Sermon: Palm Sunday
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Palm Sunday was the first time Jesus ever appeared in the great, bustling city of Jerusalem. Jesus knew that His ministry would not be complete and His mission would not be successful unless and until He took His gospel message from the small towns of Galilee in the northern part of Israel and declared it in the great Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus had spent three years preaching, teaching and healing throughout the small and sometimes remote towns of Capernaum, Nazareth and Bethsaida. Like a baseball player who wants to show his stuff in the Major Leagues or an entertainer who knows a career is not complete until you get to Broadway in New York or a film studio in Hollywood, Jesus knew that He had to take His message to the great city of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was where every new idea and every new philosophy had to end up sooner or later. If you were to study the trajectory of the New Testament, it begins in small towns such as Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum and Bethsaida; but the road ahead always seems to be pointing to a more critical site in which the drama of the story could fully and finally unfold. There is absolutely no question about the fact that the key to the gospel being able to reach to the ends of the earth as commanded in Matthew 28 was that Jesus first take the gospel to Jerusalem.
Jesus had to go to Jerusalem for the same reason Paul knew he had to go to Athens, then Ephesus, then on to Rome. The gospel had to be declared in places that served as the crossroads of culture and ideas. The message had to be preached in places where the world always was coming and going so people who heard it could take the message with them wherever they went. Coming to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was not a casual occurrence; it was a strategic decision and a necessary first step in the process of global evangelization!
Things are not very different today when it comes to providing maximum exposure for any idea you might want to put forward. In Ohio, for example, if you had a message that you wanted to share with the widest possible audience, would you share it only in Coshocton, Chillicothe or Canton; or would you try to get to Cleveland or Columbus or Cincinnati where the traffic lanes are more crowded and the cultural exchanges are more frequent?
If you wanted to run an ad in a newspaper in the hope of reaching the widest possible audience, would you put in the local Shaker Heights Sun Press or run it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that has national distribution? There is nothing wrong with small towns or small newspapers, but getting a message out is a simple matter of efficiency and impact. It is quite often the fact that the right word preached to the right people who are situated in just the right place at the right time can have a major impact.
Howard Thurman was dean of the chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. He explained why he left his church in San Francisco in order to assume that new preaching responsibility on the East Coast. He said he went to the place where he thought he would have “the maximum possibility of contagion.” He went to the place where he thought his words and actions could reach the widest possible audience and have the greatest possible impact.
Jesus seems to have understood this principle of “maximum contagion.” So on the day we now call Palm Sunday, He left behind places such as Nazareth, Capernaum and Bethany and marched His followers into Jerusalem. He had the right message and Jerusalem was the right place to preach it if He wanted to reach the widest possible audience.
We can discover something about the people of Jerusalem as we look at the Palm Sunday narrative in Matthew. The story boils down to an encounter between two groups of people. Some in the crowd knew who Jesus was and had heard all the stories about Him. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, this first group responded by crying out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” However, there were others in Jerusalem that day who had no idea who Jesus was; they were probably the overwhelming majority of the residents and religious pilgrims in the city. Their response was not to line His path with palm branches and a garment-laden welcome mat; their response was dismissive and full of contempt: Who is this?
On the one hand, says Matthew, there were people who were laying their garments on the ground and tearing off branches from trees to create a kind of “red-carpet arrival” for the Man they believed to be the Messiah, the Son of God—or at least the One they thought might be the Son of David, an earthly king who would overthrow the Romans and re-establish Israel to its former glory as it enjoyed in the days of David and Solomon. These were the people who were making all the noise and creating all the uproar; they were welcoming the change they thought Jesus’ arrival was about to create.
On the other hand, there were the urbane and sophisticated citizens of the bustling city of Jerusalem who had no idea what was going on that day. It may be hard for us to believe this today in a world of global communications that can bring the most remote locations on earth right into our own living rooms, but most of the people in Jerusalem never had heard about Jesus before that day. There were, after all, 12 gates into and out of the city of Jerusalem. Depending on the gate through which you entered, it was possible for most people in the city to have no idea that anything was going on across town. Most of those who observed the events of Palm Sunday had no idea who this was at the center of all the commotion.
I imagine some of the Pharisees had heard rumors about Jesus concerning His teachings and miracles. I also imagine a few Roman officials had been keeping their eyes on Jesus during the preceding three years as the crowds that began to follow Him got bigger and bigger. If you had asked the average Jerusalem citizen about the Man who rode into town, sitting on a donkey, they never would have associated this fact with the prophecy that foretold of this event. So, not everyone in town was shouting Hosanna; for many in that ancient city, the only response to the procession was: Who is this?
In order to enter into this text, you need to use your imagination and wonder about the tone of voice in which their question was being asked. You can tell a lot about what people think simply by listening to their tone of voice when they ask questions. I think there are two possibilities when it comes to how the question: Who is this? may have been posed. On the one hand, it might have been a tone of contempt and derision. It was as if they were looking down on Jesus as a country boy who was not ready for the big city. He wasn’t dressed in the latest fashions or moving about with the swagger or confidence of the great leaders they frequently saw moving through their city.
After all, He was dressed in common robes. Worse yet, instead of riding on a white stallion as a Roman conqueror would do, Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The people would’ve been aware of the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9 that the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem in that way, but they were unable or unwilling to connect the Messianic prophecy to the Man they saw before them. Hear the scorn in their voices: Who is this? Hear the sneer and contempt in their voices as they disdainfully dismiss Jesus: Who is this?
This was not the only time in Scripture when news about Jesus was met with scorn and disdain. You get a sense of that in John 1:46 when Philip tells Nathaniel that he wants to take him to meet Jesus, whom Philip believes to be the Messiah. When Nathaniel finds out Jesus comes from the small town of Nazareth, he says, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” That kind of contempt for people from small towns is how many in the crowd viewed Jesus on that first Palm Sunday.
For those who’ve seen Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X, they may recall a scene of the man then known as Malcolm Little walking into a famous night club on 125th Street in New York, wearing a bright red pin striped suit, a wide brimmed red hat with a six-inch feather tucked in the band, all topped off by bright red and white shoes. Against the polished elegance of everybody else in that room, Malcolm stood out like a sore thumb. You could see the same question on the faces of everybody he passed by that night: Who is this clown?
As painful as it may be to our ears and hearts, imagine that many people in Jerusalem had a similar perception of Jesus: Who is this? Imagine them saying these words with all the scorn and contempt they could muster. Not everybody was waving palm branches on that first Palm Sunday; some people were too busy laughing at One who seemed to be an over-reaching, common, country bumpkin.
Imagine there were those in the city who legitimately were impressed by One who could bring crowds of people out into the streets to cheer as He passed. They may not have known who Jesus was, but it was obvious that many people did know Him. Who is this who can cause people to take off their coats and lay them on the ground so His donkey could walk over them? Who is this for whom people would tear palm branches off the trees to create a carpet? None of the priests in the Temple were welcomed in that way. Certainly no Roman—not even the governor, Pontius Pilate—had received a hero’s welcome like that. Imagine, therefore, that some people in the city were impressed by what they saw, and they wanted to know more about the Man who had caused such a response.
The question of Palm Sunday remains the question for us to consider on this Sunday 2,000 years later: Who is this? This was not simply a matter of interest for the residents of Jerusalem; this is the question that is still being asked and answered today. Who is Jesus, and why should we pay attention to His teachings? Who is Jesus, and why have so many people put their lives under His authority?
Some people are still contemptuous of Jesus. In the 21st century, there are an increasing number of people who are disinterested in religion of any form. They are not in any church this morning. They are not receiving strips of palm branches as a reminder of that first Palm Sunday. There are still people in every city and town around the world who say: Who is this? Who is Jesus, and why should I listen to Him? In a world full of many religions and philosophies, where people either believe all religions are the same or that some vague spirituality is all they need or want, it is important for us to have an answer to the question: Who is Jesus?
I do not want to be disrespectful of other religions; I just want to say:
“My hope is built on nothing less,
“Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
“I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
“But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
“On Christ the solid rock I stand;
“All other ground is sinking sand.”
The other side of the question also applies today; there are people who are overwhelmed by what they have heard and seen from Jesus; and they wonder: Who is this who is able to achieve such marvelous things? The world is full of books that have a shelf life of a few months to a few years, after which nobody reads it any more. Then there is the story of Jesus as found in the New Testament. This book has been handed down from generation to generation and from one language to another for nearly 2,000 years. Kingdoms have risen and fallen. Ideologies and philosophies have come in and gone out of fashion, but during all that time and despite all the other voices and views, people are still lifting up the name of Jesus. Who is this who is able to remain relevant in His teachings and receive reverence from those who hear His voice?
Many people are living lives today that they could not have imagined when they were younger. Maybe you were born into limited means and impoverished circumstances. Maybe you were born in a place where people thought you never would emerge; and if you did emerge, they were sure you would not amount to anything.
Then you met Jesus and He began to open doors in your life, and you found yourself going places and receiving blessings you might never have imagined otherwise. Who is this who could take men such as Peter, James and John and turn those fishermen from Capernaum into household names in every corner of the earth? Who is this that could take a Pharisee named Saul—an opponent to Christianity—and in a single encounter on the Damascus Road turn him into the chief proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the very Man whose name he once had attempted to abolish?
Who is this who can take people who passed through the dark night of sorrow and suffering and transform them into surgeons, teachers, musicians, scientists, preachers, scholars and statesmen? Who is this who can take the sons and daughters of poverty and limited means and bring them into lives of promise and prosperity and potential? Who is this who can look upon injustice all over the world and infuse the people living under oppression and injustice with the belief that things can be better, then equip those people to go about doing the work that will make their world a better place? Who is this? Only a sovereign God can do something like that.
Who is this? was the question in the crowd on that day, and that question stands here today waiting for each one of us to offer an answer. Who is this? Do you speak the words with scorn and contempt? Or do you hold a better view of Jesus? Do you agree with those throughout Israel who believed Jesus was a prophet? That is what many of His followers said as Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day: “This is Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth in Galilee.” All they could say is that He is like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos or one of the prophets.
That is what all but one of the disciples told Jesus in the 16th chapter when He asked them, “Who do men say that I am?” The best they could say was, “Some say You are Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist or another prophet.” That was as far as their minds could reach. What they said was not wrong, but it was insufficient. Thank God for that one disciple who had a different response. Thank God for Peter who declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
That’s the answer to the question in the crowd on that first Palm Sunday. Let me see if I can put my own personal touch on the answer given by Peter. Who is this?
He is the Son of God,
He is the Architect of the whole of creation,
He is the Victor over sin, hell and the grave,
He is the second Person of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Who is this?
He is the Wonderful Counselor and the Mighty God of Isaiah,
He is the One about whom John the Baptist preached in the wilderness,
He is the One whose birthplace in Bethlehem was foretold by Micah,
He is the One after whom an entire floral shop could be named:
• Rose of Sharon,
• Lily of the valley,
He is the fairest of ten thousand to my soul,
He is the Lamb of God whose blood has washed away my sins,
He is the Pearl without price that placed an even greater value on our lives,
He is the Man they loved on Palm Sunday, condemned, killed and buried on Good Friday, but who got up on Easter with all power in His hands.
Who is this?
• Caesar is dead and forgotten, but Jesus still sits on the throne.
• The high priest Caiaphas who schemed to have him killed is a minor footnote in history, but Jesus remains the central figure in the world today.
• Pontius Pilate washed his hands with water, but Jesus washed my soul clean with His precious blood.
• Judas got 30 pieces of silver and then committed suicide; but Jesus, who was crucified and buried, now sits at the right hand of God in heaven.
Who is this? Let us conclude that Jesus is the One about whom the triumphant
hymn was written:
“All hail the power of Jesus’ name,
“Let angels prostrate fall.
“Bring forth the royal diadem and
“Crown Him Lord of all!”
That’s who He is; He is the Lord of all. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He is the Lord of the past, present and future. He is the Lord of the living and the dead. He is the Lord from the guttermost to the uttermost. He is Lord of all! The next time somebody asks you: Who is this?—whether he or she speaks with contempt or amazement—this is what you can tell them:
He is Lord.
He is Lord.
He is risen from the dead, and He is Lord.
Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess,
That Jesus Christ is Lord!
That is who Jesus is.