Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:1-11

When I was growing up in Chicago I would spend at least two weeks every summer at a Christian camp off in the woods, far from the asphalt and concrete of my urban environment. I can remember as if it was yesterday the campfire songs we learned during those years. One of them was entitled, “Everybody ought to know who Jesus is.” When I was singing that song over forty years ago, I had no idea that I would be preaching on that topic these forty years later. However, that is exactly what I am going to do today. I believe that the words of that campfire song point to one of the most urgent and important issues that people will ever face in their lives. I believe with all my heart that “everybody ought to know who Jesus is.”

Today I want you to consider that this is the most important question that a Christian will ever have to answer; who is Jesus? That is the question that has been debated by believers and non-believers since the day Jesus preached his first sermon in Nazareth at the beginning of his public ministry. Who is this man named Jesus? This is not an academic question or a philosophical exercise; this is the central issue of the Christian faith. To be a Christian is not primarily about the church you attend, or the denomination to which you belong, or the forms and styles of worship you observe. Standing at the heart of the Christian is offering the correct answer to one simple question; who is Jesus? Who do you say that he is?

Throughout the New Testament one person after another struggled to know who Jesus was. John the Baptist was sitting in prison, but he sent word through one of his disciples. The question that John raised was this; “are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Who is this? Later in his life when he stood before Pontius Pilate that Roman governor wondered about this and said to Jesus, “are you the king of Jews?” Come with me out to the Sea of Galilee where a terrible storm has left the disciples of Jesus frightened and faithless. Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat and they awaken him to do something that might save their lives. The Lord looks out upon that terrible tempest and simply says, “peace, be still”, and the storm comes to an immediate halt. It is then that his disciples say to one another, “who is this that even the winds and the waves obey him?” Everywhere he went during the three years of his public ministry people from every walk of life could be heard asking the same question where Jesus was concerned; “who is this?”

In Matthew 16 Jesus raised this question with his disciples in two distinct forms. First, he asked them, “who do men say that I am?” The answers he received were widely differing. The disciples said, “some say that you are Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets, and others say that you are John the Baptist come back to life.” Having heard what others thought, Jesus addressed that same question to his disciples, to those twelve men who had known him the longest and who had walked with him more closely than any others; “and who do you say that I am?” I find it interesting that only Peter spoke up in response to that question, and I would suspect that even he did not speak right away. The other eleven never did answer the question, and when Peter did speak he spoke only for himself; “I say that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

This same split in public opinion concerning the true identity of Jesus occurs again on the day when he made his entrance into Jerusalem. Some people laid their coats on the ground to form a kind of “red carpet” treatment as Jesus passed by. Those same people also waved palm branches in the air to salute the coming of a conquering king. But not everybody in Jerusalem was part of the welcoming committee. There were some in that crowd who were not waving palm branches. Instead they were seeking an answer to a question. In Matthew 21:10 their voice is heard as they inquire “Who is this?”

Listen to how Matthew 21 describes this critical exchange. In Matthew 21:10 there is the question that is on the heart of some; “who is this?” In verse 11 there is the answer that comes from the heart of others; “this is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth.” Notice that nobody said that Jesus was the Son of God. Nobody said that he was the Christ. The people who had an answer could only imagine that Jesus was yet another in a long line of prophets. No matter where you looked on that first Palm Sunday, there was no consensus on the question of who is Jesus. Some had a very limited answer and some had no answer whatsoever. Yet, I say again that having the right answer to this question is the very center and substance of the Christian faith.

Here we are observing Palm Sunday in 2003. Soon we will distribute palm branches to each of you as a reminder of the events of that first Palm Sunday. But remember that the palms were being waved in the air by people who thought they knew who Jesus was. However, not everybody was waving palm branches that day. The Pharisees and other Jewish leaders had already heard about Jesus. They knew who he was and they did not want him in their city. They were not a part of the palm-waving crowd.

As the procession of Jesus went by, the Romans who stood guard were not waving palm branches or laying their scarlet cloaks on the road while this Jewish carpenter rode by. They were fingering their swords and closing ranks in case that boisterous crowd began to get out of hand. And finally there were the other people in Jerusalem who did not know what was going on, who did not why the city was so excited, who did not know anything about the man seated on the donkey who was being welcomed with such jubilation. Listen to their voice today and let their question be your question as well. As you receive your palm branch today you need to know exactly why you are doing so. You need to understand exactly what it represents. You need to ask yourself the question of Matthew 21:10; “who is this?”

I want to press you on this question, because there are too many people in our churches across the country and around the world who are informed and expert on almost everything else except this one question. They know all about being a Baptist. They know the doctrine, the history and the social agenda. I know a great many people who know all about being a Baptist, but who are not exactly sure who Jesus is. There are some people who are experts in the content of the Bible. They have read it and studied it in several languages. They know all about its literary composition and its historical setting. They may have even committed great parts of the Bible to memory. They know all about what the Bible says about Jesus, but in their own hearts they have no persuasive answer to this central question; who is Jesus?

I want everybody under the sound of my voice today to commit not to allow another day to go by without being convinced in your heart about who Jesus is. All other aspects of your life will be impacted by your answer to this one question. If you say that Jesus is just another in a long line of prophets, you may end up paying no more attention to him than to the writings of Jeremiah or Isaiah or Amos. If you say that Jesus was just another great teacher, you might feel at liberty to embrace the parts of his teaching that you agree with and leave the rest alone. If you say that Jesus is just another religious leader like Moses, or Buddha or Muhammad, then you might end up choosing to follow one of them and not following Jesus. But if you say that Jesus is the Son of God, if you say that Jesus is the king of kings, if you say that Jesus is the savior of the world, that answer will alter how you live every aspect of your life for as long as you live.

Who is this? asked the people in the Palm Sunday crowd. Somebody should have told them what Jesus had said about himself that was later recorded in the Gospel of John. Seven times the Lord tried to define himself so people would know who he was. He said, “I am the bread of life.” Then he said, “I am the light of the world.” He went on to say “I am the door” and “I am the good shepherd.” Next he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He followed that by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Finally he said “I am the true vine and my father is the vine keeper. He that abides in me and I in him, the same shall bear much fruit.”

Who is this asked the Palm Sunday crowd? Somebody should have told them what God had to say about the identity of Jesus. On two separate occasions God spoke directly to this issue. The first time was immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River in Matthew 3:17. The second time occurred during the Transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17when he appeared on a mountain top with Moses and Elijah, and when his clothes and his face seemed to shine like the sun. On both of those occasions God declared who Jesus was when he said: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” I say again, that everybody ought to know for themselves who Jesus is.

Before we go any further in attempting to answer this question about who is Jesus, let’s study this passage and the passage in Zechariah 9:9 more carefully. It may well be that in these two passages we will see the tips and clues that Jesus himself gives to the crowd as he made his way into the city. Zechariah 9:9 is a passage that foretold the coming of the Messiah of Israel. That word Messiah is a Hebrew word that means “the anointed one.” When you translate the phrase “the anointed one” from Hebrew into Greek you come up with the term Christ. The Christ or the Messiah was the anointed one. The Christ or the Messiah was the person that God would ordain and empower to accomplish his purposes on the earth.

For over 700 years the Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah to come. They believed that when the Messiah came he would restore Israel to the status and glory it had not enjoyed since the days of David and Solomon. But how would you know that someone was the real and true Messiah. Zechariah says you will know the Messiah when two things happen. First, that person is going to ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Second, when that day comes the people will respond by shouting, “Hosanna, blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” For 700 years there is no report of anybody riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and being met by a crowd that cried out Hosanna and hallelujah.

Now notice the careful instructions that Jesus gives his disciples about going to a certain man and getting a donkey upon which he could ride into Jerusalem. They may not have understood what was going on, but Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. Jesus was at that moment announcing to all that were paying attention that he was the Messiah for which they had been waiting. He was the lily of the valley. He was the fairest of ten thousand. He was the bright and morning star. Jesus was taking upon himself every description of the Messiah that the Old Testament had provided. When he rode into town Jesus was declaring I am that “wonderful counselor.” I am that mighty God.” I am that “everlasting father.” I am that “prince of peace.”

Those who saw him riding into town on that donkey and who knew about the prophecy of Zechariah responded as the prophet had predicted; they laid their cloaks in the road. They waved palm branches in the air. They shouted Hosanna as Jesus passed by. But there were others in the same city at the same time that had no idea what was going on, and all they could say was “who is this?”

May I suggest that people who know who Jesus is are far more likely to shout out their hosannas and their hallelujahs, and that people who do not really understand who Jesus is are far more likely to stand by and wonder what is wrong with the people who are making all of that noise. When you know who Jesus is you do not mind celebrating in that knowledge. When I remind myself that Jesus is co-equal with God, and yet he humbled himself and died on the cross as atonement for my sin, I don’t mind saying “hallelujah!” When I remind myself that Jesus knew no sin, and yet out of a deep love for us and out of a deep obedience to God he took upon himself the sins of the whole world, I don’t mind saying “hallelujah!”

I love one line in particular in the song “How Great Thou Art.” That line says:

And when I think that God His son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee,
How great Thou art.

When you know who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in your life you are far more likely to shout out your hallelujahs. But if you do not know him as savior and Lord, about all you can do is watch the Lord passing by in the lives of others and raise the question that was raised in that Palm Sunday crowd; “who is this?”

Take a closer look at this scene both in Zechariah and in Matthew and consider the implications of the king of kings riding into the Holy City of Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. What kind of an entrance is that for the Son of God? Why didn’t he come into town galloping along on a white stallion? That is the way the Caesar of Rome would have made his entrance. Why didn’t he come in a golden chariot being drawn by prancing ponies? That is the way the Pharaohs of Egypt would have shown up. In fact, why not descend to earth while riding upon the clouds of heaven? That is the way the Son of God ought to make his appearance. Why would Jesus come into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey?

The answer is both simple and complex; it was a sign of his humility and of the humility he expects all of us to exhibit. More importantly, it was an indication of the fact that he was not going to impose himself upon the people of Jerusalem and make them believe in him. Instead, he was going to offer his Gospel message and invite them to believe in him. Riding on that donkey was the sign of a Messiah who has the power to save and to deliver from sin, but each person must choose Christ for themselves. Riding into town on that lowly beast of burden was the sign that savior had come, but he would not mandate our faith. Instead he would make himself available to anyone who chose to have faith in him and to follow him.

This is the challenge of every sermon and of every Sunday morning; it is to remind people that they must choose Christ for themselves. Religion cannot be rammed down your throat. You must choose it for yourself. Religion cannot be borrowed from somebody else in your family or from among your friends. You have to choose Jesus for yourself. Christ has the power to save. Christ has the power to heal and to help. Christ has the power to pick us up and turn us around and set our feet on solid ground. But the Christ of the donkey will not impose himself upon you. He will not try to conquer your heart. He is meek and lowly, and all he will do is say “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I’m so glad I came to Jesus a long time ago. I’m so glad I came to know him as Savior and Lord. I’m glad today that I don’t have to ask the question “who is this?” I know who Jesus is and I hope you do, too. He is my bridge over troubled waters. He is my friend when nobody else will stand at my side. He is my rock in a weary land and my shelter in the time of storm. He is the guide for my steps, the center of my joy, the lifter of my burdens, and he is the one who hears and answers my prayers. Thank God, I know who Jesus is.

Do you know who Jesus is today? What do you have to say about Jesus? Will somebody hear you say that he is your “way maker?” Will somebody else declare that he is your passport from the confines of the grave and your promise of life everlasting?” Who will declare that “Jesus is all the world to me, my life my joy, my all. He is my strength from day to day and without him I would fall?” Do you know who Jesus is today?

Let me close by reminding you of what David said about the Lord, because we can use those same words in answering the question “who is this?” David said:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He makes me to lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul,
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for You are with me,
Your rod and your staff they comfort me,
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,
You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over,
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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Marvin A. McMickle is pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.

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About The Author

Marvin A. McMickle is the president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. A pastor for more than 30 years, he has also taught preaching at New York, New Brunswick and Princeton Theological Seminaries. From 1987-2011 he was Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. He was the Professor of Homiletics at Ashland Theological Seminary from 1996-2011. Upon leaving Ashland he was voted by his faculty colleagues to be Professor Emeritus. He is a member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He was elected to be the 12th President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2011.

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