For the past several weeks we have been exploring together a couple of the parables of Jesus. These parables are the stories that Jesus uses to describe his mysterious Kingdom. Describe, but not explain. Parables tend to ask as many questions as they answer. They don't lend themselves to a nice correlation of this equals this. Parables are designed to throw us off balance and make us think. There are parables of the Kingdom, which Jesus tells and does between the feeding of the 5,000 and the Transfiguration. Parables of the Kingdom describe how the Kingdom of God (what Matthew calls the Kingdom of Heaven) is a kingdom of paradox, where little is big and weakness is strength. There are parables of grace, which Jesus tells between the Transfiguration and the Triumphal Entry. Parables of Grace describe how the Kingdom of Heaven is accomplished by paradox: specifically by death and resurrection. You have to die to your own bookkeeping in order to be free from your own debts. And there are parables of judgment, which Jesus tells after the Triumphal Entry. So because it's important that we understand how the Jesus story develops, and not just mush things together wherever it's convenient for us, this morning we are going to study Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Because that's where we are in the story. Now don't worry, we'll still do all our Palm Sunday traditions on Palm Sunday. I'm just going to preach the text today because it's a transition point. We have to see where the story is going in order to understand the parables that will come after this.
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:1-11 (NIV)
Narrator: As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them,
Jesus: “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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
Narrator: This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to Daughter Zion, see, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.
They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 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,
Voice from the Crowd: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Narrator: 10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil and asked, “Who is this?”
Voice from the crowd: “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
My favorite television shows have a long plot that runs through a season, or even the whole series. Will the whole Federation be assimilated by the Borg? Will Bones find the Gravedigger? Not every episode has to include it, but throughout the season, several shows will address the larger conflict. And then, once you get to the final few episodes, you know they are going to be all about that conflict and will set you up to absolutely NEED to watch the next season.
Our passage today, which describes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that episode near the end of the season where from now on the action and conflict will be non-stop. Each episode will end with a cliffhanger, making sure that you tune in next week (or, if you’re on a Netflix binge, go straight to next episode, telling yourself that you can watch just one more).
So far in this season we've seen baby Jesus, named Immanuel, Love with us.
Jesus teaching a love of enemies that will turn the world upside down.
Jesus feeding thousands of people and catching Peter as he walks on water.
Reminding us that those who are willing to lose their lives for the gospel will gain more than they lose. Healing on the Sabbath. Telling stories that mess with our understanding of how the world should work.
And now this week’s episode: Jesus, his disciples and followers on a hill, faces in shadow as the sun rises behind them. Hints of warmth in the air confirm that spring is coming. Behind them a small village surrounded by olive groves. As the camera pans around, the great city of Jerusalem spread out in front of them, lit by the morning sun, throbbing with residents, pilgrims arriving for Passover, and extra Roman guards who arrived with Pilate the day before. By the small smile on Jesus face, we know our brave, compassionate and slightly mysterious main character has a plan.
Matthew's set-up includes some backstory, some WAY-back story. It includes one his fourteen Old Testament quotations that begin with “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet.” "Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
This one quotation is actually two. The first line comes from Isaiah 62, and the last three from Zechariah 9. If Matthew included these in his work, we can assume that his audience was familiar enough with them to get the reference, but we don't. Both of these chapters are about the coming salvation of Zion and the king who will bring peace. It’s such good stuff that we should actually hear it:
Here’s the section from Isaiah 62:
Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.
The Lord has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
“See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.”
They shall be called, “The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord”;
and you shall be called, “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”
And from Zechariah 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.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be broken,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
This is the context in which Matthew wants us to understand Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Whatever other motives he may have, whatever happens after this, at this moment, Jesus wants the people to be reminded, encouraged, uplifted, hopeful, confident that God has not forsaken them, they have not been forgotten. Salvation is already on its way. Matthew uses ancient words to help the people remember what Jesus has been saying: the Kingdom of God is already at hand. This thing they’ve been waiting for: it’s happening!
And boy do the people respond! The crowd gathers with their cloaks and their branches and their singing, and their Hosannas. This is the scene we act out each year, trooping through our church with our palms, joyful and excited, celebrating Jesus.
Now, biblical scholars love to argue about this scene: whether Jesus could have possibly been riding two animals at once, whether this was really Passover or some other festival that more commonly featured palm branches, how large the crowd was. Whether you are a literalist interested in the historical Jesus or whether you are more interested in the overall story, we can agree on one thing: the people here are responding enthusiastically to Jesus.
It’s likely that many of them have been following him around the countryside and have now accompanied him to Jerusalem, not just for his sake, but for their own celebration of Passover. They’ve seen him heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, and even raise the dead. They’ve been fed by him. They’ve seen the winds and waves obey him. They’ve listened to him challenge the Pharisees on following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. They have heard his good news proclaimed loud and clear. They are excited about what he has been doing and what’s coming next.
Their praise of Jesus comes from the Psalms, specifically the ones numbered 113 to 118 in our Bibles, called the Hallel Psalms. These Psalms were sung back and forth in groups at many major religious festivals. The text specifies it was sung by those before and those behind so we can imagine them calling back and forth to one another. Those in front sing the first line, those in back sing the response, everybody's grooving.
Hosanna was not a simple greeting of “Hail!” nor a request of “God save us!” It was a festal shout, proclaiming, declaring, both salvation and victory in one. And the crowds make this festal shout of salvation and victory TO the Son of David. This title for Jesus, which Matthew uses nine times and other gospel writers use rarely or not at all, is both a political and religious title. Remember that the calling of a true king of Israel was to serve both functions. As the people shout this, they are affirming their hopes for what Jesus brings. They’ve seen all the episodes in this season and think they might know how things are going to end up. A messiah, a king who will not only kick out the Romans, but reform their religion. And they want it so badly.
And yet, our episode ends with conflict, confusion, a cliffhanger.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The word for “turmoil” is a pretty strong verb. Matthew also uses it to describe the earthquake that rocked Jerusalem at the moment of the crucifixion, and to describe the fear of the guards who saw the angel roll away the stone from the tomb of Jesus. Now, an actual earthquake doesn’t make sense here, so we’ll go with the inner turmoil meaning. But this is serious inner turmoil. Rumors are spreading, people are confused, perhaps the Roman authorities are sensing stirrings of a revolt, perhaps the chief priests and scribes have riled up their followers. But the question the whole city was asking was, “WHO is this?” Who IS this?” Who is THIS?”
And even 2000 years later, people are still asking this question: “Who is this?” Remember the answer the people gave. “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” What’s fascinating about that is we actually don’t know what that answer means. It is equally likely that 1. the people were alluding to THE prophet, the one they've all been waiting for. or 2. They believed Jesus to be just another miracle worker and teacher who does cool stuff.
What if how we read this response reflects how we would answer it? Who is this? Who is this Jesus for us? Who is this Jesus for you this morning? We can each only answer this for ourselves, but what’s coming for Jesus in the next few episodes of this season will give us the opportunity to test our commitment to our answer.
Does our answer connect the deepest depths of our humanity to the greatest heights of divine love? Does our answer move us out into the world in works of justice that are wildly inconvenient for us? Does our answer compel us forward, to share in Jesus’ sufferings by becoming like him in his death, and then knowing the power of his resurrection?
If our answer to the urgent question, “Who is this?” does not do these things, we don’t need to finish watching the season this year. After the Jesus parade, we can turn off the TV and walk away. Because unless our answer is like a fire shut up in our bones, we will not want to watch these last few episodes. We won’t have the stamina to pray with Jesus in the garden. We won’t have the patience to wait around the fire in the hight priest’s courtyard. We won’t be able to stomach standing at the foot of the cross. And we won’t have the devotion to go the tomb on Sunday morning. Because that kind of following Jesus is a real commitment and not everyone chooses to make it. Do we judge them for that? NO!
But if we don’t make the choice, we miss out on living in the Kingdom of the Resurrected Jesus. We miss out on a mind-blowing meal at Emmaus, a reconciling breakfast on the beach, a bittersweet parting, and tongues of fire that will light. this. world. up. We miss out on life more abundant.
Who is this? It’s up to us. Amen.