Sermon for Palm Sunday April 14, 2019 (Luke 19:28-40) – “In Lowly Pomp, Ride on to Die”

“Вход Господень в Иерусалим” (2016), by Andrej Nikolaevich Mironov. Shared under Creative Commons 4.0 Share-Alike License..

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Today is Palm Sunday, which means that today is also the beginning of Holy Week.  We remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem today, and with that, the beginning of the “end” of his ministry prior to his crucifixion.  So there is a lot “riding” on today’s commemoration. Jesus, the King of the Jews and of all Creation, is entering into his capital city, and his subjects are receiving him with loud shouts of “Hosanna” and with palm fronds waving.  He’s here! The king is coming!

What would we have seen, were we there that day?  Jesus, a man with little to distinguish him, riding on the back of a colt, a young donkey; no saddle, just robes cushioning the ride.  And in front of him, people laying their cloaks on the road before him. No red carpet here. And the crowds, cheering out, “Blessed is the coming King in the name of the Lord; peace in the heavens, and glory in the highest places!”  Cut palm leaves waving. But not a procession with pomp and circumstance, at least not by the standards of the first century (or of our century, either). There was nothing very kingly about this procession, nothing opulent or triumphant, even though many of our Bibles title this section of Luke’s Gospel “The Triumphal Entry.”  For an outside observer, there was little triumphant about this procession at all. Instead, they saw a carpenter riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, surrounded by his followers.

“A Roman Triumph” (ca. 1630), by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). National Gallery, London. Creative Commons.

Those of you who are students of Roman history probably know what I mean when I say “triumph,” but I want to define it more clearly for those of you who don’t.  A triumphus was a special kind of Roman military victory parade, originally awarded to victorious generals and later reserved only for emperors once Augustus had been awarded the title for life (and thus would have been for the emperor alone by the time of Jesus’ ministry).  The parade would have gone through the city of Rome, ending at the temple of Jupiter, where the victorious conqueror would dedicate the spoils of his victory to the honor of that god. The emperor would have been dressed in a costume that made him look like statues of Jupiter, too, wearing a purple and gold toga, red boots, red face paint, and a wreath upon his head, and he would have ridden in a four-horse chariot decked in charms to ward off envy.  Before him would march the captives and slaves he had taken in his campaign, as well as men carrying the booty and spoils he had seized, and behind him would march his armies for the whole city to revue. The closest modern analog I can think of is a on old ticker-tape parade after the World Series or a Soviet military parade in Red Square. And amid all the cheering of the crowds and the accolades, the victorious emperor would, it is said, have had a slave or companion riding next to him in the chariot, whispering or declaring to him, “Remember you are mortal!”  A triumph was the closest a Roman general or emperor could come to being a king, or even, a god, for a day.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem lacked all the pomp and circumstance of this sort of procession.  He didn’t look like an emperor, he was riding a donkey rather than in a beautifully appointed quadriga, “no tramp of marching soldiers’ feet” behind him or humiliated captives in chains before him.  He wasn’t dressed up, either. So what made Jesus’ coming into the capital triumphant?

“Entry into Jerusalem; Christ (played by Anton Lang) and John, with donkey; at the Oberammergau passion play, Bavaria, Germany, 1900.” Library of Congress.

Triumphs aren’t a Jewish thing, but other observers would have seen the parallels between Jesus’ entry and the description of Solomon’s coronation:

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.  (1 Kings 1:38-40 ESV)

But even noting those similarities, to the observer on the ground, Jesus’ entry still is not the same as that made by a Davidic king back in Judah’s glory days.  There was no visible passing of authority to him from another king, no anointing with oil by a high priest. If bystanders expected something of an earthly king here, it would have been harder to find.  The Pharisees took it to be a mockery. What did Jesus mean by this procession? Who was this Jesus? How dare he act like some sort of wannabe king?

Who did Jesus think he was by doing this?  Who did the people in the crowds think he was?  A king or warlord, come to kick out the Romans and reestablish a Jewish kingdom?  To “Make Judea Great Again”? The wrath of God coming with his winnowing fork to destroy the status quo and initiate a new world order in the here-and-now?  A mighty prophet come to call out Jerusalem’s wickedness and the wickedness of its new Italian overlords?  I’m sure that many in the crowds ascribed these titles and functions to Jesus when he came in to the city. They wanted him to be someone who fit their hopes and dreams when they saw him riding into the city.  They wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, or they saw him for who he was but could not accept him as such (for example, Judas Iscariot).

But, more importantly, when we see Jesus going into Jerusalem, who do we think he is? Folks in modern America (and throughout the world, for that matter), try to fit Jesus into certain moulds that make him into someone or something he isn’t.  Sometimes we make Jesus into a therapist who is there to make us feel better about ourselves. Other times, we make him into some sort of patron or sugar-daddy— we expect him to give us things when we ask for them (but there’s no guarantee!).  Or, we make Jesus into a moralist or a security blanket. You might have seen posts online that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular American political categories or camps— pictures of American statesmen bowing before Jesus as a sort of admission that America is, by design, a Christian nation, or posts demonstrating how Jesus would be a fan of single-payer healthcare or building the wall, among other political postures.  Each one of these views of Christ makes him into someone or something he isn’t by making him support the causes we like or look like we do. And in addition to these false views of Christ in American Christendom, there is also the view held by those who deny Jesus outright, which holds that he’s a nobody or a loser and certainly cannot be God because God doesn’t die.

And who thinks this way?  A few months ago I was having dinner with an elderly friend who is agnostic, and he told me of an experience he had seeing a roadside crucifix as a child growing up in France.  When he saw the image of Christ on the cross, he thought to himself, “This is supposed to be my God? And he can’t protect himself? This can’t be my God.” I’m not sure my friend realized that he was holding opinions in common with Friedrich Nietzsche and the prophet Muhammad, but this is the world’s view of Jesus.  The world doesn’t think that God can become a man or die and rise for the remission of sins. It’s as C.S. Lewis once wrote: Jesus is either a liar, a madman, or exactly who he claims to be, the son of God. And the sinful world sees him as the first two options. But only the third option is the correct one, and we often get led astray into creating a false Christ who conforms to our hopes and desires, or into listening to the world’s appraisal of him.  And when we do that, we’re like those Pharisees at his entry into Jerusalem, who didn’t recognize their Lord for who he actually was and who told him to shush those disciples of his who did. To cling to a false Christ or to deny him in toto is to reject him wholly and to deny that he is indeed the king, the coming one.  To deny him like this is to replace him with an idol of our own making.

“No. 26 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 10. Entry into Jerusalem” (1304-1306) by Giotto di Bondone (d. 1337), Scrovegni Chapel.

But Jesus always defies our expectations of him.  Just because his entry into Jerusalem isn’t a military triumph or a procession akin to Solomon’s coronation parade doesn’t make it lose its triumphant tone, nor does it deny that Jesus, the king of the Jews and indeed of all people, makes the beginning of his redemptive work here in his entrance into Jerusalem.  Indeed, this entry into Jerusalem is the beginning of the end of… the END. The “big exit.”  Death.  And though Jesus hasn’t yet been crucified, sin, death, and hell’s days are numbered.  Jesus rides on in lowly pomp to die and destroy death by its own mechanism. He’s the king, coming incognito, to take back his kingdom from the inside, coming directly to his people who need him and have been waiting for him to come to them.  The moment his foot crosses Jerusalem’s threshold, it’s game over for the forces of darkness, and his disciples know it.

If you’ve spent any time online in the world of Japanese animation or memes, you’re probably familiar with the protagonist’s signature phrase from the anime series, Fist of the North Star, Omae wa mou shindeiru!”– “you’re already dead!”  In this series, the protagonist is the practitioner of an ancient martial art that, when used, causes an opponent to literally explode from the inside.  One touch from him, and his unsuspecting enemies are truly “already dead.” Three steps, and *pop*, they’re no more. The same is true of the powers of sin, death, and hell when Christ comes into Jerusalem.  The powers of the Enemy and the world see Jesus coming in and they try to cast him as a pretender or a guru or a mere man, but Jesus’ entry spells their doom, and when he comes into Jerusalem and his disciples proclaim him with loud cries, “Blessed is the coming one, the King, in the name of the Lord,” he comes as he is, as the Son of God, and no matter how hard they try to cast him as something or someone different, he is still the Son of God, the Blessed One, the Coming King.  Even the stones would proclaim this were God to command them to do so, and when Jesus dies and rises at Easter, all who rejected him and his heavenly kingship will receive a correction to their folly. But his disciples who trust in him will see the fullness of his triumph. They will receive the fullness of life in him, and will be his people forever. They trust him to be their king and God in the flesh, and so he is.

“Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” (ca. 1150), by the Master of the Capella Palatina in Palermo.

And Jesus is our God and King, too, though here on Palm Sunday we don’t see his coronation.  His entry is not triumphant in the sense that it marks the full completion of a battle or war, but in that it marks the beginning of the successful final campaign against the enemies of God.  And we now live as beneficiaries of this triumph, and have seen Jesus, risen from the grave, as he is, the One who has destroyed the hold of sin, death, and the grave, and who gives new life and salvation to sinners, among whom we are numbered.  When we look to Jesus riding into Jerusalem, we see him as he is, coming in a manner that defies our expectations, riding in lowly pomp, not to be crowned with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns. Not to sit upon a golden throne, but to be nailed and hung upon a cross.  Not to offer sacrifices, but to be sacrificed, our sacrifice.  Not to sit above his people, but to go to them, serve them, and die for them.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus comes to us and shows us his power made perfect in his humility and weakness, as our king who comes to us, seeks us out, and brings us to live with him through his final, triumphant battle of which this is the opening salvo.  That is where the triumph lies today, and it is a triumph we now all celebrate with him. So let us sing with Henry Milman:

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.


Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (Midweek Service), December 5, 2018 – “Christ comes as King” (Matthew 21:1-9)

This sermon is the first part of a sermon series preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia, titled “Advent with Martin Luther,” exploring themes found in Luther’s 1540 Church Postil concerning the readings from the One-Year Historic Lectionary.

Triumphaler Einzug in Jerusalem. Südliches Seitenschiff, 3.Fenster, 1.Scheibe (Passionsfenster), Straßburger Münster.
(Creative Commons, Rolf Kranz)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

We are now celebrating the season of Advent, the first season of the church year and the time when we remember our Lord’s first coming and look with expectation to his second coming.  It is a time of reflection, a time of prayer, and a time of waiting. It is a time when past and future collide, but then life in the church is not really tied to time as we experience it.  Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ is coming again. He came to us once long ago as our king, he is now with us, and he will come again bodily to reclaim the fullness of Creation for himself.  And that’s what “advent” means. It’s from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming” or “approach” or “arrival.”  It is the season of the coming of Christ, and the time when we meditate upon it.

But how does Christ come to us?  Do we come to him? What does it mean for him to come to us?  That is what we shall contemplate over these weeks, and we shall do so by contemplating Christ’s coming alongside our father in the faith, Martin Luther.

The ways in which Christ comes to us were very much in the forefront of Luther’s mind, for he expected that Christ would come again soon, likely in his lifetime.  If Christ’s return was apparently immanent, then there is an imperative aspect to the expectation of his coming, and there was an imperative aspect, too, in remembering his first coming.  We can benefit from Luther’s insights into Christ’s two advents, and so that is what we will do tonight.

Our Gospel text this evening is from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  At first glance, it seems odd to have the reading traditionally associated with Palm Sunday be the first reading for the church year, but here Matthew tells us about the manner of Christ’s first coming as king.  And how does this king come to us? Not as a victorious conqueror riding on a fine warhorse, but humbly, riding on a donkey, not in armor or fine linens with a crown of gold, but wearing only the simple garments of a carpenter with his head bared.  Our king comes to us in a most unexpected way.

The world expects kings to have crowns and armor.  The world expects kings to be conquerors and warriors.  The world expects pomp and circumstance, trumpets and vanguards, banners.  The world wants its king to have a ticker tape parade. But our king does not come in this way.  His coming, if the crowds hadn’t been there, would have been unremarkable. Indeed it was unremarkable, even with the crowds there.  Most everyone with a pack animal in Judea had a donkey; there is nothing special about them. But this is how our Lord and King first comes to us, “humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden,” coming to speak to us the love of God and the forgiveness of sins.

And why in this way?  Again, the world expects a conqueror to come.  That’s what the Jews were hoping for— a Messiah who would come and crack some heads.  A Messiah who would kick out the Romans and reinstitute Jewish autonomy. A Messiah who would make Jerusalem great again.  They could not imagine their Messiah coming in this manner, even though it was just as the prophet Zechariah had foretold: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.”  This humble king clashed with what they wanted. They could not believe, or did not want to believe, that their king would come in this way and that God had ordained it so, even though he plainly had.

This is because believing that our king comes to us in this way requires faith, a faith that the Pharisees and Sadducees did not have.  It requires faith to believe that this simple carpenter riding on a beast of burden is Israel’s king come to redeem his people. It requires faith to believe that he will vanquish mankind’s enemies, not flesh-and-blood foes, but those intangible ones of sin, death, and hell, and that he will do so not with a sword, but with his own death on the cross and his resurrection.  It requires faith to believe that this carpenter-king comes not just to redeem Israel alone, but comes to redeem the whole world, all of humanity, through his coming into his kingdom. It requires faith to believe that his kingdom is not confined to a little corner of the Mediterranean coast, but extends to all corners of the globe. It requires faith to believe that this king— our king— comes not to destroy his rebellious subjects, but to forgive them.

And we cannot grasp him ourselves.  This faith that speaks Christ’s identity to us cannot be grasped by our reason or choice.  We cannot choose to believe that this carpenter-king is our king, coming to us on a donkey.  We cannot choose to love or trust him of our own accord. Our ability to reason, to know the divine and recognize him and accept him is corrupt, hampered by the sin that pervades our whole being.  Our wills where God are concerned are bound to the power of sin.  We, his wayward subjects, cannot come to him.  The “advent” is not ours. It must be his.

Luther puts it better than I can in his sermon notes for the First Sunday in Advent from his Church Postil, written in 1540:

“He is ‘coming’ [Matt. 21:5].  Without a doubt, you do not come to Him and fetch Him; he is too high and too far from you.  With your effort, pains, and work you cannot reach Him, lest you boast that you had brought Him to yourself by your own merit and worthiness.  No, dear friend, all merit and worthiness is defeated here, and there is nothing on your side but demerit and unworthiness; on His side, nothing but grace and mercy.  The poor and rich here meet together, as Proverbs 22[:2] says.

By this are condemned all the shameful teachings about free will…. For all their teaching is that we are to begin and lay the first stone.  By the power of our free will we are first to seek God, to come to Him, to run after Him, and to gain His grace. Beware, beware of this poison!  It is nothing but the doctrine of the devil, by which all the world is led astray. Before you can call on God or seek Him, God must first have come to you and have found you, as Paul says: “How can they call on Him unless they first believe?  And how can they believe in Him unless there first is someone preaching? And how can they preach unless they are first sent?” etc. (Romans 10 [:14-15]). God must lay the first stone and begin in you, if you are to seek Him and to pray to Him.  He is present already when you begin and seek Him. If He is not present, then you are beginning nothing but sheer sin, and the greater and holier the work you attempt, the greater the sin will be, and you will become a hardened hypocrite….”1

The world does not deserve its king.  We do not deserve him. But he comes to us all the same because he desires us to live with him as his subjects and his children.  He desires that we live with him in harmony and that we live with him as children do with a loving father. And so he comes to us to bring us home.  Any attempt on our part to find him of our own, compromised will; any attempt we make to mold him into someone or something of our own desire, misses the mark, and we sin against him.  We, like those Pharisees who did not understand their king would come riding on a donkey, do not expect him to come as he does. On our own, using our own understanding, we cannot believe or trust that he is the one we are to expect.  And thank God, he does not leave us there to wallow in our sins, vainly seeking those things that we in our sinfulness wish to be gods for ourselves, but gives us the faith to see him as he is and to believe that he is our savior, the faith to trust him and to receive his forgiveness and to live as forgiven children of God, the faith to proclaim him as our king, and with the multitudes before Jerusalem’s gate shout aloud with great joy, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

May the peace which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

1 Martin Luther, A Year in the Gospels with Martin Luther: Sermons from Luther’s Church Postil, ed. Benjamin Mayes, trans. James Langebartels, vol. 1 (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2018): 11.