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“With Shouts of Hosanna”
April 9, 2017
The triumphal entry gives voice to so much of God’s Big Story.
I. Behold your humble king (Matthew 21:1-5)
II. Who comes in the Name of the Lord (Matthew 21:6-11)
David J. Bobb of Hillsdale college wrote a book in 2014 which apparently had very little impact on the 2016 presidential campaign. It was called Humility: an Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue. I haven’t actually read the book, but I did read an article by the author, who says “Of all the virtues vital for successful leadership, humility elicits the most lip service–and the least decisive action. It’s a hard-won virtue, constantly demanding an honest assessment of one’s real merit. Humility asks us to . . . admit when we are wrong and change course. It counsels putting others first in thought, word, and deed, and it avoids the narcissistic self-promotion so rampant today.”
Bobb uses examples from American history, such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abigal Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln. He sets out to disprove the common theory that humility will “lead to failure in real life,” and to show that “humility is the indispensable virtue for greatness.” But in each example he cites, humility was a learned behavior. Of George Washington, for example, Bobb says “As a young man, his ego was enormous. . . . his ambition outstripped his accomplishments. Portrayed as a stolid, even stony man, Washington in real life was an individual of intense passions. His ability to rein them in has given us the impression today that he had none. This was not the case. A man of volcanic temper, vanity was a constant temptation for Washington; he knew he looked good in his military uniform.,” He was a superb horseman, riding to acclaim through towns and cities.
But Washington’s early pride led to some hard lessons on the battlefield and in his personal life. Bobb says “He discovered, it is one thing to want to change one’s lot in life; it is another to be so eager to do so that the means of self-improvement do not matter. Greatness at any price is not real greatness. . . . Washington gradually realized this, and he calibrated his actions accordingly. Rather than just cloaking his ambition, only to exert absolute rule when given the chance, Washington recognized that the more he served others and the cause of justice, the more his success would matter. The less his ambition was about his own fame, the more he would deserve the honors he received.”
But where would a man like Washington learn this virtue? Bobb points to, and I would dwell on, the example of Jesus Christ who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. As Matthew 21 shows, he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a humble king, and this triumphal entry gave voice to so much of God’s big story, and led to that climax.
Now just for the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve preached this text several times before. It’s kind of unavoidable when Palm Sunday comes every year. So those of you with really good memories may find a few parts of this message a bit repetitive. As I have in the past, I urge you to hear it as worship, to process it at a deeper and more heart level than just teaching.
We begin with Matthew 21:1-5 which show how Jesus’ humility and kingship are the climax of God’s Story. Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
By chapter 21 Jesus had been moving toward Jerusalem for a while. Now he and his disciples reach Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, a ‘suburb’ of Jerusalem, separated from the city by the Kidron valley. The mount itself stands about three hundred feet higher than the temple and about a hundred feet higher than the hill of Zion, affording a spectacular, panoramic view of the city, beloved by tourists and artists. On this route Jesus and the disciples could not have been alone: thousands of Galilean pilgrims would have been arriving this way.
With the support of this crowd, Jesus creates a deliberate 'demonstration', a sequence of unmistakable symbols that present him as God’s anointed King, the fulfillment of God’s Big Story. He sends two disciples ahead to Bethphage to fetch the animals. He is intentionally arranging this. Verse 3 “If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” Jesus had just raised Lazarus to life at Bethany, and stayed there a few days. It’s quite possible he had made these arrangements with a follower, new or old, from nearby Bethphage. He was creating an acted parable, a deliberate act of symbolic self-disclosure for those with eyes to see or, after the Resurrection, with Spirit-led memories to understand these events.
So it may be that Jesus or someone else spoke aloud the words of Isiaah 62 and Zechariah 9:9 during the event, or it may be that Matthew and the others later recognized this fulfillment of prophecy. In either case, Matthew uses the two Old Testament sources to reveal the significance of the act. The quote begins in Isaiah 62, but quickly moves to Zechariah 9:9, which promises a king who is ‘righteous, having salvation, humble and peaceful,’ all in striking contrast with the aggressive war-lord the people were expecting.
This humble king will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, and that’s exactly what Jesus chooses to do. the only time in Scripture Jesus ever traveled on land other than by foot. Many scholars have a problem with the fact that Matthew alone of the four accounts mentions two animals: a donkey and her colt. But Matthew was an eyewitness to the event and didn’t feel the need to simplify it for the sake of his readers. On the other hand he may have known that the first Gospel written, Mark’s, said that Jesus rode on a colt that no one had ever ridden. So Matthew makes it plain, especially with the quote from Zechariah, that Jesus did ride on the younger animal, the colt, not on its mother.
Matthew wants us to know that Jesus fulfills Scripture in this detail, but the purpose of the fulfilled prophecy is to point to Jesus as king. “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” A king on a donkey would remind people of the way King David once rode away from Jerusalem on a donkey, but more especially of the way, in 1 Kings 1, that Solomon was brought to his coronation. “So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. 39There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” 40And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.”
Even with all these similarities to the triumphal entry, the way Matthew words his quote places the emphasis on the word humble. Jesus came humbly. This is the same word as 'gentle' in Matthew 11:29 and 'meek' in the Beatitudes. It carries the implication of strength under control. Jesus' symbolic act was designed to show that he is Messiah, but one whose humble arrival will lead him to chosen suffering, not to forceful victory. Jesus’s kingdom stood in sharp contrast to human expectations. These people wanted a Messiah to miraculously free the nation from the Romans and make it the ruling nation. All through the Gospels Jesus wards off attempts to push him into this role.
A careful reading of Scripture would have shown that the Messiah had many roles: healer, king, rescuer, Prince of Peace, and especially, Suffering Servant. The problem is that people don’t value humility. In fact, fallen people tend to despise humility. This is what Isaiah says happened to Jesus: “many were astonished at you. His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind. For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
3He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” People are not normally attracted to humility, are not attracted to the ordinary. So when Jesus came in humility, these crowds imposed their idea of “Messiah” on him, but I don’t think they valued the humility itself.
It’s only common grace plus 2000 years of Christian history that gives some in our culture the ability to value humility, and it is only faith in God that gives some the ability to learn humility. One of my favorite World War 2 examples is the king of Denmark. His name was Christian. He was the tenth king of Denmark by that name. And I suspect he was truly a believer in Jesus. But he didn’t start out humble. He became king in 1912, before the Russian revolution, and clung to the pre-war ethos even afterwards. In an episode oddly called “The Easter Crisis,” King Christian tried to assert authority over the prime minister and democratic process in his country. And though the crisis was peacefully resolved, he was thwarted. Denmark wanted democratic institutions.
And King Christian learned humility from that. His country was invaded by the Germans in 1940, and because they had no significant army or defenses, the nation surrendered, on the assurance that they would be able to keep a measure of self-rule. Unlike most of the other rulers in Europe, King Christian did not flee but remained in his capital throughout the occupation of Denmark, being to the Danish people a visible symbol of the national cause. During the first two years of the German occupation, in spite of his age and the precarious situation, he nonetheless took a daily ride on his horse, "Jubilee," through Copenhagen, unaccompanied by a groom, let alone by a guard. An apocryphal story says that one day a German soldier remarked to a young boy that he found it odd that the king would ride with no bodyguard. The boy replied, "All of Denmark is his bodyguard." The patriotic song "Der rider en Konge" (There Rides a King) centers on the king's rides. In this song, the narrator replies to a foreigner's inquiry about the king's lack of a guard that "he is our freest man." He had learned humility and his people had learned to value it.
So we can learn humility from the triumphal entry of Jesus: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” But we learn it even more, of course, from the events that followed. Paul summarizes this so beautifully in Philippians 2 “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” That’s humility. And on this side of the cross we do not despise that but treasure it. Nonetheless, I think we have a thing or two to learn from this Palm Sunday crowd as they hailed Jesus. We tend to take Jesus’ refusal to fulfill Jewish expectations as a reason to minimize our recognition of his kingship and authority. But Jesus did see himself as a king with divine authority and the fulfillment of God’s promises.
That’s why he allowed the people to acclaim him. Verses 6-11: The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
The crowd may have placed garments on both animals, but Jesus rode the colt. ‘Most of the crowd’ is better translated 'the very great crowd'; Matthew wants us to see this as an impressive event, not a passing outcry by a few people. So it’s a little surprising that Matthew’s record does not include an explicit mention of kingship - the other Gospels do. It is possible Matthew avoided this explicit mention because he’d already made Jesus’ kingship claims so clear, especially from Zechariah 9:9. There is no doubt the crowd had kingly expectations. That’s why they call him Son of David. It’s why they shout ‘Hosanna,’ the Greek form of the Hebrew words 'Save us' in the messianic Psalm 118.
Listen again to how Jesus fulfills God’s Big Story as told in that Psalm: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. 20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. 21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. 22The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. 23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 25Save us.” That’s that word, Hosanna. “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! 26Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. 27The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!”
So this crowd was celebrating the arrival of the king whom they saw as their savior, rescuer, as the one who would fulfill God’s promises, the hoped for climax of his story. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Matthew’s point, the point of all the Gospel accounts, is that Jesus is this king anticipated, this king promised, but also an unexpected king, a humble king, soon to be rejected. While Jesus doesn’t claim any human throne, he never denies that he is the true king. In fact, when Pilate says “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers “You have said so,” a phrase that implies “You’ve seen it.”
It is this fulfillment of God’s Big Story that we sometimes miss, living as we do in the time between his sacrificial first coming and his triumphant second coming. But the disciples didn’t miss it. His coming as king was announced at his birth. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And the message he brought was the Good News of the Kingdom of God, which, Jesus said, has appeared among you. This kingdom is mentioned 18 times in Mark, 45 times in Luke and 52 times in Matthew. It’s the big idea.
After the resurrection and ascension his people constantly recognized his present and future rule and reign. The Apostle Paul says “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” So Jesus reigns as king now, until the last enemy, death, is destroyed. This is why he is seen in the Book of Revelation as the “Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords” who comes to conquer all evil.
But what does it mean to us that Jesus is king? David Mains wrote a book called “Thy Kingship Come,” that I’ve liked for a long time, and that Todd read a while back and really enjoyed too. The key definition in that book says that “the kingdom is any situation in which (1) Christ is recognized as king, (2) his will is obeyed, and (3) obedient subjects reap the benefits of his reign.” That’s why Palm Sunday is important. Not just that he’s humble but that he is king and so we his people, between his first coming and his second, recognize him as king, and through his Spirit learn to obey his will, and not our own, and reap the benefits of the kingdom. This is why we still pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If we glory in his humility, which took him to the cross to save us, we need to glory also in his kingship. Recognizing it will shape our response to him every day of our lives.
Finally, in verses 10 and 11 there is one more recognition, that he is the prophet long foretold. “ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” When the Magi came looking for the King in Matthew 2, all Jerusalem was troubled. Now, as the king arrives, all the city is stirred, literally ‘shaken’, the word from which we get seismic; his arrival was an earthquake! We sense that the people of the city didn’t know what to make of this dramatic arrival, and it was the Galilean pilgrims who enlightened them.
But they call him ‘the prophet from Nazareth,’ which sounds almost anticlimactic after the Messianic fervor of the preceding verses. This may have been the way Jerusalem thought of him. But the phrase also alludes to another Messianic hope, the coming of 'the prophet', based on Deuteronomy 18. John reports that when the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” At least some of the people had a bigger vision for their Messiah than the narrowly political figure who would defeat Rome and establish Israel as the world’s premier kingdom. Some saw that the promises of God could not be fulfilled by a mere war leader - that the one who was promised was also one who would heal, would love, would bring God’s mercy to the poor and sinners and God’s justice to the high and prideful, not acting with a man’s authority, but divine authority.
I keep thinking of King Christian the tenth. Several legends circulated about his resistance to the Nazis and his willingness to suffer for what was right. He had become a humble king not just in demeanor, but like Jesus, in his actions. In 1942, Adolf Hitler sent the king a long telegram congratulating him on his seventy-second birthday. I get the distinct impression that at 72 Christian had had about enough of Hitler. His reply merely said “Giving my best thanks, King Christian.” This perceived slight outraged Hitler. He recalled his ambassador from Copenhagen and expelled the Danish ambassador from Germany. German pressure then resulted in the dismissal of the Danish government, which led to a full German takeover of Denmark in August 1943.
It was then, as we’ve seen before, that the Germans moved to round up Denmark’s 8000 Jews. King Christian, at great personal risk, encouraged and funded the the transport of the Jews to Sweden and helped negotiate the agreement with Sweden that allowed them to enter and remain. And the people of Denmark, taking moral courage from the humility, humanity and willingness to sacrifice of their king, made the transport happen. Only about 400 of the Danish Jews were ever imprisoned and even then the Danish Red Cross kept after the Nazis so that only a very few ever went to the death camps. King Christian followed the example of our humble king, willing to sacrifice himself for others.
So this is it, the It, the culmination of God’s Big Story. Our story started with creation, the power of God expressed in the beauty of his work. Everything was good. But the crisis came early, as God’s beloved was torn from him by sin, and God resolved to do whatever it took to win us back. Remember, it’s a romance, and the whole long history of the Old Testament was the story of how God, time after time, sought to rescue a people who would be his people and he would be their God and would dwell among them. But all of that was simply the lead-up to this moment, when God would become incarnate and dwell among us in the person of Jesus and as the disguised king would rescue us from our oppressors, sin and death and Satan. Out of his great love and in deepest humility he would sacrifice himself for our sin and die in our place only to rise and take up his reign first in the hearts of those he has rescued and soon over the whole world he has saved, which waits for him with groaning.
And all of God’s big story is voiced or pictured in this moment. He’s the humble king, the promised Son of David, who came in the name of the Lord to a people crying “Save Us.” And he did.