April 9, 2017

Who is This?

Passage: Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 118:1-2.19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 21:1-11
Service Type:

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’

When Matthew writes that “the whole city was in turmoil”, I think the word “turmoil” used in NRSV translation may connote an understatement for us. The Greek word Matthew users is the word from which the English word seismic is derived. Indeed the verb and its cognate noun are used by Matthew to refer to earthquakes at Jesus’ final breath (Matthew 27:51, 54) and at the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:2). So the word “turmoil” may be a little mild to express what Matthew has in mind. Since the word Matthew uses describes the vibration caused by an earthquake it might be better to say the people were “quaking.”

1. Jesus visited Jerusalem at least three times for Passover and other festivals before his final visit, according to John, and had two narrow escapes. Once during the Festival of Booths the Pharisees attempted to arrest him (John 7:32) and again at the festival of Dedication they took up stones to kill him (John 10:31). Both times Jesus eluded arrest.

Storm clouds were gathering on Galilee as well. The Galilean ruler Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, had ordered the execution of John the Baptist. Jesus has many female disciples and some were among the Herodians—the wife of Herod’s chief steward was a follower. Antipas begins to take notice of Jesus and knew of the connection to John the Baptist. Antipas was convinced that Jesus was John, whom he beheaded, risen from the dead and now threatens to arrest Jesus. Some Pharisees warn Jesus of the threat that Herod poses.

Instead Jesus sends a message to Herod referring to him as “that fox”; a message where Jesus, speaking of his own future, says—“it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:31-35) I have been reading Simon Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography. About this entry of Jesus to Jerusalem and he writes, “At the Passover of 33 AD, Jesus and Herod Antipas arrived in Jerusalem at almost the same time.” Recall too that another ruler has also come; Pilate has come from his palace at Caesarea on the Mediterranean.

As I have been reading Montefiore’s biography of Jerusalem I am struck by how, over the centuries, each new ruler coming to possess Jerusalem inevitably leads to slaughter of people who live there; the enslavement of many. Montefiore does not dwell on the atrocities; even so I can easily imagine the wretchedness unleashed on many for the luxuries and power of a few. And knowing the history of the twentieth century, human thirst for killing and enslaving other humans has not lessened.

Matthew gives us how the gospels understand this triumphal entry story. If was to fulfil what had been spoken by God through the prophet. “Look, your king is coming to you.” The people of Jerusalem and the pilgrims from Galilee knew that any new king would likely mean trouble. People were going to die as the powers that be stake out their turf ready to defend. The place is in turmoil, leaders are on edge, swords are at the ready, the people “quake.” The question “who is this” is a nervous question—something seems ready to detonate a lot of trouble. This was the reading of the situation the High Priest Caiaphas offered when he said “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50)

2. Not unlike Jerusalem, the powers (principalities) of our world are assembled and ever protective of their positions of power. They jostle with one another usually coming to some arrangement with respect to power arrangements. Sometimes uneasy, each looking for a disruptive time for a change in the balance of those powers. In the large cities of our world the economic interests are exercised in banking and investment institutions. Political powers of our western democracies are invested in premiers and presidents and parliaments and legislatures with varying relationships. Media powers stake their claim to shape opinion and narrative in their news and editorial department. Educational powers stake claim in shaping the mindset of students. Sometimes these powers work in concert; at other times at odds with each other.

The powers/principalities are not necessarily evil and under God’s providence were envisioned for human flourishing. Economic structures serve human prosperity, governance structures for the organization of society so humans can flourish, media structures for connecting people in common work for good, and education for the development of the faculties of mind. The gospel message isn’t that these things exist because of evil. The gospel declares that all the powers created by God have been corrupted. Just as the human heart has been corrupted by sin so too these powers.

At the heart of this corruption is the fact that they all demand your allegiance. Each principality wants top billing in your life; the place only God should have. Think about how economic interests demand your allegiance to reliance on wealth, dictating the meaning of your work in economic terms. We teach our children to aspire of well-paying jobs; an example of the reach of economic power. Think about government and its power and how it attracts lobbying as a means of getting your voice heard. At tax time it is evident what behaviours the government intends to curb and which it promotes. Media is ever trying to drive a narrative of how to read events and demands your allegiance so you are on the “right” side of issues. Look how they go after people who do not fall in line. Education often positions itself as the solution to human ills; it demands our children and promises to make productive citizens.

And all these want your allegiance. Humans, according to the gospel, were made for the glory of the Creator and to flourish in relationship with him. These powers demanding human allegiance of are pretenders to this throne. You were made for better things than to settle for these. The human heart was made for much greater than any of these powers can deliver—even in combination. Isn’t this what the tempter offered to give Jesus when showed him the kingdoms of this world? And Jesus answers, only God deserves human worship.

The message of the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem where the powers of his day were assembled is essentially the same for us in the midst of the powers of our day. ‘Look, your king is coming.” To be sure he was the Son of David and in particular the King of the Jews. But the gospels affirm that this King, this Jesus riding on the donkey, is the Lord of the universe. Friends, as we are in the midst of the powers of our day Palm Sunday tis like an earthquake and the tremors are felt. Look, your king is coming. Powers are quaking because they want nothing do with this king. The question is this—is he your King?

Now let me be clear. You are not an evil person to work in financial institutions; or in the political arena or its bureaucracies; or in a media outlet; or in education. But none of these important things can ever be ultimate. The problem is in they want your allegiance; they seek to usurp a place that is not theirs. And just as the powers assembled at Jerusalem each opposed Jesus, so too today. Powers that demand allegiance do not like to share that with any other. You will find, as a believer, that your allegiance to the King of kings is unwelcome. Consider how faith is sidelined and many times impugned in politics and education. The question “who is this” is the question of those inside Jerusalem aligned with this or that power wondering why they should pay any attention to Jesus. It is the question of the powers of our day—“who is this?” “Look, your king is coming”, says the gospel.

2. The people were quaking, writes Matthew. You can understand the disquiet. If there is a new king taking charge people are hoping to land on the good side of things. Every time a new king has come before many have died and others managed to align themselves in such a way as to survive or even thrive in the new regime. “Who is this?” Will I survive? Even today every political agenda seeks to promote and deny. People organize themselves to be on the promotion side. One only needs to think about taxation and how changes tax law causes people to rearrange their finances. Who is this?

To probe a little further about this king who comes riding into Jerusalem, and to us, I invite you to reflect on the text from the prophet Isaiah that we read today. It is a messianic text; a text that speaks about the king who will come to occupy David’s throne. Listen again to what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

AS texts like this one, among others, seed Jesus’ imagination—because we know he knew the scriptures thoroughly—they inform him of what he has been teaching his disciples on his way to Jerusalem. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 20:18-19) Who is this? This is the king who knows he has come to die. He has come to give himself as a ransom for many.

It is typical that the kings and powers of our world are in it for themselves. This king is so different it is hard to believe. He comes for our sakes and he will not turn back. Though he meets violence, insults and spitting he will not turn back because this is all for us. If you want to know what God is like we only need to look here. He is the one pouring himself out without remainder for our sakes. Even though he is aware that entering Jerusalem will seal his fate; even though he knows that the powers, all the powers of sin and death will meet him here to do their worst; still be comes. “I did not turn backwards,” reveals Isaiah.

Who is this? He is the one whose steadfast love is everlasting, declares the Psalmist. It is his love that will endure. This king does not come to Jerusalem to slash and burn as so many did before and will after. He comes to save, to give himself for you and me. Is he your king? The powers of our world want our allegiance but only to use us for their sake. Only this king, riding humbly on a donkey wants you for your sake.

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Amen