Palm Sunday: Hope and Hard Things
April 2, 2023

Palm Sunday: Hope and Hard Things

Passage: Zechariah 9:9-12, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 21:1-17
Service Type:

Palm Sunday: Hope and Hard Things
Zechariah 9:9-12, Philippians 2:5-11, & St. Matthew 21:1-17
by William Klock


Were you paying attention to the Collect this morning? Let’s pray that again.  “Almighty and ever-living 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.


In the Collect we recalled that it was because of his tender love for mankind that the almighty and ever-living God of Creation sent his Son, Jesus, to humbly take our nature upon himself and to suffer death on a cross.  And with that in mind, notice, we also asked of God that in his mercy, we might walk in the way of Jesus’ suffering so that we might also share in his resurrection.


We don’t pray for suffering very often, do we?  I’m not sure if the author of the Collect was actually asking for suffering—it’s entirely possible, considering the purifying nature of suffering that we modern people have all but forgotten—or if he was just acknowledging that to live is to suffer.  This Collect goes all the way back to the time of Gregory the Great, back in the 6th Century.  Human beings had no illusions back then about being in control of things.  Poverty and famine and disease and war were realities of daily life and the most that most people could do was to ride out the storm and trust in the good promises of God, knowing that our hope lies not in this age, but in the age to come.  As Christians have always done, they looked back to the cross, they saw there that the Lord is faithful to his promises and they saw there that Jesus defeated sin and death and began the work of setting this word to rights.  We may suffer, but we live in hope, knowing that what God had promised, he will surely do; knowing that what Jesus has begun, he will surely finish; knowing that as Jesus has been raised from the dead, we will be too on that last great day when he has put every enemy under his feet.  In Gregory the Great’s day the darkness of what we call the “Dark Ages” was falling, Rome was losing her greatness, barbarians threatened the empire and heretics threatened Christendom.  The times were bad and the world lived in shadow.  Do you know what Gregory the Great did in those days of suffering?  He didn’t sit there wringing his hands.  He didn’t sit there sighing, “Woe is me.”  He didn’t worry about the future.  No.  Knowing that Jesus has risen from the dead and that God will one day finish what he started, he sent out missionaries to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord to the barbarian tribes of Germany and Britain.


It’s helpful to be reminded of times like Gregory’s and the way that Christians responded to them.  In the early days of the pandemic a friend of mine wrote an article about a man named Martin Rinckart.  He was a German pastor during the Thirty Years War.  His village was sacked three times.  But, even worse, his part of the country was ravaged by a horrible plague.  Every other pastor in the area died and he was left doing sometimes as many as fifty funerals a day.  This man who lived through more sorrow and grief than we can imagine wrote the hymn “Now thank we all our God”.


Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done, in whom the world rejoices;

Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.


O may this bounteous God thro’ all our life be near us!

With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;

And keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplext,

And free us from all ills in this world and the next.


All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,

The Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven,

Eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heav’n adore;

For thus it was, is now, and shall be, evermore.


Whatever difficult days and hard things we have faced pale in comparison to the griefs and sorrows of Martin Rinckart.  What could have inspired such faith and such hope?  It was this God, made manifest to us in Jesus and in the cross and in the empty tomb, this Jesus who knew the deepest anguish that any human being has ever known and borne for the sake of his enemies.  It was faith in this Jesus who reveals the great faithfulness of God.  It was this Jesus who is making all things news.  Brothers and Sisters, we have known the same God that Martin Rinckart knew.  We confess the same faith and the same Saviour that Martin Rinckart confessed.  We look for the same hope that Martin Rinckart looked for.  And it’s a faith and a hope that, because it is in Jesus, knows the depth of suffering in the present age, but looks forward just as Jesus did as he hung on the cross, it looks forward to the age to come, to that day when Jesus has put every enemy under his feet, that day when he has finally, once-and-for-all made everything new—wiped away every tear our faces and wiped from the face of creation everything that has ever, could ever, and will ever bring us grief and sorrow and suffering.  And it is a faith and a hope that drive us to follow Jesus himself and to throw ourselves into the work of his kingdom—because we have known suffering and pain ourselves and know that Jesus is bringing an age in which those things will be gone.  Because we see in Jesus that the way to his throne was through and only through the suffering of the cross, we his people know that—and have hope because we know—that our path to the life of the age to come is also through suffering.  We are no greater than our master.  And so we go out, even as we grieve and even as we suffer and even as we face so many hard things, and we proclaim the good news about Jesus and as we live the life his Spirit has given we lift the veil to give the world a glimpse of the age to come, so that the other people around us—the other people facing their grief and sorrows and hard things can share our faith and our hope in God’s world one day set to rights.  This is what it means to be light in the darkness.  This is what it means to take up our crosses daily and to follow our Lord—to follow him in his suffering, that we might know his grace and lead the world with us into the age to come.


Brothers and Sisters, God’s people have always known hard times and hard things.  Our Old Testament lessons is taken from the prophecy of Zechariah, roughly five hundred years before the birth of Jesus.  Whereas our Old Testament lessons the last couple of weeks have come from the time of Israel’s exile, this one comes from the time of Israel’s return from Babylon, but the theme is similar.  The people had returned to the ruins of Jerusalem.  They had an enormous rebuilding project ahead of them that was made worse by hostile neighbours.  They were bad times.  But through the prophet the Lord exhorted his people

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

         Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  (Zechariah 9:9a)


Zion had little to rejoice about, but the Lord calls his people to rejoice anyway.  Why?


Behold, your king is coming to you;

         righteous and having salvation is he…  (Zechariah 9:9b)


Rejoice, because your king is coming and he will bring righteousness and salvation.  This king, says the Lord, will bring peace to the nations and his rule shall be from seas to sea and to the ends of the earth.  In verse 11 the Lord says that he will do this because of the blood of his covenant.  The Lord reminds the people of his faithfulness.  What he has promised he will surely do.


And yet this wasn’t a promise that any of the people of Zechariah’s day would see fulfilled.  They would rebuild Jerusalem.  They would rebuild the temple.  But they would do it through great hardship.  And even when the temple was rebuilt, it wouldn’t be the same.  The ark, the Lord’s throne was long gone.  The shekinah, the cloud of glory that represented the Lord’s presence with his people would remain absent from the new temple.  But the Lord called his people to rejoice anyway.  They were to live in hope knowing that the Lord will do what he says even if it’s not today or tomorrow or even in our lifetime.  It wasn’t a call to blind faith.  It was a call to look back to the history of their people and to know the Lord’s past goodness and faithfulness.  Every generation has its part to play in the Lord’s story of redemption and the part assigned to Zechariah’s generation was to rejoice in hope of the Lord’s coming even while facing very difficult days.  In doing so they brought glory to the Lord’s name in the sight of the watching nations.  It’s should be a reminder to us that for God’s people there’s more to life than just today or tomorrow or even next year.  We’re part of a story bigger than ourselves.  Our ministry is built on the ministry of the generations of believers who have come before and what we build today will serve as a foundation for the believers who will come after us.


And, of course, the Lord proved his faithfulness as we see in our Gospel.  Matthew makes a point of just that.  Look at Matthew 21:


Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “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.  (Matthew 21:1-2)


Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem one last time.  The Lord is coming to his people, just as he had promised in the days of the prophets.  And Matthew goes out of his way to highlight this.  Jesus doesn’t just send his disciples to go into the village to round up a donkey.  Jesus sends them into the village to round up a donkey, but does so using the word of Zechariah.  Matthew says in verses 4-5:


This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

“Say to the daughter of Zion,

‘Behold, your king is coming to you,

         humble, and mounted on a donkey,

         on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”


We should feel a powerful sense of the sovereignty of God here.  Not only is Jesus coming to his people to fulfil what the Lord had promised, but he’s doing it just as the Lord had promised through Zechariah.  But it goes a step further.  The Palm Sunday story is familiar.  We all know what’s about to happen.  It’s not just that in Jesus the Lord is finally coming to his people.  Jesus is also going to his death as he rides into the city.  All hell will break lose in just a few days.  Jesus will be crucified.  The disciples will run off in fear to hide.  It’s as if the Lord knew that all this would happen and so, at the outset of that first Holy Week, on Palm Sunday, he uses these events to remind the disciples that he is in control.  The God who has brought Jesus to Jerusalem to fulfil his promises will remain in full control as the events of his arrest and crucifixion unfold.


Of course, the disciples didn’t grasp this at all.  We all know that living in faith in the midst of disaster isn’t easy.  It’s all too easy to lose our focus, to be swept up in the crises and difficulties of the day, and to forget God’s promises and God’s sovereignty.  This is why we need to be steeped in the story of the Lord and his people.  This is why we need to centre ourselves on Jesus and on his death and resurrection.  Because there we see supremely the goodness and faithfulness of God.  There was no darker day than that first Good Friday.  It looked like a disaster to Jesus’ friends.  But the reality was that even on that worst of all days in the most horrific of all events, God was in control and working through them to bring the most glorious day ever.


The rest of the story reminds us of God’s sovereignty as well.  Matthew goes on:


Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  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!”  And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?”  And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:8-11)


“Hosanna!”  It was a cry to God for help that, over time, became a cry of praise to the Lord.  During the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests would process around the altar waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!”—a cry to the Lord for help, but also a cry of praise and faith knowing that the Lord hears the cries of his people.  But on this day, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people waved their branches at him and cried “Hosanna!”  The Lord had finally come.  The Messiah was here.


But then Palm Sunday stands in stark contrast to Good Friday.  Today we hear the praises of the people as Jesus arrives, but in just a few days the praises turn to jeers and to cries of “Crucify him!”.  But, again, the story reminds us that God was never out of control.  Jesus knew he was going to his death and he knew that death was part of the plan.  To save his people he had to die the death that they deserved.  Even as sin and death rose up to their full height and did their worst, God remained sovereign and turned the death of Jesus back on his enemies on Easter morning.


St. Paul looked back on those events as he wrote to the Philippians:


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 devil for one brief moment thought that he was bringing Jesus down, but then we discover when it’s over, that God was using the cross to exalt his Son, to defeat his enemies, and to bring salvation from sin and death.  The crowds were angry with Jesus for getting their hopes up.  They had thought he was the Messiah, but when he stood before them in chains, they lost faith and they lost hope.  The Messiah was supposed to conquer Herod and the Romans, not let himself be arrested and beaten by them.  But the resurrection changed everything and one day, after the gospel message has gone out to all the world, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.


Brothers and Sisters, Easter is coming, but we only get there through the sad events of Holy Week and through the death of Jesus on the cross.  It’s a timely reminder for us that Jesus has called us to follow where he has gone before.


We have been sold a lie.  Modernity has promised us life without hardship and suffering and as much as in the common grace of God, the institutions of our world have brought us prosperity the likes of which Gregory the Great or Martin Rinckart could never have imagined, no earthly government, no scientist, no doctor, no economist, no philosopher, and no social worker will ever bring the new age that the Lord has promised us and that he has inaugurated through the resurrection of Jesus.  Politicians make promises to solve all of our problems.  Scientists and doctors hold out false hopes of eternal life…or at least life in this age without suffering.  Even prosperity gospel hucksters are in on the game, promising a life without suffering, a life without hard things if we will only have enough faith.  Brothers and Sisters, it’s not true.  None of it.  These are false gods with false gospels and false hopes.  The scriptures we have read today, the story we will walk through with Jesus over the next week, remind us where our faith and our hope really lie: In the God who has joined us in our hard things, who walks with us in our hard things, who has borne our hard things, and who has himself come through the other side and has promised to take us with him in the fulness of time.  In the meantime he calls us to walk with each other as he walks with us by means of his Spirit, that we might proclaim the good news about him to the world, and that we might live in such a way that our hope in God’s new world is manifest, is obvious to everyone around us…so that they might know it, know him, too.


Let us pray: Almighty and ever-living 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.


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