FPC Sermon April 9, 2017
Imagine the excitement of that day long ago! Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. It’s the time of the most special celebration of the year: Passover. Passover – that day when God sent the plague over Egypt but saved the faithful from destruction. It’s the foundation narrative of the Hebrew people – the pivotal event that propels them out of Egypt. It’s the national story that tells them who they are in relationship to God. Thousands of people have come from afar to celebrate in Jerusalem.
Matthew starts by setting the context for what’s about to happen.
As we’ve noted throughout this liturgical year that features the Gospel that bears his name, Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus is the fulfillment of scripture. In this case the scripture in question is Zachariah 9: 9-10.
It’s a bit confusing because the book of Zachariah dates from the 6th century BC. It concerns itself with particular events happening at that time. The King is coming, says Zachariah, on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. We assume there’s just one donkey involved, but Matthew suggests there are actually two donkeys.
Zechariah’s king is “righteous and having salvation.” This tells us he is coming in peace. And there’s more. God is going to take away the vehicles of war – chariots and war horses—and proclaim peace. The King’s rule will cover a vast area from the Euphrates to the “ends of the earth.” The people’s prisoners will be freed.
When Matthew evokes Zachariah, his listeners know the point of reference. They know what kind of king Jesus is. He’s coming into the holy city on an animal that proclaims he is the long-awaited and promised Messiah. There’s not a shred of doubt among his followers. Accordingly, they lay before him a carpet of cloaks and branches – the equivalent of a “red carpet” in our day.
The crowd doesn’t strike us as disciplined. Rather, it seems a bit unruly. Shouts accompany his entrance.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!
Can we imagine a greater bliss than this? The hopes and expectations of an oppressed people yearning to be free.
Matthew doesn’t stop there, however. He adds that “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.”
Today’s opening hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” reflects that excitement about Jesus. It reminds us that the parade is for our “redeemer king,” not for the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who is arriving to maintain law and order during the holiday. It’s not a parade of elites but rather, a parade in which mainly peasants are participating and shouting. It’s a parade of hopes and expectations.
Imagine starting down that hill in the company of Jesus. It strikes me as risky. It’s not as though Jesus sent his followers to Jerusalem to obtain a permit for such a march, the type of permit we’d expect in our day. Imagine how such an unauthorized demonstration would be received now?
Yet, at the same time, imagine the assumption of the crowds entering Jerusalem with Jesus: that God has finally come to overturn the order of the day. To reverse the prevailing injustice and to institute the eternal reign of peace.
These crowds with Jesus didn’t have the power to change their own harsh reality.
But they stuck with Jesus who, they believed, could change that reality.
They were awaiting not just a Messiah; they were anticipating that Jesus was THE Messiah, the long-expected one.
This idea of a Messiah developed gradually from early Jewish prophetic times through their exile in Babylon, taking more definite form in the post-exilic period. By the first century B.C.E., Jews interpreted their scriptures to refer specifically to someone appointed by God to deliver them from oppression under the Romans.
In Jesus’ day, some people called Zealots just wanted to overthrow the Romans. They were not so focused on the Messiah, but on opposing Rome. Jesus apparently included one of them among his disciples.
You and I tend to forget that Jesus surrounded himself with disciples from often very contrasting walks of life. Simon the Zealot contrasted with Matthew, a tax collector working for Rome. You and I often seek uniformity instead of accepting that we are a diverse group all aiming to follow Jesus, each in our own way.
Those Zealots, some call them the first terrorists, had no room for tolerance and plenty for hatred and violence. They didn’t realize that Jesus advocated a different kind of power: a power of love, not a power of force. The kind of power that entering Jerusalem on a donkey would convey.
You and I live in a glass half full, glass half empty world. We’re reluctant to take a stand on anything. So many of us prefer our cocoon to engagement in the world.
I wonder how many of us would have taken the risk of marching with Jesus on that day long ago. Doing so required a commitment. It required taking a stand. They didn’t have to march with Jesus. They could have stayed silent at the side of the road. Yet, they risked everything to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
How many of us have experienced such moments of excitement and joy only to crash in despair when life doesn’t turn out exactly the way we expect? I remember the elation our Iraqi Kurdistan trip participants felt when they testified on the fossil fuels initiative at last year’s General Assembly. When the GA voted down that proposal, however, they felt disappointment and even despair.
Things aren’t always going to turn out according to our personal agenda. What we do know is that God accompanies us on our life journey and is ready to guide us all the way.
Matthew isn’t Mark. In Mark, chapter 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes to the Temple. He looks around and goes back to Bethany where he started out earlier in the day.
Matthew, however, makes a point of saying that the “whole city was in turmoil” by the time Jesus entered Jerusalem. The word he uses for turmoil means to “shake”, “to cause to quake” as in an earthquake. This is just the first of three earthquakes Matthew is going to mention.
It’s a key word. The prophet Joel in chapter 2 uses this terminology to talk about the Day of the Lord; other Biblical passages use earthquakes to signify God’s presence.
Jerusalem, then, is “all shook up” by Jesus’ entry. And you and I should be “all shook up,” too.
We read in the Gospels the details of Jesus’ ministry: how he healed the sick, cured the lame, made the blind see, and sent demons out of the possessed. We read that he proclaimed the Kingdom of God.
Maybe we think this is all in the past, that it has nothing to do with us. Yet, this is the Jesus we worship here today, the Jesus who risks everything, the Jesus who calls us to the same ministries of love and compassion. The Jesus who loves us so much that he gave his life for us.
Having Jesus in our lives is earthshaking. It’s the game-changer. It’s what arouses us from complacency to courage when a prophetic word or action is needed.
As we approach this Holy Week, let’s remember that our praises of Jesus are not just for today. They carry us through the trials of Holy Week to the triumph of Jesus at Easter and to the months and years ahead. Amen.