Sermon on St. Matthew 21:1-9
Palm Sunday (Lent VI)
17 April 2011
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Today’s Gospel is the only Gospel lesson appointed for two Sundays in the church year. It is the portal of the church year (Advent I), where we welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna” and “blessed.” And it is also the Gospel lesson for this, the first day of Holy Week, when we anticipate the shouts of “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” A very important lesson on who Jesus is and what Jesus does as we begin the most holy and solemn week of the church’s year of grace.
The preparations for Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem tell us who is coming to the Holy City. Jesus and His disciples came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, the last horizon before the old city of Jerusalem. It was here that Israel sang her Ascent Psalms as she anticipated ascending the final hill to Jerusalem and the Temple. And it was here that Jesus made His final preparations for the most important entry of His life. He sent His disciples to fetch a donkey and her colt. Much has been said over the years about why He needed both a donkey and her colt. Many have interpreted these two animals as the Old Covenant and the New Testament, but I’m not sure that is the point. Rather, I think the donkey and her colt emphasize, in Old Testament terms, the fulfillment of today’s Old Testament lesson from Zechariah (9:9-10). Here the prophet promised that the great, eternal King of Israel would come “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So the preparations for the entry have the word “fulfillment” written upon them. What Zechariah said would happen was fulfilled on Palm Sunday. And, in New Testament terms, the donkey says that Jesus came to bear our burdens for us. The donkey was the beast of burden, the original, MTA “Access-a-Ride” of its day. It was for luggage, pregnant women, and passengers needing special assistance. So Jesus comes on a donkey to show that He has come to bear our sins, our sicknesses, our loneliness, and to carry all of these burdens to the cross.
And so today’s Old Testament lesson teaches us some very basic yet important truths about our Palm Sunday encounter with the King of Kings. On the Law side, it reminds us that we cannot come to Him. Think, for instance, of what it takes to get an audience with a king. Security clearance. A just cause. A long wait. I suppose a few political connections and a big check would also come in handy! Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We are but poor, miserable sinners, who have gone our own way, tried to be our own gods, and resisted God’s rule. We are the ones who have broken the rules of His Kingdom of Grace (the church), despised His commands, and neglected our fellow neighbors in His Kingdom of Power (the world). Repent! For only the repentant can welcome Him aright. But, on the Gospel side, the triumphant entry teaches us that Jesus does not come as an earthly king, i.e., as one who picks his cabinet and his subjects based on their own merit. Rather, Jesus calls us to repentance. And we, who live in daily repentance and faith, are the “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem” spoken of by Zechariah. We are the ones who talk with Him in His Word and who eat with Him in the Blessed Sacrament. So King and subjects live, talk, and eat together in His churchly Kingdom, where forgiveness is His scepter and righteousness is His rule.
Who is this Jesus? He is the humble King, the One mounted on a donkey, so human and so real that He identifies with our every pain and suffering. And He brings a King’s portion of righteousness and salvation to you.
If the preparations tell us who is coming, then the entry into Jerusalem emphasizes what He does. Jesus made ready to enter Jerusalem on a donkey. Meanwhile, the crowds in Jerusalem were waiting for this great Rabbi and miracle worker. He had healed the sick and cured the blind. He fed 5,000 in the wilderness and word was floating around that He had just raised somebody named Lazarus from the dead in nearby Bethany. Could this be the new and greater David? Could this Jesus be David’s Son and David’s Lord, the Sovereign of the eternal, Davidic Kingdom? No wonder the crowds cut down palm branches, the symbol of victory, and waved them in the air, as if a ticker tape parade on Fifth Avenue. They spread their garments on the road, the ultimate act of submission to their King. And they cried from Psalm 118, the pilgrims’ Psalm, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!” For He had come to save them and He was blessed, as were all those who put their trust in Him.
We, who hear this Gospel lesson in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, know that the crowds did not understand Jesus’ Kingship in light of the cross. Today’s Epistle lesson (Phil 2:5-11), however, reminds us that Jesus truly was not a king of this world, but a crucified King for a people who must also live under the cross of suffering. It is called a “hymn to Christ” (Carmen Christi), and it traces Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation. St. Paul says that Christ was truly God, but did not consider His Godhead a thing for self-glorification. Rather, He took the form of a servant, being found in fashion as a man. And He took the lowest position of them all when He died a death reserved for insurrectionists and murderers. This was the true King of Palm Sunday, the One of whom Pilate wrote over the cross, “The King of the Jews.” But that was not the end. Good Friday leads naturally to Easter Sunday. “God [the Father] also hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So Jesus’ kingship was a matter of suffering before glory, Good Friday before Easter Sunday. And He bids us to live in the same, baptismal pattern of daily crucifying our sins through repentance, that we might rise to receive the Easter gifts of life, salvation, and resurrection from the dead.
What does this Jesus do for us? He suffers all that we by our sins have deserved, giving His body into death, yet rising from the dead to proclaim our righteousness and salvation. And now He offers that same body and blood to us in the Lord’s Supper, where we welcome Him with shouts of “Hosanna!” (Save us now!) and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
So there you have it, from Advent I to Palm Sunday, from crucifixion to resurrection. The life of Christ and our life in Christ is life under the cross, where suffering precedes glory. Perhaps the Collect for Palm Sunday puts it best:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast sent Thy Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, to take upon Him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility, mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of His patience and also be made partakers of His resurrection.
God grant it unto us this Holy Week for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Rev. Brian Hamer