Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sermon for the Sunday of the Passion - Zech 9:9-12


                                                                                    Sunday of the Passion

                                                                                    Zech 9:9-12



            Life in Jerusalem and Judah around 520 B.C. was a discouraging time.  The southern kingdom of Judah has been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. The Babylonians had destroyed the amazing temple that King Solomon had built. They had torn down the walls of Jerusalem.  They had taken all but the very poorest of the land into exile in Babylon.

            Yahweh had promised through the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah that he would bring the people back to the land.  The exile dragged on. But then, unexpectedly, Yahweh fulfilled his promise.  The Persians led by Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C.  The next year, Cyrus issued an edict that allowed the Judahites to return to their land and rebuild the temple.

            After decades living in Babylon, not everyone decided to return. They had developed a life in that land and did not want to leave it in order to return to the unknown situation in Judah.  However, many did and what they found was discouraging.  Other peoples had moved into the area and were a threat to the Judah.  The city of Jerusalem had no wall to protect it. Judah was no longer its own nation.  Instead, it was one small province in the massive Persian empire.

            The people started in on rebuilding the temple. When the foundation was laid, those who remembered Solomon’s temple wept because the replacement was going to be so much smaller and inferior to what had been destroyed.  Work made little progress. Around 520 B.C., eighteen years after Cyrus had issued his edict, the temple remained unfinished.

            God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the people to finish the work.  Zerrubabel, a descendant of King David, was the one appointed by the Persians to oversee the affairs of the Judahites. Through Zechariah, Yahweh told the people that Zerrubabel was a reminder of how God would fulfill his promises about David.

            It was in this setting of discouragement that Zechariah wrote the words of our text.  In the preceding verses, Yahweh had said that he would defeat the enemies of his people.  He said, “Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.”

            How was this going to happen?  Zechariah went on to write in the words of our text, “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.”

            This was good, though puzzling, news.  Judah’s king was coming, and this could only be the Messiah promised by God. He would be righteous and have salvation. He would be mounted on a donkey, which in itself was not surprising since this type of animal had long association with royalty in Israel.  But he was also described as “humble.” This was not a description one expected of a mighty king who would bring God’s rescue.

            It was more puzzling still, because of what Zechariah went on to say: “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.” This king was going to be the instrument through which Yahweh was going to bring peace and rule over all.

            In the reading outside church this morning from the Gospel of John we heard, “And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!’”  Jesus and the other Passover pilgrims had been walking.  But now as he prepared to enter Jerusalem for his passion, Jesus arranged it so that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  He took care so that his entrance fulfilled what Zechariah had written.

            Jesus was certainly righteous.  As the Son of God who had entered into the world in the incarnation, he had no sin.  During his life he had perfectly fulfilled his Father’s will.  He did indeed have salvation.  He had come to Jerusalem at the Passover to bring salvation for all people.

            He was the son of David, the descendant of the king who fulfilled God’s promise about the Messiah. The donkey was entirely consistent with this.  But Zechariah had described this Messiah as humble.  The kings of Israel’s past certainly didn’t ride donkeys into battle. When they went forth to conquer they rode in a chariot or on a war horse.

            It is in the description “humble” that we understand what the donkey means.  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to bring salvation. But he does not come in the might and power that the world expects. Instead, he comes humbly, mounted on a donkey.  The means by which he arrives tells us about the way he is going to bring salvation.

            Jesus came to Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week to conquer.  He came to conquer sin, death and the devil. But the way in which he would do this did not look like victory.  It did not look mighty and powerful.  Instead, Jesus had come to suffer.  He had come to be humiliated.  He had come to die a criminal’s death on the cross, even though he was completely innocent.

            Greeted by the cry, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”, on Good Friday he would instead hear the cry, “Crucify him!”  Yet this was the very purpose for which Jesus had come to Jerusalem.  Matthew tells us, And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 

See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.’”

            Our Lord did this because from the moment of his baptism he had taken on the role of the suffering Servant.  Though righteous and without sin of his own, he had come to suffer and die for our sins.  He had come to drink the cup of God’s wrath that we deserved.

            This is not what we would expect. And the manner in which Jesus won forgiveness for us brings with it implications that we don’t like. In Matthew’s Gospel, immediately after predicting his passion for the first time, our Lord went on to say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

            Jesus walked the way of the cross.  And he has told us that those who follow him must also expect this. The apostle Paul said the same thing when he told the Philippians, “For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”  There is always the temptation to avoid the cross.  There are times we remain silent when we should speak up.  There are times when we go along to get along, instead of acting in a way that confesses the truth of God’s Word.

            In the humility of his suffering and death, Jesus Christ has won forgiveness for these ways that we fail. But that is not all he has done.  Holy Week begins today. It ends with Jesus’ dead body buried in a tomb. But God’s saving action did not conclude at the end of seven days.  Instead, it moved on to the eighth day - to Easter Sunday - to a day of new creation as God raised Jesus from the dead.  Through his Spirit God the Father raised Jesus with a body transformed so that it can never die again.  He defeated death and began the resurrection of the Last Day.

            The resurrection of Jesus gives us the living hope that enables us to face the challenges posed by this world. The Spirit who raised Jesus has made us a new creation in Christ through the water of Holy Baptism. He leads and strengthens us to take up the cross and follow Jesus.  We do so in the knowledge that the final victory is already ours, because we belong to Christ.

            In our text today Zechariah writes, “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.”  Jesus came to Jerusalem as the righteous but humble king who brought salvation through his suffering and death.

            But the prophet goes on to say, “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.”  Forty days after his resurrection, our Lord Jesus was exalted as he ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God.

            Yet this is not the end of his saving work.  In the reading of the Passion of Our Lord in Matthew’s Gospel we heard Jesus say to Caiaphas, “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  The risen Lord who ascended will return in glory on the Last Day.  He will bring the peace about which Zechariah spoke.  He will enact judgment against all the enemies of God’s people, just as Zechariah said. There will be absolutely nothing humble about his coming on the day when raises the dead, gives us a share in his resurrection, and renews creation. Those of us who believe in the Lord who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday will rejoice as we say, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”


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