"This is the Prophet Jesus"
March 28, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis
Passage: Matthew 21:1–21:11
Palm Sunday is a different kind of Sunday. It is a special day in the church’s year, to be sure. We make a big deal with the Palms and the singing. We talk about the parade Jesus led into Jerusalem. But it is a different Sunday in terms of preaching. Most Sundays, the focus is on trying to mete out practical application from the text. We try to figure out how we can apply the lesson to our everyday life. What is the point of the story that will help me on Monday, Thursday, or any other day of the week? What is in it for me?
Palm Sunday is not exactly like that. There is a practical application for these verses, but it is not about what is in it for you or for me – at least not primarily. The point of Palm Sunday is Jesus. The point of Palm Sunday is the validation of Jesus as the Messiah; the anointed prophet, priest, and king of Israel. Palm Sunday has little to do with what I feel, or how I want to think about things. Palm Sunday is about celebrating what God chose, proclaiming what God did, and marveling how deeply God loves us. It is not that we are irrelevant to the story; but rather, we are not the primary focus in the story. This day is Jesus’ day. This event was the fulfillment of promises God made through the prophets hundreds of years before it took place. The point and application of Palm Sunday are the same: Look and see what God has done. Look and see what God is doing. Look and see what God will do.
On the surface the text is easy to explain. Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, But there was much more going on than a simple parade. These eleven verses take us on quite a journey. It was more than a spontaneous demonstration. There are four parts: Jesus’ instruction, the explanation of Jesus’ instructions, the parade, and the response. As we go through these, let me encourage you to keep in mind the point and application: Look and see.
The scene opened with Jesus’ instructions sending two disciples into the village ahead of them to bring him a donkey and colt. He told them, “If anyone says anything to you, tell them, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”
If you have ever wondered about this part of the story, I am with you. I am completely on board with the notion that Jesus performed miracles – healed, restored, calmed the winds and sea, and all those things. However, I just wonder about Jesus using divine power to accomplish the equivalent of calling Uber. I mean – seriously – why did Matthew even bother with this part of the story? It is a little off; it is a little odd. Besides, I try to put myself in the position of the owner and cannot really get my head around being ok when two strangers show up and want to take my animals – the most valuable possessions many families owned – simply because they said, “The Lord needs them.” If I am truly honest with you, I struggle to not be annoyed when someone in my family takes the leftovers from the refrigerator I had intended to have lunch the next day. Here, this would be more like walking out and seeing two guys I do not know taking our family cars and saying, “the Lord needs them.” Excuse me? I don’t think so.
Would it spoil the miraculous, wonderful notion of Palm Sunday if we understood that Jesus had worked out all these details ahead of time; that this may have been a pre-arranged code or password with the owner of animals? I hope it does not spoil it for you. Advanced planning is not contrary to God’s will or character. Remember Isaiah 42:8-9
I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
God plans ahead. Even so, as applied here, what does this episode show us and why is it important? There are two quick things: first, it shows us that Jesus knew that his entry would be dangerous and controversial so that he took measures to protect both those helping him and the plan itself. He used code and agents to keep everything secret until the right time to reveal all. Second, it shows us that Jesus was in charge. Palm Sunday did not just happen; Jesus intended for it and orchestrated it. He wanted these specific details and made arrangements for it to be so. We will talk about why Jesus wanted these details in a moment.
Why dwell on this? We need to see that God accomplishes his will through real people like you and me. He does not simply wave his hand from heaven. God works in and through history. God is as sovereign over the smallest practical physical details as the big picture narrative. The reason Matthew included these details is because they pull back the curtain on God’s activity in our midst.
In other words, Palm Sunday is all about: Look and see what God was doing.
Matthew’s Explanation of Jesus’ Instructions.
After Jesus instructed the disciples to retrieve the animals, Matthew broke the narrative for a moment to make sure his readers understood what Jesus was doing; that is, why Jesus was making these particular choices. Matthew pointed readers to the prophetic language found in Zechariah 9.
Zechariah was an Old Testament prophet. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, Zechariah represented the All- American kind of “can-do” prophet. He was a cheerleader. He delivered a message of hope and encouragement for the Jews who had returned to Israel from exile in Babylon. His was a tough-love message. He exhorted Jews to stop procrastinating and moping around in defeatism. Israel and the covenant with God were not dead or dying; their frustration that things were not going better was not how God saw things. Zechariah urged the people to give themselves whole-heartedly to the task of rebuilding the community and the temple. In support of that challenge, Zechariah also was given a word to instill hope for Jerusalem’ s future role in God’s kingdom. Even though times were tough now, there were good things coming. Persevere. Hope. To a people who thought that all of Israel’s glory was in the past - Zechariah encouraged them that God was promising greater days ahead. Until then, they were to act faithfully and do what God required of them.
Now, fast forward to Jesus’ time. Remember that the Israel of Jesus’ time was a subservient state in the Roman Empire. Israel was occupied and oppressed by a foreign power. One of the key signs of Zechariah’s promise of the better days of the coming kingdom was the appearance of the conquering king of peace. It was the imagery of the Messiah, the Chosen One, the individual who would lead Israel in a bigger, stronger way than Moses had. Matthew quoted Zechariah 9:9,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So there is the imagery. But consider the larger context from which that verse is quoted:
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.
Then the LORD will appear over them, and his arrow go forth like lightning; the Lord GOD will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south.
The LORD of hosts will protect them,and they shall devour and tread down the slingers; they shall drink their blood like wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar.
On that day the LORD their God will save them for they are the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land.
For what goodness and beauty are his! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.
God was going to raise up a king to throw off Israel’s oppressors and restore Israel to covenant glory. Jesus knew what he was doing by employing specific imagery as the fulfillment of Zechariah’s promise. For our purpose, we need to see that what God promises, God does. What God says will happen, does happen. In taking this ride, in this way, during this time, Jesus was physically and visually declaring himself to be the promised Messiah that Zechariah described 500 years prior. With that claim would come the expectations of deliverance of Israel. Matthew was showing how the stage was set for God’s plans of redeeming Israel – and the whole world – but in a way that people did not understand at of time.
As we sit here today, what are the promises of God that we are waiting and expecting to be fulfilled? Certainly, the full revelation of the kingdom of heaven and the return of Christ have to be at the top of that list. What else? What else happens after the kingdom is revealed and Christ has returned? Though times may be tough now, there are good things coming. Persevere. Hope. To a people who thought that the gospel’s glory days are in the past – be encouraged that God has promised greater days ahead. Until then, we are to act faithfully and do what God requires of us.
Again, Palm Sunday is all about: Look at what God has done, remember what God has promised to do and see God do it.
After giving the Zechariah context for the scene, Matthew returned to the narrative. The disciples went into the village. They found the animals as Jesus had described. They brought the animals back to Jesus, sat him on them and off the group went. And while all that was going on, the crowds were gathering to get into Jerusalem. It was a time of high hopes.
Why was it a time of high hopes? Even before Jesus showed up, it is important to remember that Palm Sunday took place in the context of the celebration of Passover. Jews had come to Jerusalem from all over the country for Passover. Passover was one of the three major annual festivals in Jerusalem. The celebrations lasted a week and – to us – would look a lot like the Nevada Day Parade. There were long lines for everything. There was great anticipation and excitement.
As the people stood in lines, they repeated the rituals from as long back as they could remember. What would they do? The people sang together as a community.
The pilgrims coming into Jerusalem sang songs – songs we have now as Psalms 113-118, the hallelujah psalms. They all knew these songs; they were their version of Christmas Carols. Someone would sing the first line, then they all would join in. There would be a call and response. These Psalms are songs remembering how God delivered them from their enemies.
Further, Passover itself was a festival different than the others. The other two major festivals were based upon celebrations of agricultural themes: first fruits and harvest. Passover celebrated God’s deliverance from the oppression of Egypt – how God showed that he was more powerful than Pharaoh, more powerful than the gods of the most powerful nation on earth.
As a result, the theme of the festival each year put a political edge on the singing. The pilgrims were Jewish, living under Roman occupation. In many ways, these songs were protest songs. As you think about the crowds on Palm Sunday, do not think of an orderly parade like Disney’s Main Street, with people waiting patiently and passively behind ropes. Instead think of the videos we saw during the Arab Spring – the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2011. Large crowds surging this way and that with the military watching to see if they needed to intervene. In Jerusalem, the crowds would be surging to and through the gates. The songs they were singing were much more political than, “It’s A Small World,” or some faux-inspirational pabulum. The lyrics were a statement of defiance to Rome’s claim of sovereignty over them. These songs and these pilgrims shared the hope and confidence that Yahweh will be victorious. They were prayers reminding God of his promises.
The conditions raised the anxiety of Israel’s leaders for the possibility of revolution and riots. Politically, the Jewish leaders recognized that Passover already tested the limits of Roman tolerance and patience. As long as the crowds just sang old patriotic songs, there would not be any problems. As long as the crowds followed the familiar script, the Romans would not intervene. Deviate from the ordinary, add anything that looked like it could spark a revolutionary riot; well, no one could predict how long the Romans would stay on the sidelines.
The crowds began to get excited. They were spreading cloaks on the road before Jesus – a sign of respect for royalty. They began cutting palms to wave and lay before him – the symbol of Israel’s identity as the son of God, God’s chosen people. The call went up for Psalm 118 – and the crowd started singing with a new fervor.
Psalm 118 – even though it was traditional – is a psalm announcing the coming of a king. It remembers God’s goodness to the dynasty of David. It is the culminating psalm of the procession, beginning outside the gates and wrapping up inside the temple. “Hosanna” they cry out, meaning, “O Lord, save us.” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh!” Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
Psalm 118 is a call and response among three parties: the crowd, the king, and the priesthood of Israel. The psalm records the thoughts of the king: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to Yahweh. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation.” In the psalm, the people respond, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Then, the priests were to say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” Though they missed their part, the crowd knew the psalm and still cried out, “Hosanna in the highest!”
The promised Messiah had come to Jerusalem. God showed up. As we close today, how many people do you know who struggle wishing that God would suddenly appear, riding on a white horse like a hero from a movie? Look at Palm Sunday. Friends, what more does God need to do for us to see and believe?
Remember the point of Palm Sunday: Look. See what God is doing.
The shouting of the crowd, the Messianic appearance of Jesus riding on a colt, the approaching Passover, the energy – it all added up to Matthew’s report. “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred – shaken, nervous, anxious, upset – and asked, “Who is this?”
The crowd’s response was, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” The point of Palm Sunday is Jesus. The point of Palm Sunday is the validation of Jesus as the Messiah; the anointed prophet, priest, and king of Israel. For us, the point and application are the same:
Look. See what God has done.
Look. See what God is doing.
Look. See what God will do, what God has promised and will fulfill.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”