Matthew 21:1-11: Jesus Still Comes to Us

Palm Sunday4 (610x351)People confess what is within them by what they do.  People show what they believe by what they do with their hands, feet, and head.  For example, when a Lutheran kneels at the Communion rail, he confesses that before him is God, Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine.  Look at what people do with their bodies and you can see what they believe within them.

In our Gospel reading, the crowd confessed what they believed by what they did on that first Palm Sunday, 2,000 years ago.  We see a crowd streaming out of Jerusalem to meet Jesus, palm branches in their hands.  The palm branch was like Israel’s flag.  Now, Israel was a conquered country under the heavy heel of Rome, so Israel had no independent existence, no flag of its own.

But Jewish nationalism didn’t die so easily, and they used the palm as a symbol of their country.  This predates the time of Jesus.  This goes back to the time of the Maccabees, which you can read about in the Old Testament Apocrypha.  Then, palms were used as a national symbol.  Palms were even a national symbol after the time of Christ.  When the Jews revolted against Rome from 66 to 70 AD, they minted their own coins for a short time.  And what do you know?  They put palm branches on them.

So their waving of palms is like us waving our flags.  It’s a symbol of patriotic fervor.  But they were showing more than their patriotism.  It was also a victory parade.

From ancient times, the palm was a symbol of victory.  Crowds would welcome warriors coming home by waving palms in their hands.  In a similar way, the crowd was expressing that Jesus had done powerful, miraculous deeds. St. John tells us they shouted about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  St. Luke tells us the crowds praised Jesus for the miracles and mighty works they had seen.  Yes, that first Palm Sunday was also a victory parade.

But this wasn’t just a nationalistic victory parade centered on Jesus.  By what they were doing, they were also saying that they were willing to have Jesus as their king.  Spreading their garments to form a carpet was an act of submission.  The people in the Old Testament welcomed King Jehu in a similar way (2 Kings 9:13).

What people do reveals what’s in their hearts.  That’s also a principle governing divine worship.  That’s why we stand, bow, and kneel at different times.  It confesses what we believe.  And today, we showed what we believe when we held palm branches in our hands.  We confessed that Jesus is our king, but not as the Israelites of long ago.  We didn’t confess that Jesus is our earthly ruler but, instead, the King of kings.

Unlike the Israelites of old, the palms are not a symbol of our nation.  Instead, they become for us a symbol of our sinfulness.  For those palm branches are later burned and become the ashes that adorn our heads in the shape of the cross on Ash Wednesday.  Those palm branches turned to ashes remind us of our sinfulness and mortality: Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Yet, palms also show that we believe that Jesus won the victory for us in His suffering and death.  Yes, a palm branch reminds us of Jesus riding triumphantly on Palm Sunday, but it also brings us to His suffering, later during Holy Week.

The New Testament only mentions palms two times: on Palm Sunday and in the Book of Revelation.  In Revelation, you find them in the hands of those standing in heaven who have overcome sin and death through Jesus’ blood (Revelation 7:9-10).  Christian ceremony later connected the palm branches in heaven by placing a palm branch in the hand of a dead Christian as his funeral.  It was a confession of the faith that the one who had died was now in heaven.

Indeed, we confess what is within our hearts by what we do.  But what we believe, as important as that is, is not as important as what Jesus believes.  Jesus also confessed what was within Him by what He did.

In our Gospel reading, the crowd correctly identified Jesus as a prophet.  And those Old-Testament prophets confessed what God believed about something by what they did, through their actions.  Consider Jeremiah.  He bought a belt, buried it, and then dug it up as a symbol of how the Lord would destroy the pride of Jerusalem.  He bought some pottery and broke it in front of the Jewish leaders as a symbol of how the Lord would break the city and people of Jerusalem.

Other prophets did other things to say something to the people of Israel.  Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isaiah 20:1-6).  Ezekiel baked barley cakes by using dried, human dung (Ezekiel 4:12).  He also lay on his left side for days at a time (Ezekiel 4:4).

But the real question is this: What was Jesus saying when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey?  For that was the only time the Scriptures tell us that Jesus rode anywhere.  Jesus sat atop a donkey to show that He was the true heir of David’s throne.  Although He never before had acted as the Messiah in such a public way, He did then.  He accepted the people’s praises.

The Jewish leaders told Jesus to stop the crowd from praising Him.  But Jesus said that their praises were proper and that if they were silent, even the stones would cry out.  Jesus showed, by His actions, that He believed He was God’s promised Savior, Messiah, and King.

Riding on a donkey was a sign that Jesus was their King who had come to deliver His people from what oppresses them.  Riding on a donkey was how kings in David’s line showed their kingship.

In our mind, we see Jesus riding on a donkey as something beautiful.  Yet it’s not an attractive picture, if we were to see it with our own eyes.  In April, when Jesus rode on a donkey, that was the time of year when they were shedding their winter coats.  And donkeys didn’t smell too good, either.  People didn’t wash them like we do our dogs.

Oh, there was plenty of beauty to what Jesus did.  But outwardly, it was foul, smelly, and dirty–as well it should be!  For Jesus came bearing our foul sins, our smelly wrongdoings, and our dirt to save us from them.  That’s what Prophet Zechariah meant when he said, “See your King comes to you” (Zechariah 9:9).  It’s not just that Jesus comes to us but that He comes for us, for our benefit.

Jesus comes as the sacrifice for our sins.  He comes to suffer and bear our shame.  He comes weighed down with the guilt that you and I only sometimes feel.  He comes as is fitting for someone whom God wants to punish for every wretched sin that he ever did.  But, of course, Jesus is sinless and innocent.  But He sat atop a donkey to make His way to the cross, so God’s judgment and wrath would fall on Him instead of us.

Jesus confesses what is within Him by what He does.  He is our King and our Sin-bearer, but He does it in such a way that only faith can see that in His outward actions.  In truth, God even has to tell us that He is our King, so humbly does He come.  And so St. Matthew, under Holy-Spirit inspiration, quotes Prophet Isaiah to show that even the Daughter of Zion, which is the Church, needs to be told that her King is coming to her because she can’t recognize Him in such lowliness.

It’s easy to miss the true Jesus in the events of Palm Sunday.  You could get caught up welcoming Jesus as a victorious king who comes to deliver you from all the problems of this life.  Or you could be offended at how lowly and silly He looks coming to you on a donkey’s colt, His feet dragging on the ground.  Yes, only real sinners who need a real savior can see what Jesus shows by what He did on Palm Sunday.

Your real problems are not physical sickness, injury, or hard times on this earth.  For those problems are just a symptom of our greatest problem–sin!  The real problem is the sea of sinfulness that threatens to drown and sink you all the way to hell.  When you realize that you are drowning, you don’t despise the life preserver that is thrown to you in the suffering, burdened-bearing Savior who comes to you in lowliness.

For almost two millenia, people drowning in their sins have gathered, waving their palms before a lowly, donkey-riding Jesus.  They have cried out from the sea of sin saying, “Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”  We sing those words in the Communion liturgy.  After all, our Savior who reigned from a lonely wooden cross comes to us now within the humble forms of bread and wine.

In the Church’s liturgy, we confess our faith that Jesus is here with us in the same moment that we are with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.  Indeed, it is as the book of Hebrews says:

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem.  You have come to countless angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the Firstborn whose names are written in heaven.  You have come to God, the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant [Hebrews 12:22-24].

We recognize this reality by bowing, kneeling, and opening our mouths to receive Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

Yes, Jesus shows what is within Him by what He does.  He still comes to us in a humble and lowly way.  But instead of riding on a donkey, He come to us in bread and wine with His body and blood.  And because we believe that, we show what is within us by what we do.  We kneel before our God and Lord when He comes to us in His Supper, for, in His meal, Jesus comes to us to save us.  Amen.