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 of Christmas, December 30, 2018 (Luke 2:41-52)

This sermon was originally delivered at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, in Herndon, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Have you ever had someone make an assumption about your identity, or assume they knew something about you while being drastically wrong?  Have you ever made such assumptions about someone else?  Our Gospel reading this morning in many ways has to do with an inability to understand who a person actually is, even when presented with proof.  Specifically, how Jesus’ identity is misunderstood even at the young age of twelve.  In our reading, Mary and Joseph seem to have certain misconceptions about who their son is, and, upon further reflection, so do we.  Christ’s adolescent visit to the Temple reveals that we, in our sinfulness, fail to grasp the truth of his identity.

But first of all, on Monday night we heard the familiar story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem during the Augustan census.  We know the story well— Joseph and Mary, no room in the house for the birth, the angels, the shepherds— it lies at the heart of the Christmas season.  And thanks to our Nativity creches, we mentally prepare for the coming of the wise men from the East to come next in our holiday sequence.  So it’s a bit of a surprise to see Jesus showing up as a twelve-year-old in our lectionary for the first Sunday of the Christmas season.

There is good reason for the inclusion of this narrative from the early years of Jesus’ life, though, because it rounds out what some theologians call “the infancy narrative” (not that Jesus is an infant at the age of twelve— he’s quite close to manhood), which recounts scenes from Jesus’ early years.  Why we have so few scenes from his early life is a discussion for another time.  The next time we see him in the Gospels and in the church year is when he is roughly 30 years old and coming to John to be baptized in the Jordan.  Jesus’ going to the temple is the last time we see him as young right before his ministry begins, before he starts being known to the world.  And it also shows us that Jesus didn’t jump from being a baby to being a man.  It gives us insight into who he was in the intervening years between the manger and his baptism in the Jordan in Luke 3.

And what were Jesus and his family doing in this final episode of the infancy narrative?  Luke tells us that they were going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  They apparently did this every year, even though only Joseph, as an adult man, was required to make the journey to Jerusalem to observe the feast, and even then, was only required to be in the city for two days to fulfill the rite’s obligation as defined in Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 16.  The rites at the Temple would have included the ritual slaying of a lamb and a family meal made of that lamb in order to commemorate the events of the historical Passover recorded in Exodus, where God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  Mary and Joseph it seems also traveled with friends and neighbors, and perhaps while Joseph and the other menfolk were attending the rites at the Temple, Mary and the women and children did things in the city together.  It brings to mind a big convention, the sort of place where every year, friendships are made and strengthened, where families meet and catch up on the year’s happenings.    

And after the rites were observed, it was time to go back to Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph likely traveled in the company of friends and family and assumed that Jesus was going along with his friends.  But when they stopped for the night, Jesus never showed up.  He wasn’t with his friends or his other family members.  So where was he?  Can you imagine the fear, the worry that engulfed Mary and Joseph?  I’ll grant you, they lived in a world where a boy of twelve had to grow up much more quickly than any of today’s children do.  The life of a child in first century Judea was hard.  Half of all children died before their tenth birthday.  Young boys would have started learning how to help with the family trade early, and may have been more mature than their modern counterparts, such was their world.  So to not see Jesus for the whole day would not have been terribly concerning— he very well could have been with his friends in the caravan.  But to not have him show up at night?  That was cause for worry, and I imagine that any parent here today can sympathize with Mary and Joseph and can imagine the urgency with which they searched for their son.

And after three days— three days! — they found him in, of all places, the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law and impressing them with his depth of knowledge and insight.  One might think that Mary and Joseph would have been filled with pride— their little boy a Wunderkind, speaking authoritatively with the most learned men in all of Judaism.  But their actual reaction is more realistic— they had just spent three days in a panic searching high and low for their son, and wowing the great theologians of the day didn’t erase the fact that he was missing and that they were run ragged emotionally.  He had some explaining to do, this son of theirs.  “Son,” says Mary, “why have you done to us thus?  Behold, your father and I, being in great distress, were seeking you” (from Arthur Just’s literal translation of the Greek).

And then comes the kicker.  Jesus answers his mother, speaking the first words we ever hear him say in the Gospel of Luke, and they’re a rebuke.  “Why is it that you were seeking me?  Did you not know that it is necessary that I am among the things of my Father?” (or as some translations say, “in my Father’s house”).  This was a strange thing to say.  Mary and Joseph couldn’t understand his meaning, even though they both knew that Jesus was the Son of God.  But they seemed to have forgotten just who their son was, just what it meant for him to be the Son of God.  He wasn’t like the other boys in Nazareth, nor was he like the other boys in the rest of Judea, or the world for that matter.  He was the Son of God, and he had a different purpose, a different mission than other boys, a mission to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and to preach a Gospel of repentance; a mission to take on the sins of the whole world and to die and rise again in order to fulfill the law; a mission to be “among the things of his Father,” God, in Jerusalem, where his once-and-for-all sacrifice would be made.  Mary and Joseph seem to have forgotten this.  They thought they knew who their son was and what he was about, but they were mistaken.  They thought they knew what God had planned for them and for Jesus, and they were wrong.

Just like Mary and Joseph, we often think we know who Jesus is and what he is supposed to do, who he is supposed to be.  We try to mold him to fit our expectations.  It’s a bit like the dinner-table scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby and Carl Naughton, Jr., describe how they like to imagine Jesus.  Ricky begins saying grace, preferring to imagine Jesus as he was in the manger:   

Dear Lord baby Jesus, lyin’ there in your ghost manger, just lookin’ at your Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin’ ’bout shapes and colors….Dear 8 pounds 6 ounces… newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet….

On the other hand, Carl can’t seem to make up his mind (in both the scene and bits from the credits):

I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party….I like to think of Jesus like with giant eagle’s wings, and singin’ lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I’m in the front row hammered drunk….I like to picture Jesus as a figure skater. He wears like a white outfit, and He does interpretive ice dances of my life’s journey….I like to picture Jesus as a shapeshifter or changeling.  Ya’ll seen that show Manimal?

And then Carl’s pièce de résistance:

I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger. 

We laugh at these statements because we know that the versions of Jesus that both Ricky and Carl come up wildly miss the mark of describing who Jesus actually is.  Sure, Jesus is a baby when he is born, but he doesn’t remain a baby for very long and he ascended bodily into heaven as an adult.  And what baby born in antiquity would be watching “Little Einstein” videos?  Carl’s depictions of course are especially way off— Jesus isn’t some sort of party bro, nor is he a performer playing for Carl’s entertainment, nor is he some sort of ice dancer whose interpretive dance is supposed to be all about the story of Carl.   And Jesus certainly isn’t a “mischievous badger.”  But what makes it funny, and I might even say makes these clips good satire, is that we do the same things with Jesus ourselves.

We come up with wrong ideas about who Jesus is because, as sinners, we cannot understand who he is of our own accord, and our own pride and self-absorption prevents us from really listening to him and taking him at his word.  Instead of letting Jesus be the Son of God, we try to make him look and act the way we want him to.  We make idols out of who we think Jesus is; they’re vaguely Jesus-shaped, but they are not the real Jesus.  Rather than looking to the actual Christ, we carve our own personal Jesuses.  Rev. Matt Richard in his book, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, names twelve false views of Christ that we can find perpetuated in modern culture: Christ the mascot, Christ the option among many, Christ the good teacher, Christ the therapist, Christ the giver of bling (or as I like to call this one, Christ the sugar daddy), Christ the national patriot, Christ the social justice warrior, Christ the moral example, Christ the new Moses, Christ the mystical friend, Christ the feminized, and Christ the teddy bear.  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 to go through them all would take more time than this sermon can allow.  But for example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen memes on Facebook that try to shoehorn Jesus into particular political camps or schools of thought, mainly posted by friends who are trying to prove that, were Jesus doing his ministry today, he would support either the Democrats or the Republicans; that Jesus would support single-payer healthcare or that Jesus would build the wall (among other positions).  These fail to understand him— he’s not a Democrat or a Republican, he’s above them!  He’s the king— the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy, and the miracle of the story of Christmas is that the King of it all, God himself, became one of us while also still being God.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” Matthias Stomer (1632)

This is the mystery of the incarnation— God took on flesh and dwelt among us, becoming one of us in order to defeat the sin that corrupts us, his children, and makes us unworthy of being with him.  And even weirder, that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”  Our Savior, just as the third verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” states, grew day by day from childhood to adulthood; he was born little, weak, and helpless, but he became a man, and he shares all our sorrows while also rejoicing in all our happiness.  He was truly human; he grew.  But at the same time, he is not like us— he is both God and man.  In the words of the 17th Century Dutch theologian David Hollazius, in the miracle of the incarnation, Christ “now subsists forever as the God-man, in two natures, divine and human, most intimately united.”[1]  And we aren’t comfortable with this.  It’s incredibly hard to wrap your head around the idea that Christ can be both true God and true Man, that the finite can contain the infinite, and so we dress him in other guises, either making him a different kind of God, or removing his godhood from the equation entirely, preferring that our God be some distant, indefinable, unmeasurable, and inscrutable entity, sitting like Crom, Robert E. Howard’s deity in the Conan stories, on his lonely mountain, whose attention is best not attracted.  It’s easier that way, pretending that Jesus is just some guy and that God is someplace else.  But it’s not correct.  It ignores who Jesus is— who the angels revealed him to be, who John the Baptist recognized in utero, and who he himself knows he is, even when he is a mere twelve years old.  But in our pride, we replace him with another god that approximates a crude imitation, but fails to be the real thing.

So how do we properly understand Christ?  How do we come to know him?  Our own senses and modes of inquiry cannot really approach who Jesus is— our understanding of the world is constrained by our own physical limitations.  A wise biologist once wrote:

“Science is limited to the study of the physical world.  [It] cannot address spiritual, moral, aesthetic, or emotional issues.  Because we can know only a portion of this world that our senses can perceive, scientists restrict their attention to the physical world that can be directly or indirectly observed.  Even so, the observations that characterize scientific inquiry are not perfectly objective because of the limitations of our senses.  Science does not, however, deny the possible existence of nonphysical worlds; it simply takes no position on issues it is not equipped to investigate.”[2]

Our own attempts at using reason to approach Jesus cannot find him.  Like Mary and Joseph, our fallen brains cannot understand him and his mission.  As Luther states in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, we “cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, [our] Lord, or come to Him.”  But the mystery of the incarnation shows us that Jesus didn’t leave us to flail wildly.  He didn’t leave us to create our own rough approximations of him or to worship certain aspects of himself without seeing the whole of him.  The incarnation shows us that Christ didn’t want us to find him (we can’t) but that instead Christ came to us, to work among us and to speak to us and to demonstrate his being our Lord and Savior, our God in the flesh, by his fulfillment of the words of the prophets, by his dying on the cross to erase our sins and the curse of death and hell, and by his rising again on the third day.  We have his words and deeds as proof of who he is.  He shows us that he is not some teddy bear or American patriot or social reformer or giver of stuff, and certainly no mischievous badger.  Christ is our God who saves us from our sins.  And he has given us the Holy Spirit to dwell with us to remind us of who he is, who, as Luther says in the Catechism, has “called [us] by the Gospel, enlightened [us] with his gifts, sanctified and kept [us] in the true faith.” 

When we trust what Jesus tells us about himself and have faith in what he has done for us, then we see who he is and what he has done for us and the whole world.  We can have faith that it is indeed for us, because he came among us to save us from our sins and has forgiven us.    When you and I listen to Christ and trust him, we can indeed say that in baptism, he has washed away all our sins and marked us indelibly as his own.  When we trust him, we can say and believe with confidence that we receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and life eternal here at the altar when we partake in the Lord’s Supper.  When we trust him and take him at his word, we know that this is who our Jesus is.  We may not fully comprehend him in this life and on this side of the resurrection, but we can trust that he is who he says he is and does what he says he does and will do.  When we trust what he says in faith, we know his true identity, and we can take much joy in that knowledge this Christmas season and into the New Year.

So rejoice, our light has come!  He has come for us in spite of our inability to grasp him, and he has grasped us to bring us into his kingdom.  In this New Year, may our Lord strengthen your faith to ever more greatly trust in him and his words and work.  Amen.

[1] Schmid, Heinrich, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Charles A. Hay, Henry E. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1876): 324.

[2] Glick, D. Marvin, Myra Mergler Niemeier, Nancy C. Aiello, Seven Studies of Life: The Process of Science, 3rd Edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Hunter Textbooks, Inc., 2003):3-4.