Palm Sunday Sermon| April 4, 2004 | Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 21:1-11
While the prophet Zechariah made it clear, it was not clear to the disciples. Every previous time that Jesus had come into Jerusalem He had gone on foot. They could see no reason why this time would be any different. They knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of David. They knew that He was the Son of the living God and the Savior of the world. This was the faith that their Lord Jesus had spent three years teaching them, though their most difficult lessons lay ahead. On this first Palm Sunday they would hear this teaching confessed by the praises of a large congregation. The preachers preach Christ. The hearers confess Christ. The preachers have a single duty. They are to set Christ before the people. The people have a single duty. They are to declare Christ’s praises. On this Palm Sunday, as we direct our attention to Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, let us then consider how Christ is to be preached and praised in our day.
It made no sense for the heir of David’s throne to ride into Jerusalem on a beast of burden. Should He not have entered riding on a war-horse protected by armed soldiers? Instead, He rode into the city in humility on a donkey. Does not a king have power? Why such a humble appearance? Why should a powerful king assume such a posture? While it made little sense to the disciples, they nevertheless did what Jesus told them to do. They went into the little village of Bethphage and they loosed a donkey and her colt from a tree and they brought them to Jesus. They were confident that whoever the owner might be he would be willing to let the Lord Jesus use them. Not that they necessarily had too much confidence in their fellow man, but they did have confidence in Jesus. If Jesus said so that was good enough for them.
The disciples represent the faithful ministers of Christ. They serve the church only by serving Christ. They can be of no benefit to the church unless they carry out the instructions that Jesus gives. They may not presume to go on the basis of what seems good to them. This or that course of action may make sense, but when you are working for someone you do what he says. He makes the decisions. You carry them out.
How did Jesus want to be presented to the people? How did Jesus want to appear before those gathered together to worship Him? He wanted them to see Him riding on a donkey. He wanted them to see Him in a posture of deep humility. He did not want to frighten them or lay any burden on them. He did not want them to perceive Him to be a military ruler or a social reformer or a stern judge. He wanted them to see Him and to know Him as a gentle and lowly king who comes to His people in such a way that they can receive Him.
What if Christ were to appear to us in His native glory as the only begotten God of God and the King of the Universe? What if He chose to come to us without hiding His glory under a cloak of humility? We could not bear to receive Him. Jesus chooses the manner of His coming.
Jesus told His disciples that if anyone questioned their taking the donkey and the colt they should say that the Lord needed them. He did not identify himself as Jesus or even as the Christ or the King of Israel, but as the Lord. When Jesus commands His ministers to do something, it is the Lord God who is issuing the command. The disciples understood that. They did as the Lord Jesus commanded them to do.
They did not assume any authority other than to carry out Jesus’ instructions. They knew that Jesus was in charge. They did not need to be in charge because they knew the One who was in charge. That was enough to compel them to follow His instructions. The minister of Christ sets Christ before the people as Christ Himself determines. The ministers don’t make this decision. The people they serve don’t make this decision. The society at large doesn’t make this decision. Jesus alone makes the decision as to how He will be presented to His people. He decided to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Jesus decides enter His Jerusalem today in similarly humble means. He gives His ministers instructions that they are to follow if they are to be His ministers. They are to preach the gospel. They are to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. They are to absolve the penitent and withhold forgiveness from the impenitent. They are to administer the Lord’s Supper to those who have been baptized and instructed in the saving mysteries of the faith. In none of the duties set down by the Lord of the church for the ministers of the church does he require them to rely on their own clever ingenuity. They are to rely on His plain instructions.
Jesus wants to be revealed in the washing of regeneration. This is not merely an outward washing of the body. This is a washing by which the one who was born of sinful flesh is reborn by the Holy Spirit. Just as we are not born physically by our own power, so we are also powerless to effect our new birth. We baptize babies because we believe this. What can an infant do except to cry? And what can any sinner do to rid himself of his sin but to cry out to Jesus, the sin-bearer for forgiveness? Jesus wants to be revealed in Holy Baptism.
Jesus wants to be revealed in the preaching of His crucifixion. Jesus said, “‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.’ This He said, signifying by what death He would die.” (John 12:32-33) People are not drawn to Jesus by the clever manipulation or skillful oratory of preachers. He draws people to Himself from the cross where He takes upon Himself the burden of all sinners. The message of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins is to some a deep offense to their pride and to others utter foolishness. This is why so many who call themselves ministers of Christ avoid preaching about His blood and righteousness and promote instead a message that they think will win over the crowds. But winning over people to follow a preacher is not the same as winning them over to Christ. St. Paul made it clear to the Corinthian Christians why he preached the crucifixion of Jesus.
For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
Jesus wants to be revealed in the preaching of His crucifixion. And He wants to be revealed in His Supper. If Christ wants us to remember Him by eating His body and drinking His blood, what is it that He wants us to remember? Jesus wants us to see Him at the specific time and place where He redeemed us and set us free from all our sins.
This is why the true ministers of Christ follow His instructions, placing Jesus before the people as Jesus wants it to be done. Jesus remains the Lord of His own church and He will not abdicate that office ever.
Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey foreshadowed His humble suffering. He came in peace to make peace. He signified by the way that He entered into the Holy City that He came, not to fight His enemies with weapons of steel, but to bear in humility the burden of His people. And it was as Savior that the people received Him. A large and adoring crowd surrounded Him. They worshipped Him as their Savior. They laid their own clothes and palm branches on the road before him. They hailed Him who came in the name of the LORD.
The crowd represents the congregation at worship. When we come together to worship we come together to welcome Christ as King. Palm branches are used to pave the way of a mighty ruler. He comes to rule over us. The palms of Palm Sunday honor Christ for who and what He is. He is the Christ, the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. He is the King, who rules over us by His grace. He is the Savior to whom we cry Hosanna, “Save us, Save us now!”
The praise of God’s people is always centered in Jesus and what Jesus does to save us. Nothing is sweeter to God’s ears than the songs His people sing to magnify His grace. In fact, this will be the song of the church in heaven, as we read in Revelation chapter seven,
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)
Nowadays many churches are wracked by controversy over how to worship. It is said that traditional forms of worship with pulpits, altars, hymnals, liturgies, and old hymns will not attract today’s religious seekers into our churches. We should replace chancels with stages, traditional hymns with “praise songs,” and organs with bands featuring drums and guitars. Usually the worship wars center on the kind of music and liturgical forms that are used. While this is important, the focus of our praise is much more important.
The problem with so much of the “contemporary worship” so touted by self-appointed Church Growth experts is not primarily the quality of the music. It is the quality of the theology. It celebrates the piety of the Christian instead of God’s grace in Christ. What does it mean to praise God? We do express to Him how much we love Him and adore Him and want to serve Him. But true Christian praise is not focused on how much we love God. It is always centered in how much God loves us. There is no greater hymn of praise than the hymn that asks God to be gracious to us. That’s what He wants us to ask for. “Hosanna! Save us now! Come to our aid! We need you. We cannot love you, worship you, or serve you unless you come to us and humbly bear with us in our weaknesses.”
Jesus rode the donkey to His death. There he answered the plea of the crowd for salvation in the only way He could answer it. He became their Savior by taking upon Himself the sin from which they needed to be saved. No one was singing His praises when He did it, but wherever Jesus comes to serve His church through the gospel and sacraments He gives His ministers to administer, through this holy ministry He elicits true praise. True preaching presents Jesus to His people as He suffered for their sins. True praise glorifies God in Christ for that suffering and imitates Him in His humility. Our King still comes to us, humble and bringing us salvation. And He still cherishes the hosannas that we sing.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus