Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

He will be the King of Peace

The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day, which is Palm Sunday, showcases a longing. There’s a longing in the human heart. That longing is for a strong leader. That probably doesn’t seem obvious. Many will say: “Let me earn a living. Let me raise my family. And don’t interfere too much.” The eighteenth-century playwright Voltaire told us to ignore the violence and plunder of kings and mind our own business. He famously said: we must take care of our own gardens. It sounds good, but when times are chaotic, when our institutions fail, we long for a strong leader to restore order and to assure us that everything will be okay. That’s why those in power are fearful in times of civil unrest. Remember Germany in the 1930s? Closer to home are the demagogues that emerged during the Great Depression. Charles Coughlin, the Catholic Priest from Detroit, seized the new medium of radio and stirred up the passions of millions.

In retrospect, we see these figures as dangerous. But their appearance is always a very present possibility in our world. In fact, some are afraid that they’ll arise again in our own time, especially if the COVID-19 crisis escalates.  But why are we so drawn to these figures when they do arise? It’s because they appeal to our imagination. With their charisma, with their words, they paint us a picture of a better world—a lost Eden where justice prevails and prosperity abounds.   

Let us for a moment imagine the world of Jesus. Today, Palm Sunday, he’s riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is a public action, fraught with meaning. Before, he moved around incognito. He even warned people not to tell about him. But that’s all behind him now. When his disciples seated him on the donkey, when the people spread out their cloaks before him, when the crowds shouted their hosannas, there can be no more uncertainty. This is the last king of Israel, the Son of David, to whom the promises of God apply. This is the heir from David’s own body, whose throne God promised to establish forever.

Let’s consider the scene more closely. Why does Jesus ride a donkey? It’s in keeping with the kings before him. In 1 Kings 1, Solomon succeeds his father David as king. He rides David’s mule. This is a public proclamation that Solomon’s rule is under David’s blessing. In 2 Kings 9 Jehu is anointed as king by a prophet. When Jehu told others that a prophet anointed him as king, they immediately spread their cloaks before him to acknowledge him as their new monarch. If this is still unclear, the prophecy from Zechariah spells it out:  “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” When the Jews see Jesus on the donkey, they will understand what’s going on. This is the Davidic king they have been expecting for hundreds of years.

As the people responded to Jehu with a shout, “Hail, King of the Jews!” So now they cry out today: “Hosanna, to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” means “save us now!” it is addressed to the one through whom God’s saving power flows—in acts of love, healing and forgiveness, as we have seen in recent weeks. Now Jesus enters into Jerusalem, the city of the great king. He’s about to assume his rightful throne. Jesus’ reign as king will bring heaven’s peace to earth. This is the climactic moment! “Hosanna in the highest”—the people’s praise echoes that of the angels on that first Christmas night. “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth and good will towards all.” Could this really be happening?

We know how widespread the hope was in those days. Not only among the Jews but also among the Romans. Public documents that date back to time of the emperor Augustus make this clear. With his rise to power, the people hailed him as Savior. They celebrated him as a god with whose birth a new age was dawning. With him the bloody civil wars had come to an end; with him a universal reign of peace was about to begin. The words from an inscription found at Halicarnassus puts this eloquently:

For pacified is the earth and the sea; the cities flourish, there is love of order, concord, good fellowship, prosperity and abundance of everything good. With hopes for the future, and good feeling toward the present, mankind is fulfilled.”

These are the kind of words that conjure up for us an image of our lost Eden.  

But let me ask this: did Augustus Caesar and his successors live up to these hopes? Listen to the Roman historian Tacitus, writing a mere 85 years after the death of Augustus.

“To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, the Romans call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

Indeed, to make peace, or pacification, came to mean something else entirely. It means to subdue your enemies by force. Imposing peace by violence—that is a contradiction in terms. But that was and is our world. No restoration of Eden here, only disappointed hopes.

But what about Jesus? It’s interesting to read the rest of the prophecy in Zechariah, even though Matthew’s Gospel does not include it. “He will cut off the chariot from Israel and the war-horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bo shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10). This king, riding on a colt, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war horses or boes. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be the king of peace.

The same hopes are invested in him. But what happened? Stay tuned. That will unfold in the upcoming days. We know there will be a fatal collision. He has enemies who reject his claim to be king. One of his disciples hands him over to his enemies; and finally, the Jewish authorities arrest him, try him, and hand him over to the Romans. They condemn him to a violent death.

It was a violent world then, and a violent world now. Rulers still use violence to protect their power. And revolutionaries still use violence to seize power. But Jesus will not play be these rules. He will not impose peace by violence. That is a contradiction in terms. Rather he will absorb violence in his own body on the cross. It’s on the cross that he paradoxically subdues his enemies, making them friends of God and of each other. It’s on the cross that he will be revealed as king of peace. But about this we will learn more later this week.    

We celebrate on Palm Sunday. Or at least we usually do when we are together. The mood is festive. From the time it was adopted by the church in the middle ages, the procession with palms had a triumphal character. It was a real feast of Christ the King. So let us observe Palm Sunday in our homes with joy.

At the same time, let us not miss the meaning of those acclamations. We have already said that “Hosanna!” means “save us now.” How many people in our world are still crying out today: “O Lord, save us now! Save us from pestilence and violence and death!”

The Christian faith is an “already/ “not yet” faith. God’s people have already been saved, but saved in hope (Rom. 8:24). God’s people already have the “guarantee of the Spirit” (Eph. 1:13-14), but they don’t yet have the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Christ has already been enthroned as king. But his kingdom has not yet come on earth, as it is in heaven.

Today we are undergoing a global crisis. The social and economic costs will probably be high. There may be profound civil unrest. Leaders will emerge. Don’t place your ultimate hope in them. They can’t ultimately save us. And if the crisis worsens, and demagogues emerge, don’t even listen to them. They can positively destroy us.

Instead place your ultimate hope in the resurrected and ascended Christ, the prince of peace, the king of kings and lord of lords. Shelter in place in him. He is a wise and benevolent king. He is faithful to watch over us and provide for us. He is in control. And one day this will be manifest to all. Amen. 

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