Sermon for Palm Sunday, preached at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Dimock, SD on April 17, 2011
A Different Kind of King
The text for today is from our Gospel, Matthew 21:5: “Say to the daughter of
, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” This is the Word of the Lord. Zion
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In October of 331 B.C., Alexander the Great entered the ancient city of
. The city manager came out to meet him with troops and horses to surrender. The high priest had the road carpeted with flowers. Silver altars were set up alongside of the road. And they brought gifts of herds of cattle and horses and lions and leopards. Alexander rode into the city on a chariot followed by a procession of priests chanting his greatness and musicians playing instruments. Babylon
This is how a great king is received into a city. Like modern popes, presidents, and prime ministers, Alexander understood that pomp and circumstance is important. Image is everything. No wonder he was called “the Great.”
The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that Alexander also came into
. Supposedly the high priest had a dream in which God told him how to save the city. The people all dressed in white and went out to meet Alexander and his army. The priests in purple linen also went out, with the high priest in his priestly garments carrying the golden headband with the Divine Name written on it. To the surprise of everyone, Alexander honored the Divine Name. Taking the priest’s hand, he was led into the city, and then the temple altar where he made a sacrifice. (This was breaking all sorts of the laws, having a Gentile going into the temple was an abomination, not to mention the making of a sacrifice.) Jerusalem
Now this is the point of all this history: We want to compare it to the so-called triumphant entry of Jesus into
on Palm Sunday Jerusalem
Behold! The King comes into
! He doesn’t come with a powerful army in tow, but a rather ragtag assortment of unarmed disciples, mostly Galilean fishermen. He doesn’t come mounted on a proud white warhorse or riding in a chariot, but “on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” And that’s not even His own; He has to borrow it for the day because He has need of it. Jesus doesn’t wear a kingly robe or crown. There’s no scepter in His hand. And He’s met with an impromptu children’s choir not the priests. In fact, the religious leaders and high society come along and try to stop the whole thing. Jerusalem
Apart from faith, it’s hard to take this King seriously. Those looking on might think that He’s seriously delusional—that much like Don Quixote, Jesus imagines His greatness; that in His mind, He’s riding a fiery, white steed, surrounded by His royal court and soldiers. The fact that He hasn’t denied being the Son of God doesn’t hurt this argument in the least. And He thinks He’s on a mission from God, perhaps even the Lord God Himself! Didn’t He tell His disciples to say to the owner of the borrowed donkeys: “The Lord needs them”?
Others may conclude that Jesus is running one of the most presumptuous cons ever—that if He just presents Himself as a king with enough charisma, He’ll convince a few people to follow Him. The best con artists and cult leaders can exert that sort of influence on people. And there’s no arguing that people are convinced. Even when He rides in on a donkey without the trappings of royalty, people do more than stop and pay heed. No, they don’t carpet the road with flowers, but they do spread their cloaks and palm branches on the ground. And they shout out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Are they under some sort of spell? Do they think they see something that isn’t there? No. When others ask, “Who is this?” the crowds answer, perfectly sensibly, “This is the prophet Jesus, from
Nazareth in Galilee.”
No, Jesus is not a madman or a conman. He’s a different kind of King. And the confession of faith made by the crowd tells you exactly who He is. You’ve already heard the words, but let’s take another look at them.
As the Son of David, Jesus is King… the rightful heir to the throne. He just hasn’t come to flex His muscle, to subdue nations by the sword, and shed blood of other peoples like His ancestor, King David. He’s come to open the gates of the kingdom of heaven, to defeat the enemies of sin, death, and hell.
Though humble, He comes in the name of the Lord: what He says and does bears the authority of God Most High because He is God Most High incarnate.
Christ comes not to kill, but to save. They may not realize it, but when the people shout out, “Hosanna!” they are declaring what He has come to do: “Save now!” Jesus is entering the gates of
to save, and He will accomplish that salvation now, within that holy week. Jerusalem
He is also a prophet. He is “the Prophet Jesus, from
Nazareth in Galilee.” Prophets are those who speak the Word of God, and Jesus speaks the Word of God. But prophecy is not just a sideline, a hobby of this King. He rules by His Word. His Word is how He exercises His power.
This King has recently gone to the tomb of Lazarus. He’s said: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the greatest enemy—death—had to bow the knee. Demons flee at His command. And when Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven,” sin loses it death grip, too. This Prophet speaks God’s powerful Word because this Prophet is God Himself—He is the Word of God made flesh, dwelling among His people.
So He is the King and He is the Prophet; and as your mind goes back to confirmation class, you’re wondering if His office of Priest is in these words, too. Remember: priests offer sacrifices. To save—to open His kingdom for His people, Jesus is going to make the sacrifice for sin. He’s going to be the Sacrifice for sin. He’s going to the cross to die for the sins of the world—yours and mine included.
Jesus is, indeed, a different kind of King. And His is a different kind of kingdom. This King’s kingdom is eternal; and He opens it up to you and me not by shedding the blood of others, but by allowing His own innocent blood to be shed. This King wins life for all by His own death.
This King is a Prophet, who rules by His Word; and by His Word He opens the kingdom of heaven to you. He does not describe a long checklist of goals you must obtain to be worthy of His kingdom. Instead, He declares you forgiven and silences your enemies. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. In Baptism, Jesus tells Satan that you belong to Him, that he has no claim on you. He rests His foot on the neck of death and says, “This one belongs to Me, not you; and you may only act with My permission to deliver My people from that sinful world into My eternal kingdom.”
This King is the Priest who has made the Sacrifice for your sins and the sins of the world, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. He does all of this in the name of the Lord, fully with His Father’s approval. He is a different kind of King.
Furthermore, He is not far away. Although He sits at the Father’s right hand, He promises to be with you always in His means of grace. There’s a reason why we echo the crowds every time we receive the Supper: we sing “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” because behold! Your kingdom comes to you, humble; not on a donkey, but in, with, and under bread and wine—just as He is present in His Word and Baptism, too.
But just as Jesus and His kingdom were misunderstood that first Palm Sunday, so it is today. After all, Jesus is a very different kind of King. He is powerful, but His power is made known in weakness. His majesty is made manifest in His lowly humility. Through the curse of the cross He is exalted and brings blessing to everyone who believes on His name.
You’re probably familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Christ is allegorically portrayed as Aslan, the lion. And from time to time, Lewis reminds us that Aslan is not a tame lion; he simply doesn’t display His teeth and claws all that often. That is Christ on Palm Sunday, as well as today in His means of grace: He deals with you in mercy, not by force.
If you’ve been around the Church for a while, Palm Sunday is old hat. Jesus’ triumphal, yet humble, entry is something you’re used to. However, you see Christ as He is by faith. But looking outward from the Church, we find the world is full of people who do not see Him so.
If they are convicted of their sin, they see only a hostile king who comes at war, a roaring lion with claws out and teeth bared. For those who are troubled by their sin and know there’s no way to make up for it, the coming of Jesus is not a welcome thing. If Jesus comes to save now, they see themselves as outside of His beloved people: that leaves them either despairing or angry at the name of Jesus.
But there are many other people who consider Jesus to be, at best, a tamed and toothless lion. If they don’t simply dismiss Him as a madman or a conman, they believe that He’s decided to change His mind and approve of sin because He’s not striking down sinners right and left right at this moment.
Neither group sees Him as He is. One sees Jesus only according to the Law and believes that He’s is out to get them. The other sees Him only according to the Gospel and pictures Jesus as a big, happy grandpa who doesn’t care what you do, so long as you do it in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity” and “love.” Neither group has much use for Christ crucified. They prefer a different kind of King.
The best, most merciful thing that the Church can do in this world is to proclaim Christ as He is. He is still the holy King who doesn’t tolerate sin and judges sinners; and He is still the King who has suffered our judgment in order to conquer sin and give life to all who believe.
Such a King can only be known by faith—but the proclamation of Christ gives faith along with forgiveness. If we fail to proclaim all of Christ, we leave people either despairing of sin or smug that God doesn’t care. Either way, they are lost; and that is not the will of our King; He comes to save, to bless, and to forgive. So we proclaim the Christ as He truly is—righteous Judge and merciful Savior.
It’s the same looking inward, too. Part of you wants the toothless lion. Your sinful flesh coaxes you to believe that Jesus is a benevolent king who overlooks your pet sins, who buys into your masks of hypocrisy, who simply lets you transgress your way through life and still rescues in the end. With persuasion like that, you’re tempted to a lot of easy, enjoyable, or expedient sins. But each of those sins offends the Lord, who takes your deliverance so seriously that He went to the cross and suffered your judgment so that you might be delivered.
Always be on guard against those temptations to spit in the face of a lion!
Part of you wants the claws out and the teeth bared—not at you, but at the afflictions that you face. You may want the King to execute judgment against your enemies right away. You may demand that He strike back at people who have done you (or your loved ones) harm. You may demand that He speak His victorious Word and chase disease and affliction away.
I know as a pastor, there are times when I’d dearly love to say for the sake of God’s people, “Sickness, be gone!” or “Pain be gone!” or “Rise, and walk!” and watch the Lord act immediately. But that betrays the extent of our sin, doesn’t it? So often we’d rather have the Lord act according to our will rather than pray: “Thy will be done.” We want a lion that bares tooth and claw on our command.
Jesus is a different kind of King. He works chiefly in humility, by mercy and service. His power is shown mostly in the powerful forgiveness He bestows. As He has delivered you from the slavery of sin, so He seeks to deliver those who have hurt you from that slavery, too.
He permits those different afflictions according to His wisdom for your good. So afflicted, you might not look like a child of the King—but then, He didn’t look like much of a king when He suffered and died to deliver you from affliction. He is a very different kind of King.
Even in the midst of the most trying times, He still comes to you in the name of the Lord. In His humble means of grace, He speaks forgiveness to you. And make no mistake: the forgiveness He bestows there is powerful grace, for it truly delivers you from sin and death and devil, and empowers you to forgive as well.
Christ is neither tame and toothless nor indiscriminate in His prey; but the King comes to give you salvation, to save you from your sins, to rescue you from your failures and mess ups, and giving you eternal life in Him. What you have and haven’t done can no longer condemn you. Where you’ve failed—in your life, work, family, or marriage—is forgiven. Not forgiven because you do this or that, or because you adapt your life or change it, but forgiven solely by grace, because Jesus heads into
and then to the cross to suffer and die for you. Jerusalem
You see, if they were just “mess ups” or “oopses” you could fix them. You could make them right. You could have your good stuff outweigh your not good stuff with God and those around you. But they aren’t failures. They aren’t mess ups. They aren’t “oopses” or even mistakes. They are sins—sins rooted in the fact that you love yourself more than God or those people around you. You put yourself first—even though you know better.
Desperate for some holiness, something that God would find acceptable, you try to change. You try to stop doing the self-centered stuff you do. You recognize how selfish your sins are, how destructive they can be, but you bounce back and forth between trying to love those around you and the selfish, evil, self-centered, turn-inward stuff you do. There’s a never-ending cycle of sin, failure, guilt, and shame.
And it seems like during Holy Week, you’ll try even harder to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. You’ll recommit. Refocus. And do whatever you must do to get that holiness from God that you long for, that you know He requires. But you’ll never find that holiness, dear friends. Never. Not inside you… not even in Holy Week.
I know you know that you are a poor, miserable sinner. We confess that every divine service. I know you know the Scriptures say that you won’t find holiness inside yourselves. But I know you’ve tried. I, too, have tried to find within myself some glimmer of goodness toward God and those around me. But you won’t ever find it. Not inside you. Ever. Inside you and me is only failure, sin, guilt, and shame.
Today, Jesus rides into
to save you, even you, from your failures, from your sins, from your guilt, and from your shame. He rides into Jerusalem today in majesty, in lowly pomp, headed for the cross to die. To give you the holiness that you’ll never find inside of you. To clothe you with His righteousness. To fill you with His love, that you might, in turn, love others. To give you life… life to the full… abundant life… eternal life! Jerusalem
Jesus is a different kind of king. Week after week, He comes into your midst, not riding on a donkey, but in His Word, with His Absolution, in, with, and under His bread and wine. In each of these means of grace, He brings you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now may the peace that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.