Palm Sunday Sermon

Matthew 21:1-11
“Who is This?”
Joanna Harader

It’s festival time in Jerusalem.  The city is packed with pilgrims who have come to celebrate Passover in the Holy City.  The streets are crowded. The vendors are out in full force.  Those who live in the city are exasperated trying to make their way to market or home or a friend’s house through the narrow cobbled streets.  And those who are in charge of the city are cautious. Extra security has been called in to keep an eye on the crowds.

Just outside the city, where things are a bit calmer, Jesus and his followers approach Jerusalem.  Before they get to the city, Jesus sends a couple of guys into a village to borrow a donkey and colt. And that’s how Jesus comes into the city of Jerusalem–riding on a donkey, a nursing mother donkey with her baby toddling along beside.

The Passover crowd greets Jesus’ entry into the city with shouts of “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”. They wave branches and proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

There are Roman soldiers stationed in the Fortress Antonia, which rises over the temple. They have been watching this little rag tag procession since it made its descent from the Mount of Olives; watched them come down into the valley and head back up into the city: Jesus, the donkeys, the unkempt disciples, the disheveled group of folks who have assembled around Jesus.

As Jesus gets nearer and nearer to Jerusalem, the crowd around him grows larger and larger. The shouts and cheers grow louder and louder. The soldiers watching grow more and more nervous. “Who is this guy?”, they ask each other, standing high in the fortress looking down on the excited crowd. “Who is this?”

The question is echoed on the street by those caught up in the commotion: “Who is this?”.

One of the answers comes from the crowd. This is the answer that Matthew includes in his retelling of the day’s events:

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Many of the Jewish people who have gathered for the festival have seen, or at least heard of, Jesus before. His preaching has drawn large crowds. Word has spread far and wide about his healing abilities. This Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee, speaks as one with authority. Many believe he speaks the words of God.

And now here he is riding into the great city on a humble donkey–just as the prophet Zechariah said that the King would come:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
   righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Who is this? Surely, say the crowds, this Jesus is a prophet; one sent by God to the people of Israel.   They proclaimed Jesus as the “Son of David,” and surely there were many in the crowd who hoped that Jesus, like David, would claim political kingship and lead a united nation of Israel into military glory.  “Save us, Son of David!,” the people cry.  As the crowd gathers to celebrate Passover, they are remembering together the story of God’s mighty acts to liberate their ancestors from Egyptian rule.  There could be no better time than Passover for God to act again and free them from Roman rule. The people are expectant. “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” They spread their cloaks on the road and wave around palm branches–a symbol of nationalism.  

Who is this?  For many in the crowds, Jesus is the one sent by God to save them from Roman oppression. That is the type of salvation they are looking for, and that is what they hope Jesus will provide.

We still have the crowds today, of course.  People who love to sing praises to the Jesus they have created in their own minds. People who gladly welcome the Jesus who offers the type of salvation they want. People look to Jesus for money, health, political power, nationalistic inspiration, condemnation of their enemies, justification of their own views. It is so easy to be caught up in the crowd.  To view Jesus from the perspective of our own desires, our own hopes. “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

But of course we don’t get to create Jesus. What we want from him might not be at all what he is coming to give. So the question remains: Who is this? Who is this guy riding into the Holy City, invoking the prophesies of Zechariah? 

The religious authorities wanted to know. Passover was a high and holy feast. And a dangerous time for the Jewish people. Rome was on high alert. They were afraid of so many Jews gathering in one place at one time.  One wrong word, one wrong move from some popular healer or self-anointed “prophet” could bring down Roman wrath on the whole group.

The chief priests and the teachers of Jewish law who lived in Jerusalem worked hard to maintain an amicable relationship with the Roman government. Sure, some people accused them of selling out, but those people did not understand politics. They did not know how close they were, at any given moment, to the wrath of the Roman soldiers–to a mass crucifixion or the destruction of the temple.

The religious leaders need to find out who this guy is, riding into the city on a donkey, receiving the cheers of the crowds. They worry deeply that this guy, whoever he is, just made their job of keeping peace in the city, their job of protecting the Jewish people, a whole lot harder.

We’ve seen, throughout history, how unrecognizable Jesus can become when issues of political and institutional safety come into play. Constantine served a Jesus that gave him great military success, a Jesus that demanded a clear orthodoxy so that the political stability of the empire would not be in danger. Many Christian preachers in the South during the time of slavery preached a Jesus that approved of slavery. Many Christian preachers in Germany during Nazi rule preached a Jesus that hated Jews—ignoring the fact that Jesus was, himself, Jewish. 

I think it is true that religious leaders still struggle with the question: Who is this Jesus? There is still a fear–probably a justified fear–that answering the question faithfully will make our jobs a whole lot harder.

And those outside the faith are concerned with the question as well: Who is this? I’m sure the Roman soldiers watching from the fortress were asking each other that question as they watched Jesus ride into town on the donkey. The crowds were treating him like a king, but that’s not how a political ruler was supposed to come into the city. They had probably watched Pilate ride into town earlier on his imposing war horse. With trumpet blasts and an entourage of well-dressed, respectable looking people.  That’s how a powerful political figure rode into town.

This guy toddling around down there on a donkey would be laughable . . . except for all of the cheering and shouting and waving of branches. 

This is just the kind of ridiculous stunt that one of those “messiah wannabes” would pull. The soldiers had seen these messiahs before. Guys who claimed some sort of authority from God. They usually had a few parlor tricks up their sleeves.  Could make things appear and disappear.  Had folks planted in the crowd who would claim they had been healed by them.  These guys who talked the crowd into a frenzy–all with one goal in mind: to overthrow Roman rule. 

Plenty of these messiah guys fizzled and faded out quickly enough. And the ones who didn’t . . . well, there were all kinds of charges that could be brought against them. And very cooperative judges in Jerusalem who didn’t think twice about imposing the death penalty.

Yes, the soldiers had seen plenty of so-called messiahs. This guy fit the pattern in many ways . . . but somehow he was different. This really could be dangerous; all of these Jewish people getting so worked up–the city was full of pilgrims this week–far more Jews than Romans. For the sake of Roman security, they had to find out the answer to their question: Who is this?

Many people today are skeptical of Christian faith. And not just political oppressors. Thoughtful, good-hearted people are put off by mindless shows of religious fervor. They worry about what this “Jesus” might do to their society–which is understandable considering the attitudes and actions of many “Christians” they see presented in the media. In our country where so many people claim to follow Jesus, it is quite reasonable for non-followers to wonder–and even to worry about–who this Jesus might be.

Who is this?  The best people to ask, of course, would be Jesus’ closest friends. Those who had followed him faithfully around the countryside and into the city. It is interesting to imagine how they might have answered the question on that first Palm Sunday: Who is this guy you’ve been following around?

Jesus’ followers could understand the excitement of the crowds. The prophet Zechariah said that the king would come riding on a donkey.  But what the crowds seemed to be forgetting–what the religious leaders and the Roman authorities ignored in the midst of their anxieties–was that the king described by Zechariah is not a ruler who holds power through military might.  The king proclaimed by Zechariah is one who will

take away the chariots from Ephraim
   and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
   and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.

It is becoming increasingly clear to those in his inner circle that Jesus has no plans to lead an armed revolt. He might indeed be coming into Jerusalem to save the people, but it will not be in the way the people expect.

Some of those who made the journey to Jerusalem with Jesus had begun following him because they thought he might be the one to raise an army and reclaim Jerusalem from the Roman authorities. That’s what they hoped, at first. That’s why some of them left their nets, their wives, their husbands to traipse around the countryside with this mesmerizing rabbi.  

But Jesus never made a move to raise an army. He said “Blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are you when people persecute you.”  He upset the powerful Jewish people who could have funded a military operation, who could have provided weapons and political connections. Instead of courting the powerful, he spent a lot of time with the poor, with the sick, with women, even with children. Not the makings of a mighty army.

Who is this?  As the question circulates around Jerusalem, some of Jesus’ followers remember an earlier question from Jesus.  A question that seemed a bit odd to them at the time: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 

And they had told him the rumors floating around: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, maybe one of the other prophets.

Then Jesus asked a harder question: Who do you say I am?

In that moment, Peter had known the answer: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Jesus had told his followers that they must not tell anyone else that he was the Messiah. And then he told them that he must go to Jerusalem and be killed.  And so the journey begins.

Who is this?  Who is Jesus?  It is the question that begins Jesus’ journey to the cross. It is the question that swirls around Jerusalem during the Passover festival–the week we now observe as Holy Week.

Who is this Jesus?  The crowds want to know. The religious leaders want to know. The Roman authorities want to know.

Who is this Jesus? I pray you will move toward a faithful answer as you walk through this Holy Week with him. Amen.