A Palm Sunday sermon I delivered on March 20, 2016 based on Matthew 21:1-9.
It was almost Passover and Jews were gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover - the festival that commemorated their ancestors’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. God had freed His people from the bonds of oppression and injustice once before with the help of a leader named Moses and now they were anticipating deliverance again.
The people were anticipating a king. Someone who would rescue them from the rule of the Romans. Someone who would prove their might by overthrowing corruption. Someone who would make life better, easier, restore the way of life to Israel’s former glory. Like when David and Solomon sat on the throne. The Israelites had asked for a king once before, centuries ago, and they were asking for a king once again.
And so, on a Sunday before Passover, the people lined the street ready to receive a deliverer. They were anticipating a king and so they welcomed Jesus that day. And Jesus was a king, but His kingdom was not of this world and it was not what the people expected.
According to numerous sources that it was customary for a high-ranking Roman leader to enter Jerusalem at Passover each year. It was recorded as Herod Antipas in some records. Herod Antipas was assigned by Rome to be a regional ruler to govern Galilee and surrounding areas, and he was the one who was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist. Another source suggests on this particular Palm Sunday - somewhere around 30 A.D. - it might have been Pontius Pilate - who rode into town. Pilate, the Roman prefect who, in a matter of days, would defer to the crowd and sentence Jesus to death.
Try to imagine for a moment the spectacle of that Roman entry into Jerusalem. From the western side of the city, the opposite side from which Jesus enters, the honored Roman ruler would sit astride a tall, strong, muscular warhorse. And this leader would be surrounded by some of Rome’s finest soldiers - some of whom would have been on horseback and others on foot. Each soldier would be dressed in leather armor polished to a high gloss. On each centurion’s head, helmets that would gleam in the bright sunlight. At their sides, sheathed swords crafted from the hardest steel. In their hands, each centurion carried a spear; and archers would have a bow with a sling of arrows across his back.Drummers would beat out the cadence of the march for this was no ordinary entry into Jerusalem.
The Romans would have known that this Passover festival celebrated the liberation of the Jews from another empire, the empire of Egypt. And the Romans would want to make sure the Jews didn’t get any fresh ideas of liberty, so this entry into the city needed to send a message. It was filled with pageantry that declared Rome’s glory and at center stage would be the weapons and symbols of power in order to demonstrate Rome’s might. I am sure it was a sight to behold, this entry of the Romans. It was meant to intimidate as to suppress any inclination to uprising or insurgence. The Romans had made it clear they held no tolerance for rebellion. And so on this occasion, be it was Pilate or Herod Antipas or some high-ranking Roman leader, would enter the capital of the Jews in order to maintain order and control. At Passover, when the Jews would have remembered their deliverance from another oppressive government, Rome wanted to make sure that the Jews knew they were king. Pomp. Circumstance. Power. Might.
And around that same time, just before Passover would begin; on the first day the week that would become known as Palm Sunday, there was another procession that took place. This one from the east side of the city, from the Mount of Olives. This entry too would be one to proclaim kingship, but this king was Jesus.
If Rome’s entry was meant as a show of military might and strength, Jesus’ procession was meant to show the opposite. Both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Mark record Jesus’s own words, as he instructs his disciples to go in to the city and find a donkey tied up and then Jesus quotes from Zechariah, the 9th chapter —
“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 is speaking to the nation of Judah in chapter 9, and the prophet is reassuring the people that God has not forgotten them. When Jesus quotes the prophet’s words, His hearers (fellow Jews who knew the prophets words by heart) would have been reminded on the entire passage surrounding what Jesus quoted:
8 But I will defend my house
against marauding forces.
Never again will an oppressor overrun my people,
for now I am keeping watch.
9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The message they surely heard when Jesus quoted Zechariah was, “God will deliver. God will deliver you from the oppressor.” And for those living in Roman-occupied Israel in the first century, the oppressor was Rome. The people were anticipating a king. God had promised it through His prophet. But this king would come to them humbly, not on a steed of war but on a plodding donkey, the symbol of a king who comes in peace.
The two processions could not be more different in the messages they convey. A Roman leader surrounded Roman centurions asserting the power and might of an empire which crushes all who would oppose it. Jesus, riding on a young donkey, embodies the peace and tranquility that is the shalom of God which He gives to His people.
But how a king enters reflects the kind of kingdom they are building. And while the Jews anticipated a king, their expectation was their king would operate in the same ways as Rome. They expected a king whose kingdom would dominate, whose power and might would be known throughout the world. They were looking for a kingdom that would end their suffering by securing their liberty and I figure they imagined that would happen through the very same methods Rome used. Pomp. Circumstance. Might. Power.
The Jews wanted to be liberated and free. They wanted a better life and they thought it had to be secured through the ways of the world’s empires. The world says military might reigns. The world says power and authority are determined by the sword. The world says the strong win and winners take all and think of no one else. The Jews thought that their freedom would come only by those means and they would have enlisted in that army, but that wasn’t the kingdom Jesus was establishing.
The kingdom of God is a very different kind of kingdom then the empires of this world. It always has been and always will be. The kingdom Jesus brought was rooted in God and God’s ways. This kingdom is a kingdom of peace. A kingdom that requires humility, that demands love for all. It’s a kingdom that refuses to use power to oppress others or position to persecute opposition. It was and is counter-cultural. It is different than any other known kingdom. It was and it still is unexpected.
On that Sunday, amid waving palms and scattered cloaks, the people anticipated a king and they were putting their hopes in Jesus. Naming Him as the hoped for messiah. But even though they anticipated the king, they didn’t expect His kind of kingdom.
On that Sunday, across the city from the pomp and circumstance of military might, oppressed Jews waved palm branches - symbols of victory - and laid them in the street for Jesus, but it would only take them 5 days for realize that their anticipated king was promoting a kingdom they didn’t expect. And ultimately, a kingdom they doubted could really save them.
And you know what? I can’t help but think we are a lot like the crowd that welcomed Jesus that day. As christians, we proclaim Jesus is our king. We say He is the leader of our lives. We want Him to rescue us, to give us freedom, to redeem and restore. We want a better life, fuller existence, so we wave our palm branches and lay down our cloaks, but we really want the kingdom on our terms. We have an idea of what that kingdom should be and look like. And all the while, Jesus is riding in on a donkey, not a war-horse. We want to determine how the kingdom works and runs - what’s acceptable and not. And yet, that defies the very nature of kingship, doesn’t it? The citizens telling the king what to do?
I’ve heard God’s kingdom defined this way: God’s kingdom is anywhere Jesus is king. And if Jesus is king that means you and I aren’t. God’s kingdom is where He gets to design the plays, makes the rules, call the shots. And the minute we get that mixed up we’re like the crowd waving the palms who were anticipating the king but not expecting the kingdom.
See, it’s one thing to say Jesus is king, but it is an entirely different scenario to allow His kingdom to reign. God’s kingdom defies culture, confounds the power-hungry, rejects the proud. God’s kingdom doesn’t bow to muscle and it doesn’t surrendered to military might. God’s kingdom doesn’t shout and scream it’s way to the top. God’s kingdom doesn’t use people as stepping stones or doormats. It doesn’t promote injustice and it isn’t for sale. God’s kingdom comes in on a colt, not a war horse.
And this Palm Sunday narrative demands we make a choice. It’s all well and good to ask Jesus to come and be ruler of my heart until I am asked to forgive the one who has wounded my pride. It’s all well and good to ask Jesus to come and be ruler of my heart until I must deny my preferences for the sake of another. It’s all well and good to ask Jesus to come and be ruler of my heart until I am required to humble myself and do the necessary thing that no one else wants to do.
Jesus can be king, but what about when that kingdom comes by way of building relationship with a homeless man, making room for an unwanted guest, or granting grace to an overwhelmed mother whose child has disrupted my dinner, or my worship service.
We anticipate the kingship of Jesus, but we don’t expect His kingdom to mean that we have to die to ourselves over and over and over again. Did we realize God’s kingdom would really demand everything? Did we expect His kingdom to mean that we really serve one another - period. That we extend love before judgment to one another - period. That we consider others better than ourselves - period. When we wave the palm branches to proclaim Jesus as king do we do so truly expecting a kingdom that asks us to love God first and most - more than our comfort, than our family, than our safety and security, more than our own dreams?
And I think back over my life and I wonder at the times when I anticipated Jesus as king, but life in His kingdom wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t expect that the kingdom life would lead me into ministry and require that I wrestle with disappointing my Southern Baptist family who believed women weren’t to preach or lead. I never expected that this kingdom life would ask me to make good on Jesus' command to forgive...because when those words were said, they cut straight to my heart. When that lie was told, it robbed me of my reputation in some circles. When that rejection was doled out, it killed a piece of my self-confidence.
I knew Jesus was king, but I wasn’t expecting His kingdom to demand loving my neighbor always; even when it might be a neighbor who shots a BB gun into the glass of our back patio door. Too many times, in my heart my attitude has been this: “Jesus you can be king, but surely your kingdom doesn’t mean living in a city that overcharges for water that is unusable. Surely your kingdom doesn't mean living in a city whose police department is so depleted that there’s nothing they can do but take a report when my wedding ring is stolen after a break-in."
Jesus is the anticipated king, but His kingdom? Well, it’s unexpected. The ways of His kingdom? Well it’s not like the world. It’s not what we’re used to. It’s not how we are conditioned to operate. But Jesus shows up on a colt - declaring a peace that comes neither from physical might nor from prestige or power, but a peace that reigns from the inside out.
You see, on that Palm Sunday so long ago Jesus was praised as the anticipated king but He came with an unexpected kingdom. And that’s still true today isn’t it?
Who would have ever guessed that the greatest victory is achieved without force or weapons? Who knew that our truest liberation would come when we gave up the right to call the shots? Who would have imagined that our greatest freedom would be found in laying down our lives for the sake of the One who knows us best and loves us most?
It’s the kingdom of God ruled by Jesus the king. It’s different than this world. It flies in the face of what seems logical. But it’s the only kingdom whose King can really save us. It’s the only kingdom whose ways truly bring peace. Not because it conquers the outer conflict or subdues the enemy by force, but because it heals the heart.
When we wave our palms in worship, we are like the crowd so long ago who said, “Hosanna.” Hosanna is a word that means save now and it’s a word that is both a prayer and proclamation. "Hosanna. Jesus. save us, because we know you can. You are the king who is strong to save and we need to be rescued."
And when we wave the palms in worship we are also saying “Hosanna. Jesus, you have saved us, you are our king and we will live in Your kingdom. We will live as citizens of Your kingdom - even when it demands more than expected. Even if it requires more than we thought possible. Hosanna. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."
Jesus, King of Heaven, You have saved us. Now reign in us so your kingdom can come here in us.
Special thanks to chuckwarnock.com, which provided important information
and some helpful wording for this sermon.
and some helpful wording for this sermon.