A sermon based on Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11, preached on Palm Sunday, April 13th, 2014.
What expectations do we have for this week? We’ve journeyed this far through these 5 weeks of Lent. Now that we’ve walked this path to Jerusalem and have arrived here at Palm Sunday, what are we anticipating?
Jesus walks through the East Gate of Jerusalem. He arrives to a city packed with people. It’s the Passover and everyone is here. Picture Disney World in June or July. The people flocking into the city are now shoulder to shoulder as they approach the Temple, the city’s center.
What did Jesus expect?
Did Jesus know all that would happen to him? Could he feel it in his bones? Did Jesus know he was headed straight into the epicenter of an earthquake? Could he feel the rumbling beneath his feet? Did Jesus know what was about crumble around him? And if he knew what he was in for, then why enter through the East Gate of Jerusalem. Why not turn tail and haul himself and his disciples outta there? Jerusalem was not the place for Jesus to be if he wanted to keep a low profile. And walking through the East Gate of the city of Jerusalem was not the smartest move if Jesus wanted to come into town unnoticed.
According to Jewish expectations, the East Gate of Jerusalem was the gate that Israel’s Messiah would one day walk through to enter into the Holy City. This Messiah, whenever he arrived, would be greeted by fanfare: trumpets, crowds—huge crowds.
People would know of this Messiah’s arrival and they would line the pathway into the East Gate of Jerusalem with shouts of loudest acclamation and praise, because on that day the One who will save the people would now among the people. The long-awaited Jewish Messiah would be the One who would come and save the people from their suffering—he would release them out from under the oppression of Roman occupation.
The people hoped for a King—a political powerhouse of a person who would rumble into the city and command the attention of the most important people in Jerusalem—the Herods and the Caesars and the Pontius Pilates among them—and would build an army that would one day overthrow these powerful rulers, and give the people back their lives, their freedom. That’s the kind of Messiah they wanted. A Messiah who could move the earth with his words. The people has seismic expectations for their coming King.
So as the people stood by the East Gate once again this year on this Passover, they sung songs in hopeful expectation of someone who would come from somewhere and save them:
Hosanna!, they sung. Save us!
See, the people were singing their Hosanna’s already.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
They had been singing these words for decades—maybe even centuries. Singing out into the air for God to hear and one day send them a savior.
The people continued singing these words and waving their palm branches as Jesus entered into Jerusalem though the East Gate where they gathered.
But certainly, certainly this man who others claimed was the Messiah couldn’t be the long-awaited one. The Messiah, they imagined would enter these gates atop a chariot pulled by stallions. This Jesus came sauntering in on a donkey. He would be decked out in armor and helmet! Jesus was wearing the clothes of a peasant. The people pictured their Messiah wielding a sword. Jesus came with empty hands—in fact he looks completely defenseless. Maybe even downright weak.
Jesus doesn’t fit our expectations. Not in the least.
Imagine Jesus’ feet slowly dragging on the ground as he enters into Jerusalem on a donkey.
According to Matthew, to make things even more laughable, the donkey was a new mother. Beside the donkey Jesus was riding, was her colt. Her baby, not anything more than two feet off the ground.
Could there be a less impressive way for a Messiah to introduce himself to the people?
Certainly, this isn’t any sort of King!, they must have thought.
Who was this man?
There were some in the crowd that day who did know about Jesus—who followed and believed in him, who threw down their cloaks to make a way for him. And as Jesus’ followers threw down their cloaks and their palm branches, others in the crowd followed suit and threw theirs down also. Imagine this whole scene as sort of flash mob—as a piece of street theatre that others joined into as they saw fit.
Jesus and his followers had certainly planned this entrance.
Go into the village over there. Jesus told two of his disciples beforehand, As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me.
Matthew says that Jesus’ surprising entrance into Jerusalem stirs up the entire city. This piece of street theater leaves all who saw it completely baffled and asking themselves,
Who is this?
Jesus knew what he was doing. And his plan to enter through the royal gates in such an un-royal way peaked everyone’s interest and soon enough the whole city was astir with talk about this prophet from Nazareth and what he had just done.
This entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was a parody—the only thing triumphant about it was that it made fun of the ways other royalty made their way into the gates of Jerusalem.
Jesus’s mockery of a royal, “triumphant entry” triumphed in only one way—it made people think about how God does not identify with the powerful and the rich. God identifies with the weak, the lowly, and the marginalized.
There must have been uproars of laughter there at the East Gate:
A nursing donkey?! He rode into the East Gate on a nursing donkey? And people threw down their cloaks and their palm branches as if this donkey-rider was the long-awaited Messiah himself? And the crowd there continued shouting ‘Hosanna! Save Us?’… That’s ridiculous!
Here Jesus displays a peculiar kind of power—a kind of power that humbles. The unexpected way that Jesus comes to us shakes us up and stirs us all. It bewilders us and leaves asking ourselves, “Who is this Jesus?”
Jesus pulls apart our ideas of what power and triumph really are. How peculiar a King and how peculiar a way to come to us!
Little did anyone know, but Jesus’ humble and completely understated entrance into Jerusalem was just the first surprising foreshock. It’s just the first rumble beneath our feet meant to get our attention.
Matthew says Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem sets in motion an entire week of seismic activity. During the week of Passover, Jerusalem will be the epicenter of an earthquake that still shakes and stirs the entire world right down to its core to this day. With his disarming and shocking entrance into Jerusalem, Matthew, this gospel writer, says that Jesus sends an entire city full of people into turmoil—taking the establishment the people are used to standing on, and shifting it beneath their feet.
Later in his Gospel, Matthew writes that at the very moment Jesus breathed his last breath upon the cross, the earth shook and the rocks split open. From the moment Jesus entered the East Gate of Jerusalem til the moment he breathed his last breath, the thousands gathered there witnessed a man who dared to move the unmovable, and challenge the unchallengable, who by his own actions caused a rift in the system of his day.
Later that week, Jesus will stand right in front of the most powerful people in Rome and in Jerusalem, the Caesars and the Herods and the Pontius Pilates—right at the fault line of Roman and Jewish power and he will dare to shake down the structures of unjust power that have for too long stood in place.
Pilate will ask Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and Jesus will answer his question in a maddening way, “You say so!”
Can you feel the rumbles already?
Who would have thought that this man who rode in on a humble donkey was the King of all Kings, the Lord of all Lords, the savior of us all, the One whose witness would tear at the seams of the establishment in Jerusalem, who would throw the whole city into an uproar, who would change the world and whose cross would split history in half?
What happens in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week is the greatest of seismic activity, and we still feel its surprising aftershocks to this day.
So, let us come together throughout this Holy Week as we walk with Jesus. Let us follow the fault line in Jerusalem’s center city, as Jesus makes his way through the East Gates, a humble King riding into a kings’ town on a donkey. May we continue walking with him to the center city, all the way to the hill of Golgotha—to the cross of Good Friday—the epicenter of Holy Week.
May the cross’s shadow cause us to tremble, to be shaken to our center, and to be stirred—perhaps even shocked—into a more profound knowledge of God’s great love for us. May our hearts and our minds be stirred awake by the witness of this peculiar King. A King with a love so strong and a witness so powerful it causes the ground beneath us all to quake.
Hosanna! Save us, O King of kings! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!