“Who is this?” —Matthew 21:10
Today is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. On Thursday the Lord gave us his new commandment that we love one another above ourselves, the way he loved us. It’s called Maundy Thursday because the Latin word for “commandment” is mandatum. Then on Friday the Lord proved his love by taking our place on the cross. And on Sunday he proved his power – that nothing can hold him down, nothing can limit him, confine him, dictate terms to him, not even death. He rose again with all authority in heaven and on earth. And in the future he is coming again to destroy all evil forever.
But today is called Palm Sunday, because Bible says the people lay down palm branches on the road (John 12:13). With those palm branches and their own cloaks – by the way, their clothing showed their status, their ethnic origin, their sex, their place in the world, and they put it all down beneath Jesus – they were spreading out a carpet, so that not even that donkey would have to dirty its feet as the King came to town. This is known traditionally as the Triumphal Entry. But that title seems better suited to the Lord’s second coming out in the future. There was nothing triumphal or impressive about his first coming. He didn’t intend to be impressive. He intended to be unimpressive. That’s how he fulfilled the prophecy. This non-triumphal, non-impressive entry can get all of us asking the question of verse 10: “Who is this?” That’s the most important question in all the world. We can get a lot wrong, and one nanosecond after your death it won’t matter at all. We can get the economy wrong, we can get so much wrong, and it will be forgotten. But here is the only question that will still matter to you a million years from today: Who is Jesus? If who he is doesn’t matter, let’s find out so that we can goof off until we die. If he does matter, let’s find out so that we don’t goof off until we die. One way or the other, let’s be clear and decisive about Jesus.
Our mental default setting doesn’t take us there. Our mental default setting is focused on the question, Who am I? It’s never far from our hearts to wonder, Why do I matter, especially as I stack up against others? The Who am I-question isn’t wrong. And every one of us – let’s all admit it – every one of us is fascinated by that question. When you look at a group photograph of you and some friends, which person do you look at most closely? Okay. God has some wonderful things to tell us about ourselves and some disturbing things to say too. But have you ever once met a self-absorbed person and thought, “I want to become more like that”? We always admire selfless people. But we’re driven in the opposite direction – to prove ourselves, to be admired, to control what people think of us. Self-display, self-justification, self-exaltation, self-assertion – this tangle called Self is a power over us. Let’s welcome this new focus that can set our hearts free: “Who is Jesus?” There’s life-giving power in that question, more than we think.
In verse 11, the crowds of Jerusalem give their answer: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” That answer is true. But it’s not enough. That knowledge did not change them. Five days later, they were shouting for him to be crucified. If Jesus is only a prophet from Nazareth of Galilee, who cares? Why live for him today? Even if he was a prophet, still, why not live for money and status and appearances and vengeance and pleasures and all other forms of Self? Why deny ourselves anything for a prophet from Nazareth of Galilee 2000 years ago? The crowd’s answer in verse 11 is factual, but it’s the kind of answer you cram for the night before a History of Civ final exam. It’s true. But it’s only a half-truth, a half-answer, a half-Jesus bringing a half-salvation and a half-way remedy to the magnitude of our problems today. So, when we consider the enfeebled, sub-biblical Christianity spread coast-to-coast in America today, clearly, we must be answering the Who is he?-question with at best true but incomplete answers. How else can we explain the anemic, ignorable form of Christianity widespread in our country today, including Nashville? When the magnitude of who Jesus really is hits us, we can’t stay the way we’ve been. We don’t want to stay the same. We change, because we want to change. The real Jesus is grand enough to win our hearts powerfully. So, let’s open this up by asking Where?, Who? and Why?
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem. —Matthew 21:1
Let’s not overlook the obvious. He came to Jerusalem. That’s important. Why? Because God had chosen that dumpy little fifth-rate town to become the epicenter of a whole new world. God chose Podunkville as the place where he would build a world of peace and justice and humaneness and comfort. Jerusalem was to be the city of shalom, the kind of place we’ve always failed to build. God put his name on Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:36). He located his manifest presence in Jerusalem (Psalm 135:21). He established his throne there through David and provided sacrifices for sin through the priesthood. Jerusalem was uniquely on earth the city of God (Psalm 48).
The wonderful thing is, God isn’t merely saving individuals; God is creating a new culture on earth, a new community where we can experience God’s glory together as the very center of our lives personally and socially. That was God’s historic purpose for Jerusalem. But by the time of the prophet Isaiah in the seventh century BC, he had to say, “How the faithful city has become a whore” – nothing was holy, sacred and inviolable; everything was negotiable, with enough incentives – “How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers” (Isaiah 1:21).
It always happens that way. Here’s the sad truth, and I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Every movement, every institution, everything noble in this world becomes its opposite. Liberators become tyrants, priests become predators, courts become crimes – we corrupt everything by our self-exaltation. Jerusalem the holy city became the unholy city. Eventually, after many appeals and warnings, God gave up. In 586 BC he destroyed Jerusalem. He allowed his own holy city to be trampled upon by Orcs called Babylonians. Then later that century, he rebuilt it. Why? Because the Messiah was to come to Jerusalem. In verse 5, Matthew quotes the prophet Zechariah: “Say to the daughter of Zion [that is, Jerusalem], ‘Behold, your king is coming to you.'” God had an appointment with Jerusalem, and he kept his appointment with the cross and the empty tomb there. Christ is able to visit us today in all our corruption and by his death and resurrection make us new today. He proved it long ago. On this Palm Sunday the prophet Jesus, like the prophets of old, finds Jerusalem a complete mess. In the next paragraph he calls the temple “a den of robbers” (verse 13) and cleans it out. The religious leaders do not thank him. Verse 15 says they were indignant. In chapter 23 Jesus will say, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:38). In Luke’s account of the Triumphal Entry, as Jesus comes over the crest of the Mount of Olives and sees the city spread before him, he is moved to tears. He doesn’t rage at Jerusalem. He weeps over it. He prophesies, “Would that you had known on this day the things that make for peace! . . . Your enemies will not leave one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44). No one in Jerusalem woke up that morning and added to their To Do list, “Reject the Messiah.” They didn’t know their moment of destiny, because they didn’t want to know. They were preoccupied with other concerns. That’s all it takes to miss out.
But everything Jerusalem failed to be, Jesus is. He is the manifest presence of God, he is the temple and the sacrifice, he is the King and he is the living fountainhead of a new culture of life that will triumph over this world of death. And we need our King to come again to us today, right here in Christian Nashville. We need a massive cleansing only he can give. We need the Lord Jesus Christ to come to us in our unconfessed sin and our heartache and our failure and secret shame. We need a grace greater than all our sin, because we’re far from what God wants us to be. But the only way there is to refocus on who Christ is. Do not focus on someone else should be responding to him. Bring your sin to Christ. Open your heart to him. We welcome the approach of our King as he comes to us existentially through the Holy Spirit and we say to him today, “Clean us up. Only you can save us from this Christianity we’ve invented in your name. Only you can show us who you really are.” And here’s the best part of all. Jesus Christ in his humility comes where he is not wanted. He comes where people think small thoughts of him, he comes where people are too busy for him. He comes as the Prince of Peace to people who don’t know the ways of peace. And right now is the time of our visitation. Think about it. Every one of us is going to the see the End Times. Your dying day might as well be the end of the world. It will be for you. And your time with God is now or never.
Go into the village in front 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, you shall say, “The Lord needs them,” and he will send them at once. —Matthew 21:2-3
Jesus is the Lord. He commandeers this donkey and her little colt. He has the right to everything in Jerusalem, and he asserts his right. Jesus doesn’t apologize for his authority. But no other king is like this. He doesn’t choose a prancing horse with a chariot. He chooses a donkey, of all things. It isn’t forced on him. He isn’t stuck with the leftovers. He gets first dibs and he chooses the donkey – in fact, not the mature donkey but her little colt. He must have looked ridiculous. But this king has no ego at all. He is the Lord, he calls himself Lord, he decides for himself what he’s going to ride, and he doesn’t care about making a big impression. Why? Because our natural big-deal-ness is how we build our culture of death. But his humility is the secret genius of the new world of life he is creating. He doesn’t care about this world’s lust for appearances. He had none of this world’s impressiveness because he didn’t want any. He believed the Bible, which says, “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). He himself said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). This is why, as the Lord visits us in our time, he moves toward the little people, the uncool people, the people who are too focused on him to be in sync with the world. And he says to the self-important people, the people you tend to notice, the people you wish would visit you, “You did not know the time of your visitation.” It’s so easy to miss. The Lord comes in humility, quietly, without show. At the Lord’s second coming, the whole world will experience Jesus in a new way. The Revelation says, “Then I saw heaven opened and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11). Nobody will be thinking unworthy thoughts of him then. But Jesus comes to us now the way the prophet Zechariah predicted:
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.
What more could you want in a King? He’s the important person in the universe. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. But the most glorious thing about him is not that. The most glorious thing about him is that this most important person in the universe cares about you. He said, “I did not come to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). What more could you want in a King? What failure or weakness or deficiency do you find in him? If you could design for yourself your own personal Savior, wouldn’t he be Jesus? If you could have a friend to care for you and understand you deeply but who was also infinitely powerful, wouldn’t he be Jesus? And if you needed someone like that to approach you tenderly and humbly, so as not to spook you, isn’t that Jesus? He is willing to visit you. He is willing to give himself to you, to comfort you and make you happy with a full and everlasting enjoyment of himself. He is willing to give himself to you and walk with you in a friendly way, without diminishing his power and authority at all, the way he did with his disciples, with Mary and Martha and all the rest. Rather than stand off at a distance because of his glory and exaltation, he will lift you up into his glory and exaltation, where you don’t deserve to go but where his cross enables you to go. He humbled himself, to win your heart and exalt you and bring you, even you, redeemed out of yourself, into the happiness of the Holy Trinity forever. If you feel dirty and unworthy and ashamed of yourself, remember that he comes to you in humility, he died for you in disgrace, he was buried as a failure. He went down deep, deep enough for you. What could you wish for in a Savior that isn’t in Jesus the King? What would you add to him, if you could? If you could change him, would you? If you agree that he is enough, that he deserves your trust, then let your heart receive him and embrace him. That sense you feel in your heart – that reverence and awareness of his glory – that is his visitation to you. Cherish him.
And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” —Matthew 21:9
The people are pulling language out of the Old Testament. It’s as if the Bible had coached them in how to welcome Jesus. They’re shouting out Psalm 118:25-26. It’s a very happy psalm. It’s very personal. The man who wrote it was in trouble. He cried out to God, and God rescued him. Other worshipers joined him him in praise. They cry out, “Hosanna,” which means “Save us, we pray.” It’s such a confident prayer for rescue that it virtually becomes praise for rescue. That’s what faith does. It makes the future so real right now that we already start savoring it. The crowd shouting this way on the first Palm Sunday probably had no idea how meaningful their words really were. But he accepted it. He wasn’t bothered that they didn’t completely understand. They gave him what they had, and he received it on terms of grace. In fact, over in Luke’s gospel the Pharisees feel threatened by the people’s loud outburst of praise and they tell Jesus to get the people to knock it off. But he says, “If they were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
Why? What was Jesus accomplishing on that first Palm Sunday and then on that Maundy Thursday and then on Good Friday and then on Easter Sunday that demands loud praise? Here’s what he did by his humility. All the evil of the human heart rose up against him that week, with its fangs bared. And he received that too. In fact, the very wrath of God himself against our evil fell on Jesus at the cross. He humbled himself all the way down, down, down to taking our place as our substitute on the cross, so that the blow wouldn’t fall on us but on him. We never would have done that. But God himself found a way to swallow up our evil and failure and shame without destroying us. At the cross, Jesus absorbed it into himself, and gave back love. That’s humility. It was the weakness of his humility that doomed forever the power of evil. You and I can say today, “Save us, we pray,” and that is not an empty wish. We can pray that with confidence, because our every our need forecasts his praise, so great a King is Jesus.
Finally, the best thing of all about the Triumphal Entry is also the most obvious. Jesus came. He took the initiative. He arranged the ride. He fulfilled the prophecy. He is the Son of David, the King, riding on a donkey to the rescue of his people. He is coming to you right now. You don’t need to go find him. The fact that you’re here today proves that he is already visiting you. Make the most of it.