Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for Palm Sunday.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”
This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
A few years ago, my husband Erron worked for a few months as a picker at an Amazon Fulfillment Center.
I’m fascinated by this epoch in his career. The stories he tells me are a window into a whole world I might never have seen. From my perspective, I click the “buy now” button on my computer, and 48 hours a box appears on my doorstep as if by magic.
But of course, it isn’t magic. It’s human labor, and lots of it, that gets those packages to my doorstep. Erron talks about working shifts with three or four hundred other pickers in a sprawling warehouse, each tasked with picking 2000 items a day off the shelves to send to the packing crews. That’s 800,000 items picked. In one warehouse. In one shift.
On good days, he tells me, there’d be some particularly popular item, like a new Taylor Swift CD, the latest installment of Halo, or a New York Times bestseller. Then he could go to that pallet, grab 200 of them, and have a tenth of his quota finished for the day in one swoop. Other days he’d have to meander the aisles, grabbing an astonishing array of goods—from car parts to cupcake trays, underwear to religious icons. So many things that Americans wanted, clicked, bought.
This sermon is neither an ad for or an invective against Amazon. I’m a prime customer myself. But it is a reminder that it is very easy to want things; harder to fulfill those wishes. Amazon’s genius has been in hiding the hard work that goes into those little branded bubble mailers, so that the path from wanting to having seems almost supernatural.
It’s funny, though. I read an article this week in the Cincinnati Enquirer that Americans are returning nearly 16% of what they buy these days, even more of what they buy online. The article quoted Vanderbilt University marketing professor Kelly Goldsmith, who said “Consumers are … not becoming more cautious about what they buy. They’re becoming more cautious about what they keep!”
The rise of easy, free returns has made us less likely to calculate how much we really want an item, or how likely it is to fit our needs; we’ll try it out, see if we like it, and pass it back if it doesn’t suit.
“I wanted it when I bought it,” a friend said to me recently. “But by the time it came I didn’t really want it anymore.”
The crowds of Jerusalem would have been boggled by the idea of an Amazon Fulfillment Center, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have the same human tendency to like a thing in theory more than in reality. The same desire to have their wants and wishes fulfilled, and the same disappointment when the real thing didn’t match up to their dreams.
Through Lent, our Wednesday night service has included the practice of lectio divina. We have read a scripture and shared aloud one word or phrase that caught our hearts. It’s a simple, compelling way of reading scripture, that lets the voice of God speak before we start all our analyzing and meaning-making.
You may have guessed, from the way this sermon began, which word caught my attention when I applied that practice to Matthew’s gospel.
It’s odd. Of all the words in this scripture, I’ve never paid much attention to fulfill before. But God kept pushing that word on me. Fulfill.
Matthew, of all our gospel writers, is the most invested in showing how Jesus fits within the larger Jewish tradition. He is most likely to quote the Old Testament, which he does three times in these twenty-one verses. He is most eager to show that Jesus does fulfill the people’s dreams of a Messiah—even if they themselves are not so sure that what they have in front of them is what they requested.
It’s an old preaching saw to say that the Jewish people wanted a militaristic Messiah, a warrior king who could come in, vanquish Rome, and restore the nation-state of Israel to political sovereignty. The truth was more complicated than that. To ask a first-century Jewish person what they wanted from a Messiah was probably a bit like asking a twenty-first century American what they want in a president—certainly there are general trends, factions, but when you get into the details, there are as many different answers as there are different people to ask.
The crowds who welcomed Jesus joyously into Jerusalem probably had a hundred different wishes they wanted fulfilled: a proper son of David, a king to wrest the throne from Herod; a new rabbi to reignite a spiritual awakening; a prophet to give them direct news from God at last; a miracle man to heal and feed them; a figurehead to rally a political revolt around.
What no one wanted, I imagine, was a man who couldn’t last five days in the capitol city before getting arrested, tried, and summarily executed. No one wanted a Messiah who was dead. And not even glamorously dead, on a kamikaze mission, to be a martyr afterwards; just ordinary criminal-on-a-cross dead.
If this was the messiah that landed on your front door, you’d be looking for the free return button.
This Jesus, this ragtag rabbi on a donkey who refuses to make any kind of coherent grab for power in either the palace or the temple, who won’t set himself up as a miracle man or publish a bestselling book of prophecies, looks a lot like a defective Messiah. If Messiah means anointed, what is he anointed to do?
Matthew, though, writing after the fact, has a chance to clue us in to what Jesus is really up to. He writes that this whole scene—the mock-royal parade, the donkeys and her foal—occurred to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet. He goes on to quote the ninth chapter of Zechariah, who prophesied that God was coming to save God’s people. Listen to the full quote which Matthew invokes:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
righteous* and saving* is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zechariah 9:9-12)
This old, old promise is brought to new life in Jesus. He comes like a king, in a festal parade—but not like a king obsessed with stockpiling gold or conquering countries. He comes on a mission to serve, not be served; to save, not enslave. He will command peace, set prisoners free. He brings hope.
This is what Jesus is anointed to do. Not to give the people what they want, scatter wish fulfillment miracles around the city; but to give the people what they need. Salvation. Salvation that wears the clothes of justice, peace, and hope.
The crowd that cried their praises out to Jesus did not have the benefit of Matthew’s editorial quotation. They were seeing the Jesus story lived out in real time—and I cannot blame them for feeling, ultimately, like he was not exactly the Messiah they had ordered. I wonder, if Jesus stood in front of me today, if I would truly like what I saw. But I know the pettiness of my own wishes, my own prayers, my own small concept of what salvation should be—I know what I would give for mypolitical party to have more power, my Presbyterian denomination to have more adherents, my friends and family to be healed, my dreams for the world to come true.
But Jesus did not come, and does not reign, to fulfill my desires. He came to fulfill God’s.
And God’s desires are so much bigger and wilder than mine. God’s salvation was for the whole world. God’s enemy was not a king or emperor or priest but always and only death itself. God would not rest content until each of us were freed from sin and bound fast with hope.
The fulfillment of our salvation will not happen by magic. It will not be an easy process. It will require backbreaking, heartbreaking work by Jesus Christ.
But in the end, there will be no free returns. Like it or not, Jesus’ salvation is for us. For us, and for the whole world, a world in such desperate need of peace, of justice, of hope. It’s a gift we don’t deserve, and can’t give back. It’s only a gift we can receive, in humble, praising gratitude.
Look! Your king is here. He’s on a donkey. And he’s everything you never knew you needed.