A sermon on Matthew 21:1-11 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 4/2/23, Palm Sunday. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.
Let’s start with a short story with from an old episode of This American Life. The storyteller is named Jack Hitt. (You can listen to the YouTube embed below, or in the original “Kid Logic” episode of TAL.)
I could probably leave it there—it’s hard to add anything to this young girl’s profound insight into human nature, about the way things usually turn out for people who spread a message of unconditional love.
She was onto something, of course. In a few days it will be Good Friday, when we remember together that they killed him, the “him” being Jesus. And, as you might know, we’re just a couple days away from the April 4th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. King, history’s awful answer to her question. “Did they kill him, too?”
I know that those of us with a Chicago address are also looking ahead to April 4 with great anticipation, because it’s the day we’ll be choosing our new mayor. Much like Jerusalem in our story today, all the city is in turmoil. That makes this an especially timely moment for us to consider what sort of king Jesus is, and what is the relationship between our faithfulness to God and our faithful service to the city.
On Palm Sunday the church worships Jesus wholeheartedly, just as the people in this story did, and we look ahead to Good Friday and ask, “Gosh, how did things go from here to there? How did public opinion shift so rapidly, how did shouts of ‘Hosanna’ turn to cries of ‘Crucify him?'”
We come to the story this week at the end of a series we called “This Is My Body,” exploring the physical experience of Jesus in the Gospels as an invitation for us to experience God in our own bodies. Today, and for this week of Holy Week, we’re going to pay particularly close attention to the movement of Jesus, how he moves in and out of the city of Jerusalem and in and out of favor with the people.
I want you to try and imagine this scene with me. For so many years I’ve participated in Palm Sunday processions, like the one we shared today, and I’ve noticed that it has somewhat shrunk my imagination. When I try to picture the actual scene of Jesus riding on the donkey, I picture him riding through a short hallway, nothing longer than our sanctuary aisle. I imagine a journey lasting only a minute or two, nothing more than a photo op, as if Jesus climbing onto the donkey was a mere formality that he could check off his to-do list. You know, his list of Old Testament prophecies he had to fulfill: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son” (Matt 1:23), check. “He shall be called a Nazarene” (2:23), check. “Humble and mounted on a donkey” (21:5), check.
That isn’t really an accurate picture. Jesus climbs onto the donkey in a small town called Bethphage. The path from Bethphage to the eastern gate into Jerusalem was probably about two-thirds of a mile. That’s a little farther than the distance from our church building to the lakeshore. If you have time today after service, try taking that walk to kick off your Holy Week. I did it the other day, while I was writing this sermon, and the walk out takes about 10-15 minutes.
Picturing that distance really changes the scene for me. When Jesus climbs aboard the donkey, it’s a little like he’s pushing the first domino on a series of events that lead inevitably to his death. The gospel of Matthew makes it clear: Riding into town on a donkey associates Jesus with old Jewish prophecies about the savior and king who is coming. The crowds that surround him on this path recognize the imagery: They shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” It’s a loud and clear acknowledgement that they believe Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for.
In fact, I think there’s a good chance that this rapturous welcome actually seals his fate. Because if the Roman authorities weren’t already concerned about the power Jesus was amassing, they are now. If the Jewish authorities weren’t already concerned about the influence Jesus has over faithful Jews, they are now. Soon the whole city will be “in turmoil,” and that turmoil will result in a violent execution.
Jesus knows there are other prophecies from the Old Testament that he hasn’t fulfilled yet, at this point in the story: Prophesies like, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” (Matt 26:31). Prophesies like, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” (27:35). Later in Matthew, when they come to arrest Jesus, one of his disciples will try to protect him with a sword, and Jesus will stop him and ask, “But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
I want you to try and imagine that long and slow ride on the donkey’s back, two thirds of a mile, and how every single step was another conscious choice for Jesus not to turn away from what he must have understood was ahead of him. Jesus keeps moving, step by step by step. His way is set. Jesus is unshakable with clarity in his purpose and identity, and he is motivated by a steadfast love for people, for you and me, no matter what happens.
What about the people? Well, the situation here is messy, and it’s only going to get messier as the week goes on. Jesus encounters two different crowds on this long donkey ride. The first crowd is made up of that grassroots base of support who welcome him with open arms. These are people who have had direct encounters with Jesus, or who have believed the stories about him. They are convinced that he is the one they’ve been waiting for, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They’re giving him a royal welcome.
You might be familiar with that word, “Hosanna.” It’s a phrase from Psalm 118, one of the psalms sung at Passover. Roughly translated, it means something like, “Save me, I pray!” or “Please, save us!” At the time, it had become a kind of rallying cry, like “Hurray,” but the heart of their cry is the same as the heart of all our cries to God: Help us! Save us! We cannot save ourselves.
(I should pause here to say—I don’t know about you, but when I heard the news this week about the mass shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville that left three adults and three nine-year-old children dead, in addition to the person responsible, I didn’t really know what to pray besides: “God, please, help us. We do not know what we are doing.” No matter what happens, we seem incapable of preventing this. Lord, have mercy.)
Back in today’s story, that’s what the first crowd is shouting, even if their mood is more of a celebration: “Hosanna!” They are celebrating because the one they have been waiting for, the one who can save them, is here.
The second crowd Jesus meets on his journey is all the city of Jerusalem, and Scripture says that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the “whole city was in turmoil.” Your Bible might have a different word there, like, “The whole city was stirred up” or “moved” or “trembling.” The Greek word here is eSEISthē. It shares a root with our word seismic. The effect of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem is seismic. It’s seismic because of all the political and religious tension in the air: like I said, Jesus threatens both Roman political power and Jewish religious authority. Not only that, but Jesus is coming during the week of Passover, a major festival. Historians tell us the city of Jerusalem typically held about 40,000 people, but during Passover it may have swelled to 200,000 or more. That means the sidewalks are crowded, and you cannot get a brunch reservation, and everyone on the train is taking up three seats with suitcases.
The city is under strain! Jesus is a controversial figure, and it seems like he has intentionally been avoiding the holy city, in part because he knows how seismic his presence will be. Depending on which Gospel you read, Jesus either has already or will soon make a provocative statement about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days. He’s speaking metaphorically about his own death and resurrection, but not everyone knows that. And either way the stakes are clear: Jesus does intend to change things. Jesus intends to change things the people hold very dear.
The earthquake of Jesus’ presence is even larger than that. The author of this book, the Gospel of Matthew, really drives home the cosmic scale of the events of Holy Week. We heard about how “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil…” (21:10). This rumbling continues throughout the week: Matthew 27 tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, “The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.” (v. 51b-52a). The earth “shook,” that’s the same Greek word, eSEISthē. And a couple days later in Matthew 28, the day we call Easter, again: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it” (v. 2). Another earthquake, similar Greek word, this time seisMOS.
Do you hear that? The turmoil that has gripped the city of Jerusalem has apparently gripped the entire planet: Something big is happening! Something fundamental and foundational about the universe is changing. At this moment in history, nothing—not even the ground beneath our feet—feels solid.
Jesus is moving on an unshakable path toward the city of Jerusalem. And now our stomachs are shaking, and our hearts, and our knees, and even the earth is shaking.
What’s really happening here? What’s this turmoil about? How do things change so rapidly between Palm Sunday and Good Friday?
I suspect what is playing out here is what usually plays out any time something true and real appears and threatens “the way things are.” This is what happens whenever something challenges our status quo, a status quo that is often imperfect and inconsistent and unjust. The status quo that we have thrown together with tape and glue over many years, often with good intentions and sometimes not. When we see or encounter or witness something clear and vivid that challenges that status quo, it tends to stir up turmoil. The ground begins to shake.
I hope this kind of turmoil sounds familiar to you. Whenever something inescapably true and real appears among us, it has a way of throwing the whole city into turmoil. Our collective status quo consists of all the rules that structure our lives, all the laws we enacted years ago, all our expectations about who gets food or health care, who goes to prison, whose deaths are tragic, or not. As imperfect as it is, our status quo has such a powerful hold on all of us that we often move, almost unconsciously, sometimes violently, to maintain it.
I imagine this turmoil sounds familiar to many of us on a deeply personal level, too. I think about the “status quo” of my own heart and self-perception, and honestly, I will do everything in my power to protect that self-perception. Even if I know that my self-perception is built on falsehoods or incomplete truths that help me survive and protect myself, it’s the only way I know to make it in the world. These fragile little temples that we build to protect ourselves can take a lot of different forms. For some of us it’s, “I can control the emotions of the people around me, and it’s my responsibility to do so.” For others it may be, “When people get too close, they hurt me, so I do not let them get close.” Maybe for you it’s, “When I say what I really think, others reject me, so I never say what I really think.”
Whatever it is, we cling to it. But then here comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, coming into my city, and he throws it into turmoil. Because if what he’s saying is true, then that means these stories I’ve been telling myself for years and years might have to change. It might lead to me exposing some of those tender, wounded places I am too afraid to revisit. It might ultimately mean that I’m asked to forgive something that seems unforgivable, or to let go of something that feels absolutely essential. If we’re not careful, Jesus might even come all the way in to tear down our fragile little temples so that he can rebuild something whole and marvelous.
When we encounter that turmoil, we can push it away, distract ourselves from it, reinforce our self-perceptions, as inadequate as they are. We can double down on our resentments and regrets.
Or, we can welcome it. We can lay our finest linens on the ground to make a path, we can wave branches in the air to celebrate its coming, and we can call out, wholeheartedly, what we long to ask: “Save me, help me, please, hosanna.” Maybe, just maybe, this really is the one who can save us: to save us from our violence against each other. To save us from the ruts of the news cycle that always plays out every time, no matter how many people were shot this time, no matter how young or old they were. Always the same. Hosanna.
You know, one of the best surprises for me about this Lent series—”This Is My Body”—is the way that talking about experiencing the love and presence of God in each of our individual bodies has led to us asking what it means for us to love our neighbors and our families in their bodies. Rev. Johnson brought this to life so powerfully last week. At this point in the story, Jesus is surrounded by crowds who love him. But the path that he is on will ultimately lead to a place of intense loneliness and isolation, even of humiliation and suffering. Following Jesus might mean that we find ourselves on a similar trajectory. Many of you have probably learned that as God gives you clarity in your purpose and identity—as you find yourself motivated by a surprising and steadfast love for others—that leads you to places that don’t make sense to your family or the friends you had. I hope that if you find yourself in those circumstances, you can hold tightly to what God has revealed to you.
Jesus is coming, riding on a donkey, headed straight toward us. You and I read this story, and it puzzles us. We ask: “How did this happen? How did the people’s hearts change so dramatically?” Truth be told, I don’t think Jesus was all that surprised. I think the inevitable outcome of the week saddened him. We know that it made him feel dread. He prayed that God might provide another way for Jesus to do what he came to do.
But I think Jesus saw the people for who they were, the same way he sees us for who we are, with the eyes of love. I think Jesus heard the sincere cries of the people and received their royal welcome. And in the very same moment, I think Jesus knew the people weren’t ready to have him for a king. They wanted someone who would replace one powerful, violent authority with another powerful, violent authority. And as it became clearer and clearer to them that Jesus wasn’t that guy, they turned on him and on the idea of a gentle and humble king.
They could not yet see things through the eyes of Jesus, eyes of humility and love. In spite of themselves, they needed that status quo, and they would do anything in their power to maintain it. You heard it in the radio story we listened to earlier: “That message was too troublesome.”
The little girl in that story perceived what tends to happen when someone spreads a message of unconditional love. But of course she didn’t have the whole story.
The story of Rev. Dr. King doesn’t end with his assassination in 1968. He had eyes to see and the courage to tell us that “the arc of the moral universe is long—[longer, even, than the span of his life on earth]—but it bends toward justice.” And the story of Jesus doesn’t end on Palm Sunday or on Good Friday. Jesus keeps moving forward, moving toward us in love, and even death won’t stop him from reaching out for us.
Easter is one of the happiest days of the year, and Good Friday has all its own power and pathos. But I think Palm Sunday encapsulates how it feels for me to be human, most of the year: I see Jesus coming, somewhere ahead in the distance. I see him coming toward me with love and purpose. And I feel…turmoil. I wish I could promise that, this time, I will welcome him with open arms, and maybe I will. Maybe I won’t, though; maybe I will double-down and cling to what I know, the status quo I need, however insufficient it might be.
The same question is open to each of us right here: What will we do when the love and earth-shaking honesty of Jesus sets our own spirits to turmoil?
Will we reject him and shut out what God wants to do, heal, restore, release, rebuild, abolish, remedy? Or will we welcome that work of God in our lives, whatever it costs, even though we do not know where it leads us?
Either way, Jesus is coming, always coming, always moving toward us, always knocking at the door, always answering that deepest cry of our hearts, the one we pray without words, without ceasing: Hosanna, hosanna, save us, please, save us.