Complementary Text: Psalm 118:26-29
Preaching Text: Matthew 21:1-13
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
It wasn’t the first time that news about Jesus threw the city of Jerusalem into an uproar. Some thirty years before his arrival in the midst of a loud and enthusiastic crowd, a smaller group of visitors had entered the city and asked to speak with Herod, the puppet king who had been propped up by the Roman government. Those travelers from the east had caused no small measure of distress when they put a question to Herod: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage!” If Herod had succeeded at eliminating Jesus when he unleashed his murderous rampage against the children of Israel, the triumphant entry to Jerusalem that we remember today would never have taken place.
Remembering the story of Jesus’ birth makes the story of his arrival in Jerusalem in today’s reading so remarkable. Herod and the powers-that-be had been seeking to demean, derail, and destroy Jesus throughout his entire life, and now he had come to enter the holy city, surrounded by throngs of supporters whose jubilant cries had put the people on edge. In this case – just as it had been at his birth – his identity was unknown to those who were so uneasy, and so questions spread like wildfire across Jerusalem: Who was this man, and what exactly was he doing here?
The answer to that first question was quickly supplied by the crowds that flowed into the narrow streets: This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee. (Matthew 21:11) The second question, however, was more difficult to answer. Though he was called a prophet by the Galilean throng, those who lived in Jerusalem would likely have suspected that there was more to the story. He arrived mounted on a donkey, and those who surrounded him were casting palm branches and their own cloaks down before him to welcome him. They showered him with shouts of praise
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
(Matthew 21:9; cf. Psalm 118:26)
Clearly, this was no ordinary arrival; this was a king’s entrance, received with joy by the downtrodden and marginalized, but with distress by those in authority in Jerusalem. None of this was an accident. It appears that Jesus had made arrangements to receive the donkey and colt long before they arrived in Bethphage. He knew the words of the prophets, later quoted by Matthew (21:5):
Tell Daughter Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble and mounted on the donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey!
(Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 62:11)
He understood that the crowds that followed him would recognize the symbolism and respond accordingly. This was a deliberate message, and it was rightly perceived as a threat by the authorities – though not for the right reason, for Jesus did not come to conquer, but to announce an end to violence, as foretold by the prophets:
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9:10, NRSV)
As if his triumphant entry into the city wasn’t enough, Jesus then went straight to the center of religious power in Jerusalem: the Temple Mount. In the outer courts, he found moneychangers, merchants, and visitors to the temple engaged in the business of buying and selling what was needed to perform the sacrifices prescribed by the Law. It’s important to note that there was nothing objectionable about the activity itself. Rightly practiced, the sacrificial system was an earnest expression of trust in and obedience to God’s Torah, and the moneychangers performed a valuable service by allowing people to trade the Roman coins used in everyday business for the currency of the Temple economy. Since those Roman coins bore the image of the emperor – seen by faithful Jews as an idolatrous image – they had no place in the Temple. What Jesus seemed to object to was the location of all this activity; it had encroached on the sacred Temple complex, probably relatively recently, and Jesus was having no part of it.
My house will be called a house of prayer,
but you have made it a hideout for bandits!
(Matthew 21:13; cf. Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11)
By upsetting the Temple economy, Jesus publicly and loudly claimed the role that had been given to him by the Galilean crowds: he was truly a prophet, calling the authorities to account for leading the people astray and – in his view – profaning the worship of God. Once again, his actions were perceived as a threat to the authorities, and that they used it as justification for their plans to remove Jesus from the picture for good.
As we begin Holy Week, it’s perhaps appropriate for us to ask the question that was on the lips of the citizens of Jerusalem on that fateful day: Who is this? Who is this man who preached powerfully about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and showed forth that kingdom by his acts of healing throughout Galilee? Who is this man whose interpretation of the law was at once unbelievably stringent and incredibly grace-filled? Who is this man who evaded death as a child, only to openly court it at the height of his power and influence? Who is this man who arrived in the Holy City, not as a conquering king, but as a messenger of peace, even as he announced the end of business as usual? For those of us who bear the name of Christ, he is all that and more. This week, we walk with our Lord the path of suffering and death, and we ponder the life that he lived and gave up for our sake and for the sake of the world. On Thursday night, we will gather once again to call to mind the powerful gift that he left behind for his followers: the promise of his presence among us in bread and wine, broken and poured out for the forgiveness of sin. On Friday night we’ll reflect on the mocking chants that unwittingly revealed the truth about Jesus, and give thanks for the love of God that is stronger than our sin, stronger than evil, even stronger than death. But today we celebrate the power and majesty of our Lord as he arrived in Jerusalem in glory, mindful that the events that followed this joyous day – despite their sorrow and pain – served to make his victory more complete. I invite you all to be a part of the journey, and to find your faith renewed as we remember the passion of our Lord this Holy Week. Amen