I always enjoy preaching for Palm Sunday. It’s a text that has a lot to think about and ponder. There are a lot of contrasts to this poignant picture. The historic lectionary (the series of readings in church that the Western church used from ca.400 to 1960-ish) bears witness that this fascination is not with me alone. You may recall that this text used to be heard up to three times per year — on Palm Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent, itself; on the First Sunday of Advent; and then on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity. Different aspects were highlighted each time: the Triumphal Entry itself on Palm Sunday; Christ’s first coming as a lowly King and His eventual coming as the King of glory at the end of time; Christ’s tears as He wept for Jerusalem’s hardness of heart and the stern judgment of God that was about to fall on her. Plainly this text has much to teach us, and much that feeds faith.
The lectionaries were revised in the 1960s by the Roman Catholic church, who wanted to get more of the Bible heard by more of their people. This is a worthy-sounding goal, but it’s debatable whether the three-year system they implemented (and which many churches which use a lectionary then followed) actually achieves that goal. More texts are certainly heard, but in the process the thematic links between all the parts of the service sometimes is obscured or lost altogether. Too, the historic lectionary has the advantage of time: over time the entire Christian church settled on those particular texts, out of all the ones in the Bible, as the best ones to hear, for faith and instruction. The church gravitated toward the texts that best served its purposes, and everything sectarian, oddball, or misleading was purged out by the influence of many pious people over a long span of time. The newer lectionaries have no such advantages. Our own synod has put out supplemental lectionaries, which primarily provide more and more varied Old Testament stories, but not having worked with the supplemental lectionaries at all, I can’t comment on their usefulness. It seems like a good idea, but history teaches us to be wary of innovations. I dunno. We’ll see. I’ll try it out sometime and report back. First I want to see what I’m missing in the historic lectionary, then I’ll check out the newer ones.
As for the text itself, several things jumped out at me. The fulfillment of prophecy was one. Jesus carried out everything written about Him so exactly that He has to be the Son of God. Jesus’ humble riding into Jerusalem was actually a victory parade — when He hadn’t finished fighting yet. Amazing. The connection we share with those Palm Sunday worshippers, and with our Palm Sunday King, whenever we sing the words of the Sanctus and we receive His holy Body and Blood also leapt out at me as well. The Lord’s Supper is central to the life of the Church and anything I can do to help people receive it more reverently and with greater awareness and gratitude, I’ll do.
We helped celebrate Palm Sunday in our parish with a procession with palms by the children of the Sunday School. We have 20-some children, so it looked pretty impressive. It was something good for them to do to be involved, and it also recalls Jesus’ words in defense of the children who cried Hosanna to His name (matt 21:15-16). “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise…” -Ps 8.
Hope you enjoy the sermon. Tonight is Maundy Thursday, and may the Lord who was betrayed for you, who gives you Himself in the Supper, grant you an increase of faith in Him, hope in His salvation, and love for your neighbor. God’s richest blessings.
“As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”” (matt 21:1-11)
Whatever you’re doing, it helps to look the part. Just ask Frank Abagnale Jr. He was a con man who passed $2.5 million dollars in forged checks during the 60’s. Along the way, he claims to have assumed eight completely different identities. At different times, he was an airline pilot, a doctor, a federal agent, and a lawyer, among other things. He was so successful, and avoided being captured for so long, because he understood the value of appearances. He always made sure to look like a doctor or an airline pilot or whoever he was passing as, and that made people more reluctant to question him. Frank Abagnale Jr. used people’s tendency to take appearances at face value to his advantage. That’s how he made himself rich and stayed out of prison, at least for a while. He was so good at what he did that Hollywood made his life story into a movie called Catch Me if You Can a while ago.
In our Scripture readings for today we hear about a king, but we don’t necessarily see one right away. The crowds shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and they treat Jesus like a king as He rides into Jerusalem. Yet this doesn’t look like a king. As we listen to the crowds and to the prophecies about this day, we’ll see that Jesus is indeed a King – the greatest and most powerful King you can imagine. Today we’ll see that Jesus is The Unlikely King. He is the humble King. He is the victorious King.
As Jesus rides into Jerusalem in our gospel for today, the people treat Him like a king. They shout His praises and spread their coats in the road before Him. They wave palm branches in celebration, like people celebrating the return of a king from a battle. If you look at the way the crowds act, it seems like Jesus is a king. The prophecy that Matthew mentions shows that Jesus is a king too. “Say to the Daughter of Zion, ‘See, your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The prophet Zechariah specifically mentions that Jerusalem’s king will ride into the city on a donkey, 500 years before Christ came. Jesus the prophet from Nazareth rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, so this prophecy must be about Him. He must be a king.
But Jesus doesn’t look like a king. If Jesus is a king, where’s His army? Kings, especially those who are received like Jesus is, usually have big armies behind them. Jesus doesn’t look like a fighter. Jesus doesn’t have a collection of influential and powerful men as His advisors. His cabinet is made up mostly of fishermen. He has nobodies following Him. Jesus isn’t from an old and respected family. His father’s a carpenter. Nobody knows who He is. Jesus isn’t rich like kings usually are. No wagons full of captured treasures roll along behind Him into Jerusalem. He doesn’t have any plunder to show off. Jesus doesn’t even have an actual saddle to sit on, for crying out loud! He’s sitting on His followers’ coats thrown over the back of the donkey. He has no place to lay His head. Jesus isn’t arrogant and strong like rulers often are. He looks humble and kind of weak. He looks like somebody that nobody would listen to. If Jesus is a king, He’s got to be the poorest one you’ve ever seen.
This is our King? This beggar? Are you sure? Because we’ve got big problems to solve. We keep losing the same battles. We keep falling into the same sins. The devil keeps setting out the same traps for us, and we keep blundering into them pretty reliably. Makes sense to him; the same traps keep working, so why should he try something new? Here, get angry at this person. You deserve to be treated better than that. Another little battle lost. Here, have another drink. You should relax a bit. Don’t think about anything beyond how you feel right now. Aren’t you having fun? Another battle lost. Here, take pride in yourself. You’re such a good and holy person – I’m surprised nobody respects you more. Another battle lost. We’re just like Isaiah says: “This is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, ‘Send them back.’” (42:22) So our sins pile up, and we feel God’s condemnation looming over us. Our consciences won’t let us alone, and we can’t seem to shake what they’re telling us. We’re weighed down by the knowledge of our sins and we can’t seem to lay our burdens down. Jesus is a king? Really? Are you sure? Because we’ve got big problems to solve – problems we can’t fix on our own.
On Palm Sunday, don’t judge by your eyes; pay attention to what you hear with your ears instead. Listen to the crowds. They call Jesus the Son of David, the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Those are Messianic titles. The crowds call Him the Messiah, and Jesus doesn’t tell them no or tell them to stop. Perhaps one of the most striking things about Palm Sunday is how calmly Jesus accepts the praises of the crowds. He knows it’s His due. He deserves to be praised like this, because that’s who He is: a King. The crowds also sing part of Psalm 118, which was part of the Passover liturgy. Psalm 118 is a Messianic psalm; it talks about what the Messiah will do when He comes. The crowds take those psalm verses, which they used as hymns, and applied them to Jesus. They know that He is the one the psalm is talking about. He is the One who comes in the name of the Lord to do the Lord’s will.
Listen to the prophet too. Zechariah said that the King would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. He described exactly how Jesus would come, so that people would know Him when they saw Him. God wanted people to know who their Savior was when He came, so Jesus made sure to fulfill every detail of the prophecy – even the fact that there were two donkeys. Zechariah mentions a donkey and the colt of a donkey because that’s how the Hebrews talked – they liked to repeat things in a little different way for emphasis. Yet Jesus fulfills even that small detail literally, because He rides one of the donkeys and they both take part in the parade around Him on Palm Sunday. This King comes humbly, as a carpenter’s son seated on a beast of burden, yet the prophecy means that He is the King – He is the One His people have been waiting for.
Jesus comes this way so we won’t be intimidated by Him, or think He’s too great and powerful and then stay away from Him. This is not someone to be afraid of. This is not a dictator or a conqueror who will impose martial law on his conquered subjects. This is not a robber or a killer; this is the Savior. He comes gently, humbly, so that no one will be afraid of Him and we who need Him most will be made bold to approach Him and to receive His grace and aid. He comes this way so we will recognize Him, and so that we will not fear Him or flee Him, but instead trust in Him and love Him with all our hearts.
He wants us not to be afraid of Him because He comes bearing salvation. He is the Blessed One, the Son of David, the King sent by the Father to conquer sin, death, and hell for us. He rides into Jerusalem as a conqueror, even though the worst of the battle is still to come — in the Garden, in Pilate’s palace, and on the cross at Golgotha. He’s not done fighting yet. It doesn’t matter. It’s as good as done already, because this King is the Son of God who conquerors your sin, your weakness, your pain, and the just punishment for your sins. He is Victor over the devil, who wants to lead us astray and trap us, destroy us apart from God. He rides into Jerusalem to face down death and to overcome it by His own holy death for sin, and to rise again and ascend to the heights of heaven to rule as King forever. He conquers all your enemies not by fighting, but by suffering and dying. He humbles Himself to shame and blows and bitter death – He whom the angels sang at His birth, who rules all things from heaven. He doesn’t look too much like a King, but He sure is one. He’s the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
On Palm Sunday we get just a little glimpse of the honor that’s due to Jesus. The crowds in Jerusalem shouted Hosanna to Him; at the end of time all people will acknowledge Him as Lord and King over all (whether they want to or not.) Then the shouts of the crowds faded away after the short time it took Jesus to ride from Bethany to Jerusalem; on the Last Day our hosannas will never end. Then Jesus, a Man seated on a donkey, a humble carpenter’s son and a lowly rabbi, was praised as the King, the Coming One, the Son of David; one day He will be seen in all His glory, with the wounds of His passion still visible, as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, coming on the clouds of heaven and not on a donkey, attended by angels and all the heavenly hosts.
This is the same Jesus that still comes to us in the Sacrament of the Altar today. We sing the same words of the psalm that those Palm Sunday crowds did so long ago – “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” – because Jesus is coming to be with us in the Lord’s Supper. We sing His praises with all the hosts of heaven and all those who have longed for His appearing throughout history. That’s a bigger crowd than just the people in Jerusalem that day. Jesus comes to us to give us a share in His victory, when we eat His body and drink His blood. Sin and death must surrender to Jesus when He comes to give us life and forgiveness – when He gives Himself to us to purify and strengthen us. He comes to us to us not seated on a donkey, but with the bread and the wine of the Sacrament, where He’s promised to come to us and meet with us. That’s why we sing the same song the crowds did then – Jesus is really present with us in the Sacrament in a way that He is at no other time, and wherever Jesus is, there can be no more sin or guilt or shame – only joy and gladness at God’s grace that He would send His Son to rescue us.
Every time we sing those words in the Communion Service, we look forward to the end of time when we will finally sing them with the entire Christian Church, all brought together into one. Then we and all who have ever trusted in Jesus will get to worship Him forever in heaven, and live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You’re looking ahead to life forever in heaven whenever you take the Lord’s Supper, because it’s only in heaven that you will be entirely sinless. It’s only in heaven that you will be with Jesus forever, closer to your King than you can even imagine right now. He gives you His body and blood as the sign and seal of that promise of eternal life, right now. Rejoice as you come forward to take the Supper of your Lord, O Daughter of Zion, because your King, the most unlikely King but the best King of all, is coming to you. Amen.