“Who is this?” Sermon for Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11)

HosannaThis morning we find ourselves standing with Jesus on the outskirts of Jerusalem, there beyond the city walls, where the stones of the city give way to olive trees and scrub brush. We, the followers of Christ, are trailing after Jesus, who is now a man with a purpose, a man on a mission. He is already standing on the Mount of Olives, the place where the Jewish Messiah was traditionally expected to appear.

He turns his face towards Jerusalem, sets his course towards the temple mount, and begins the journey. You’ve probably heard before that entry on the donkey echoes Hebrew prophesies from Zechariah chapter 9 that foretell the triumphal entry of a victorious king who brings peace to the city and restores Israel.

At every turn, Jesus is surrounded by followers, disciples, well-wishers… and haters, jeerers, angry chief priests. It’s Passover, when every Jew who could travelled to Jerusalem; the city is packed to the hilt, swarming with pilgrims for the religious festivities. According to one estimate the population of Jerusalem may have swelled to five times its normal size that week.[1] Think Oktoberfest to the power of three. In any case, there are people everywhere. And the gospel accounts give us the sense that Jesus was at the center of this whirlwind of energy and the focus of everyone’s heightened, near-frenzied attention. His is the name on everyone’s lips. Matthew says that the whole city is in turmoil (literally, the city is “trembling”) with the question, “who is this?”

Who is this?

Prophet? Son of David? Imposter? King of the Jews? Political rebel? The Messiah?

Who is this?

This is the question that Holy Week invites us to experience for ourselves.

This morning, by entering through the gates of Jerusalem, we have entered Holy Week. We begin this week as Christians have been doing since the fourth century: palm branches in our hands, hosannas on our lips, celebrating the kingship of our Christ, the unexpected messiah who comes riding the humblest beast of burden. Even today this scene is reenacted each Palm Sunday in the streets of Jerusalem and in churches around the world. We threw our cloaks before him on the road and cried out Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

But the shouts of Christians are not the only shouts in the city this week. Everywhere we turn our heads we hear people crying out to Jesus. We heard their voices in the dramatic reading we just heard. Save us; heal us; open our eyes; give us water; Lord have mercy; Hosanna to the Son of David; who are you? The poor and the privileged, the sick and the well, are all crying out to Jesus. The city is in turmoil. Everyone wants something from this miraculous man. And everyone thinks they know who Jesus is – or at least what they can get from him. He is the figure everyone is watching. All eyes are on Jesus.

Who is this?

Like many the crowds of Jerusalem, we are not always sure what to make of this Jesus, this man with his cryptic sayings, strange stories, and miraculous healings; this man whose words cut to the very quick of our hearts and challenge the very foundations of our stable lives. Like the people of Jerusalem, we keep turning to these texts and to one another, asking again and again, who is this?

Over the past several months we heard the repeated invitation of Jesus: come and see. We heeded his call to drop our fishing nets and follow him; to listen to his parables, witness his miracles, to watch and listen and to be changed. And since the start of the liturgical year we have seen so much already, as we retraced the trajectory of Jesus’s earthly ministry. It was just last week that he took our breath away by doing the seemingly impossible: raising Lazarus from the dead.

This week, on Palm Sunday, the invitation to “come and see” is stronger and more compelling than ever. Come and see the parade! Come and see your king riding on a donkey! Come and see streets paved with cloaks and the air full of palms, the voices of the people ringing with jubilation and shouts of acclamation! Come and hear the hosannas thundering from the crowds! It is a triumphant, brilliant morning for gathering and watching. Who doesn’t like a parade?

But the call to come and see also calls us past Palm Sunday to the events that lie beyond the triumphal entry. His is the path of jubilation, but also of controversy, betrayal, denial, and a cross. This morning Jesus invites us to put one foot after another and to take our first tentative steps on the path that holds so many mysteries.

Come and see.

In this sense, Holy Week is an invitation. An invitation to be a part of a story infinitely larger than ourselves. It is a time for participation, for throwing our bodies, our voices, and our very selves into the story that captures us and bears us along towards Easter.

This is a week of pilgrimage. And there is a long way to go.

By participating in the Holy Week events, reflections, and liturgies, we join the whole and universal Christian church in walking with Jesus on the path of suffering. The liturgies and traditions we will experience this week and next are not in any way Peace Church or even Methodist inventions; they go back to the fourth century when Christians made a great effort to reenact in person Jesus’s last days in Jerusalem, following step by step, incident by incident, the Holy Week of the Son of God. This morning when we sang out Hosanna and waved our palm branches we were joining Christians over a millennia and a half of tradition in reenacting the powerful entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, the city of his death – and resurrection.

And I think that only by participation in this week’s events can we come closer to that question: who is this? That is why nothing can replace the necessity of acting these rituals together, waving our palms, crying out Hosanna and, later, crying crucify him, tasting the last supper on our lips, enduring the darkness of Good Friday and the eerie silence of Holy Saturday.

It is only by showing up this Sunday, and on Friday, and next Sunday, that we can come to know (know not just in our heads or on paper but in our hearts and deep in our bones) this story that is the Christian story. This is not a story just to be thought about, but to be lived, because some things are too mysterious for words. Christ invites us not just to observe, but to experience this week’s events – glorious, tense, painful, devastating, and finally triumphant. Who is this? We will have to come and see.

As Benedicta Ward has beautifully written, “Palm Sunday’s procession is about how to do the basic human thing — to walk, to take one step, just to be able to do the next step, and to remain with that doing… But the procession is a slow, corporate event, the pace set by the weakest and slowest. Like growing, a procession is something done for its own sake, and in doing it we are becoming what we are not, going by a way we do not understand, for a purpose that is God’s, not ours, in ways that are too simple for our sight.”[2]

The other half of Jesus’s invitation to come and see is, of course, the watching. This week become not only pilgrims, but witnesses. And in doing so we come a little bit closer to that burning question that is on everyone’s lips in the trembling city.

This week I was really struck by an episode in Matthew that isn’t in the lectionary readings for this morning because it just doesn’t fit – meaning that if your only Bible consumption is in the form of the readings you get in church you might never hear this story. It comes at the end of Matthew chapter 20, when Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem for his triumphal entry. As he is headed towards the city Jesus passes two blind men sitting on the side of the road. When they hear who it is that’s passing by, they cry out to Jesus: Lord have mercy on us! The crowd orders them to be quiet, so they shout louder: Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David! Jesus stops, looks at the bling men, and asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And suddenly, they can see.

What a time to regain your sight. What a moment to have your eyes opened.

Blind their whole lives, these men open their eyes just in time to join the followers of Jesus and to watch (eyes wide open, seeing clearly for the first time) the path Jesus takes through the world’s sorrow, the grave, and the glorious resurrection morning. Imagine gaining your sight just in the nick of time to witness this week of all weeks in history.

This struck me because I kept thinking, this, this is what Jesus offers us this Palm Sunday morning: eyes to see. Eyes to see all week long.

And it is a terrible and a glorious gift. Like the blind men with new sight, we will see almost too much this week. We will see Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. We will see Judas betray our Lord with a kiss (and we will remember, it could have been us). We will see Peter repeatedly denying his Lord. We will see our dirty feet washed by Jesus, and see the broken bread and the chalice of blood-red wine in Jesus’s hands as he passes them our way (and we will still. not. get. it.). We will see the earth shake and darkness fall, and will pray for the strength not to simply close our eyes against it.

Come and see? This invitation is starting to sound like more than we had bargained for – maybe more than we have the stomach for. This week, remaining and watching will not be easy things to do. How shall we bear it? How shall we keep our eyes open? How will we keep watch, when we would rather fall asleep? How will we find the courage keep looking, when we would rather bury our faces?

Brothers and sisters, this week is hard. Perhaps we would all rather fast-forward to next Sunday, leaping from Hosanna to Hallelujah without stopping in between. Holy Week demands so much of us. It requires our participation in a mystery that is majestic, but only after it has been terrible.

This morning, on Palm Sunday, we already feel the inklings of the same turmoil that was felt in Jerusalem this week. Who is this? We keep asking each other. Who is this? And we hear the invitation of Jesus: come and see.

And so we gather at the gates of Jerusalem, the throngs of people pressing into us, urging us forward, shouting and yelling and screaming. The way before us is littered with cloaks and palm branches, and leading our parade, at the front of the pack, there he is. All of our hopes are pinned on him, this unassuming figure on a donkey, the king who looks like no king we know. Who is this? We’re still not sure. But as he makes his way into Jerusalem, he looks back and us over his shoulder and beckons: come and see.

This morning, hear the invitation of Jesus to do the seemingly impossible: to come and see. To come with Christ where this week takes him. To “do the human thing”, putting one foot after another on the way that is God’s, not ours. To cry out to him: Lord, open our eyes! And to look, and watch, and wait, and pray, for what this week holds.

Who is this?

Come and see.


[1]Borg and Crossan The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem.  p. 2-4: there may have been as many as 200,000 Jewish pilgrims crowding into a city of 40,000 regular inhabitants

[2]In the Company of Christ: A Pilgrimage through Holy Week by Benedicta Ward (Church Publishing, 2005) (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/03/30/march-26-2010-pilgrimage-through-holy-week/5979/)



One thought on ““Who is this?” Sermon for Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11)

  1. I loved how you drew in the account of the blind men in Matthew, and the timing of their eyes being opened. I never thought of that! True indeed, what a week to have your eyes opened. So much suffering. I think Jesus is showing us, that in this life we will have suffering, but there is a way to walk through it. He set an example. Thanks for sharing your sermon

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