Palm Sunday Sermon| March 20, 2005| Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 21:1-11
A lectionary is a list of Scripture readings assigned for every Sunday and festival day of the church year. The church followed the same lectionary for about fifteen hundred years until sometime during the 1970s when a three-year series was introduced. I followed the three-year lectionary for several years until I was persuaded that the historic lectionary was better. If you hear the same Epistle Lesson and the same Gospel Lesson read every year, over the years you will learn these portions of God’s word quite well. Hearing them every three years is not enough. So while the three-year lectionary has the advantage of having three times as many lessons, the historic one-year lectionary has the advantage of being heard three times as often. Regular churchgoers in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and older will likely be quite familiar with all fifty two of the Gospel readings in the historic lectionary.
But actually, while there are fifty-two Sundays in a year, there are only fifty-one Gospel lessons in the historic lectionary. That’s because the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent and the Gospel for Palm Sunday are the same: the account in St. Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. A portion of this Gospel lesson also found its way into the church’s liturgy a very long time ago, as early as the second century. Before the church goes to Communion she sings:
Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.
The three holies come from Isaiah chapter six where Isaiah saw the Lord God in a vision and was undone by the sight of such pure holiness. The hosannas come from Palm Sunday where the huge crowd of people praised Jesus as the Son of David. The praises of Palm Sunday have found a permanent home in the life of Christ’s church.
The cry of the Palm Sunday crowd was “Hosanna,” which means “save, now!” It is taken from Psalm 118 where we read:
The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I pray, O LORD; O LORD, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. (Psalm 118:22-26)
Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected. That would become apparent not long after the Palm Sunday crowd dispersed. The machinations of the clerical hierarchy would try to bring an end to Jesus’ reign before it even began. But they didn’t understand the psalm. The stone that the builders rejected would become the chief cornerstone precisely by means of being rejected by the builders. The Jewish leaders who rejected Christ did not destroy His reign. The very opposite occurred. His rejection sent Him to the cross and it was from the cross, as Jesus was lifted up as King, that He established His everlasting kingdom.
He rode into Jerusalem in humility. He rode into Jerusalem to die. When Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem He set His face toward death. Even while He listened to the cries of adoration and blessing and pleas for salvation He knew that the love would soon dissipate and He would suffer all alone. Jesus predicted His betrayal, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. We read in Matthew Mat 16:21,
From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.
And again in Matthew 20:17-19,
Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.”
Jesus went to Jerusalem. He rode into the holy city on a borrowed donkey. He didn’t ride on a war-horse like an earthly king. He didn’t come to impose His reign by force. St. Paul writes, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 3:15) “Hosanna! Save us, and save us now. We are sinners in need of a Savior who will deliver us from the evil within our own hearts. Hosanna! Save now! We cannot wait until tomorrow because we might die tonight. Hosanna in the highest! Only the God against whom we have sinned and whose majesty we have offended can forgive us of our sins and rescue us from the punishment we have earned. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you because you come in mercy to bring us eternal blessings. We bless you because you alone are our Savior from our sins and from death and from all evil.”
The cried “hosanna” to the King who humbled Himself to ride on a donkey. The prophet said He would. He wrote:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9
There are no accidents in God’s plan of salvation. The prophet said that the long awaited King of Israel would come to His people in humility, riding on a beast of burden. Those laboring under the burden of their own sin recognized Him. They saw their gracious God underneath the humble exterior. They cried out in adoration. Five days later another crowd cried out for Jesus’ blood. The first crowd worshipped Jesus. The second crowd mocked Him. The first crowd prayed for forgiveness and salvation. The second crowd demanded punishment and vengeance. Jesus could not have answered the plea of the first crowd without enduring what the second crowd demanded. But He did not give in to the demand of the Good Friday mob. No, he answered the prayer of the Palm Sunday worshippers. It was not the cry of bloodlust that put Jesus on the cross. It was the cry for mercy, for forgiveness, for salvation, for life that we sinners offer to God repeatedly throughout our lives.
We offer our cries and our pleas in weakness. God answers our cries by setting aside the exercise of His almighty power and assuming the form of a slave. He humbled Himself and became obedient to the demands of justice – demands that demanded we face punishment. He faced our punishment in our place. And by humbling Himself to the death of the cross He gained the name that is above every name. In gaining that name He gained our salvation.
We praise God by praising Christ in His deepest humiliation. The adoration of naïve and ignorant children is more precious than acceptance into the most exclusive religious clubs. The glory of palms strewed before a donkey and her colt is more beautiful than the glittering gold of the temple itself. And His suffering on the cross where He bore our sin is for us the priceless treasure that brings us to heaven. Our faith holds on to that suffering and sees in it the humiliation that brings us eternal glory.
Christ keeps coming to His people today in response to their hosannas. He isn’t riding on a donkey. He comes in the Lord’s Supper. In, with, and under the forms of bread and wine He comes with His body and blood to save us. We sing hosanna in the highest. What then does the Lord Jesus do? He, who is highly exalted, who has the name that is above every name, who sits at the right hand of the Father, joins His holy body and blood to the sacramental bread and wine and feeds us with the food of salvation. This is why we treasure the Lord’s Supper more than life itself.
Learn from Jesus in what true greatness consists. He was rejected by the clerical hierarchy of His day. He showed Himself the King of Israel while riding a borrowed donkey. In His humility He showed His power to save us all. He bore humiliation and shame because He loved us. This is how we show our love for Him. We bear slights, insults, and the unfair treatment of others. We look at the attitude that Jesus displayed as He was answering our prayer for eternal salvation. As He was earning heaven for us He demonstrated a willingness to endure every kind of injustice. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5) The King who comes to us in the Divine Service is the King we worship every day, day after day, as mothers and mothers, students, farmers, nurses, mechanics, teachers, laborers, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives. What is worship? It is ascribing worth to God. What has God shown us that is most worthy of our worship? Where is God’s greatest attribute most clearly revealed to the world? “Herein is love,” St. John writes, “Not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) How did Christ do this? How did He take away God’s anger against us sinners and establish true peace with God? It was by humbling Himself the death of the cross to save us. Here we see God’s love in its purity and loveliness. So we will cherish that love by humbling ourselves before each other and forgiving each other in the name of Jesus. That we may to do this and that God accepts such humble service as an offering to Him is one of the greatest privileges in being a Christian.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus