Sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm Sunday, Year A,
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 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!”
Parading Towards Significance
We lived abroad for a dozen years, two in Romania and ten in Croatia, where they do not play American football. So it had been a long time since I had seen a game when I went to watch at the high school when my son started attending there.
Not only had I not seen American football for a long time, I had not seen a high school game since I was in high school. I had forgotten about all the elaborate pomp and ceremony at the start. It was almost like a an elaborate religious ritual for the whole community. Of course the band played and the cheerleaders performed, but the climax was when the gladiators, or rather, football players stormed onto the field.
People made a human corridor for them, at the end of which was a huge paper banner with the team logo and school name. The players ran through the corridor and burst through the paper, and everyone cheered like mad.
Two events can radically change that happy memory. One is loosing the game. The other is losing the game, but winning the division championship. When you lose a game, it makes the memory of the big splash entry seem a bit pathetic. But if, by the end of the season, you win the championship, then even the games lost along the way seem different.
Today is Palm Sunday, and it feels like that to me. We remember and celebrate the parade day and the happy “Hosanna!” cheers today as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. But we know what is ahead; arrest, trial, and brutal crucifixion. What keeps the happy parade from feeling pathetic in the light of crucifixion is that we also know about Easter and resurrection. The story ends in triumph, not defeat.
The Other Parade
Historians tell us that there may well have been two parades that day in Jerusalem. Every year, the Roman governor, in this case Pontius Pilate, traveled from his coastal headquarters up to Jerusalem for major festivals. This was part of keeping control, of course. He came on his big horse with his soldiers and brought with him extra troops in case there was trouble.
Trouble was not at all unlikely. The festival was Passover; the celebration of Jewish independence from Pharaoh and the oppressive Egyptian empire. Now they were living under Caesar and the oppressive Roman empire, and many were sharpening swords and looking for an opportunity to get on with the revolution.
So Pilate and his big burly parade would have been clanking and stomping into Jerusalem from the west just about the same time Jesus was coming from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. The two parades may have almost mirrored each other.
Can you imagine a high school foot ball game which started with two grand entrances, coming from opposite ends of the field? Picture this: at one end you have the home team players in their big helmets and imposing shoulder pads bursting through the banner.
At the same time, at the other end, running and stumbling through the banner is a Ronald McDonlald—looking circus clown, complete with oversized shoes, orange hair and a red nose.
It would be really funny, unless you became aware that the clown was from the opposing team and he intended his entry to mock the real players. That could make everyone mad enough to turn the whole situation very ugly — even dangerous.
That is what was happening on the day that we call the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. The clown was Jesus. He was intentionally mocking Pilate’s imperial parade.
Everything about what he did that day was planned and arranged in advance. Matthew tells us that the donkey was pre-planned and the owner was ready to receive the request to use it.
Everything was set up as street theater, to mock Pilate’s parade, his prestige and his power. Instead of a big imposing stallion war horse, Jesus rode a donkey. In fact, a female donkey. Matthew gives us the detail that she was accompanied by her colt.
The mockery goes even deeper. Jesus was actually mocking not just the arrival parade of Pilate, but also, and more to the point, the Roman Triumphal parade. When a victorious Roman general returned from his conquests, they gave him a huge parade called a “triumph.”
If Jesus had married and had a son, by the time he was a 40 year old man, he might have witnessed the Roman general Titus receiving his triumphal parade as he returned to Rome after conquering the Jewish revolt, burning the temple to the ground and slaughtering over one million Jews (according to Josephus).
It was just this kind of militaristic domination that Jesus was mocking. He had the people prepared to wave palm branches as they had done several generations earlier as the Jews won independence from the Seleucids. But that was a military victory. Jesus was channeling Zechariah’s prophecy, riding his peace-donkey proclaiming a new empire: the empire of God.
The rules and standards are different in God’s empire. Humility, not arrogance is the virtue held in highest esteem. Service instead of exploitation is the path to greatness in God’s realm. The little people, the “unwashed masses,” the powerless, the poor and the unprotected were the central focus of God’s care and concern in the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. Where Jesus is king, the goal is peace-making and the means are non-violent.
In short, there is hope for all those out-gunned and out-maneuvered peasants waving those palm branches and shouting “Hosanna” – “God saves.” That hope has now been realized. That is why we too can join in the festal shouting.
God is still saving us today. God saves us from our hopelessness, because resurrections happen. God saves us from the tyranny of evil. He gives us a vision of new life, transformed by spiritual practices, empowered by his Spirit. He saves us from living in the ego-driven small self, and raises us up to newness with Christ.
Yes, suffering and death comes before resurrection and new life; the biblical pattern comes true for all of us. But we have hope in the midst of suffering that the last word to be spoken is God’s word of a hope-filled future.
Hope here in Gulf Shores
Our congregation here in Gulf Shores has gone through a period of suffering decline recently. Some have been tempted to loose hope. But let us open our eyes and see the hope that God has been preparing for us.
Because of the faithful stewardship and kind generosity of a recently deceased member, we have an amazing opportunity before us. Her bequest has enabled us to do something new and hopeful. Today we will install and commission our new Church Life Director. God has gifted and equipped Pam in unique ways for new ministries of care, compassion, enrichment and outreach which will bless many people.
She will need all of our help and support as we go forward in unity into this hopeful future that God has opened for us. Wish her well today at the reception, but also pray for her every day. When new opportunities and programs are presented, join in. Invite friends to participate with you. As someone here said, this is not the time to be pew-potatoes but to be active participants as much as possible.
Palm Sunday is the perfect day to celebrate the new things that God is doing among us. Let this day be a day of celebration and joy, and of renewed commitment. Let us conclude with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah,
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jer. 29:11)