In his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on the first day of Holy Week, Jesus announces that he is Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s Savior. The people were shouting for Jesus to save them, but the kind of salvation Jesus offered was profoundly different from what the people expected. How are we like the people in these crowds?
Sermon Text: Matthew 21:1-11
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
As you probably heard, Wilton Gregory, the Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, has gotten some bad press recently—and not just locally but nationally. Recently he directed the church to spend $2.2 million to purchase and renovate a home—his parsonage—in Buckhead. In fairness, the archbishop’s cathedral is in Buckhead, where real estate is very expensive; and he would also be using the house to host church-related events. But his parishioners complained that it was too much—especially considering so many church members can’t make ends meet. And Pope Francis, who himself moved out of his lavish Vatican residence to live in the much more modest guest quarters, has made it clear to his clergy that he expects them to follow his example—and avoid showy, ostentatious displays like spending millions on a posh residence. Be humble and modest, the pope says.
Clergy ought to be humble—like Jesus. And Jesus was perfectly humble. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And we see him humbly serving the poor, the sick, women—who were considered second-class citizens at the time—and social outcasts—like tax collectors and prostitutes. While his own disciples wanted to shoo children away, he welcomed them. Before the Last Supper, he washed his own disciples’feet, which was normally the duty of a slave. He didn’t worry about how doing these things made him look. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. He came not to be served but to serve. Jesus was the greatest leader the world has ever known—he had a forceful and compelling personality—but there was also a sweetness about his spirit—he was perfectly gentle and kind. He was humble.
He was humble, but he wasn’t modest—if by modest you mean he held a low opinion of himself. No, he had a truthful opinion about himself; he didn’t pretend to be someone other than who he was. Which meant he would say things like “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”“I and the Father are one.”“If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”“Before Abraham was, I am”—I existed. And if you read past today’s scripture, when Jesus clears the Temple of the money-changers, he quotes Isaiah and says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” You don’t get to call it “my house”unless you’re claiming to be God.
Earlier in the gospels, you see that Jesus is often telling people he heals, “Don’t tell anyone what I just did!”He encounters demons, and demons know his true identity, and so they shout out things like, “I know who you are! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”And Jesus silences them. He says, in so many words, “Keep it down!” And after he feeds the 5,000 in John’s gospel, the people come to crown him king, and he hides from them. By doing these things, he wasn’t denying his true identity as Messiah, Lord, and King of Kings; it’s just that if word about his identity spread too quickly—if he attracted too much attention—the political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, including the Romans, would have arrested him much sooner than they did—and Jesus had too much important work to do before that happened.
But now, all that’s about to change. What happens in the triumphal entry, after all, isn’t some spontaneous outpouring of love and support that just happens, and Jesus is just like, “Aw, shucks, guys! You shouldn’t have!”No—while the crowd’s adoration of Jesus is authentic and appropriate, Jesus has carefully and deliberately planned this event…in order to attract the attention of the crowds. That’s why he tells the two disciples to go to Bethphage: he’s already made arrangements to have these two donkeys available. If he didn’t want the attention of the crowds, he could have simply walked into Jerusalem without anyone noticing.
Instead, Jesus wants to demonstrate that his is indeed Israel’s long-promised Messiah. If Jesus is the Messiah, there are three important roles that Jesus needs to fulfill, and in this passage we see him fulfilling all three.
First, if Jesus is the Messiah, he has to be the Prophet. We see this in verses 10 and 11: “And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’”This is the prophet. This isn’t just any prophet; this is the Prophet, as John’s gospel makes clear, for instance, after Jesus feeds the 5,000. The people say, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Elsewhere, they say, “This really is the Prophet.”
And who is the Prophet? This is another messianic reference to something God tells Moses, which Moses repeats to the Israelites in Deuteronomy chapter 18: God says, “I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him.”
Now this is really cool to me—and I only just noticed this this week. While I knew that Deuteronomy scripture prophesied the coming of Christ, I never paid attention to the context surrounding that passage in Deuteronomy. In that passage, Moses is referring to the time just after God spoke to Israel the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. When God spoke to them at Sinai, there was thunder and flashes of lightning and smoke—and it was terrifying to the people. They finally told Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen; but don’t let God speak to us, lest we die.”
Why were they afraid of dying when God spoke to them? Because in the Bible, it’s terrifying to be in the presence of the Lord. When Jacob wrestled God in Genesis 32, Jacob was surprised that he saw God face to face and lived to tell about it. God tells Moses in Exodus that no one sees the face of God and lives. When Isaiah encountered God in Isaiah 6 he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Angels are frightening enough, and when they encounter us humans in the Bible, they have to go around saying, “Fear not!”Now imagine being directly in the presence of a holy God! Sinful human beings can’t bear it! They’ll die!
But suppose God really wants to reach us directly—teach us directly, speak to us directly, reveal himself to us directly—how is he going to do it if doing so means our death? The only way is if God himself becomes one of us—becomes flesh-and-blood just like us, becomes fully human. And that’s what he does in Jesus Christ. So Jesus is the fulfillment of this scripture from way back in Genesis. But he’s fulfilling it in a way that exceeds anyone’s expectations: He speaks God’s words to us because he is nothing less than God in the flesh.
The second role that Jesus has to demonstrate if he’s the Messiah is this: he has to assume the role of priest. This is why in the verses immediately following today’s passage he goes into the Temple and drives out the money-changers. He’s the priest: he’s in charge of the Temple. But today’s scripture points to a deeper way in which he’s priest: Notice he’s riding into Jerusalem not as a conquering war hero on a powerful warhorse, the way conquering war heroes are supposed to: no, he’s riding on a donkey—and not just a donkey, a colt, a “foal of a donkey,”as scripture says. Get the picture? He’s riding in on a baby donkey. It’s kind of a ridiculous image for a conquering war hero. Because do you know what kind of military leader rides a donkey? The kind who gets slaughtered by the enemy. You can’t win a conventional battle riding a baby donkey—you’ll get yourself killed. Yet this is exactly how Jesus is going to win the battle over sin and death and Satan: by allowing himself to be slaughtered on the cross.
As Hebrews 2:17 says, “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” To “make propitiation”is what a priest does when he offers a sacrifice on the altar—the sacrifice turns away God’s wrath and bring forgiveness of sins. Except Jesus, our true High Priest, offers himself as the once-for-all, atoning sacrifice for our sins. And we see this prophesied in Isaiah 53: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
The third and final role that the Messiah has to fulfill, which we see Jesus doing in today’s scripture is this: He has to be the king. Zechariah 9:9: “Behold, your king is coming to you…”
So by reminding the people of this messianic scripture, by having them throw down their cloaks on the dirty road so he wouldn’t have to ride through the mud, by having them wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna!”—which means “Save us”—Jesus is telling the people, through his actions, “I’m Israel’s true and promised king, in the line of David, come to bring salvation and peace to the world.”That’s the message Jesus was communicating, and that’s the message that the people received.
So in this triumphal entry Jesus begins deliberately showing the world that he is the true Messiah, Savior, and king. And the crowd is right to cheer him on in this way. Jesus is going to save the people—if only they’ll follow him—but the kind of salvation that Jesus offers is so much greater than what the people expect or want.
In a great little book that Pope Benedict wrote about the first Christmas, he said, “The prevailing expectations of salvation [at the time of Jesus] were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom, on Israel’s freedom and independence [from Rome], and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people.” Yet, way back at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the angel told Joseph, Jesus’adoptive father, “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This was bound to be disappointing to Israel. But as Benedict says, humanity’s “first, fundamental relationship”is with God, and that relationship is broken because of our sin. If God doesn’t heal us there first, we’re not truly healed.
Once our relationship with God is healed, then we can reach outward and heal the world.
But are we really so different from these crowds asking Jesus to save them from Roman occupation? We often say, “Save us, Jesus.”But what we really mean is, “Save us just a little.”We might say, “Save me, Jesus, from this problem I’m having paying the bills this month. Save me, Jesus, from this problem I’m having with my wife or husband. Save me, Jesus, from getting laid off! Save me, Jesus, from failing algebra! Save me, Jesus, from this health problem I’m experiencing.”
We want a little bit of Jesus, but not too much, as if Jesus were a spice that we add to our life—like garlic—and a little goes a long way! But Jesus isn’t offering us a little bit of himself, Jesus is offering us everything—his very life on the cross—in order to save us. Anything less than that wouldn’t be enough!
As you probably know, we recently finished studying Tim Keller’s book on marriage on Sunday nights. And here’s one of the book’s deepest insights: We say we want Jesus to fix our marriages. But what we usually mean is, we want Jesus to fix our spouse. He or she, after all, is the main problem. Right? But Jesus says, “No, the main problem isn’t someone or something else out there—with that other person, with that other situation…the main problem is right here, in your heart. That’s what needs to be fixed first!”Let our Lord heal that first and then your marriage suddenly has a real chance of being healed. And that’s why that book blew me away, and I think that’s why that book had an impact on so many of you.
See, for most of the first 20 years of my marriage, I lived as if the demands that Christ makes on my life didn’t really apply once I crossed the threshold of my home. I mean, sure, I know I’m supposed deny myself and take up my cross, to die to myself, to serve others unselfishly, to put the needs and interests of others ahead of my own needs and interests when it comes to people out there, in the world…I know I’m supposed to do those things when it comes to loving my neighbor…out there. But when it comes to my marriage? No, I need my wife to serve me, to meet my needs, to make me happy! I never considered that my neighbor was also this person who lived under my roof, the neighbor with whom I raised a family, the neighbor with whom I shared a life, the neighbor with whom I shared a bed.
But if I’m going to be truly happy in my marriage, Jesus is going to have to be Lord there, too.
Do you see what I was doing? I wanted a little bit of Jesus to save my marriage when I really needed everything he had to offer—but what he has to offer is difficult and painful and inconvenient—in part because it means finally facing up to and dealing with all that ugly and selfish garbage inside of me.
But I’ve found in my own painful experience that there’s no other way to happiness. Oh, I’m constantly tempted to think there is, but there’s not.
So here’s what I think it comes down to: We don’t get to have Jesus as our savior unless he also becomes our Lord. If we’re going to shout our loud “hosannas”to our king, that means he’s going to have to rule over every part of our lives. If Jesus is king of our lives, that means he doesn’t require our approval, our permission, our consent, our agreement that his way is best—although he’ll keep proving that it is if we obey him. I talk to Christians all the time who speak as if our Lord’s commands have to make sense to them before they submit to him! No, if Jesus is our Lord and king, then, like in verse 3 of today’s scripture, knowing that “the Lord needs you to do this thing”is enough for us. Our job is to obey him.
Will we have the courage to do that?
Obviously, a lot of people in the crowd in today’s scripture didn’t have the courage, and they turned against him. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the same people cheering him on on Palm Sunday would, just five days later, be shouting for his crucifixion. That’s the way we humans are: After all, as Jesus said, “It isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he looked around at all these future traitors, and he did something that seems impossible to us: He loved them—and loved them so much that he went to the cross for them. And if he could love these people enough to die for them and save them, guess what? He loves us enough to die for us and save us, too!
 Matthew 20:28
 John 14:6, John 10:30, John 14:9, John 8:58.
 Matthew 21:13
 This is a paraphrase of Mark 1:24.
 John 6:15
 John 6:14, 7:40
 Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20; Isaiah 6:5
 Hebrews 2:17
 Isaiah 53:5
 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.
 Matthew 1:21