Palm Sunday Sermon planned for Sunday, April 13th, 2014.
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
Although first impressions don't always get you a very good picture of the truth; they do tell you something; and quite often, they tell you something important. This morning, in our reading from Matthew's gospel, we hear about the way Jesus chose to make his first impression to the citizens of Jerusalem. Sure, many people had seen him already, many had heard about him. But there's something about Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem that strikes me as a first encounter - this is Jesus' real first presentation of who he is and what he's about. Of course, for the rest of us, and for his disciples, Jesus is no stranger - we've been following along the story for years; and now during Lent, in a focused way once again.
How does the first impression in our story this morning line-up with what we already know about Jesus? How does his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey line up with who he is and the kind of person he's already shown himself to be in previous stories? Since December we've been studying the life of Jesus and his encounters with all kinds of people. In these encounters, Jesus offers himself, he offers grace, new life, transformation. With this journey into Jerusalem, with David's Son entering David's City, we expect transformation and hope; that's what the people expect when they shout their Hosannas. Were they disappointed? Towards the end of the procession, we hear that the crowds were in turmoil. Did they not like what they saw? How many of these crowds, cheering on Sunday, were there on Friday, shouting "Crucify Him!"? Did his first impression not satisfy?
For those of us privileged to read about this from the bible, whenever we want, we can see the story developing in a masterful way. The author of Matthew's gospel does a good job preparing us for this kind of King, for Jesus riding on a donkey. After all, for us, the real first impression is already made in Bethlehem - a lowly birth for a King. Likewise, the immediate chapters preceding our story all tell about the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. That it's not the usual kind of Kingdom that most people come to expect when they think of power and victory.
Two chapters before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, we read about a group of children that were being brought to Jesus so that he could lay hands on them and pray for them. I guess these parents thought it appropriate that children should hear from Jesus and be blessed by him - not just the adults. The disciples, on the other hand, didn't agree. 19:13 says that the disciples spoke sternly to these parents who brought children to Jesus. But Jesus would have none of it. "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." The kingdom of heaven belongs to children - let. that. sink. in. What is it about children? About their absolute need and dependence? About their simple trust? What is it about children that makes them role-model citizens of God's Kingdom? And yet, the disciples spoke sternly to their parents for thinking that Jesus would want anything to do with children.
This kind of poor attitude & behavior, on the part of disciples, is something we still see and hear about today, even in our church. Even to this day there are a few disciples who feel authorized to scold children and the parents who bring them to worship Jesus. But Jesus interjects: let them come and don't stop them! Don't discourage them! The Kingdom of heaven belongs to children - the weak, the lowly, the needy. The donkey ride into town isn't all that surprising, is it? Not for a king who loves children, in all their wild and chaotic exuberance.
Then, in his discussion with a man about entering the Kingdom, Jesus told his disciples that in the Kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last. Karen and I saw plenty of donkeys on our trip to Ethiopia. One of my favourite memories is when we saw a donkey being pulled by a rope with three men yanking on it, and two men pushing the donkey's rear end. The donkey did not move. To ride a donkey is to know what it means to come in last place. It's not the ride you choose if you want to be in the front of the line. It's not the animal you choose if you want to present yourself as strong and victorious. They have warhorses for that kind of PR message. The donkey is trustworthy, but stubborn; it has immense endurance, it keeps going when things are difficult. It's not about arriving first - its about faithfulness along the way. The first shall be last, and those and the end - those who kept the faith, those who endured - they shall be the first.
Next, in chapter 20:1-16, Jesus tells the parable of the workers. Three groups of workers were hired to work a vineyard, but each group at a different time of the day, with the last group only hired for a short bit of time to help finish off the day. At the end, the landowner paid all the three groups the same wage. Of course, those who worked the longest for the same pay as the newcomers complained. But the landowner insisted that it was his right to pay the employees whatever he desired. It's a parable about grace - about us doing nothing to deserve the grace we're given. The amount of hours on your clock, as a disciple, doesn't correspond to the level of grace you're given. Again, Jesus repeats, the last will be first and the first will be last. The Kingdom of God is not like working at Friesens, or most other places of employment, where every 10mins or 15mins is accounted for on a timecard. The newcomer to grace, and the veteran, receive the same plate-full. It's grace, pure undeserved grace, from top to bottom. You can't earn it. You can't save it up, hoard it, or set parameters around who deserves it. You got your share of it - be thankful! And be thankful when others receive it, no matter how their life compares to yours - in fact, quit comparing at all and just be thankful for the grace you've received!
The Church belongs just as much to the 8yr old who proclaims her faith & trust in the waters of baptism as it does to the 80yr old founding members. The Church is God's gift to us - a community where we belong the minute we come to terms with the Truth that God has claimed us in Jesus Christ! If you know that God has claimed you in Jesus, then you're paycheque at the end of the day is the same as your Pastor's, the same as your Deacons - the paycheques all the same - Grace! Grace! Oceans of Grace! This is the kind of Kingdom Jesus announced - it's not about earning favour; it is about trusting God's love and power for the long haul. Not a horse that gets the job done quick, because we're worried about the hourly rate. Rather, Jesus comes on a donkey, where you put the clock aside, you don't worry about the time, and focus on trusting and faithfulness for the long haul.
Karen and I saw countless donkeys just wandering the countryside - and then we found out that these animals weren't lost. They were faithfully returning to their homes, without anyone there to guide them back. For many miles, they would slowly make their way back home so they could serve their owners once again the next day. It wasn't about speedy efficiency, but about trustworthiness and faithfulness for the long haul.
Before journeying on to Jerusalem, Jesus warned his disciples that we was going to be betrayed and killed, but that he would be raised from the dead. But his warning fell on deaf ears. His teachings about the Kingdom should have given them a clue, that his message would not be received in Jerusalem. The people wanted a King who would overthrow the Romans. They didn't want "the last will be first" - they wanted "the first will be first". His disciples should have been able to see it coming; but they were like us. No matter what Jesus actually said, we find ways of ignoring it and painting Jesus into our own image - making him support all of our own ideas and ideologies. We pick the teachings we like. We somehow skirt-around the ones that trouble us. The ones that don't fit into our views of who God is, of how things should go.
After Jesus warned the disciples, James and John's mother, the wife of Zebedee, came to Jesus and asked a favour. She wanted her sons to occupy the privileged seats in his kingdom - the right and the left seat. She wanted them to be captains in Jesus' army. Jesus' response to her request has become one of my favourite teachings of Jesus. In response to her request, and the other disciples' frustration, Jesus says: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mat 20:25-28 NRS)
This passage is central to understanding how God's Kingdom works - of how God's power works, and of how we see God's power at work in and through Jesus' life. Sometimes we think of power as simply a kind of relationship that the people at the top have with those at the bottom. That those who are in charge of society have power, and those at the bottom don't have power. For the Kingdom of God, this is quite different. In the Kingdom of God, power operates through servanthood. Serving your neighbour and showing them grace and love can have a more transformative impact that any show of "power" according to the world's standards. It's this servanthood power that Jesus displayed when he washed his disciples feet and commanded us to do the same for each other. It's this servanthood power, when Jesus bore our sins on Calvary - rather than conquering evil by overpowering with its own tactics, Jesus overcame evil and death by suffering its worst blow - innocent death on the cross.
The passages of scripture leading up to Jesus' triumphal entry have paved the way for this moment when Jesus steps up onto this lowly animal. The king who welcomes children, the king who serves and washes feet, the king who steps to the back of the line - this king climbs up on a donkey. He offers the citizens of Jerusalem a first impression - and its a clear one. Your King is here! See him, lowly and riding on a donkey! There was enough of a crowd for things to get pretty noisy. They were there, cheering and chanting. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" Some were there to welcome Jesus with cheering; but we also read that the whole city was in turmoil. Jesus' arrival stirred things up. Not everyone was happy to see him.
Most people would have preferred a contemporary ruler, maybe like Putin. When he drives around town, he's sporting a 7.7 Litre Russian-made Limo, called a ZiL - 8.57mpg. Or perhaps people would prefer an Obama, who is toured around in a 2009 Cadillac nicknamed "The Beast" - 8mpg. What kind of car would Jesus drive? I read that Pope Francis uses a Ford Focus to drive himself around the Vatican... you can't get much more lowly than driving a Ford. Humble guy!
There's days that I would prefer to have seen Jesus riding into town on a warhorse - bulldozing down all his enemies; getting rid of all the bad guys; tossing out the Romans; setting up camp in Jerusalem with all the angels by his side. There's days when the power that overwhelms the enemy through destructive force - there's days when that's really appealing. But on days when I'm feeling defeated; on days when it's become abundantly clear to me that I've been the one betraying Jesus with my thoughts, words, or actions; on days when I'm lonely or feeling misunderstood; on days when I'm feeling far from God's presence - on days like that, the figure on the donkey draws me in. The lowly King who draws near and washes my feet; this figure draws me in.
I don't know where you're all at this morning. Perhaps you are very eager for a Jesus coming to town on a warhorse to kick some butt. And believe me, there are things in our world that need tearing down - desperately. But I'm guessing there's many of you out there who are, like me, frustrated by our own messy lives, our own stubbornness, our own sin and brokenness. I'm guessing there's more of you out there hungry for a gentler Jesus then will come alongside you in your pain, in your grief, in your loneliness. That's the impression I get with Jesus riding into town on a donkey - he's the one who comes to the Samaritan woman at the well, whose life is fractured by broken relationships - and he offers peace, rest, hope, living water. To be sure, in just a few verses, this lowly King is going to cause a ruckus in the Temple. Jesus is not just a lowly servant king, he is also a fiery Prophet, and a Priest who actually brings us into the presence of God. But today, as we head into Passion Week and consider the ways in which our own lives are caught up in darkness; as we consider how our own journey is marked by death and suffering and abandonment; as we think about how the Cross is something we continue to bear - this morning, let us be thankful for a servant King who comes in gently on a donkey. Let us proclaim our allegiance to the Lion of Judah who comes to us as the Lamb who was Slain. Let us give all praise, glory, and honour to the One who defeats death on our behalf by giving up his own life! Let us shout our Hosannas! He is the King who comes to us, meets us where we are and he makes us new, he restores, he heals.
Please join me in singing a song of declaration, of praise, to the King who makes all things new!