March 25, 2018
In the triumphal entry we bow the knee to the best of all kings.
I. Your King is Coming (Matthew 21:1-5)
II. Hosanna to the Son of David (Matthew 21:6-9)
Most of you here probably think that democracy or a representative republic is the best kind of government. But you’re wrong. What you really want and need is an absolute monarchy, something akin to a dictatorship. I want to convince you of this today and get us to bow the knee to that absolute monarch.
So what forms of government might we consider best for human flourishing? Some would say a democracy, in which informed and capable voters affirm all things good for the people and held in check every selfish and despotic impulse. The problem is voters tend not to be informed and capable, and so pure democracy tends to drift toward either chaos and mob rule or the rise of a dictator. The same could be said of ideal communism, in which the workers embody what is good for the nation. Again, there are always some who feel that they know what’s good for you, but are really selfish, so that communist ideals have quickly and universally devolved into oppressive dictatorships.
Our own government is neither of those, but is called a representative republic. At times this works pretty well. Our founding fathers tried to strike a balance in which the good and liberty of the people would be represented well by their elected officials, who legislate good and not harm for those people. But they recognized the tendency of individuals to selfishness and despotism, so they built in checks and balances. The same could be said for a constitutional or parliamentary monarchy, like Great Britain, where a king or queen with limited power presides over a representative system of government, neither side able to ultimately get the upper hand. The problem with these systems is they still require an educated electorate, and they depend on no one finding selfish or evil ways around the checks and balances. It turns out that both these foundational ideals are hard to sustain, as has been proven often around the world. Even in the U.S. I would argue that the information age has reduced the education of the electorate and increased the ability of an individual or organization to game the system for personal advantage.
So I’m here to argue that the best form of government for every individual and for human flourishing is an absolute monarchy, a benevolent monarchy in which the king has in mind only the best interests of his subjects, in which the king loves his people and has the power to work ceaselessly for their good. What I’d like us to recognize today is that in the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday we truly see that king and we should welcome his rule in our lives. This is the king you’ve always wanted, though you may not have known it, and bowing your knee to him, acclaiming him is the best thing you could do.
We’re beginning our Holy Week series today, five opportunities to see Jesus and ourselves in the light of the cross. In my mind I’m calling this the ‘ty’ series, because each message has a key word, each key word ends in t y, and each shows us some characteristic of our king or our blessing. So today we look at his majesty. On Thursday we will have a very brief communion service at the end of the community dinner. That key word is our community. On Friday we will have a time of worship, Scripture and meditation focused on His fidelity. I really encourage you to make those two mid-week events. Take this holiday seriously. And finally, on Easter Sunday both the sunrise service and the main service will focus on our certainty, which is grounded in his resurrection.
Let’s look at the majesty of our benevolent king. We begin with Matthew 21:1-5 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.’”
This is one of the best known events in the Gospels. We’ve looked at it often. Jesus has been moving toward Jerusalem for several chapters. Now he and his disciples have reached the final ridge on the Mount of Olives. Bethphage was a ‘suburb’ village of Jerusalem, overlooking the city across the Kidron valley. On this route Jesus and the disciples would not have been alone: thousands of Passover pilgrims arrived that way. With this crowd, Jesus creates a 'demonstration', a sequence of acts that present him as God’s anointed King.
In verse 2 Jesus instructs the disciples to go into the village and bring him a donkey and her colt. Only Matthew mentions two animals, but this is probably a result of Mark and the other Gospels simplifying the circumstances for brevity. How did Jesus know that the colt and its mother would be there? Was this an example of his supernatural knowledge? That would be reasonable given the other things Jesus has done and known. But it isn’t unreasonable to think that Jesus planned this in advance, possibly through his friends in nearby Bethany, and that the donkeys were ready to be given. Verse 3 implies at least that the people being asked for the donkeys were aware of Jesus as Lord and master.
Verses 4 and 5 quote the Old Testament to reveal the significance of this symbolic act. They allude to two prophecies. Isaiah 62:11, “Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion,
“Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” 12And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.” Jesus’s entry would remind people of this verse, that God had promised to bring salvation, to reward, restore and especially redeem, not only the holy people, but the city that will not be forever forsaken, Jerusalem. But my favorite phrase in those verses, is “you shall be called Sought Out.” Our purpose today is not to explore Isiaah 62, which is only alluded to here, but let that phrase sink in for a minute: you are sought out by the Lord.
The verse that is more directly quoted is Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The king whose majesty we laud today comes as one who is humble and peaceful, in striking contrast with the aggressive war-lord the people were expecting. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the only time in Scripture Jesus ever traveled on land other than by foot, and reminds people not only of Zechariah’s prophecy, but of the way King David had once rode away from Jerusalem on a donkey, and the way Solomon was brought to his coronation not on a war-horse but a humble mule.
The emphasis in Matthew falls on humble, the same word used by Jesus in Matthew 11:29, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew emphasizes what Jesus' symbolism was designed to show, that the true Messiah is humble and gentle, preparing people for his suffering and humiliation, not a show of force. Remember that most of the people wanted a Messiah to free the nation from the Romans and make it the ruling nation. All through the Gospels Jesus has to ward off attempts to push him into this role. Scripture shows a Messiah with many more roles than this: as healer, as prince of peace, especially as Suffering Servant. Nonetheless almost no one understood what Jesus was saying when he predicted his suffering, death and resurrection. They had a cardboard cutout of the king they wanted, not a true flesh and blood or God-made-man king who could be humble and mighty, suffering and victorious.
So Jesus was coming as the king, but a larger king than his contemporaries expected. Or maybe not, entirely. There is a major thread of Old Testament thought that had to be in some people’s minds as this humble king rode in. The modern term for this thought is human flourishing, but the Biblical words are things like peace, blessing and wholeness. The word ‘shalom,’ for instance, in the Old Testament is very inadequately translated by our word ‘peace.’ We tend to think of this as personal peace, but the Bible really pictures it as flourishing.
There are many passages we could use, but one we looked at last fall summarizes it perfectly. Micah 4:1 “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, 2and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Central to human flourishing is learning his ways and walking in his paths. “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;” There is no war, but notice that the weapons of war are turned into plowshares and pruning hooks, tools of blessing and abundance. And, verse 4: “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” That’s shalom: individual, community and nation.
Verse 5: “For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.” There is no peace without full-hearted allegiance to the Lord.” Verse 6: “In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted; 7and the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore.” That’s the king these folks in Jerusalem should have expected, a king who would bring shalom, fullness and human flourishing. And maybe some did expect that.
We know how they responded to the approach of Jesus. Verses 6-9 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!”
From Bethphage to Jerusalem, the road would be lined with pilgrims and visitors who had come to the city, as required by the Law, for the feast of Passover. And though its certain that not everyone from Galilee or even Judea actually came, there is no question that the population of the city multiplied during the feast. Josephus gives a number like 2.7 million, and though he usually over estimates, it must have been a huge crowd. It’s no wonder that the Romans, and even the Jewish leaders were always on edge during the feast.
Imagine yourself in that crowd for a moment. You see two disciples returning with a colt, the mother donkey following close behind, voicing her protest with loud brays. They stop before Jesus, and several disciples remove their outer garments and throw them over the colt. As soon as Jesus is seated the crowd begins to voice its enthusiasm, and slowly the procession makes way to the gates of Jerusalem. You look around and realize that with those from Jericho, with the pilgrims who are camped along the road, and with the thousands streaming out from the city gate in welcome, this has become a huge crowd.
The mention of crowds ahead of him and behind him may confirm two other details in the Gospels. First, John 12:12 speaks of crowds coming out of Jerusalem to meet Jesus. And both the crowd with him and the crowd that came out joined in the praise. Second, that the Jerusalem crowds knew he was approaching supports the stopover in Bethany, which allows time for the news to spread. Messianic fervor was high, and perhaps this contributed to Jesus' desire to present himself as Prince of Peace. John literally says that it was a very largest crowd. He uses a superlative, ‘the biggest crowd ever.’
Imagine yourself there again. Those in front of Jesus are now laying their cloaks in the road at the feet of the colt, forming a multi-colored carpet. The people near you are taking palm branches from the trees, some waving them in the air, others laying them in the road. Finally, the whole moves toward the gates, and all those around you begin to shout and sing the traditional praise Psalms used to greet pilgrim visitors to these feasts. Now Psalm 118 seems to take on special meaning: “Hosanna! Save Us! Bring Salvation Now, O Lord! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Hosanna literally means “Jehovah save!” It was originally a cry for rescue, whether from men and enemies, or from sin, separation, hardship or despair.
But it became a cry of praise. Andrew Peterson, in his “Hosanna” models this. He first cries for rescue: “I am tangled up in contradiction. I am strangled by my own two hands. I am hunted by the hounds of addiction. Hosanna! Hosanna! I have lied to everyone who trusts me. I have tried to fall when I could stand. I have only loved the ones who loved me. Hosanna! Hosanna!” Save me! Save me! But his cry turns to praise “O Hosanna! See the long awaited king, come to set his people free. We cry O Hosanna! Come and tear the temple down Raise it up on holy ground. Hosanna! Hosanna!” The cry for rescue is the praise of the king. Matthew confirms this when he records the crowd saying “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This is not part of Psalm 118, not part of the traditional cry that greets pilgrims. This is something new, added just for Jesus. He is recognized as the Son of David. He is proclaimed to be King.
Now it has been said by critics that this scene is somehow false, because the Psalms and palms were part of the festival of Tabernacles, not the feast of Passover. But D.A. Carson points out that for centuries, since Judas Maccabeus, the palm branch had been a national symbol in Israel: Palm branches were even pictured on the Jewish coins. They had come to be used with all the feasts. Here they almost certainly indicated as much a national feeling, the desire for a king, as a festival feeling, the celebration of Passover.
And Psalm 118 is itself more than a pilgrim greeting. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is explicitly about the Messianic King. Jesus even uses the phrase of himself later in the week. Furthermore, both John and Luke record that the crowd also cried “Blessed is the king of Israel, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” It may be that Matthew, having just quoted the ‘king’ saying from Zechariah did not feel a need to repeat himself.
Jesus must have known that this is how he would be received. At the same time, he knew that the crowd would turn on him, and he would be crucified. Why did he do it? Simply because he was, ultimately, the king they longed for. He wanted them, and us, to see him as that king, one time, as a visual reminder of the truth. He was the gentle king, who would not break a bruised reed. He was the promised ruler from David’s line. He was at one and the same time, the Lord, the Almighty, whose throne was eternal and who was sovereign over all nations. This triumphal entry was a symbol of that future time when he will be revealed in power and glory as our king. It is when he comes again that we will see him as conqueror, taking his reign. Then every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that he is king of kings, and Lord of Lords.
So Jesus came as a king, humble and riding on a donkey. He was received as a king, “Hail to the Son of David.” We’ve seen this before, and it’s all good. But I want to spend more than usual amount of time applying this to our lives. This goes back to where we began. What’s the best form of government? I would argue that given the right king, a sovereign monarchy is the best. A sovereign king is the kind of system you could possibly live in, now or for eternity. In the triumphal entry we, you and I, get to bow the knee to the best of all kings.
It has become something of a tradition here at Trinity during holy week to listen to and to watch the three minute version of S. M. Lockridge’s famous sermon “That’s My King.” I want to do that now, but my sermon’s not over. The Bible says my King is the King of the Jews. He’s the King of Israel. He’s the King of Righteousness. He’s the King of the Ages. He’s the King of Heaven. He’s the King of Glory. He’s the King of kings, and He’s the Lord of lords. That’s my King. I wonder, do you know Him?
My King is a sovereign King. No means of measure can define His limitless love. He’s enduringly strong. He’s entirely sincere. He’s eternally steadfast. He’s immortally graceful. He’s imperially powerful. He’s impartially merciful. Do you know Him? He’s the greatest phenomenon that has ever crossed the horizon of this world. He’s God’s Son. He’s the sinner’s Saviour. He’s the centrepiece of civilization. He’s unparalleled. He’s unprecedented. He is the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest personality in philosophy. He’s the fundamental doctrine of true theology. He’s the only one qualified to be an all sufficient Saviour. I wonder if you know Him today?
He supplies strength for the weak. He’s available for the tempted and the tried. He sympathizes and He saves. He strengthens and sustains. He guards and He guides. He heals the sick. He cleansed the lepers. He forgives sinners. He discharges debtors. He delivers the captive. He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He rewards the diligent. And He beautifies the meek. I wonder if you know Him?
He’s the key to knowledge. He’s the wellspring of wisdom. He’s the doorway of deliverance. He’s the pathway of peace. He’s the roadway of righteousness. He’s the highway of holiness. He’s the gateway of glory. Do you know Him? Well… His life is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His mercy is everlasting. His love never changes. His Word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His reign is righteous. And His yoke is easy. And His burden is light. I wish I could describe Him to you. Yes…
He’s indescribable! He’s incomprehensible. He’s invincible. He’s irresistible. You can’t get Him out of your mind. You can’t get Him off of your hand. You can’t outlive Him, and you can’t live without Him. Well, the Pharisees couldn’t stand Him, but found out they couldn’t stop Him. Pilate couldn’t find any fault in Him. Herod couldn’t kill Him. Death couldn’t handle Him, and the grave couldn’t hold Him. Yeah! That’s my King, that’s my King. Amen!
If that’s my king, if that’s your king, if that’s the best of all kings, how are we going to live? Don’t we have to give ourselves fully to being his subjects, to being kings’s men, king’s women, king’s children? And it’s not that we ‘have’ to give ourselves, it’s that we ‘get’ to give ourselves. We get to trust him, 24/7. We get to serve him 24/7. We get to obey him, 24/7.
We get to trust him. He’s the sovereign king, with all power and all authority in heaven and on earth to do without fail all that he chooses and all that he wills. And all that he wills is good. All that he wills is for our good and for his glory. Jesus is powerfully good. If you had a friend with unlimited resources, flawless skill and perfect judgment you would trust him with anything.
You do have such a friend. But trusting Jesus is more even than this because he’s not only powerfully good, but sacrificially humble. All his power was laid down, all his goodness poured out in the sacrifice of the cross, out of love for you, for me, for his people, to rescue and save us. This is the king in whom you get to trust. He’s powerfully good. He’s sacrificially humble, he’s redeemingly loving. And we get to trust him today.
But we also get to serve and obey him. The same qualities that cause us to trust him call us to serve him and compel us to obey him. As our infinitely wise king he has spoken. He has said ‘deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me.” Make me your king in daily practice. All his words are wise and good. If he says something is the way to live, you can count on it. This is where human flourishing comes in. This king still has a vision of shalom. He intends to bless us, not just as individuals but in community. He offers an eternity of abundance, of peace, of well being. Not yet in our circumstances in this fallen world, but now in the circumstances within us and even between us. This is the foretaste of the human flourishing which will be eternal life. And it starts with the fact that we get to serve him now. We get to obey him now. Human flourishing grows out of obedient service to a sovereign King. When this king speaks, no matter how hard the task he calls us to, king’s men, king’s women, king’s children are empowered to obey. We get to serve him now.
What is the best kind of government? A benevolent monarch, specifically this king. A powerfully good, sacrificially humble, redeemingly loving king worthy of our service and obedience. That’s my king. That’s our king, the one who rode into Jerusalem in humble majesty. The one to whom we cry “Hosanna.”