Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 5, 2020
Matthew 21:1-11 Commentary
Liturgy of the Palms
“Who is this?” Few questions are more important than this one Matthew reports the “whole city” of Jerusalem asks on the first Palm Sunday. Yet the answer to that question is even more important. The Holy Spirit inspires Matthew to answer, “This is Jesus.” But just who is this Jesus?
Matthew provides a variety of answers to this question throughout his gospel. Jesus is, he tells us already in its first verse, “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He is, in other words, a true son of Israel.
Who is this Jesus? When the angel of the Lord tells Joseph that his fiancé is carrying a son, he tells him to name him “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Matthew almost immediately tells us that Jesus is a Savior.
Who is this Jesus? Matthew 4:23 reports that Jesus “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” Jesus is, in other words, a teacher, preacher and healer.
Who is this Jesus? My colleague John Timmer once suggested, “Matthew presents Jesus first and foremost as the teacher of the church.” He noted that Matthew does this by structuring his entire gospel around five major teachings of Jesus.
In Matthew 16 Jesus actually asks who people think he is. When his disciples report that people offer all sorts of wrong answers, Jesus turns to them and asks them, “But … who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter, always quick with a reply, answers. Who, then, is this Jesus? He is the Messiah.
The question of Jesus’ identity comes up again in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Palms’ Epistolary Lesson. After all, in verse 10 Matthew reports that “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this’?”
Matthew’s account of the first Palm Sunday offers answers to that question. Lawrence Farris notes that geography has great symbolic value to Matthew. As a result, when Matthew reports that Jesus begins his trip to Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, it’s good to remember that Jewish expectations of the Messiah were strongly linked to that Mount. So who is this Jesus? Matthew again at least hints that he’s Israel’s Messiah.
Who is this Jesus? He’s the One, as God’s Son, to whom the world’s donkeys belong. So from that Mount of Olives Jesus can send disciples to arrange for two of those donkeys that he “needs” for his trip into Jerusalem.
Who is this Jesus? He’s a fulfillment of prophecy. After all, in verses 4-5 Matthew notes that his ride into Jerusalem on a donkey fulfills Zechariah 9:9’s: “your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt . . .” Jesus is the One to whom the prophets point.
Some who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover join the parade as Jesus descends from the Mount of Olives. Though Jesus rides a donkey rather than a war-horse, the crowd still senses the royal symbolism of his ride. So that crowd carpets his path with both their cloaks and branches they’ve cut from trees.
As Jesus nears Jerusalem, the pilgrims who engulf him starts chanting phrases they borrow from Psalm 118. Who is this Jesus? The crowds answer, “the Son of David,” reminding us that Jesus is actually the king of Jerusalem that he now enters. In fact, Craig Keener suggests that “Hosanna to the Son of David” essentially means, “God save the king!”
On this last Sunday in Lent, however, those who proclaim and hear Matthew 21 may be especially interested in Jerusalem’s turmoil that Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry creates. After all, in verse 10 Matthew reports that “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred . . .”
Stirred and shaken Jerusalem wants to know, “Who is this?” Farris notes that its ignorance stands in contrast with the Passover pilgrims’ response to Jesus. At least the crowds understand that Jesus is at least a “prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
So the first Palm Sunday’s crowd understands that Jesus is more than just a miracle-worker, a successful doctor or a teacher who knows the Bible backward and forward. Who is this Jesus? He is a speaker of God’s truth.
So while there seems to have been an acute shortage of prophets in Israel during Jesus’ day, the crowds accompanying Jesus into Jerusalem understand that he’s a prophet. They will, however, learn during the coming week that this Jesus is more than just a prophet . . . or even a king.
In the meantime, however, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem causes a huge commotion. In fact, scholars note that the word we translate as “stirred” in verse 10 is really too mild. It’s a word that some translate as “shook,” with the kind of force produced by an earthquake.
God’s adopted sons and daughters know the earth-shaking importance of what happens on the first Palm Sunday. However, we also know that this is only the first of the seismic shocks that will rumble through Jerusalem during the coming week. Just as Jesus’ birth shook King Herod and all of Jerusalem, so his death and resurrection will shake Jerusalem and far beyond.
Rome held the Jews fully as captive as the Egyptians ever did. So the people who shouted, “God save the King!” to Jesus were looking for a royal liberator. In the coming week, Jesus will, in fact, prove to be the Jews’ liberator.
However, he won’t be the kind of deliverer some are looking for. Perhaps partly as a result, in less than a week shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” will be drowned out by “Crucify him.” Cries of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” will covered by “Let his blood be on us and our children.”
Good Friday’s shouts may be loudest precisely because so few understand the answer to this question, “Who is this Jesus?” That’s why this question is so pivotal for Matthew 21’s proclaimers and hearers as well. After all, how we answer this question, “Who is this Jesus?” helps shape whether Jesus disappoints or comforts, frustrates or encourages us.
Those who answer, “Who is this Jesus?” by identifying him as some kind of political hero will be disappointed. While his rule has political dimensions, Jesus did not come simply to fix political problems. While Jesus is the King of kings, some of his followers endure unjust, tyrannical governments that sometimes viciously persecute them.
People who answer, “Who is this Jesus?” with “He’s a kind of handyman who fixes all of our problems” will also be disappointed. While Jesus rule does have relational dimensions, people who assume that Jesus came to fix marriages, straighten out children or give many friends will be disappointed. While Jesus’ rule has economic dimensions, he didn’t mainly come to provide economic comfort, guarantee good pensions or create good jobs.
Those who answer, “Who is this Jesus?” with a “He heals us from all our diseases – like COVID-19” may also be disappointed. All healing does come from God. But God doesn’t yet heal everyone who gets sick. While Jesus is the Great Physician, some diseases remain among the enemies that God has not yet fully defeated.
This Jesus came, just as the angel of the Lord told Joseph just before he was born, to “save his people from their sins.” So who is this Jesus? He’s the one who accepted in body and soul God’s full fury with the sins of the whole human race. Who is this Jesus? He’s the one who with his own precious blood bought us, body and soul, to be his very own.
Who is this Jesus? He’s the one whom the Father sent to completely free and make us right with God. Who is this Jesus? He’s the one who has freed his followers from sin and the control of the devil. Who is this Jesus? He’s the one who has delivered us from the anguish and torment of hell itself.
Of course, this Jesus is far, far more. On this Palm Sunday, however, we especially want to remember that “this Jesus” is our Savior. Who, then, is this Jesus? He’s the One who came to live, die and rise again from the dead for our sins.
However, this Jesus also calls his adopted brothers and sisters to receive that salvation with our faith. So God’s dearly beloved children answer the question, “Who is this Jesus?” by professing, “He’s my Savior,” “He’s our Savior.”
Of course, such a profession itself doesn’t save anyone. However, those who answer the question “Who is this Jesus?” by professing that he’s our Savior show that we’ve received God’s amazing grace that does save us with our faith.
In his compelling book, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Racism in Europe, John Land tells of a prayer students offered in Italian schools in Tunisia near the beginning of World War II. It eventually spread, reports Land, to the Italian peninsula as well.
“I believe in the High Duce – maker of the Black Shirts,” the students professed. “And in Jesus Christ his only protector. Our Savior was conceived by a good teacher and an industrious blacksmith … He came down to Rome …”
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