey (or, as Matthew wants us to take quite literally as a matter of prophecy, “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”) It’s everything these people have been waiting for, and absolutely nothing they expect; so it’s no wonder at all that in the midst all this turmoil the whole city of Jerusalem seems to be asking the same question:
Who is this? Who is this man Jesus?
Now, understand that most of the people that day knew full well who this man Jesus was; or at least who they understood him to be. These crowds were greeting Jesus as the Lord’s Messiah, the coming of the Son of King David sent to overthrow the Roman government and establish a new kingdom of Israel. And the people were right – after a fashion – except that this new kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming was not based on the powers and principalities of the world but rather was a kingdom of God: a realm established out of the love that God himself was pouring out upon the world and upon his own beloved people; a love that was stronger than hate, a love that would even triumph over death itself.
This, you see, is what they misunderstood about Jesus on that first Palm Sunday morning of celebration; this is what raised the ire of the Roman government and offended the religious authorities of his day; and ultimately, what led to his crucifixion: simply put, he was at that very moment of triumphal entry – and continues to be even today – a challenge and a threat to every one of the powers that be in this world; and moreover, to every assumption we ever make about the nature of wealth, power, position, identity and purpose apart from mercy and majesty of God.
Who is this? Who is this man Jesus? It was the question they were asking on that fateful day… and it’s a question that humanity continues to ask even now, even 2,000 years later.
Who is this? He is, in the words of Kenneth Woodward, “the hinge on which the door of history swings, the point at which eternity intersects with time, the Savior who redeems time by drawing all things to himself.” He is the one, who despite the fact that within three days of arriving unto the accolades of the crowd in Jerusalem, was summarily arrested, tried and convicted and then, at the behest of that same fickle crowd was executed as the commonest of criminals, remains the dominant figure of Western culture and the one who is at the absolute center of all we hold as Christians to be true in and about our faith. Jesus is the one who “cometh to bring us salvation,” and who, quoting David Lose now, “can declare us not just acceptable [before God] but as blessed and beloved.” And, Lose goes on, we know this is true because “Jesus’ journey to the cross shows us just how far he was willing to go to demonstrate that for us.”
That’s who Jesus is, beloved… something that’s very important for you and I remember now as Jesus once again comes riding into the Jerusalem of our lives, that we might walk with him from the pinnacle of Palm Sunday glory to the pits of death’s dark tomb on Good Friday, that we might stand with him as he remains obedient to God:
Standing with him even amidst the betrayal and desertion of those closest to him; even as he suffers the humiliation, degradation and violence of Roman soldiers, of Pilate and Caiaphas, of the mocking, jeering crowd that surrounds him; even as the crown of thorns tears into his skull and he feels the thud of a reed slammed across his head; even as he’s spit upon, and lashed and beaten, and finally, nailed him to a wooden cross, left to face a slow and agonizing death in the hot desert sun;
Standing with him even as he reaches out to those who have crucified him, praying “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do;” (Luke 23:34) even as he promises the thief hanging beside him the gift of paradise; even as he willingly shoulders all the pain, and the horror and the death that awaits every human being, recognizing that in doing so he would bring that hurting, sinful world into joyous reconciliation with God who considers each one to be blessed in his sight; even when, at the very end, “crying out with a loud voice, [he says], ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit.’” (Luke 23:46)
Even then… even when “the earth [shakes] and the rocks… split” (Matthew 27:51) in all of creation’s turmoil, and “while the sun’s light fail[s],” (Luke 23:45) still he calls us to go with him, all the way… knowing that the end of this story is not the end at all, and that there is more that is yet to come, a glorious promise both abundant and eternal that will be fulfilled, and is ours if only we will follow.
That’s who Jesus is, beloved.
What’s interesting about our text this morning is that at the end of this question of who Jesus is the crowds, I suspect for the sake of trying to make some kind of sense of everything that was happening around them, were quick to come to their own conclusion: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” they say. And they were right about that: Jesus was a prophet, a proclaimer of the truth of God, but as the next few days would reveal to the world, he was and is so much more. He is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord; he is the Messiah, who is Christ the Lord; he is King of Kings, Lord of Lords… but at the very heart of it all, he’s the humble lowly king who rides into town on the back of a donkey, humbling himself “to the point of death – even death on a cross,” so that you and I no longer have to face the judgement of sin, but in divine forgiveness instead have the way be made open to us for eternal life!
I’m reminded here of an old Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown and Linus are standing next to each other, staring at a star-filled sky. “Would you like to see a falling star?” Charlie Brown asks. “Sure,” Linus responds. But then, after some thought, he adds, “Then again, I don’t know. I’d hate to have it fall just on my account.”
The glorious truth of our faith, friends, is that a star did fall on our account. A star gave up its brilliance, its lofty position on high just that we might shine forever. So often at Christmastime we speak of how God came down to earth; well, this is the point of God coming down and the fulfillment of every hope we have ever or will ever have. Ours is the God who came to us in in Jesus, the one who as Paul so eloquently proclaims it, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Like the lamb who was willingly led to slaughter, Jesus died on our account, the perfect sacrifice for our righteousness before God.
Who is this Jesus? He is the one who God has “highly exalted;” his is “the name that is above every name;” the name at which “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” He is Christ our Lord, to the glory of God the Father; he is our way, our truth, our life… and when we know that to be true, there is suddenly very good reason for joyous acclamation!
May this be true for each one of us as we move now into this truly “holy” week that’s ahead… so that we might truly give him praise on the Day of Resurrection to come!
Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry