Matthew 21: 1-11
Through Lent this year, we have been reading and praying through serious Gospel themes and noticing how closely they speak into our fast-changing Coronavirus-Era reality.
We have talked about “fear of the other” through the Samaritan Woman at the well.
We have talked about “doubt and opposition to the Gospel” in the story of the man born blind.
And we have talked about the challenging reality of death and of the cross, made known in the story of Lazarus.
Fear, Doubt, Death, and Resurrection: These are serious themes and ones that we normally—as a church—preach through at Lent; made all the more serious and real in this time when such things are displayed so prominently in the world around us.
Today, as we near the end of Lent, as we mark the last Sunday of Lent this morning, we seem to be given some relief:
Rather than inviting us into another deep and self-revealing dive into Fear, or Doubt, or Death, Jesus seems to invite us to simply celebrate:
Behold, the Son of Man coming on the donkey’s colt!
“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 prophecy has been completed, make a glad noise unto the Lord!
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
In today’s Gospel reading, as Jesus makes His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, as He rides forth on the foal of a donkey, as the people lay down their cloaks, it seems that the people of Jerusalem are finally receiving the salvation and the hero they have been waiting for.
Only, as we are reminded every Palm and Passion Sunday, things are not quite that simple.
As Jesus comes into the Jerusalem, as He receives glad “Hosannas!” as he is watched and welcomed and heralded, the long, dark shadow of the cross looms larger and darker than ever.
It is a celebration that Jesus comes forth to receive His Kingdom, to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, to be heralded as the Son of Man come back to the Holy City, and yet, for as joyful as this is, we cannot ignore what is about to happen,
We cannot ignore that every step brings the Son closer to the cross,
We cannot ignore the great cost that He is about to pay for us and our sins.
And this year, in particular, we cannot ignore something is off.
Normally, on Palm Sunday, our Young Christian Friends, the Children of our congregation, lead the Palm Sunday celebration by waving Palm Branches; just as the children of Jerusalem did in John’s version of the story.
Normally, there is a special Children’s Lesson on Palm Sunday. A lesson about celebrating and singing “glad Hosannas” to Jesus, encouraging the children to cheer and be joyful.
Normally, on Palm Sunday, there are glad hymns sung loud and strong by the choir and the whole congregation, raising our Hosannas to the rafters of the church.
“Normally” (a word I find myself saying more and more these days), we are all together on Palm Sunday… we are all celebrating, we are all celebrating the colt and the palms and the arrival of Jesus… shadow of the cross or no… we are all together.
That is not the case this year.
This year, sadly, the church is empty and we are in separation from each other.
In thinking about the Palm Sunday parade that day in Jerusalem… in thinking about the palm branches and the cloaks and the glad “Hosannas” it is perhaps helpful to think of what a relief and what a joy it must have been for the people of the city to receive the Good News of Jesus after not just some weeks of separation but rather years of occupation.
By the time Jesus arrived in the capital of Jerusalem, Judea had been officially under the control of Rome for 25 years.
For 25 years…
Roman soldiers walked Judean streets, Roman tax collectors took money from Judean people and businesses, and a Roman administrator named “Pontius Pilate” ruled a Judean population and jailed Judean rebels.
And by this time in history, even though there were still rebellions and skirmishes, most of Judea’s people had been demoralized into simply accepting their occupation.
For these people, these people who worried about the changing times, who worried about the oppressing force taking strength away from their community, it must have been such a joy and a relief to be able to welcome Jesus into the city that day.
That day of receiving Jesus into their midst.
That day of seeing the prophecy of Zechariah completed in the King who came to them humble, and mounted on a donkey.
That day when they had hope that God was about to put everything “back to normal”
Friends, it would be nice (and it would make my job much easier) if the story ended the way that these people wanted it to.
If Jesus had come simply come into the city and set things right
If He had thrown off Rome and saved Jerusalem from its captivity
If He had been exactly the kind of hero that the people hoped He would be.
This story would have a much simpler and nicer ending.
It would be like, in our own context of the Coronavirus pandemic, if after some weeks or months of isolation, everything would simply go back to normal.
If we thought God was coming into this broken situation around us and was going to put it all back to normal, we would celebrate just as the people celebrated on Palm Sunday we too would welcome Him by putting our cloaks down before Him. We too would wave Palm branches and sing for joy.
Only, we can not ignore the reality that in Scripture and in our situation God is not coming to put everything back to normal.
Knowing (as we do) the reality of the cross and its long shadow; knowing that Jesus must be crucified and resurrected in order to achieve our salvation; we may still welcome Jesus into our midst but we do so knowing that He is about to take on great cost for our sake.
The reality in our current situation, that is starting to become clearer and clearer each day around the world, is that God is not coming to simply put things back to normal.
The changes that have occurred in such a short amount of time; the disruption caused by this virus and the precautions to prevent it; the thousands upon thousands who have fallen ill (and the thousands who have died) even the simple fact of us not being together on Sunday mornings… none of this can be simply put back to the way it was.
God is not going to “come into the scene and set it all right again,” rather, as we know, God is already here:
Christ is with the ill, the dying, and their families; Christ is with the frontline workers; Christ is with all who call on Him in this time…
He is with all of us in this time, precisely because He did not come to set everything “back to normal”
On that day in Jerusalem, that day when the people put down their cloaks and welcomed Him into the city, the only one who understood what needed to take place at Easter was the man riding on the donkey.
Whereas the people around Him had their own ideas; ideas about throwing off Rome and restoring Jerusalem, only Jesus really knew what was going to happen.
How would the people have reacted differently if they knew? If they knew that Jesus had no intention of setting things back to normal, but instead, He was planning to be caught and arrested and sentenced to death for their sake?
In-fact we do know how the people reacted after finding out.
After Jesus was arrested without a fight in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was presented to the people of Jerusalem on Pilate’s balcony.
Given the chance to decide, given the opportunity to let Jesus go, the people called for his blood shouting “crucify him” until Pilate washed his hands of the decision.
It is a troubling reality, that some of the people who shouted with rage for Jesus to be crucified must have been the same people who celebrated with joy at His initial arrival in the city on Palm Sunday.
Such is the power and the fury of a fickle people who do not get what they want.
The people, the same people who both celebrated with Jesus at the parade and called for his death, were no more or less sinful than any other people.
Like us, these people had lives; they had desires; they had expectations.
Faced with 25 years of Roman occupation, they wanted God to send the Messiah to throw off their captivity, they wanted God to put everything back to normal.
What they got was not liberator but just a teacher and man who called for people to live more faithfully; to trust in God; to trust that God’s ways are not our ways; and God’s time is not our time.
As we, in our own time, wait for and call on God, what are we asking Him to do?
Are we calling on Him to answer us on our own terms?
To put things “back to normal” for the sake of our expectations?
As human beings, God sympathizes with us in our human desires, but like the people in Jerusalem, there is no guarantee He will answer us the way that we want.
On the night before Jesus was arrested, He taught them to pray in the words of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy Kingdom Come
They will be done.
The reality of the cross…
The beauty, and the pain, and the poetry of Jesus Christ’s salvation of humanity on the cross.
Is that God placed Himself in the lowest position possible, hung on a cross between two thieves, all for our sake.
For the sake of a humanity that wanted Jesus to take power into His own hand, for the sake of a humanity that wanted Jesus to swing a sword and rescue Judea from captivity, God instead placed himself on the cross in order to show us what it means that His will be done.
In our own time, God will continue to have His will done, God will continue to move us forward through history.
One day, hopefully not too long from now, we will talk about our “post-Corona” world and remark how even though it is not the same as the pre-Corona world, God is no less at work than He was before, during, or after.
As Christian people, as people who know the name of our Savior and the cost it took to gain that salvation, we can be comfortable knowing this because ours has always been a “post-Easter” world; a world characterized not by the trouble around us, or the disruption, or the change, but by the Saviour who went to the cross and the Salvation he won for us there.
Our Good News this morning is that even though we know God’s ways are not our ways, even though we know that God does not always meet our expectations, even though we know that God’s ways are more painful and more self-giving than we would have them be, we are still blessed to be able to call on the name of the Lord and to have Him answer us according to His will.
And that through the immeasurable gift of God’s Grace we can not only call on Him but know Him.
That if we ourselves were to see Him riding into Jerusalem upon the colt of a donkey, if we were to see the throng of people and hear the “Hosannas,” that even knowing the reality of the cross (and the reality that His ways are not our ways, nor his time our time) we would not hesitate to join in the parade…
Not because He is about to answer our prayers of restoration.
But because He is about to do something infinitely better.