[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
I once preached at a church in Germany. I delivered my sermon in English and it was translated for me. But the hardest part of the service came when, at the insistence of the host pastor, I helped lead the congregation in reading the Psalm responsively. I somehow got through the service and afterward, several of the German congregants asked me, since I spoke German so fluently, why I hadn’t given the sermon in German too. I had to explain that I’d spoken the Psalm phonetically and hadn’t really understood many of the words.
It’s possible to know the words we say without knowing what we’re saying. How often do we, on Sunday mornings recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer with little thought as to what we’re confessing or praying? More often than we might want to admit, I’ll bet.
The crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday said words that came from Psalm 118. “Hosanna [a word that means Save, please] Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
They were the right words to use in welcoming the King of kings. But they clearly didn’t really understand what it means for God to save us or to answer our prayers: A few days later, this crowd would turn on Jesus, along with the rest of the world, and cry for Him to be executed on a cross. In the end, Jesus wasn’t what the crowd was looking for. I wonder sometimes if Jesus--the real Jesus--is what you and I are looking for.
The crowd that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday saw Jesus as a means to their ends. They wanted Jesus to lead a rebellion against their Roman conquerors. They wanted some of the money that the extortionist tax collectors were constantly taking from them. They wanted Jesus to be their king, so long as that meant He took orders from them. But it’s doubtful, at that moment, that many of them wanted Jesus to go to a cross. After all, they would have reasoned, what good would Jesus’ dying do them?
Yet, Jesus’ reason for coming into the world had always been plain.
It had been clear to the wise men who came to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. One of their gifts had been myrrh, a resin used to anoint the dead.
And Jesus sought to make His reason for entering the world clear to His disciples. He told them that He was going to Jerusalem to be rejected by the world, killed on a cross, and then raised from the dead. And when Peter tried to correct Jesus on this point, Jesus told him that Peter’s ideas were from Satan, not from God.
Jesus, although He was sinless, had come into our world to take the punishment for sin we all deserve. He came to die. He came to be the Lord of all because He loves all people and wants to bring forgiveness to all people. And He will become the King of any who dare to repent for their sin and believe in Him as their Lord.
That’s good news. But it also can be hard to accept because it entails things we don't like: surrender, obedience, submission. It also means accepting that, just like everybody else, we're sinners in need of a Savior.
A few days after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowds noticed that He hadn’t led an armed rebellion. He hadn’t taken over the government. He hadn’t done their bidding. Instead, He spent His time throwing moneychangers out of the temple, talking about prayer, arguing with the religious authorities, telling stories (or parables) about the kingdom of heaven, talking about love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment, teaching of the need to be ready for Him to return after He’d died and risen, and, most strangely of all maybe, He prayed, sometimes for hours at a time. This wasn’t the king they'd been looking for. And so, by the Thursday after the first Palm Sunday, the crowd was crying for Jesus’ execution.
Jesus may not be the king we are looking for. But Jesus is the Savior we need. I’m convinced of that, first of all, because of the road Jesus took on Palm Sunday. It demonstrates that Jesus is committed to walking through the hardest places in this life with us.
As our Gospel lesson from Matthew begins, Jesus is walking on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. This is the same road, different direction, on which Jesus set His fictional parable of the Good Samaritan. It was a road on which people were often subjected to violence and robbery. Thugs hid in the rocks and crags of the road. Jesus walked that road. But, as you know, that wasn’t the hardest road Jesus traveled with us and for us.
The hardest road was Jesus’ entire life on this earth, when the Creator of the universe took the form of a servant, aiming all the while to die for us. That’s the point of some of Paul’s words in our second lesson today. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, saying that though Jesus was “in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!”
“I don’t understand all of this,” a woman whose husband had left her once told me, “but I sure wouldn’t want to go through it without God.” A king like the one the crowd wanted--and that we may sometimes want: a king who skated above us, untouched by our failings and our difficulties, a king who gave us all we wanted without reshaping our characters into being more loving and more human, couldn’t help us when we’re confused or lost or lonely or grieving. But Jesus can! Like that woman, we learn that, in Jesus, the God of all creation can reach down into our everyday lives, even when we go through tough times. He can do that because every experience we may have as human beings, He has experienced. And every sin you and I have ever committed, He bore in His own body on the cross.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus also proved that He was the Savior we need by Who He chose to rely on. When I was in high school, I played hooky to see a President deliver a speech down at the State House. He was surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service security, necessary to be sure. He also had Air Force One and his presidential limo and cars filled with assistants and the latest communication technology. Back on Air Force One, he had access to every comfort he could want. Wherever presidents go, they look like rulers of the world.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, He didn’t look like a ruler of the world. According to Matthew, Jesus rode a donkey, trailed by the colt of the donkey. In ancient times, the donkey was a symbol of humble domestic pursuits. Jesus had come into Jerusalem not with a sword, or a political program, or a retinue of public relations people, or a bevy of yes people. Jesus’ power didn’t and doesn’t depend on the dying stuff of this world. Jesus relied simply and completely on God the Father.
Every king, president, great athlete, and pop star, no matter how exalted dies. Even Elvis has left the building, folks! Only one king has ever defeated death. It was Jesus and there's only one reason for His victory over death. Even when He hung on the cross, the taunts of the fickle crowds ringing in His ear, the agonies of His wounds besetting Him, the horror of feeling abandoned by all haunting Him, Jesus depended only on God the Father. And here’s the point: Jesus’ resurrection is confirmation that surrender to God is the only path to new life.
Having committed Himself to walking through life’s hardest parts with us and having refused to depend on anything or anyone but the Father, Jesus rose from the dead. But more than that, Paul tells us in the second portion of our New Testament lesson from Philippians, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Pastor Joanna Adams says that sometime before World War One, “Germany's last kaiser, Wilhelm II” visited Jerusalem. “His entourage,” she writes, “was so grand that he had to have the Jaffe Gate in the old city widened so that his over-sized carriage could pass through. After the parade had ended, someone climbed up and attached a large sign to the gate. The sign read, ‘A better man than Wilhelm came through this city's gate. He rode on a donkey.’"
On the first Palm Sunday, the most that the crowds would say about Jesus was that He was a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. But those who paid heed to how He voluntarily walked our hardest roads with us and how He relied completely on God the Father, ignoring the acclaim of the crowd, could see that Jesus was much more than a prophet.
In one week, His resurrection would prove that His is the Name above every name.
When Jesus calls us to repent for sin, to put God higher than anything, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, He may not be the King we want. But when we remember His cross and empty tomb, we realize that, no matter what happens, Jesus is always the King we need.
He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the One Who reconciles us to God, the One Who erases the power of sin and death over our lives, the One Who makes us whole.
May our faith be more than words we say. By our dependence on Jesus, may it be seen too in the lives we lead. Amen