Matthew 21:1-11 – Who is this?

Coming to Jerusalem for Passover must have been a lot like coming to Winfield for Mule Day – people shoulder-to-shoulder, milling around, stopping to see what people were selling, running into old friends. You can smell the food being prepared. There is noise and music and a general commotion.

Amid all that, coming up the street into town – in Jerusalem, not Winfield – is a man riding on a donkey (maybe it is Winfield? Jesus on a donkey would fit right in on Mule Day). Not an unusual sight. What is strange is that people are leading the procession, surrounding him, and following him. They’re spreading their cloaks in front – letting a donkey step on their clothes! They are laying palm branches down on top of all that. They’re shouting something that is hard to hear with everything else that is going on:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 

Another thing to be noted – it is a motley crew in procession. Women, children, tax collectors, and prostitutes. In fact, the whole thing looks a little “unclean;” no way that bunch is getting in the Temple!

If you’re like some people, after looking for a second, you might walk away thinking, “Isn’t there enough fuss at Passover?” But according to Matthew, “the whole city was stirred up.” If we were there, we might be stirred to ask, “Who is this?”

Who is this?

What’s the big deal? This is Jesus, you know, that prophet we’ve heard so much about lately. We all love his teachings.  He’s so interesting and wise. It’s like he is the second coming of Isaiah or Elijah! He’s even doing just what Zechariah said – riding on a donkey.

If we are honest, many of us would join the parade for just that reason. Jesus, to us, is a great teacher. He says things that comfort us, move us, challenge us. He explains concepts and ideas in a way that we can all understand. If he were to write a book, we would buy it. We might even tell our friends about it.

If we were there, in Jerusalem that day, we might join the parade just to be close to that kind of celebrity. “Hey! I’ve heard of that guy! Wasn’t he on ‘Good Morning America’ last week? I saw his book at Barnes and Noble!”

We join the parade because our friends have. We join the parade because our friends told us about him. We jump on the “Jesus Bandwagon” because it’s the popular choice.

Who is this?

No. You don’t understand. He is the Prophet! The One We’ve Been Waiting For! The Messiah! Jesus is our King!

Well, he better be careful. There are some powerful people who won’t appreciate a “King” who challenges the status quo. They like power and they aren’t giving it up! Besides, he doesn’t look like any king I’ve ever seen.

Contrast Jesus’ visit with the visit of another King. In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany came to Jerusalem. His entourage was so large, and his carriage so grand, that he had to have the gate into the city widened so he could pass.  After his parade was through, someone put a sign over the gate, “A better man than Wilhelm came through this gate. He rode a donkey.”

Who is this?

From our vantage point, we know the end of the story. We know that this Jesus, so honored and praised on Palm Sunday ends up vilified and ridiculed and crucified within a week. The voices that praised him on Sunday, condemned him on Friday.

We know that his greatness lies not in his intelligence. His fame didn’t come from his teachings, though they have lasted. Jesus might have been praised because they thought he was going to make Israel great again. But, those Palm Sunday praisers were wrong. They praised Jesus for the wrong reasons.

Jesus had a different plan. His plan was to serve his Father’s will. The Apostle Paul puts it this way:

Philippians 2:4-8 

Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus knew that he must follow God’s will, teach and proclaim his Father’s great love for his people. Jesus knew that doing so would not sit well with those in power. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, Jesus’ death happened “because of his fidelity to the deepest truth he knew, expressed in his message and behavior, which showed all twisted relationships to be incompatible with God’s shalom.”

From our vantage point, we see that what made Jesus worthy of praise was not that he was going to conquer the evil regime of Caesar. What made him praise-worthy was not his wisdom. What made Jesus great was his ability to look trouble  – even death –  in the face and stay true to God’s plan.

Jesus’ death was an act of violence perpetrated by human beings lost in sin and threatened by Jesus’ message. Jesus’ message was God’s message – that all our manipulative, power-driven relationships and motives are sinful and not compatible with God’s Kingdom of peace and well-being. That kind of sin wouldn’t last when God established his kingdom.

What made Jesus great was his willingness to suffer the consequences of human evil – all so that we would know God’s love. Jesus was a suffering servant of God’s ultimate plan for the world – shalom. Peace and well-being for all.

And, as Barbara Lundblad says. In her sermon on this passage, “only a suffering God can help us.”

Who is this?

The final answer, one that we can only know from our Post-Resurrection position, is that Jesus is a Savior. He is a Savior by being our companion, by being a full participant in human life. He never stood at a distance. He entered our life fully, as “Emmanuel,” God made flesh. How else would we receive salvation?

Jesus could not save us by being a spectator. He could only save us by being one of us, by being God while being one of us. Only a suffering God can save us.

Who is this? A king, though not the kind we might want.

Who is this? A prophet with a message that is hard to bear – so hard we choose to kill the messenger.

Who is this? He is Jesus, our companion forever, despite all consequences, an everlasting participant in human life.

Who is this? He is our Savior.

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