This sermon was originally delivered on April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday.
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
There’s a fascinating video on Youtube of a father trying to determine if his 5 year old daughter has perfect pitch. The little girl’s name is Clair, and she’s all over Youtube on account her singing. In this video, the two of them are sitting on the couch while he chooses songs for her to sing (the video below will explain the process). But what I want you to pay special attention to is the second example they do. If you have a good sense of pitch, it’ll knock your socks off. He starts to sing “True Colors” in a particular key, and after the first line she interrupts him and sings the same phrase about a quarter to half-step lower than him. And when he plays back the recording, she’s spot on perfect! She recognized that he was off by a quarter to half step in pitch. Amazing! Anyways, my apologies to those of you who are pitch-challenged, for whom this illustration will likely fall “flat”!
Now, whether or not the ability to sing a song in the correct key relying solely on memory qualifies for perfect pitch I don’t know. Regardless, though, it’s still absolutely amazing! Now, here’s the thing. Matching the pitch of a song from memory—even one she hadn’t heard in a long time—for Clair is as easy as falling off a log. It’s effortless. As natural to her as drinking a cup of water is for the rest of us. It’s so natural to her that we couldn’t blame her for wondering why everyone can’t do it. In her own heart she may ask, “Isn’t it obvious what the correct key is for the song?”
Isn’t it obvious?
I imagine this is how many of us Christians feel when it comes to understanding of who Jesus is, and what’s so significant about his crucifixion, and his resurrection. We look at Jesus and sincerely ask, Isn’t it obvious? Isn’t it obvious who Jesus is? Isn’t it obvious that he was more than a good teacher, more than a wise rabbi? Isn’t it obvious that Jesus is Almighty God in the flesh? Isn’t it obvious that the miracles he performed were real? And that he really was resurrected from the dead? Isn’t it obvious to everyone?
Clearly, it’s not obvious to everyone, because not everyone believes he is who we believe he is. In fact, I think we’re living in a day when we believers in Jesus are becoming a minority in this country. So, no! It’s not obvious.
Now, those of you who came to faith as an adult can better understand this than those of us who grew up in the church and can’t recall ever not believing. Who Jesus is seems obvious to us because…well, because some of us have never known otherwise. But for a lot of you, you can better understand how Jesus’ divinity, and the significance thereof isn’t obvious to everyone. Because you’ve been there!
Isn’t it obvious who Jesus is? Isn’t it obvious that he was more than a good teacher, more than a wise rabbi? Isn’t it obvious that Jesus is Almighty God in the flesh? Isn’t it obvious that the miracles he performed were real? And that he really was resurrected from the dead?
Well, today’s reading from Matthew actually confirms the fact that it’s never been obvious who Jesus is. Let’s take a quick look at the events which motivated our modern Palm Sunday observances.
All four Gospel writers include Jesus’ donkey-riding entrance into Jerusalem which took place at the beginning of the Passover festival. In the Church this event is referred to as “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry.” The reason it’s considered a triumph of sorts is on account of how some of the people responded to his donkey-ride into town. Here’s how Matthew describes it:
“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!’” (21:8-9).
There’s a couple of things worth mentioning. First, it’s been suggested that spreading their coats on the ground was a practice from Old Testament days when the people would do such for a newly coronated king. In 2 Kings, when Jehu becomes king of Israel, we read in 9:13, “They hurried and took their cloaks and spread them under [Jehu] on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, ‘Jehu is king!’” So, it seems likely there’s a connection between being a king and walking on peoples’ coats that have been the ground. It was seen as an act of royal homage.
The second thing to mentions is that the use of palm branches has significance as well. Some make a connection between their use of palms and the Old Testament Feast of Booths, a feast designated to remind Israel of God’s guidance out of Egypt. During the festival, the people were supposed to live in temporary shelters for seven days as a reminder that when their ancestors were wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt, God provided them with shelter.
Lev. 23:40 says, “On the first day [of the festival], you must take fruit from the majestic trees, palm branches, branches of leafy trees, and willows of the streams, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” The Feast of Booths is a celebration of their deliverance from slavery; it’s about God giving them freedom. They waved the palms as an act of worship, as an expression of praise for their deliverance.
And who, in the Old Testament, would be responsible for peoples’ freedom? The king!
So, when Jesus came into Jerusalem that day, he was welcomed as a kind of king. Ultimately, a king who would save is people from harm….a savior-king. In essence, that’s what they were proclaiming about him when they waved palm branches and threw their coats down on the road in front of his donkey. Here’s comes the king!
And, in fact, that’s exactly what they were heralding him as when they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” David was the glorious king from their past. And the Son of David was actually a title for the Messiah. And so, whether they realized it at the time or not, many of the people that day were affirming Jesus as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, who would set his people free.
So, today, whenever we read this story, we affirm that very truth about Jesus along with them. And it seems obvious to us that they clearly understood this truth about Jesus, right?.
But did they?
Here’s what Matthew says happened next. “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up and asked, “Who is this?” (v. 10). In other Bible versions, other words used to describe the state of the city are uproar, confused, shaken, and in turmoil.
They didn’t know who he was, but it was clear to them that his presence got a whole bunch of people acting like king David is back from the dead and coming into town.And after heading to the city gates to see what all the fuss is about, and asking who this man was, notice the response, at least as Matthew reports it. “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (v. 11). Not, ‘It’s the Messiah.’Not, ‘It’s the prophesied Son of David.’Not, ‘It’s King Jesus.’No, just ‘It’s the prophet Jesus.’In fact, for as much as we applause them for shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” in the end they simply see him as another human being – the man Jesus from Nazareth.
I guess even back then it wasn’t so obvious who he was. For all the pomp and circumstance they showed Jesus, maybe they didn’t really get him. And, of course, this fact is driven home when just a few days later, the same crowd of people who hailed his entrance were demanding his death.
Today, with 2000 years of Christendom behind us, 2000 years of learning the truth about Jesus, it’s easy for us to come down hard on that crowd. It’s easy to fault them and ask, Why did you turn on him so quickly? Didn’t you understand who he really was? Didn’t you understand that the kind of King he was was altogether different than what you were expecting and looking for? Didn’t you get that you were truly welcoming into the city the King of king and Lord of Lords, whom the prophets said would come? Obviously not.
But before we write them complete off, we’d be wise to consider the probability that in those moments of shouting Hosanna! they were able to grasp some thread of the truth about Jesus; that God was able to plant some amount of seed in their hearts, even if it was just a little. And that it took months, even years, to germinate. Do you suppose it’s probable that some of those who originally welcomed him gladly but turned on him a week later ended up being a part of the first century church in Jerusalem? Do you suppose is probable that some of them were a part of the Pentecost crowd and were filled with the Holy Spirit? I do.
Do you remember the Caesarea Philippi Peter who, in Mark 8:27 professed his belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, even though most everyone else believed otherwise?
Do you remember the Last Supper Peter who, in Matthew 26:33 boldly proclaimed, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you”?
Do you remember the Cautionary Thomas who, in John 11:16 threw all caution to the wind and bravely invited the other disciples, “Let us also go [up to Jerusalem] that we may die with him”?
They understood who Jesus was. They knew the stakes of following him. After spending three years with him, it was obvious to them who Jesus was, and what the cost was for following him. But even they scattered and disappeared when the hammer fell. When their lives were on the line, they disowned him.
But weren’t they the very persons who ultimately came together and started and led the church? Who stood up to the authorities when they were told to shut up? Who wouldn’t back down on account of their faith?
The fact is, faith formation doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. God plants a seed here, a seed there, and at some point it starts to spout. And then it breaks the surface, and others can start to see bits of evidence of our new faith. And over time it continues to grow until we reach the point where most of the decisions and life choices we’re making are informed by our walk with Jesus. But getting there takes time.
So here’s my challenge for you on this Palm Sunday. For whom could you be one of God’s seed-planters this week? No doubt, there are people in your sphere of influence who have very little inkling about who Jesus is. Maybe they don’t care who Jesus is. Who he is and what’s he’s done is not as obvious to them as he is to you. So what might you do yet this week to plant that Jesus seed in their heart, and then faithfully water it somehow, knowing that it’ll take time to germinate and grow?
Those of you reading this sermon who came to faith in Christ as an adult, I’d love to hear about how that seed was planted in your heart. Maybe it was a friend or a co-worker or a family member. Whoever it was, and however it happened, I would love to hear about it. If you’re reading this at our church website, please feel free to write something in the comment section. I’d love to be encouraged by how God touched you, and how the truth of Jesus became obvious to you!
And if who Jesus is isn’t obvious to you, and you’re still questioning, still doubting, still wondering – that’s OK. But don’t be surprised if one day, seemingly out of the blue, it occurs to you that you don’t doubt or question or wonder as much as you have been; that for some reason, this guy Jesus is starting to make sense to you. When that happens, know that somewhere along the way, those seeds where planted in your own heart, and now they’re actively growing! Praise God!