The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
April 9, 2017
Well, it’s time. We have been leading to this day for the six weeks of Lent, for the three years of his earthly ministry. We may have been leading to it for our whole lives, perhaps even since the world began. We have been leading to this day because, now, he is approaching Jerusalem. Jesus has talked a lot about this with his disciples: how he has to go there, how he will suffer there, how he will be killed. And it feels like a very serious version of Going on a Bear Hunt. You know that old favorite of children’s books: he can’t go over it; he can’t go around it; he can’t go under it; he’s got to go through it.
Matthew tells us there is a lot going on once Jesus gets there. In fact, the place is simmering and it feels like it could very soon boil over. This is the highest-pressure week of the year for Jerusalem, the most important holiday season with the biggest crowds they will see all year. We believe that there were about 200,000 extra people in the city that week to celebrate Passover: 200,000 more in a city that usually held only 40,000 total.
The time and place seem to have gotten to everyone. Jesus’ disciples are busy running here and there. The crowds are boisterous in their welcome and loud in their demands. And the rest of the town is unnerved and upset to learn that Jesus has arrived. In fact, Matthew describes them as “in turmoil,” as in “seizo,” as in quaking from seismic shifts. Everyone is on edge.
With all this distraction, it would be easy to miss what is important here. But don’t let the parade get in the way or the busyness or the fear. What is important is two-fold. First, people are calling out “Hosanna,” and, second, people are asking, “Just who is this?”
“Hosanna,” as you may know, simply means “please save.” And when the crowds see Jesus they shout to him, “Please save, Son of David!” and “Please save in the highest heaven!” Something about him makes them realize they need saving and, not just any old saving, but the kind that is to the highest heaven. Today we would probably put the phrase more like, “please save in the best way, by your highest means, please pull out all the stops!”
That is what is happening first and foremost, people are looking to Jesus because he is the one who can save them in the best way possible. What is happening next is that people are wondering just who this person is who can save like this.
This is where Matthew wants to be very clear. Jesus rides into town, not on a warhorse ready to do battle, but on a donkey, humble and low. Matthew says he did this to fulfill scripture from Zechariah but then he leaves out part of it. Where Zechariah says, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” Matthew only quotes what he wants, saying, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” There is no “triumphant.” There is no “victorious.” Matthew leaves it out. Instead there is just “humble” and just that donkey. For, as often as we call this the day of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” we don’t get that from Matthew. Jesus is showing us exactly who he is: what kind of king, what kind of savior, what kind of messiah. He is the kind who comes quietly with humility and service.
“Approaching Jerusalem” was a real event in Jesus’ life but it was also a symbol, throughout his ministry, of the difficult thing he would have to face. As we approach this week it is still difficult, with the betrayal that is right around the corner, and the imprisonment and suffering and death. This coming week is a difficult one to face and it asks a great deal of our faith, of our hearts.
But “approaching Jerusalem” can also be a symbol of anything difficult we must go through. It is shorthand for those things that, just like it was for Jesus, we can’t go around, or over, or behind: we have to go through them. In those experiences, we can be overwhelmed by all that is happening. We face tremendous demands. We will, of course, be upset and we may feel like we are about to boil over.
When this happens, when Jerusalem must be approached, do not miss what is most important. First, know that you need saving. And not just any old kind. You need the kind that reaches the highest places, that saves the best way, that pulls out all the stops. Be honest about needing this kind of salvation. Do not be afraid to call out for it. And, second, do not forget who this is. Do not forget what kind of king is coming for you. He is not going to show up for you in the most flashy and brash of ways. He doesn’t arrive like that. He doesn’t save like that. He is the one who will come to you on a donkey.
This is the beautiful way the reformer Martin Luther put it over 500 years ago. He wrote, “Look at him! Jesus rides no stallion, which is a war animal, and he comes not with fearful pomp and power, but sits on a donkey, which is no war animal but which is ready for burdens of work that will help human beings. Thereby he shows that he does not come to terrify people, to drive or oppress them, but to help them, to carry their burdens and take them on himself.”
How far have we come in our faith if we can freely admit that we need saving, and if we can also recognize that it is his kind of saving that we need? To recognize that we will not be saved by stallions and their power but by the messiah on a donkey who carries our burdens on his back?
We will be in Jerusalem all week now. And we know enough of the story to know that, in Jerusalem, the crowds will prove to be untrustworthy. In Jerusalem even close disciples can disappoint. In Jerusalem a whole city can rise up to demand, “Crucify!” That’s how it is in Jerusalems—in those difficult places we have to go through. So when you are there don’t look at the crowd or the city or even the friends, look at Jesus instead.
For he is the one who can save you there, and the one who can save you best. There will always be Jerusalems. There is no going around them. There wasn’t for Jesus. No, we have to face Jerusalem. So when you face it, face it looking into the only face that matters. Look at him this week. No matter what happens, look only at him: this week, the week after. Every week look at him. Amen.