My sermon for Palm Sunday, Year A.
In the unlikely event that you have just returned from a two-year expedition into the canyons of Mars, this is a presidential election year. (Although it feels more like a decade of campaigning.) We are down to essentially three main candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket and John McCain on the Republican side. Others remain on the ballot, but these are the three main players now. We have had months and months of pundits and pollsters telling us who might vote which way and why this group will influence the election but that other group is waning in strength. The candidates have been on the trail stumping with all the gusto of…well, a politician.
In spite of most of our expectations Pennsylvania’s primary is very relevant, even this late in the process, at least for the Democratic side of the ballot. If we have not been aware of the campaign before, we are now. The calls have begun and we the PA voters are being wooed. Modern US politics is, we often hear quipped, a popularity contest. It is less about substance than about appearance and the ability to give rousing speeches. Now that the field has narrowed and the trail is coming to an end people are beginning to ask what it is that each candidate believes and what policies and positions they hold or will seek to enact. The question that guides me is what kind of president do we need. What sort of leader does the United States need at this moment and, more difficult to define, for the next four years?
We will each have our own answer to these questions. We might agree on a candidate but we will likely have very different reasons for believing why he or she is the right person for this time. What are our expectations of a president today anyway? What does it mean to be the President of the United States in this moment and time? (In spite of appearances, this is not a political sermon, so Father Larry need not be concerned that St. Andrew’s will lose its tax exempt status.) I mention all of this to try and bring us into the mind and context of those first century Jews who lined the streets to see Jesus enter Jerusalem, praising God and hailing him as “the Son of David.” Who did they believe they were seeing? What were they expecting of him? And what do we expect of Jesus now?
9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus, the crowd declares, was the Son of David and he arrived riding on a donkey, not, as some have commented, as sign of lowly stature, but rather that he is the true king of Israel. The allusion is to Zechariah 9:9.
Zech. 9.9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
David was, of course, was the great King of Israel who finally unified the kingdom and secured her borders. When he wanted to build a temple to the Lord, God declared to him that rather than David building a house (temple) to the Lord, he would build a house (dynasty) for David. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16). Forever is, as we know, a very long time, but God’s promises endure. The king, a son of David, the anointed by God, would come again. God would raise him up at a time when Israel needed him the most.
The prophet Zechariah, cited a moment ago, was preaching during the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile (c. 520-18 bce). The Persian king Cyrus had allowed the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple, but it was difficult going. Local politics and enemies threatened to keep the renewal from taking root and Zechariah preached hope and a solid future for Jerusalem and her people. Moreover, Zechariah tells that them God himself will enter the battle and “his arrow [shall] go forth like lightning; the Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south.” The people of Judah need not worry in their time of fear because God is with them, their enemies will be destroyed, God’s order will be established, and Jerusalem’s king, the son of David, will return to her humble, yet victorious, riding on a donkey.
The time of Zechariah passed without the need of such dramatic and messianic engagement, but now Jerusalem is again occupied by foreign rulers and many are oppressed and the return to Scripture, they remember the prophets and hear Zechariah anew. Now, perhaps now is the time! And indeed it was, it was the time of the arrival of the Messiah, the son of David, and he entered on a donkey (and a foal, just for good measure). They declared “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They saw him as the Messiah and others declared that he was a prophet. And they were right, but their image and understanding of the Messiah and Jesus was incomplete.1
In the days that pass between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the crucifixion he becomes violent, driving out the moneychangers in the Temple courtyard. He was gentle and healed those who were blind and lame. He grew weary and tired, afraid and despondent. This did not fit the image of a triumphant king! The Romans had not been run out of the city and now the Jewish leaders worried, not without good reason, that all Jesus’ presence would do is stir up passions and lead to the Romans violently putting down a fomenting rebellion.
The truth is not even the disciples knew what to expect from Jesus. Those who had been most intimate with him did not understand Jesus’ own words when he told them that
“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matt. 17:22-23)
Their only response? Matthew tells us that “they were greatly distressed.” And why not? This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be! The Messiah-King was to ride in victorious, overthrowing empires and self-righteous religious leaders alike. The revolution had begun! The poor were finally being given their due and the rejected were being healed and accepted at the table. Why all this talk of betrayal? Perhaps on this day that we now called Palm Sunday they might have thought that this talk was behind them, that now it was really going to happen! Jesus was living out the prophecy of Zechariah and the people understood!
But they only understood a portion of who Jesus was and what it was that the Messiah had to do. The rest of the passage in Zechariah could have given them a hint,
Zech. 9:11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
The blood of God’s covenant would no longer be that of the animal sacrifices, but rather it would be his own. God had become flesh in order to offer up himself as a sacrifice to set us free from the prison of sin. The true enemy of Israel and all humanity was and is never the nations and the powers that surrounded and conquered us. Our true enemy is the sin, the impulse within us to push God away and to go our own way. The Great Tragedy did not begin with a battle, but with a simple act of disobedience and arrogance in the eating of the fruit. Cain’s sin came first as he gave in to jealousy. We are trapped within our own desires and from these all other hardships descend and from this the Son of David came to deliver us.
We enter into Jerusalem with Jesus and into the beginning of Holy Week. Unlike the disciples, we know what will come on Good Friday and Easter Morning. But are we in any better position than his disciples were on that first Palm Sunday? This week, let us reflect, pray and ask what are our expectations of the Messiah. Do we expect him to win elections and wars for us and then become dejected and reject him when it doesn’t work out in the way we thought it should? Or are we accepting of his sacrifice for us, his offer to deliver us from that waterless pit of our own sin and self-centeredness? Jesus did not fight against the external powers and authorities. He transformed hearts and souls. It begins within and then moves without.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” — Amen.
- Craig S. Keener Matthew, Volume 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, via http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/index.php?action=getCommentaryText&cid=1&source=1&seq=i.47.21.1 [↩]