Who Is This?
Grace United Methodist Church
April 17, 2011
Matthew 21: 1-11 (NIV)
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosannain the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
So, it’s not something we see terribly often in the South, particularly around Soddy Daisy, but every now and then we will catch a glimpse of a limousine driving by on the freeway, or pulled up to the expensive hotels downtown. Usually, it’s around prom time, but if you’re like me, it nevertheless makes you wonder who’s riding inside. Could it be a famous actress? Or maybe a rich banker? Indeed, when a limo crosses into our line of vision, most of us certainly wonder, “Who is that?”
And that is precisely what happens as Jesus enters Jerusalem in the closing days of his journey. Except the people who see Jesus don’t ask, “Who is this?” because he’s in a limousine. He’s not even riding on a white stallion like a conquering king. No, Jesus is on a donkey. Now, that’s nothing special in and of itself, it’s kind of like driving your Chevy around town. But what makes people take note of Jesus is the crowd that’s following him into the city.
So here comes Jesus entering Jerusalem, and people can’t help but take notice because he’s surrounded by huge crowds that are singing, and waving palms, and throwing their cloaks down on the ground before him. Naturally, the people observing this great parade ask, “Who is this?” And the crowds around Jesus have an answer to their question. “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” But the way these people are treating Jesus seems to indicate that he is so much more than a prophet, does it not? I mean, the last time a prophet was around, it was John the Baptist, and he was way out in the wilderness, and people weren’t throwing him lavish parades, were they?
No, Jesus is definitely getting the royal treatment here. There is a famous story of Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was one of the great explorers during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England. On one occasion, Raleigh was with the queen when she walked through London, and they came to a place where rainwater had made the ground very muddy and dirty. Raleigh quickly took off his coat and placed it on the ground so the queen could walk over without getting mud on her feet.
Now this tale may or may not be true. Yet the story of Raleigh taking off his coat for the queen has become famous, probably because it’s not the sort of thing that happens every day. It’s a very special gesture, especially if (as was probably the case for Raleigh) the cloak placed down on the muddy ground is the only one you’ve got. Such an action says, quite clearly, that you are celebrating and valuing this person about as highly as you can. It seems to imply that, if need be, you would be willing to give them anything else you had as well.
Most of the crowds around Jesus that day probably didn’t have a second cloak, but they spread theirs on the road anyway. As they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Festival, they might have remembered the old scriptural stories like that in 2 Kings 9, when one of Israel’s famous kings was declared king in defiance of an existing one, his followers spread their cloaks under his feet as a sign of loyalty. These crowds around Jesus were determined to make a statement about what they thought was going on.
So Jesus is getting the royal treatment! “Who is this?” the baffled people of Jerusalem ask. They clearly discern that this is not a king they know, and yet he is being treated as one. Not only are the people throwing their cloaks down before Jesus, they are waving palm branches and singing “royal” hymns or chants, welcoming Jesus as the “Son of David.” As the crowds parade into Jerusalem with Jesus, it is as if they are saying, “Here is the king we want, this is our king!”
But Jesus knows, and Matthew has told us, that nothing is that simple. We know that Jesus has come to Jerusalem not to be enthroned, like David or Herod, but to be killed. And the meaning Jesus attaches to this so-called “triumphal entry” is quite different from the meaning the crowds are wanting to see in it. And that is where this story becomes significant for us.
There is a strain of history that reports that on the same day Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the great praises of the multitudes, Pontius Pilate entered on a great white stallion. But when the Roman governor went through the city gates on that day with only some foot soldiers following him, he was not surrounded by a praising crowd. He was basically ignored, or perhaps even jeered at. The people then, as now, need more than just an earthly king. And though on that particular day of Jesus’ triumphal entry they treated Jesus like such a king, they probably did it because they recognized in Jesus something greater than that, something greater than a longing for power and prestige.
Whereas royalty come determined to rule, Jesus came determined to serve. Whereas monarchs spend time building their ego with the trappings of office, Jesus came in humility. Whereas royalty come on the back of a mighty stallion or in the luxury of a private jet, the Bible tells us this king came on the back of a donkey colt. Not a horse. A horse stands for war. Now, that may have been what the people wanted; a king to set them free, a leader to help them throw off the yoke of Rome. But this king came on a donkey, a symbol of meekness, peace, and humility. And while most kings set themselves up to rule, Jesus came facing the cross.
The people wanted a prophet, but this prophet was going to tell them that their beloved city was under God’s imminent judgment. They wanted a Messiah, but this one was going to be enthroned on a pagan cross. They wanted to be rescued from evil and oppression, but Jesus was going to rescue them from evil in its fullest depths, not just the surface evil of Roman occupation and exploitation by the rich. Precisely because Jesus was there as the Savior, he was also going to be something wholly different from what the people expected him to be.
When the crowds cry “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “This is the Prophet,” they say the right words, but they still miss the point. They have all the notes and none of the music. They have the theology, but they still end up rejecting Jesus and calling for his death! Knowing the truth is not the same thing as doing the truth. Everybody loves a parade. Everybody loves to cheer. But Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesus came with a choice. No one can be neutral. We can stand and wave, join the crowds that cheered for Jesus on that day, and watch him pass by. Or we can follow him and stand with him at the Cross. It’s easy to shout, but it’s harder to serve.
So the question for us today is this one; “Who is this Jesus for us?” Is he simply a conquering king who sweeps in to defeat whatever distresses us in the moment, or do we follow a different sort of king? Is Jesus our Savior, worthy of our complete praise and devotion, or is it easier to ignore him when he comes marching into our lives? The path that lies before Jesus as he enters Jerusalem is a dangerous one. He is not headed to the luxury of a grand castle. But if he truly is our King, we must follow him, even down the troubled road that lies ahead. And following Jesus as our King may mean missing out on the earthly pleasures, marching past this world’s offers of riches and rewards. It will lead us to service. Following Jesus will require our love and devotion; it will demand our life and our time. We will have to make sacrifices. For Jesus was on his way to the cross. Jesus was on his way to suffering and even death. But he was also on his way to his Father’s throne. And when we follow Jesus our King and give him our devotion, we march with Jesus to the Father’s leading.
There is a story from the days of the Civil War about a woman who sat crying on a park bench outside the White House. Her husband had died on the battlefield, and when her son heard the horrible news, he left his post on the battlefield to comfort and support his mom. But when he got home, he was arrested for desertion and was now going to be shot by a firing squad. The woman had come to the White House to see President Lincoln in hopes that he might intervene. But, to her dismay, she had been turned away at the gate. “The President was too busy to see her,” she had been told. So, she sat on the park bench off to the side, crying.
After a while, a young boy walked up to her and asked her why she was crying. She told the boy her story and ended by saying that all she wanted to do was to see the President, because she knew that he was a fair man and her son would be pardoned. To her great surprise, the little boy asked her to follow him. As they approached the front gate, the little boy said to the soldier that it was alright for them to enter. “She’s with me,” he said.
To her amazement, they stepped aside and together they made their way into the White House past generals and cabinet officers. Finally, the little boy pushed inside a great room, and running, he jumped on the President’s lap. “Daddy,” he said. “Here’s a lady who needs to see you. She needs your help.” The little boy who had stopped to talk with the woman was Tad Lincoln and upon hearing the woman’s story, President Lincoln issued a Presidential pardon and the woman’s son was spared.
Like that story from the Civil War, God’s Son has come to speak to us. He is offering to lead us into the Father’s presence. Palm Sunday is a great time to become a follower of Jesus Christ. What the people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday didn’t realize was the God was offering them the opportunity to do something more than cheer. God was inviting them to join God in doing something great!
Who is this? This is Jesus the Prophet, the King. This is Jesus, our Savior. Let’s follow him!