Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Philippians 2:5-11
Sermon Theme: “The Paradox of the Triumphal Entry”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Illustrations; Emphasis Online Commentary; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 24, Part 2, Series A; Online Commentary on ‘Israel Demands a King’; Anderson’s Preaching Workbook, Cycle A; original ideas)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
As people in a democracy, we Americans have always had difficulty viewing a “king” as a good thing, whereas, today, in England, citizens still have a very positive attitude toward kings and queens. We still have a bad taste in our mouth about George III who was King of England and our bitter enemy in 1776.
Another King of England, also named George, George V, was monarch of England during World War I. Although he was a rather incompetent king, he was esteemed by the people.
He once paid a visit to the city of Leeds, England. Elaborate preparations were made for his coming. Excited crowds filled the streets to wave and cheer. There was a large elementary school in Leeds with a playground parallel to the railway line. His majesty agreed to wave to the boys and girls as the royal train passed by on the last day of the visit.
The boys and girls crowded to the playground wall overlooking the railway. Soon the train, moving slowly, emerged from a long tunnel and gradually drew alongside the playground. Then the king himself emerged from the royal coach and stood on a small platform where all could see him. He wore no crown or purple robe, but was dressed in a plain suit, just like an ordinary man. From his jacket pocket he plucked a bright handkerchief with which he waved to the cheering children.
All too soon the train glided by and disappeared. Then the cheers subsided into silence, except for one little girl who sobbed. One of the teachers asked her why she was crying. The little girl said that she wanted to see the king, and all she saw was a man.
When the crowds saw Jesus ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they saw a man – a man who dressed and looked as ordinary as any other man, perhaps even shabbier than most men. Of course He didn’t enter the city in the Royal Coach of a train, but, instead, on a donkey.
This is exactly why the so-called “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem is such a paradox and a difficulty to preach about. Combining Palm Sunday with Passion Sunday, as our lectionary does, perhaps helps a little bit in dealing with the paradox. Putting His humiliating suffering and death together with His riding into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds helps.
The desert fathers of the early church grasped something that later church leaders seemed to forget. Ponticus, one of the desert fathers, came up with a list of the deadliest sins humans can commit; he came up with the 8 deadliest sins, which later were narrowed down to seven.
Since the most admired virtue that every Christian was expected to develop, in imitation of Christ, was humility, then it stood to reason that the deadliest sin was pride, — its opposite. Humility was perceived as the pinnacle of Christ-like-ness and thus necessary to have. I mean, just consider why this was true – the life of Jesus itself is a life of humility – born a human, of lowly parents, born in a smelly barn, lived as a carpenter’s son, washed his disciples feet, associated with outcasts like lepers, prostitutes, and beggars, was stalked and ridiculed by the religious leaders of Judah, insulted, beaten, made a mock king, crucified. When He rode into Jerusalem, He was on a donkey.
We may have wondered what happened to humility as a virtue in the modern church. It’s good that the new Pope, Pope Francis, has reinstated humility in the Church. He recently demoted a Bishop in Austria who was in the process of refurbishing the Bishop’s Palace, where he lived in great luxury, at the cost of several million dollars. Pope Francis demoted him and reassigned him to an impoverished area where he is to work with the poor.
The people who were following Jesus were trying to make Him into an earthly king; Jesus wasn’t trying to do that, — His prophet Isaiah described Him as the “suffering servant,” and He Himself said He came to serve everybody. Why did the people not understand the kind of Messiah-King He was; why were they so bent on turning Him into a King like Caesar?
The answer to that question takes us back to the early history of Israel. At first Israel did not have kings; they were overseen by “Judges.” This system was instituted by the prophet Samuel in his old age, when he appointed his own sons as judges. While Samuel was probably the most saintly man on earth, his sons were not. “Your sons do not walk in your ways,” said the Elders.
But that’s not the reason the Israelites wanted a king. They wanted a king mainly because they saw that all the nations around them had kings to rule over them. They wanted a physical leader they could follow that would make them more like to those nations surrounding them. Not a valid reason for wanting a king.
In itself, the desire to have a king was not bad. To have a line of kings was in God’s plan for Israel from the beginning, and Samuel’s sons, the judges, were not fit to rule. Yet the reason Israel wanted a king was wrong. “To be like all the nations” is no reason at all.
When Samuel prayed to the LORD about the people’s request for a king, God told Samuel to fulfill the people’s request. This was not because their request was good or right, but because God wanted to teach Israel a lesson through this. God had not wanted Israel to have a king up to that point, because He didn’t want the people to put their trust into a king instead of in God. Their first king was not going to be a good one.
During the time of the triumphal entry and Jesus’ crucifixion, the Jews were ruled by Herod, a puppet king of Rome, and they hated being under the subjugation of Roman rule. Apparently they didn’t catch on to the fact that the usual earthly kings did not fulfill their wants and needs. Thus they still wanted to make Jesus their earthly king, and they still could not grasp the seemingly absurd concept of a suffering servant, beggar king.
In a sense, then, the triumphal entry was a paradox, — it showed the people shouting and cheering for Jesus who was on His way to His crucifixion. They weren’t cheering Him as the heavenly Messiah, but as the powerful monarch they had wanted throughout history. The irony makes it bitter-sweet and difficult to reconcile.
Our sermon text for today, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, helps us to make some sense out of all this. This part of his letter is actually a hymn of the early church; either Paul himself wrote it, or he was quoting it. The hymn describes Jesus’ life and ministry and death as a voluntary “emptying” of self for the sake of others. Such an attitude of humble giving should be the attitude of every Christian, Paul believes.
Here’s what the hymn says in a nutshell:
Confess that Jesus is Lord, by using His example.
Regard not claims to divine equality.
Empty yourself, to become a slave.
Exalt Jesus above every name.
Die to self, die humble, in obedience to God.
Here’s the opening statement from Paul’s letter: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Then the hymn in Paul’s letter has this thunderous conclusion that gives us our victory on Palm Sunday: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Amen.