A Sermon for Palm Sunday
A Sermon for Palm Sunday
Philippians 2:5-11 & St. Matthew 21:1-17
by William Klock
Two Gospels in one service! We began this morning reading St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It wouldn’t be Palm Sunday without that Gospel, without waving our own palms as we sing “All glory, laud, and honour”. This is the Sunday we hail the King. And then St. Matthew’s Passion narrative. That long reading that we all join in. The one time of the year when we literally put ourselves in the biblical story. (Did you know that tradition goes back to the Middle Ages? Choristers would sing the various parts that today we hand out to members of the congregation. That tradition was carried on in the Lutheran churches of the Reformation and gave us the great Passion oratorios by the likes of Bach.) Today’s Gospels powerfully show us Jesus and, even if we miss the other services and lessons of Holy Week, they lead us right to Easter. But they do not stand alone. As powerful as the readings from St. Matthew are, our Epistle today, the lesson from the second chapter of Philippians, is the lens through which we read the Gospel. St. Paul tells the same story, but in a very different way. What’s remarkable to me is that what took Matthew two long chapters to tell—we only read the second of those two chapters this morning—what took Matthew two long chapters to tell, St. Paul summarises in a mere thirty-six Greek words as he tells us about the servant-king. Most scholars think that verses 6-11 of our Epistle were actually an early Christian hymn, maybe even written by St. Paul himself. Whatever the case, this poem brilliantly and succinctly sums up who Jesus is as it draws on both Israel’s story and the story of the whole fallen human race. It opens the Passion narrative of the Gospel-writers and shows us the theological cogs and gears inside—and, I think most importantly, it tells us what to do with it.
In today’s Gospel Matthew shows us the King. For most of us Christians, we know the story, we know that Jesus is a different kind of king than earthly kings, but Palm Sunday comes around every year and makes sure we don’t take that for granted. The lessons ought to prompt us to think about what a king is, because, as St. Paul reminds us today, who Jesus is says something powerful about who we are as his people and what sort of life and character ought to be manifest in us.
So what is a king? What’s a king like? Today we might think of some of the modern kings of the world—or queens. Today they’re mostly figureheads and public servants. Five years ago, when our own Queen turned ninety, the Bible Society published a commemorative book titled “The Servant Queen and the King She Serves”. In it the Queen spoke of her faith and how it shapes her role as monarch. But the title highlights the role we expect of modern monarchs. Today’s kings—or their viceroys—may open Parliament, but they make no decisions. That’s for the legislators. When there’s a war modern kings stay home and work to bolster the morale of their people. Politicians make declarations of war, generals plan strategy, and soldiers go off to fight. But ancient kings—kings in Paul’s day were very different. Alexander went off at the head of an army and conquered most of the known world. The Emperor Augustus headed an army that ended the Roman civil war and brought peace to the empire. Alexander and Augustus did great things—and because of what they’d accomplished, both believed they had a right to divinity. They didn’t serve God; they were gods. They claimed that right because they had taken charge, destroyed their enemies, and wrestled whole empires into peace with the threat of further violence. Why was Rome at peace under Augustus? Because he’d destroyed his enemies once and any would-be future enemies knew he could probably do it again. Kings and emperors grasped at divinity, men like Pharaoh and Alexander and Caesar. Even many of Israel’s own leaders in the Old Testament, in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s grasped for power—even for divnity in all but name. Jewish leaders knew better than to claim divinity like the pagan rulers did, but they grasped at the same power that Caesar held and they sought to control the reigns of empire in the hopes of one day climbing to the top of the heap.
And yet this was not just the problem of kings or would-be kings. Brothers and Sisters, this is the problem of the whole human race. Ever since Adam believed the serpent’s lie and grasped at divinity for himself, we humans have been doing the same in one way or another. We fight, we kill, we steal, we cheat, we do whatever we can get away with to look out for ourselves, to get what we want, to climb to the top of the heap.
Look at the book of Genesis. Adam rebels and in a single generation brother is murdering brother. Noah comes along in Chapter 6 and his story is introduced by the announcement that the earth was filled with violence. Noah was the only righteous man left. And so the Lord destroyed all but Noah and started over. But even the righteous bear the seed of humanity’s fall. Only a single chapter separates the story of Noah from story of the Tower of Babel. Once again the human race lost all knowledge of God and sank into pride, idolatry, and sin. And yet this time the Lord did something different. Out of the darkness the Lord called Abraham. The Lord’s solution to humanity’s problem was to call forth a people for himself, a people who lived in his presence for the life of the whole world, a nation of servants. Long before Isaiah’s song of the Suffering Servant was claimed by Jesus, Israel understood this to be her unique role.
But, of course, like Noah in his day, Israel suffered from the same problem as the rest of humanity and so Paul uses this hymn in our Epistle, in Philippians 2, to show us the solution. Look at Philippians 2:6-8 where Paul writes these words about Jesus.
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by 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 2:6-8)
God humbled himself. Jesus, who the hymn says was in the form of God, who was in some way God himself, emptied himself to take on Adam’s flesh and Israel’s servant role. Paul is clear that this doesn’t mean that Jesus ceased to be God or that he gave up his divinity in some way. Just the opposite. Jesus actually shows us what true divinity looks like. It doesn’t look at all like Adam’s grasping or Pharaoh’s grasping or Alexander’s grasping or Caesar’s grasping at power, authority, or divine prerogative. Instead, true divinity is revealed as God humbles himself for the sake of his rebellious people and offers himself as a sacrifice for their sins. It’s utterly backwards to anything humanity ever expected. Humans are supposed to offer sacrifices to the gods to placate their anger, but this God—the one, true God—instead offers himself as a sacrifice on our behalf and he does so out of love.
Think of today’s Gospel. Jesus was rejected. At the time, almost no one could accept that this is what divinity looks like, that this is what God would do. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people may have thought it weird that he rode a humble donkey, but they expected him to finally start an uprising—to bash some Roman and Herodian heads and to set things right. When later that day he flipped the tables in the temple and drove out the merchants, people were sure that this was it. Jesus was ready to clean house. But then it didn’t happen. He got the people’s hopes up. Here, finally was the Messiah. But—apparently—not. At least that’s how most of Jerusalem took it. Jesus’ own people, in anger, cried out for his crucifixion. As far as they were concerned, he was a blasphemous impostor. He rode into the city as the Messiah, but then he let everyone down. Even the servant people themselves could not understand the serving God.
And yet, it was there all along in Israel’s Scriptures. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah and Zechariah. He cites Zechariah 9:9, but what’s interesting is that it’s the next verse, Zechariah 9:10 that points to the significance of the donkey. Matthew’s first readers would have known this. Not knowing the Old Testamant like they did, we probably don’t. Here’s what Zechariah writes:
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The Lord’s King would not come in might, but in humility. He would not come with the cavalry or an army of chariots. He would not come with a bow, ready to do violence. Just the opposite—and just as we see in the Gospels. By humbling himself he would take his throne and bring peace to the nations. His rejection and death would qualify him for the role and by his resurrection alone would he defeat his enemies and take is throne. It’s right there, but almost no one could see it.
But, of course, God knew this and so the hymn turns on verse 9.
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. (Philippians 2:9-11)
The people crucified Jesus as a false messiah and God overturned their verdict against him. Precisely because Jesus had humbled himself and taken on the role of the suffering servant for the sake of his people, God raised him from the grave and exalted him to his right hand—God declared Jesus to be the world’s true King so that in time every knee will bow and every tongue confess—that one day everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is creation’s Lord—and that in this God will be supremely glorified. This is how God sets creation to rights, this is how God sets fallen humanity to rights: Not by charging in with a sword, but by submitting himself to the cross—by allowing evil and death to do their worst, by dying himself, so that he can pass through to the other side and leave them powerless over him—and then powerless over all those with him. This is the new exodus that leads, not through the Red Sea, but through death itself to the life of God.
Now, back to verse 5. Paul doesn’t simply tell us this so that we better understand who Jesus is and what he’s done. That’s important, but Paul has a very practical reason for writing this to the Philippian Christians. Remember that who Jesus is, what kind of King he is, tells us what sort of people we are or should be as his subjects. He writes:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…
“Have this mind among yourselves.” Jesus’ people are to “have this mind among yourselves”. That’s why he’s done what he’s done, to solve the problem that began when Adam grasped at divinity for himself. As we identify with Jesus, we become a part of the renewed servant people of God. We are forgiven our past grasping, our past selfishness, and are filled with God’s own Spirit. As the Spirit turns our hearts and minds to the self-giving God, we become a people whose chief characteristic is self-giving humility. As we pass through death to ourselves we come out the other side alive to God. The Spirit works a miracle in our hearts, he purges us of selfishness, of that powerful desire to grasp at whatever we can for our own benefit, and places in us a desire for God, a desire to please God, a desire to do the things that please God. In Jesus and the Spirit we finally become that servant people.
What does that look like? Well, it looks like the fruit of the Spirit. We’re the people who should be characterised by love, by joy, by peace, by patience, by kindness, by goodness, by gentleness, and by self-control. There are all sorts of things that ought to mark out the people of God, but first and foremost, it’s these seven fruits of the Spirit by which we should be known. They don’t grow all at once. The Spirit plants them, but they require cultivation by the means of grace—by the sacraments, by immersion in the word, by prayer, and by fellowship with each other. They grow. And the more we put them into practise the more they grow and multiply in us and in our brothers and sisters. It starts here in the Church. Brothers and Sisters, Paul wrote these words as an exhortation to the Philippians to be that servant people God has created for the life of the world. We can’t be that people for the world when we aren’t first the people for each other in the Church.
Here’s how he put it to the Ephesians:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
Even in the Church it’s easy to forget who we are in Jesus. It’s easy to act out of selfishness or anger or fear. It’s easy to be impatient with each other. So, Friends, remember the Servant King. When you’re tempted to act out of anger or fear, when you’re tempted by impatience with a brother or a sister, when you’ve been wronged and all you can think about is righting the injustice, think of our King riding on the donkey, our King mocked and scourged, our King on the cross—for our sake. There we see humility and gentleness and patience as he bore with his sinful people out of love, eager to reconcile us to himself, eager to establish a new people united in the Spirit. And it’s in that that we see God glorified as never before or since.
Let’s pray: Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for mankind you sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.