When Jerusalem Met Jesus

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Palm Sunday.

Matthew 21:1-11

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, Say to Daughter Zion,Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

***

The most important thing to know about this story is that it isn’t the final scene.

Of course, you and I know that. You and I know this story backwards and forwards. We know we’ve got a whole week full of story to go—the last supper, the garden, betrayal, arrest, crucifixion. We’ve heard this story a million times—read it, watched it, sung it, repeated it. We know this Palm Sunday parade is just the beginning, not the end.

But imagine you don’t. Imagine you don’t know this story. Imagine you’re back in the first century, and someone has brought over this Gospel of Matthew, and they’re reading it out loud. Imagine you’re hanging on every word to find out what happens next. Imagine you’re still wondering what’s going to happen to this Jesus who does miracles and preaches radical ideas and says things that get people really pissed off. Imagine you’ve followed his career thus far and you too are starting to think—hey, maybe this guy really has something.

And then your storyteller gets to this scene, and you smile, because this is the kind of happy ending everyone loves. The hometown kid getting his big moment. A parade to welcome the conquering hero. This Jesus guy is finally getting his due—balloons, confetti and all. Sure, he’s on a donkey, not something more glamorous like a horse, and that’s weird, but the point is that he’s the hero here and the crowds are just eating him up. He came, he did some miracles, he got famous, he lived happily ever after. What a great story.

I grew up in a football town, and it’s hard for me to think about parades without conjuring up images of the impromptu crowds that gathered on Salem’s main street whenever our high school team won state, to welcome the team home. I don’t remember anyone shouting Hosanna, but the football players were certainly treated as just a little lower than saviors. We loved them because they made us feel powerful—Salem may be a small city, but by golly, we have our victories all the same. For just a night, we were the big dogs.

I think Jerusalem must have felt the same way. Jerusalem was a city that nursed a lot of nostalgia for power—it had once been the seat of a nation, its temple the home base of the one God of the universe. Now it was a bullet point in the long list of Rome’s conquests. Within the Jewish world, it still held some glamor—but it wasn’t a power center anymore. Not really.

And so when Jesus comes riding in, they hail him as king, heir to the great David. Here is someone to make things the way they used to be. Here is someone to make them feel powerful again. Here is someone who has shown he has power—power to cast out demons and heal the sick and make the religious authorities think twice. Power, they hope, to put them back on the map again. They want to ride the coattails of his glory all the way to the top. Like superfans at a football parade, they want to share the victory.

You probably do too, if you’re hearing this story for the first time. As it stands, this feels like a very effective pitch for evangelism: come join the winning team. Come follow this Jesus, who may have looked like an underdog at the start but has turned out to be the newest superstar. Come join in the glory. Come feel powerful.

Who’d say no to that?

I almost wonder if those first hearers of Matthew’s gospel started clapping at this point. If they thought the story was over. If they thought the credits were about to roll, because the hero has gotten his celebration, and what more do you want?

Thinking about parades and football this week reminded me of the movie Remember the Titans. I probably watched it dozens of times as a kid—it was the go-to for subs and long bus trips in school. Like many sports stories, it’s about an underdog team—in this case, a team being torn apart by racial bigotry and prejudice. The arc of the movie isn’t so much about learning to play football well but learning to play it together, and so when the Titans finally win the semi-finals, and are on their way to state, and the multiracial crowd goes wild, it feels so earned. So good. So powerful.

The scene cuts to a few members of the team who are riding the high, cruising through town, on top of the world. They’re laughing, talking, celebrating. It feels like it could be the end of the movie. It feels like it should be the end of the movie.

Except it isn’t. Because out of nowhere there’s this sickening crunch, and the car goes into a tailspin. The driver ran an intersection and crashes into another vehicle.

And suddenly we go from the highest high to the lowest low. We go from celebration to grief. From powerful to vulnerable.

I have to admit, I hate this part of the movie. I’ve been known to skip forward through the scene, or find that it’s the perfect moment to go make popcorn. I know it’s coming, but I flinch every time. It never stops shocking me, that complete tailspin, when Gary goes from invincible to half-paralyzed. And I don’t like it. I want to hold on to that feeling of power and pride. I don’t want to live through that kind of reversal, that powerlessness. I want to skip ahead to the state finals, where the Titans win again, and join the parade again, and celebrate the big victory.

I imagine I would have had plenty of company in the crowds of Jerusalem. They came out of the woodwork for a King, for a victory march, for a piece of the power. But they too are about to witness a car crash of sorts, where Jesus’ triumphant entry goes into a tailspin. They too are about to witness what happens when power gets turned upside down. When invincible becomes vulnerable.

It’s hard, honestly, to recover the shock value of how fast Jesus’ time in Jerusalem goes from triumph to tragedy. We know the story; we know Jesus ends up on the cross, and in just a few day’s time. But to hear it for the first time? To hear how this underdog hero goes under again? To think you’ve reached the happy end only to find that it’s all about to be undone? Sobering stuff.

Jerusalem flocked to a king, and just a few days later, fled from a criminal. Arrested, tried, convicted, executed. It’s a stunning 180 from what they expected, what they wanted.

We talk all the time about the power of the cross. But what we really mean is the power of what Jesus did on the cross. The cross itself was a symbol of ultimate powerlessness. A death of shame and pain. A death where you couldn’t even stand on your own two feet to meet the end. Crucifixion was about taking away any shred of dignity, any shred of power from the victim. It was common, cruel, and cheap. There was nothing noble about being crucified. Nothing worth celebrating.

Sometimes I think the most faithful way to observe Holy Week is to let the story shock us again. That’s not comfortable; it’s not easy. It’s tempting to go make some popcorn and come back when the tomb is good and empty. But then we too abandon Christ, just as his disciples did. If we only want to play the scenes where we get to feel powerful for hanging around with Jesus, then we miss who Jesus truly is.

Jesus is the one who chooses to empty himself of power. Writing to the church at Philippi, Paul declared that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” It’s a shocking claim. An empty God. A God who would choose a common, cruel, and cheap death over a parade thrown in his honor. A God who would choose our salvation over his own adoration.

Whatever power the cross has is grounded in this: that we have a God who chooses sacrifice for others over safety for himself.

It is shocking. It should be shocking. It should shake us to our core.

The human race is nothing if not self-preservationist. We look to our own safety and well-being first. Our evolution is built on our instinct to protect ourselves and our families. We are quick to latch on to whatever makes us feel powerful—money, influential friends, gates and walls and borders, weapons, winning sports teams. And if someone else threatens our sense of power, we get nasty fast. I’ve seen it in big ways and small.

And yet here we have a God who asks us to take up our cross, to be of the same mind as Christ. We have a God who asks us to stay by his side not just when it makes us feel powerful but when it makes us feel powerless. Here we have a God who recognizes that the kind of love that conquers death cannot coexist with the kind of fear that sends death to everyone but us.

In a few days, we will survey Christ on that cross. The sky will darken and the veil will be torn, and it will feel like the end of the world—certainly the end of the story. A tragic ending, but stories do have those sometimes. After all, after you kill off your main character, what else can you do?

Death on a cross. End of the line. Roll credits.

But here’s the most important thing to know about that scene: it isn’t the end of the story either.

Stay tuned.

 

 

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