Return to the King

“Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” by Benjamin Robert Haydon

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“The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him” (John 12:12-16).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Palm Sunday processions come in many shapes and sizes. In some churches, they gather in the parking lot. Palms are distributed and blessed and then the crucifer leads then up the doors of the church. There, the crucifer lifts up the processional cross like a javelin and pounds the bottom of the cross on the middle of the doors, calling for the gates to be opened that the King might come in (an echo of our psalm for today). As the doors are opened, the congregation processes into the church, singing, and waving palms.

At other churches, the children bring all the excitement. The congregation is gathered in the church singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” and then the children come down the aisle. They wave their palms as they gather at the front of the church. When the account of Jesus’ entry is read from John, the children burst into singing “Hosanna” as they wave their palms.

Different churches have different entrance rites on Palm Sunday. Most of them seem to try to take us back to the time of Jesus, to ask us to stand with the crowds and somehow recapture the moment, to help us experience the entry into Jerusalem, as if we were there.

This is why I appreciate John’s account of the entry into Jerusalem. Notice how John differs from the other Gospel writers. In all the other Gospels, the evangelists record the event as it unfolds. There is the instruction of Jesus to bring the donkey colt, the response of the disciples, the record of prophecy fulfilled, the actions of the people, and the response of the rulers. Only in John do we find this account punctuated by a moment of recollection. After the prophecy is reported, John writes, “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him” (John 12:16).

John does not ask us to step into the moment and to experience it. No, John actually asks us to step out of the moment and to reflect back upon it. For John, the entry into Jerusalem is not something we need to enter into. Rather, it is something we reflect back on. Why?

Because John knows that, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, things look completely different. After we have seen Jesus bear the burden of our punishment, after we have watched Jesus offer His life for our salvation, after we have witnessed His resurrection from the dead, and after we see He now rules over all things… after all that, this moment in His ministry takes on deeper meaning.

In our world, people expect God to always do great things. If you can heal the sick or predict the future or bring success and happiness or put on an entertaining performance, you can gather a crowd and make claims about God. If, however, you are a small church, struggling to keep the doors open… if you are an aging church, ethnically undiversified… if you are a poor church renting out your building to survive… people wonder about you. “How dare you speak for God?” “Wouldn’t God be present with more fanfare?” “Wouldn’t His work be more obvious?”

Jesus, however, chooses to come among His people in humble ways. Today, we remember that reality: When Jesus approached His greatest work, He did it without fanfare.

In our reading, John brings us to the edge of the Passion, the hour of glory, and yet the return of the King is strangely anticlimactic. Jesus is not part of a royal procession. He comes to sinners unarmed. Only in recollection do the disciples realize what has happened.

John tells us they “remembered that these things had been written about Him.” That is, they remembered God had promised through Zechariah that the King would return to His Kingdom, not riding on a horse in military power but riding on a donkey colt in divine humility. Years later, as they reflected on this moment, the disciples began to glimpse the wonder of Jesus, a wonder He had then and a wonder He retains now. As Jesus goes about His work in the world, He does so through the way of humility.

St. Paul emphasizes this in our Epistle. Paul wants us to see that there are two different theologies at work here—a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. These are two ways of understanding and interpreting all of reality, but especially the ways and nature of God.

We find both theologies here in Philippians 2. Christ was God but, contrary to the self-styled gods who were Roman Caesars, the Creator of Heaven and Earth came “in the form of a servant.” It turns out the Anointed King of all the Earth “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” but rather astonishingly self-giving. He “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” though He was the glorious Son of God.

In contrast to the extravagance and entitlement of Tiberius Rex, King Jesus “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That is the theology of the cross, the theology of God’s coming Kingdom which has already broken into our reality by way of a grizzly execution on Mount Golgotha and the surprising vacancy of a nearby tomb.

This theology of the cross stands in stark contrast to the theology of glory which seeks after signs and wonders and spiritual intimacies with a toothless and tame Jesus who panders like a bellhop to satisfy one’s felt needs.

Everything in this present evil age is about power, wealth, glory, and pleasure. But it is found in laws and powerplays, manipulation, status, image. In a word, theology of glory is the ideology of entitlement. It manifests itself through conspicuous consumerism, selfishness, the small-mindedness of envy and the celebration of the cult of celebrity. It is about glossy tabloid pictures. It is about getting your own fifteen minutes of fame. It is about “show me the money,” and while you are at it, show me the glitz, tell me my fortune, and get busy catering to my felt needs. It is about entitlement yielding a culture of compensation.

And this certainly carries over into religion.

I want to experience God and it better be more glorious, more titillating than I can imagine—just as the TV prophets say. “Show me Your face, O God; Moses was not worthy, but I am; because, after all, I am a American Christian with a robust self-esteem. Let me peek behind Your curtains and catch You in Your glory and splendor. Show me the Jesus of the Resurrection!

But the Kingdom of God, is not a kingdom of power and glory but of suffering and humiliation. With the theology of the cross, the emphasis is on His suffering and His humiliation. Our Great King returned to Jerusalem only to be beat up, bloodied, mocked and crucified naked for the world to see. Get that picture and you begin to get an idea of what Paul is saying in Philippians 2.

That is what Palm Sunday in all about. The theology of glory calls it the “triumphal entry.” Meanwhile, Jesus is weeping, lamenting the reality of the situation. The people hail Him, and all the while are plotting to betray Him and see Him killed. The theology of glory wants to see Jesus and His entourage take up residence in Jerusalem’s Royal Palace. Instead, Christ’s theology of the cross has Him beat down the Via Dolorasa and take up residence on Golgotha. The theology of the cross has the Messiah nailed to a tree for His coronation. Perceive the ironies and you catch a glimpse of what Christ gave up for us. Get the picture and one might perceive God as God sees Himself.

What Christ gave up for us were two things. First, there is glory. He made Himself of lowly estate, and thereby shocks our sensibilities. We expect Him to be living large in the city’s palace. Instead, He is betrayed by a friend whom He loved. The rest of the disciples leave Him for dead in Gethsemane. No, the glory we expected was left behind. He exchanged it for the glory of a public execution.

Second, Jesus gave up His holy, precious blood for us. For many, this smacks of scandalous slaughterhouse theology. There are nails, blood, spears, torn flesh, and a corpse left on a cold slab. Our eternal salvation is carried out in grotesquely physical categories without the magical waving of a spiritual wand or the granting of a chit we could cash at the great repository of forgiveness in the sky. No, it is these two things—glory and blood—that Christ, our God, gave up for us. His beatific glory He left behind in Heaven. His blood He left behind on the instruments of His torture and the cross of His death.

Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, gave up His blood for us. Leviticus 17:10-11 says: “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

In the Old Testament one was forbidden to eat, that is, drink blood because the life is in the blood. Then Jesus comes along and explodes the Jewish worldview by declaring in John 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (v 53-56).

It is this life-giving, sin atoning blood that is offered to us in Holy Communion. “Take, drink. This is the cup of the New Covenant in My blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The atonement began with His bloody birth, His eighth-day circumcision, and it continued with His blood-sweat agony in Gethsemane and scourging in the Praetorium. Then it climaxed with His crucifixion and the piercing of His side from which blood and water flowed. It is this blood, given to us under the auspices of wine and Holy Communion, we are to take and drink for our salvation.

What was once forbidden because animals cannot fully atone for sins, now through the Christ whose blood atones and bear the health which is the divine life we are bid to have in our most intimate communion. It is to commune not with animals, but with your life-giving God. Christ gave up His blood for us while in the inglorious state of a humiliated servant and, thereby, the Messiah of God saves us from our sin, from the judgment due us, and even from death.

Today, as we gather for Palm Sunday, John invites us to join the disciples in faithful reflection. We do not need to have processions with palms. We do not need to enter the excitement of the crowds. We do not need to replay the oddness of children singing His praises or the tension of religious leaders despising the celebration. No, we are invited to simply experience the wonder of Jesus, the Lord of all, who does His work in humility.

Today, you may hear the Word preached by a preacher who stumbles. Today, you may find your church is just a faint shadow of its former self in its glory days. But, take heart. Rejoice. Sing. Praise.

Why? Because God comes to you in humility. Jesus comes today to bring you salvation, but He chooses to be here in humble ways. In John’s Gospel, Jesus approaches His greatest work without fanfare. In our lives, God comes in ways which are humble and quiet.

Today, on Palm Sunday, we do not need to create a “you were there” experience. Why? Because God is already here—in words that are spoken, in bread that is broken. Today, John encourages us to join the disciples, not in the mesmerizing mess that is entry into Jerusalem, but in the clear contemplation that follows. John encourages us to remember how God comes to us. Indeed, God is here, in the humblest of ways.

Go in the peace of the Lord, serve your neighbor with joy and share the Good News: You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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