Palm Sunday/Sunday of Passion
Palm Sunday is a day that many of us enjoy. It is fun to begin church outside and process in holding palm fronds while we sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” And of course at Good Shepherd, we don’t cheat you. We don’t give you one of those little crosses made from dried out palms. Instead we give you a nice big green palm frond. I can remember looking forward to this Sunday as a boy and over the years I have had a number of people tell me that it is one of their favorite days in the church year.
However, I don’t think the people to whom Zechariah directed his prophecy would have been impressed with the first Palm Sunday. I think they would have been disappointed. The prophet Zechariah worked around 520 B.C. In 587 B.C. the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken the people of Judah into exile. God’s people lived in exile in Babylonia until the victorious Persians arrived and in 538 B.C. and their King Cyrus issued a decree that the Judahites could return home and rebuild the temple.
In the second year of their return, the people laid the foundation for a new temple. The older people who remembered Solomon’s temple that had been destroyed wept because this new temple could not compare with the one they had lost. The foundation was laid, but the rebuilding project lingered on for some twenty years. Outside interference from enemies did slow work. But part of the problem was that the people were just not as dedicated to the project as they needed to be.
Zechariah and his contemporary, Haggai, were sent by God to help get the people going. I had a professor in college who called them the “temple finishing prophets.” It’s not hard to understand why the people were discouraged. They had returned from exile to a devastated city that had no walls. Judah was no longer a nation, but instead a small province in the massive Persian empire.
Zechariah encouraged the people with the news that Yahweh was going to act. Just before our text he had said that God was going to judge the nations. And then in our text he says, “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. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
It is clear that Yahweh is talking about the Messiah – the descendant of King David. The promised one is going to come and the results are going to be glorious. God will grant peace – the end of war – that will encompass all nations. And Yahweh’s Messiah will rule over all. This was a vision of the future that gave the people hope. And the people went on to finish the temple in 516 B.C.
A little over five centuries later, the events that we heard about this morning outside the church took place. Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Both Matthew and John tell us that this happened in fulfillment of Zechariah’s words. But I don’t think the people of Zechariah’s day would have been satisfied. Yes, Jesus the Christ – the Messiah – rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. But war had not ended and peace had not come. God’s people were not free. On the contrary, the Roman war machine had brought more troops into Jerusalem because it was the time of the Passover. They – the Gentiles – were in charge and in the next two hundred years that would extend their empire ever farther through incessant military campaigns.
And what is more you just heard in the Passion according to St. Matthew how this “triumphant” visit to Jerusalem turned out. Jesus enters Jerusalem on Sunday. By Friday afternoon he is hanging on a cross after being mocked and tortured.
I don’t think the sixth century B.C. people of Jerusalem would have been satisfied with how God had kept his word. And the truth is that often we aren’t either. God says again and again in his Word that he loves and cares for you. And yet you or family member or friend is diagnosed with cancer. And yet you or a loved one struggles with anxiety and depression. And yet a child dies from a disease or in a terrible accident. And yet, and yet, and yet ….
We see these things and it causes us to doubt God. It causes us to question God. It causes us to accuse God of being false. If God really were all loving and all powerful then none of these things would happen.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah. That’s what the donkey is all about. Our Lord intentionally chose this animal because it was associated with the Davidic king. Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem announces that he is the Christ.
But in the midst of Zechariah’s text that announces peace and the rule of the Messiah, it describes him as “humble and mounted on a donkey.” Zechariah’s words themselves contain he paradoxical statement that the Messiah comes as one who is humble. And while the donkey was associated with the kings descended from David, it is also not a war horse – it’s not a chariot like a victorious Roman general might ride in a triumphant parade.
Jesus comes as the king whose purpose it is to be enthroned on the cross. After all, he hangs on the cross with the sign posted over his head that says, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Jesus comes as the Messiah who job it is to die for you. That has been his mission since he was baptized in the Jordan River. He who had no sin, submitted to a baptism of repentance so that he could step into your shoes – so that he could take your place.
Jesus had said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He took your sins and received God’s judgment against them as he died on the cross. As St. Paul says in our epistle lesson this morning, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
And if that were it, then the sixth century B.C. people of Jerusalem would be right to complain about Zechariah’s word. If that were it, you would have reason to doubt God. But it’s not. We walk this week with our Lord through Holy Week. But Holy Week brings us to the Feast of the Resurrection. It brings us again to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. The resurrection shows us that Good Friday was God at work. It was God carrying out his most powerful act of salvation for you. It looked like weakness and failure, but it was more than that. In his humility Jesus was winning the victory over sin for you.
And because you have seen God work in this way, you know that not only are you forgiven, but also that you can trust in God in the midst of all the things you don’t understand. You can always look in faith at Jesus and know that God’s love for you is certain and sure no matter what is happening. You have seen God work your salvation in an unexpected way, and so you can trust he is still at work no matter how things appear.
Yet Easter is not the end of the story. Jesus’ exaltation will continue forty days later as we celebrate his ascension into heaven – you’re planning on being here, right? Our Lord has been enthroned at the right hand of the Father. And he has promised that he will return in glory.
Jesus entered Jerusalem as the humble Messiah mounted on donkey. But the risen and ascended Lord has promised that he will come again. He will do so in power and glory and might. He will come in a way so that every knee will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father, no matter what they said about Jesus before his return.
When he does so, he will bring all of the things that Zechariah describes. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem. He will cut off the battle bow and the Tomahawk missle. He will speak peace to the nations and as the risen Lord his rule will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth in a world he renews as the new creation.
So today we continue to walk by faith as we begin Holy Week. We believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for and so we have the assurance of forgiveness. We trust in God’s love no matter what is happening. We draw near to receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and for strengthening in faith. We sing the words now, that we will speak when our hope is fulfilled: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.