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Palm/Passion Sunday Sermon: Who is Jesus?

The text I’m preaching from is Matthew chapter 21which was read in the processional liturgy.
            Jesus is coming into Jerusalem. Something new is in the air. This could really change everything. How many of us have experienced an event like that in our lives—whether it be a new job, graduating from school, getting married, having a child, retiring…the list goes on. I don’t know about you, but when there’s something exciting on the horizon in my life, I fantasize about it. I imagine just how it will be. I can’t wait for the occasion to take place.
            Let me give you an example. When Ray and I first got married, I thought when he retired; we’d just ride off into the sunset together and live happily ever after. That just sounded great. I couldn’t imagine anything much better than that.
            Those were my plans. But God had other ideas. Ray did retire in 2008. We rode off into the sunset but we only got as far as Gettysburg. And I started attending a seminary. And we’re off on an adventure together, but it’s different than the one I had in mind. There are times I wonder what in the world I’m doing at my age getting ready for another career. But I’m glad God is God and I am not.
            Just as we have our hopes, dreams, and ideas of what our future will look like, so did the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. They were under Roman occupation. They were taxed to death. They wanted to be delivered from their current state. There are all kinds of Old Testament prophecies about the coming messiah with which the Jewish people were familiar. He would be like a Davidic king. He would deliver his people. The warrior king to save them from their current fate was the most popular ideal of the messiah. Jesus did not fit that mold, at least not at the time he walked the earth.
            The disciples understood a bit more than the average Jews about Jesus as messiah. They saw him do things that others didn’t associate with the messiah—like healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving sins. Jesus’ followers struggled too--hoping he was the long awaited messiah who would establish the golden age of Israel. They still didn’t get it even after the resurrection.  They asked, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6 NRS).      
The followers of Jesus thought that his entry into Jerusalem was the beginning of the new kingdom. As usual Jesus turned their expectations upside down just as he does ours. How did rulers of that day typically make their entrance?  First of all, according to one scholar, these were “carefully choreographed displays of imperial power and greatness involving processions, crowds, hymns, welcome speeches by elites, and a cultic act” (Carter, Warren, Matthew’s Gospel: An Anti-Imperial/Imperial Reading, p. 8). All of these elements are in this scene, except for the elite scenes of welcome. Everything is there, but with a God-spin to it.
            Rather than coming as the great conqueror of all, He came as one who was humble, not overly “impressed by [his] sense of self-importance, gentle…considerate…unassuming” (BDAG). Rather than riding a warhorse, he rode a lowly donkey.  Rather than having the elite to welcome him, there were the common people. Rather than hymns of praise to the great imperial god-king, there were cries of a desperate people shouting, “Hosanna,” meaning, “Save us!” or “Help!” The Greek text indicates this shouting was done continually.
            Who is this Jesus? Over and over again Jesus continued to turn people’s expectations upside down as he’d done throughout the gospel of Matthew, throughout his earthly life, and throughout our lives. “Jesus is a rival king enacting God's [end time] purposes that will end Roman power” (Carter). We see this when Jesus quotes Zechariah regarding how Israel’s king would come, celebrating God’s victory over the nations. Jesus makes it all happen, just as the prophets proclaimed.
            The crowds were on board for the deliverance part, but they wanted it now, not in the future. The king is here. The kingdom is now. But some of it will not be experienced until Jesus returns at the end of the age. We sometimes refer to this as the now, but not yet aspect of the kingdom of God.
            Can you imagine how this procession into the city of Jerusalem, proclaiming Jesus as King, went over? “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”  He was not unknown. Who is this Jesus? Many in the crowd may have understood Jesus as a local prophet, but messiah? This turmoil was a “violent movement or disturbance, especially of universal dimension, [to] shake, agitate” (Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon).
Jerusalem was Jesus’ city of destiny. The Roman governor was there. The Jewish temple was there. The cross was there.
God’s presence was supposed to be there. The temple was not only a source of worship, but of commerce and of employment. Here was the home of the status quo. The average person was not only oppressed by the Romans, but by the temple leadership, the high priest, the chief priests and elders as well. This more elite Jewish leadership didn’t like the Romans, but they didn’t want things to change that much either. These Jewish leaders still maintained their power. Later in Matthew, Jesus demonstrates what he thinks of that power as he cleanses the temple. Jesus’ kingdom was not that of the business as usual status quo.
Jesus clearly demonstrated who he was on Palm Sunday. So, why did the crowd turn on him the way they did on Good Friday? It all boils down to their answer to this question, “Who is this?” Their answer was, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Yes that’s true, but is that enough?  Jesus is so much more. The crowds in Jerusalem don’t fully grasp who this Jesus is. They stop at “the prophet…from Nazareth.”  If he was just a mere man, even a good teacher, would that be enough to make them follow Jesus? The people of Jerusalem had to answer for themselves. We have to answer for ourselves as well.
Palm Sunday is but the beginning of Holy Week. We cannot stop with the crowds praising him. Those same people turn on him and agree to his crucifixion later that same week. Jesus rides into Jerusalem, challenging the Romans, challenging the Jewish elitists, “…challenging [the leaders of the day] over societal leadership, and condemn[ing] their world as temporary and facing imminent destruction under God’s judgment” (Carter). Will the powers that be allow Jesus to be God’s servant king in this city of power? We see their answer on Friday.
We are like Jerusalem in some ways. Jesus rides into our lives through the waters of baptism. He desires to lead and guide us as the good shepherd. He nourishes us with his own body and blood. He gives us the Holy Spirit to work through us, to be his people glorifying him. Who is this Jesus to us? If we stop short of allowing him to be king of our lives, Lord of our hearts, our master and savior, then we really don’t know who he is any more than the crowds did.
Who is this Jesus? Our answer determines whether we’re one of the fickle crowd who hails him one day and crucifies him another or if we are disciples who follow him to the cross. This doesn’t mean we won’t fall, that we won’t have our own times of fickleness. After all, the disciples will fall asleep as Jesus prays in Gethsemane. Peter will deny Jesus. We will stumble and fall and fail, but can rise up again in Jesus’ power to serve him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Pr. Dave Westphal of Wheeling offers these thoughts about Palm Sunday:
Who is Jesus?  The tone of that question is colored by our expectation of the answer.

Who is Jesus?  He is an itinerant, Jewish, preacher from Nazareth, who was executed by the Romans for treason.

Who is Jesus?  He is the second person of the Trinity.

Who is Jesus?  He is a great prophet who healed the sick and raised the dead.

Who is Jesus?  Some said that he was a false prophet who claimed to be the Messiah and perverted the teachings of Moses.

Who is Jesus?  He is our Lord and Savior, the One who died on the cross for our salvation.

Who is Jesus?

During Holy Week, more than at any other time in the Church year, we look closely at Jesus.  As we cheer with the crowds on Palm Sunday, we do so with full awareness that we will join the crowd that cries for his death only a few days later.  This reality is bearable only because we know that, however we perceive him, Jesus loves us, forgives us and welcomes us into his waiting arms.

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