Who is This?

SERMON: Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

Matthew 21:1-11 (RSV)

21 And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Beth′phage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples,  saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If any one says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.”  This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. 8Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?”  And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”


In case you somehow missed all the greenery in the sanctuary this morning, let me remind you that today is Palm Sunday. Actually, the church calendar lists this day as Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. Some churches – like our church – place the emphasis on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem surrounded by a cheering crowd waving palms. Other churches celebrate this day as Passion Sunday, remembering Christ’s trial and suffering on his way to the cross.

The shift to Palm and Passion Sunday was a response to the decline in attendance of Holy Week services. If folks were skipping Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, they would move from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the hosannas of Easter and miss the cross entirely. So the liturgical calendar now mashes some of the liturgy of Holy Week into the Sunday before Easter, in order to give us a chance to focus on Christ’s journey to the cross.

Yet, the way I see it something is missing without a Palm Sunday full of images of palms and joyful crowds and Jesus riding on a donkey. The problem with this approach is that after a while ministers and worship committees kind of run out of ideas to create a meaningful Palm Sunday service. Everyone  knows the story a little too well, and it’s a struggle to find something new.

A few years ago, Doug Brouwer, the minister of my home church in Wheaton, Illinois got creative and decided it would be really neat if an actual, live donkey came down the church’s center aisle at the beginning of the Palm Sunday worship service. He thought the kids would be especially excited and would always remember this particular Palm Sunday.

So Doug searched around and found a guy with a donkey. Apparently, Doug wasn’t the only one who wanted a guy with a donkey, and the man kept pretty busy during Christmas and Easter. But this man was available and willing to dress in Biblical costume, and walk the donkey from the entryway at the back of the church down the aisle to the chancel steps, make a right, and exit through a side door.

Well, everything went beautifully at the first worship service. The donkey was kept hidden until the service began. Then its owner managed to get it up the front steps of the church and into the narthex. It went obligingly down the center of the church to the delight of both children and adults.

However…the donkey apparently thought one trip down the aisle sufficiently discharged his donkey duties for the day. When the second service started, he stopped in the narthex and produced the donkey equivalent of “NO. WAY!”

His owner pulled and tugged on the donkey’s lead. He offered a tasty carrot. He tried giving the beast a little slap on the rear to get him started. Someone from the congregation even pushed the donkey forward as the man pulled on the rope, but…well, have you ever heard the expression, “stubborn as a mule?”

Finally, the donkey made his feelings known by placing an offering on the floor of the narthex, and with that Doug gave up and his owner led the donkey away.

I like Palm Sundays with palms and parades and goofy donkeys. Yet even as a child I was aware of a certain mixture of feelings on Palm Sunday: partly joy – a respite from the gloom of Lent, but also a sort of creeping sadness in the knowledge of what Jesus would face in the coming week. I would imagine the faces of the crowd in Jerusalem cheering Jesus on, only to become an angry mob in the next minute.

So as I was preparing today’s sermon with this view of Palm Sunday in mind, I found myself doing something I didn’t intend. I did not want to preach a sermon with political overtones. Really, really did not. Yet every source I consulted, all my research pointed me in that direction. I tried to ignore it, but sometimes the Holy Spirit grabs us and won’t let go until we do the very thing we try to avoid.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Israel’s most important city wasn’t a first-century version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a meant as a political statement to the leaders of the surrounding culture. Jesus rode into town as a returning king. Moreover, the crowds greeted him as such. The hosannas the people cried have both religious and political overtones. They greet him as the Lord’s Messiah and expect him to overthrow the Romans. And the Romans take note.

Jesus wasn’t crucified by accident, and he wasn’t crucified just because he offended the religious authorities of the day. It was because he proclaimed another kingdom – the kingdom of God – and called people to give their allegiance to this kingdom first. He was, in other words, a threat.

For that matter, he still is. He threatens our need to define ourselves by who and what we are against. He threatens the way in which we seek to establish our future by hording wealth and power rather than preserving the earth for future generations. He threatens our habit of drawing lines and making rules about who is acceptable and who is not. He threatens all of these things and more. Jesus shows us the stark contrast between his humble march and the image of man saluting tanks in an almost empty street.

Matthew’s gospel mainly focuses on presenting Jesus as the Christ, the Holy One of God, and places this image within the current culture. Matthew’s culture was one of Roman occupation and Jewish authorities troubled by the announcement that the embodied Christ was present among them. “Who is this?” the Jerusalem crowd asks.

Matthew never suggests that Jesus comes to set up a kingdom just like that of Rome. Jesus has no interest in creating a church where people could safely worship without upsetting Roman rule or ticking off the Temple authorities.

Jesus is doing a new thing. He comes to declare a new age in human history that flips the old order on its head. In God’s kingdom, the one percent no longer sets the rules and the  access to help for everyone else. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, followed by those who refute the idea might makes right; people on the margins who know a cycle of power and influence always leads to violence and death.

There is no hope in might that exploits for gain, no possibility of redemption, and evil will not be defeated through violence. Martin Luther King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Jesus’ death comes because of his fidelity to the deepest truth he knew, expressed in his message and behavior. Jesus goes where there is suffering and despair. Every day he still comes riding into my broken life and yours.

Jesus’ story comes to a climax this week so that our story can reject the current empire and begin fresh and new with the hope and promise of a good ending. Jesus announces a new kingdom, even while the old kingdom is still striving for absolute power.

Who is this Jesus?

This Jesus is the One we believe died not to make it possible for God to love us, but rather to demonstrate that God already does love us and that God’s love is our only hope. This is Jesus is our true Lord, our only source of hope and healing, our singular paradigm of what God’s kingdom should look like in the world today.

We always see Jesus through the eyes of our own culture, so we must ask ourselves what we are doing now to enlarge God’s kingdom now. How do we call for a kingdom of peace in the midst of an empire built upon selfishness and violence? How do we respond to a leader who tells us only he can save us when we claim Jesus as the only Lord of our life and our one true savior? For whom do we cry, “Hosanna?”

The translation of hosanna into English means “Save us, we pray.” What would we shout, if we were in the crowd in Jerusalem? What are we willing to work for now?

Even Jesus’ modest ride into Jerusalem resulted in the empire retaliating against him and killing him. Will we look away and pretend Jesus’ murder was just Roman oppression – something our democracy would never allow to happen? Are we saying that Jesus’ death is long gone, a relic of the past, with no wisdom for us today? Or do we allow ourselves to be shaken, knowing we still live under the empire?

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace is his goal and right relationship with heaven. Glory in the highest to the one who works for God’s kingdom right here on earth. Where is that message being spoken today, and who has ears to hear it? When someone asks you, “Who is this Jesus” what will you say?