Who IS This? Matthew 21:1-11

A sermon delivered on April 2, 2023, Palm Sunday, by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

How many of you can tell me what this means? (I hold my hand making a Peace Sign).  It means, “Peace!” to you.  It means, “Hey dude, peace and love.”  It’s become a universal symbol of sorts for “it’s all good” and “let’s just get along.”  But you know what?  When people in our country started using the peace sign it meant something different.  Emerging in at the end of WWII as a sign of Allied victory, the peace sign was co-opted in the 1960s and used as a counter-cultural symbol to show one’s protest against the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Once a sign of victory over a vanquished enemy, in the 60s it was a protest symbol.  It was as much a political statement as it was a cultural one.  It’s interesting to note how over time the meaning of the symbol has evolved from its original meaning of vanquishing our enemy to a simple gesture of “love each other.” This is what happens when more and more generations are removed from the original use of a sign or symbol.  The meanings can become diluted at best or simply forgotten at worst.

This, my friends, is exactly what has happened to Palm Sunday and our waving of the palm branches.  We see the waving of branches and placing them upon the road as a way to throw Jesus a parade and celebrate his arrival in Jerusalem. Like the peace sign of the 60s, the meaning of the waving branches needs to be reexamined and we all need reminding that waving palm branches was a revolutionary and politically loaded symbol back in Jesus’ day.

Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain writings from the intertestamental period between the writing of the Old and New Testaments called the Apocrypha. The Apocryphal writings of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe the battles between the Jews and the former generals of Alexander the Great’s warring armies dating about 160 years before Jesus. The history describes how the Jews under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his sons, retook Jerusalem from the Greek king, Antiochus, and his successors.  When the Jews overthrew their warring occupiers, they paraded into Jerusalem waving palm branches of victory over their oppressors.[1]  It was a political statement of Jewish sovereignty. It was a spiritual statement that God is king over the city of Jerusalem and her people. That was the last time palm branches were waved in Jerusalem.

With this in mind, let’s read Matthew’s version of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21.1-11.  Listen to the Word of God!

Matthew 21.1-11

21 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 (s Zechariah and Isaiah), 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 (from Psalm 118),

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”[2]

By studying historical narratives from the first century, biblical scholars Borg and Crossan have postulated that perhaps there could have been two parades that day entering Jerusalem.  On the one hand, the parade we just read about from the east was largely composed of peasants from the perceived backcountry of Galilee chanting out to Jesus, “Save us!” as he rode down the slopes of the Mount of Olives on a donkey.  But on the other side of the city, coming in from the Mediterranean seaport of Caesarea came riding the new Roman governor, Pontus Pilate, entering the city on a war horse at the head of a column of Imperial cavalry and foot soldiers.  He was coming to ensure that there would be order in Jerusalem as the city would swell from roughly 40,000 to a quarter of million people during Passover.  So, if you were in Jerusalem walking on her walls, you would see the glittering armor of a conquering army to the west and you would see throngs of everyday folks waving branches and paving the path with palms and their clothing on the east. What would you make of that?

On one side come the oppressive occupiers and on the other side comes a gentle self-proclaimed liberator followed by peasants. Coming from the western side comes stability and status quo even at the cost of oppression from the Romans.  Coming from the eastern side gathers what you might see as a populist protest march coming up against an entrenched political system. You’re used to oppression and that oppression has become routine in your life and can even seem secure at times; it’s predictable. Yet, your heart yearns to join the protestors marching in from the other side promising liberation.

To one side you see Domination: You see nothing but a mass of crimson, gold, steel, and imperial power.

On the other side, you see humble Liberation. You see the masses of peasants waving palms and paving the road with their clothes as they make their way down from the Mount of Olives from whence the Messiah is supposed to come.  

As a Jew watching all this unfold, you have one of those internal Uh-oh moments because you realize the potential for trouble is brewing. There’s trouble on the left and right; you’re caught in the middle. You want to get excited but you’re fearful because you have seen the Roman brutality used to “keep the peace”.  But what makes you think there is going to be trouble? Well, note in verse 10 we read, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and in turmoil.”  Using the same word we get our English word seismic from, it can be literally read, “the whole city was actually shaking like an earthquake.”

To say there was electricity in the air would be a gross understatement.  I imagine the game the electric football game I grew up with. You placed the players opposite each other on this metal grid like a football field and then hit the button. All the players began to shake violently toward one another in a mass of vibrating steel and plastic. This is what is in my mind as I think of these two parades coming together. Borg and Crossan write, “Jesus’ procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God” while Pilates proclaimed the powers of the imperial empire.”[3] It’s no different today, really. Even today, the tension is between the powers of the empire pitted against the powers of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, my friends, place yourself on Jerusalem’s wall and see and feel this entire spectacle unfold before your eyes.  Looking to the west, you can easily see the one riding the magnificent battle horse, but as you turn and look east, you spy this motley procession coming down the side of the Mount of Olives through an ancient Jewish graveyard and you mumble to yourself, “Who is this?”

Beloved, this is the question I want to weigh on us this Palm Sunday. I want you to place yourself atop Jerusalem’s walls and ask yourself who is it you see riding that donkey – that biblical emblem and image of the humble Messiah – making his way into the city by the Beautiful Gate below the Temple Mount? We easily place ourselves in the mindset that, “Of course, I would know who it was coming on that donkey down the hill!” but would you if you were there in the midst of the frenzy?  I wonder if that isn’t the real challenge facing the Church of Jesus Christ today…we think we know who it is riding on that beast of burden but is there a possibility we have it all wrong? 

American Christianity tends to hold onto the sweet baby Jesus notion we gained at Christmastime. We’ve made Jesus into the image of a God that is personally pleasing and satisfying to us – a Savior that is all sweet, meek, and mild and will answer my prayers when I cry out in need of something.  Palm Sunday, today, is the day we are rudely awakened and are reminded that the image of God riding humbly on an ass is a man about to turn the city, dare I say the world, upside down and cause people to choose which side of Divine history and life they were going live: The life of the empire, or, the life of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so there you are in one of those two crowds. Much will happen over the next few days in the city of Jerusalem and members from both crowds will turn on and condemn this humble rider on a pale grey donkey. Everyone has assumptions about who this is riding into town from the east and what he will do.  Soon, everyone’s assumptions will be shattered.  Soon, everyone will begin to run and desert him because when asked, “Who is this?” they will say, “He is one who did not fit my expectations.”  They will say, “It’s too dangerous to follow him.” They will say, “Following him will upset the way I live my life…no thank you.”

I suppose the real question is that when you are asked, “Who is this?”, what shall you say? In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See 1 Maccabees 13.49-52 and 2 Maccabees 10.1-8.

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2-4.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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1 Response to Who IS This? Matthew 21:1-11

  1. Lorisa Bruk says:

    Hi – Wow – pastor ,

    How revealing! Thank you !!

    Lorisa Bruk, deacon at 1st Presbyterian, DeLand

    Sent from my T-Mobile 5G Device Get Outlook for Androidhttps://aka.ms/AAb9ysg ________________________________


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