Palm Sunday

March 29, 2015

“Humility and Authority”

St. Matthew 21:1-9


Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Loose them and bring them to Me.  "And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them."  All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:  "Tell the daughter of Zion, `Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"  So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them.  They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: "Hosanna to the Son of David! `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' Hosanna in the highest!"


The Gospel Lesson for Palm Sunday features Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem as he is welcomed by an adoring crowd.  The adoration of those first century Christians has been imitated by Christians ever since.  Listen to the familiar words from the Sanctus, taken in part from the praises sung by the congregation assembled around Jesus on that first Palm Sunday:


Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth;

Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.

Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he, blessed is he, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.


The first words of the Sanctus come from Isaiah 6:3 where the angels in Isaiah’s vision say: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  In response, Isaiah cried out saying:


Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts.


Isaiah was a sinful man living among sinful people.  He could not bear to see God, even if in a vision.  He needed to be forgiven.  God’s presence drove home the realization in his conscience that he needed to be forgiven.  So God forgave him.  Isaiah’s account continues:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth with it, and said:

Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged.

We sing the words of the angels in Isaiah’s vision.  We sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.”  But these words do not evoke terror in our hearts because we go on to sing, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the LORD, hosanna in the highest.”  When we see God in the person of his Son we do not say “woe is me.”  We run to Jesus with our sins and lay them on him who takes them to the cross to suffer and die for the sin of the world.


This is what Palm Sunday is all about.  It is God in the flesh coming to save his people from their sins.  The entrance of Christ the King into Jerusalem was no accident.  God foretold it through the prophet Zechariah where we read in chapter nine verse nine:


Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  


He is righteous, he is humble, and he comes to save.  That’s what God said through the prophet.


Look at Jesus and learn what humility means.  It does not denote a lack of power or authority.  People imagine there is a conflict between authority and humility.  They think that authority is the power to make people do what you want them to do.  But consider how Jesus exercises his authority.  He has divine authority because he is God.  He exercises his divine authority by humbling himself, as St. Paul writes:


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.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-9


He was in the form of God because he was God.  He was equal to the Father in glory and power.  But what did he do?  He humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, becoming obedient all the way to his death on the cross.  Think like Jesus thought, Paul says.  Jesus understood authority.


We have been in the twenty first century for a while now.  It’s a good time to look back to consider what the twentieth century taught us.  Perhaps we can learn from history.  While there has always been corruption and tyranny in civil government, the sheer criminality of leaders of state has seldom risen to what we witnessed in men like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung.  Mao famously said: “All political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”  Fifty million dead Chinese illustrated this point of view.  Hitler and Stalin also committed mass murder.  Why?  Because they could.  The will, the unbridled human will, the will to power was all the authority these men needed.


This wickedness did not pass away into history at the turn of the century.  It has taken deep root in modern thinking.  The will to power underlies so much of our thinking today.  Whether it is the will of the majority to turn wrong into right or the will of an individual to choose for himself what is right or wrong, the human will has replaced God’s will, as the standard for what is right and wrong.  Then the human will is projected upon God as if he is a man who is subjected to the same selfish passions as we are.


Think like Jesus thought.  Then you will understand.  The mind of Christ is the mind of God.  The God by whose power the sun rises and sets, the rain falls or doesn’t, and your hair is brown or grey or falling out, is the God whose good and gracious will is done whether we pray for it or not.  What is his good and gracious will when it comes specifically to exercising his power, his authority over us?


Look at the King riding on the donkey.  He does not come to strike fear.  Had he wanted to intimidate, he would have ridden a war horse.  He would have been accompanied by soldiers.  He would have relied on weapons to force the people to submit to his will.  He doesn’t force anything on anyone.  But he has almighty power.  This is what we need to understand.  The almighty power of almighty God is most clearly revealed where God becomes a man and humbles himself in obedience all the way to the death of a cross.


You hear the word “authority” and you think coercion.  You hear the word “power” and you think military, police, courts, and prisons.  But Jesus is the King promised by God through the prophets.  We see him as our King on Palm Sunday when he is hailed and worshipped with the plea, “Save us!  Save us now!”  We see him as our King on Good Friday where he wears a crown of thorns and is crucified under the inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.”  There is his kingdom.


The suffering of Jesus is not just an illustration for us.  It is that, to be sure.  Think as he thought.  Imitate his humility.  Follow his example.  But his suffering is much more.  It is the supreme exercise of authority.  The power of evil and the evil one over human behavior has, from the beginning, laid claim to a lie.  The same devil who led our first parents into sin accuses God of being responsible for sin.  He does it and immediately points the finger at God and says that he did it.


It’s a lie, but it’s a potent one.  People appeal to the behavior of godless murderers who inflict terrible suffering on others and ask how a loving and good God could permit it.  The existence of evil is thrown in the good God’s face as an indictment of him!  Talk about twisted logic, but there it is.  God is blamed for all the bad there is in the world.


God disproves the lie.  He exposes it.  He does so by riding on the donkey.  He is humble, meek, righteous, sinless, and obedient.  He is riding to his death.  He is heading to the cross.  There, nailed between two criminals, raised up for scorn and mockery, he will receive the punishment divine justice demands.  His own justice says that the soul that sins must die and that the wages of sin is death.  But he who knew no sin takes the place of all sinners and dies their death, paying their wages, suffering the punishment they deserved and being forsaken by God in his suffering.


In humility Jesus bears injustice.  It certainly wasn’t fair.  He did nothing wrong and he suffered as if he were guilty.  But see in Christ’s suffering God’s almighty power!  Here it is that love triumphs over the demands of justice.  It is in Christ’s humble obedience.  Here the King establishes his kingdom.  Here he rules.  Here he exercises all authority in heaven and on earth.  How?  Not by forcing anybody to do anything, but by bearing our sin and guilt, removing our death, rescuing us from punishment, and placing us in the care of his church where his authoritative word sets us free from our sins.


Jesus governs us by his grace.  That is his kingdom.  It is not the authority of coercion.  It is not the authority of a more powerful will forcing itself on a weaker will.  There is no will to power here.  There is the good and gracious will of God.  It is displayed in Christ’s suffering and it is exercised by forgiving undeserving sinners all their sins.


To bear up under another’s sins, humbly forgiving those who do us wrong, not demanding a pound of flesh or personal vindication – these are not signs of weakness.  They are signs of authority.  Our King rules over us in humility.  From Palm Sunday, to Calvary, to the Divine Service where he serves us his own body and blood by which he has made full satisfaction for all our sins, he exercises the kind of authority to which we willingly submit.  We do not cry out, Woe is me!  We cry out, Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. 


Rolf D. Preus


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