A sermon preached on Matthew 21:1-11 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on April 5, Palm Sunday.
The King Comes to His City (21:1-7)
If you’re a Tolkien fan, you may remember that scene from The Two Towers in The Lord of the Rings where Aragorn visits Theoden, King of the Golden Hall. On the way in, he’s asked by a guard to part with his ancient and storied sword, Anduril. Here’s how the exchange develops: “Slowly Aragorn unbuckled his belt and himself set the sword upright against the wall. ‘Here I set it,’ he said; ‘but I command you not to touch it, nor to permit any other to lay hand on it. In this elvish sheath dwells the Blade that was Broken and has been made again. … Death shall come to any man that draws Elendil’s sword save Elendil’s heir.’ The guard stepped back and looked with amazement on Aragorn. ‘It seems that you are come on the wings of song out the forgotten days,’ he said. ‘It shall be, lord, as you command.’” (pg. 500) The point of this exchange is that Aragorn is beginning to act, not as simply a mysterious Ranger, but as who he really is, the true king of the men of Middle Earth.
The Triumphal Entry is the account of how Jesus was revealed (not changed, but revealed) as an even greater king. On Palm Sunday, the true king comes to his rightful city. And the question is, how will he be received?
Son of David
First, we look at the way in which Jesus presents himself. Finally, in this moment nothing is being hidden. As we’re going to see, this act is a clear and unmistakable expression of who Jesus is: Son of Man and Son of God.
Two things are incredibly important to notice. First, this title “Son of David” is used twice. It occurs first right before the Triumphal Entry – in chapter 20, it’s on the lips of two blind man that Jesus heals right before entering Jerusalem. So, these two blind men are part of the procession with Jesus. In verse 9, it’s also on the lips of the crowd that gathers ‘round Jesus. What is the significance here? The significance is that Jesus is the rightful king of David’s throne. In fact, this hearkens back to when Solomon was made king after David. David’s son, Adonijah sought wrongly to capture the throne, and because of the actions of the prophet Nathan and Bathsheba, David was made aware and handed his throne over the one to whom it was promised. 1 Kings 1:43-45 says, “Our lord King David has made Solomon king, and the king has sent with him Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites. And they had him ride on the king’s mule. And Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet have anointed him king at Gihon, and they have gone up from there rejoicing, so that the city is in an uproar.”
So Jesus comes, clearly unmistakably, as the true king, the descendant of David, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the one whose throne will be removed. Psalm 24:9-10 says, “Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory! God himself is visiting his people.
But in what way? For what purpose? The animal he rides is a strong clue.
The Humble King
Verse 5, quoting from Isaiah and Zechariah, says, “’Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” This is animal signaling peace. Jesus has come, not to destroy people, but to save them by doing battle with the greatest enemies of humanity. Jesus, the humble king, will do battle will sin, with death, with evil, with the gates of hell. And he will defeat them all. Jeffrey Gibbs writes, “This King is lowly, not conquering. This King rides on a donkey, not a war horse or in a chariot. This King does not come to conquer, at least not in any way that would conform to any normal human definition of “conquering.” This King comes to reign by means of self-sacrifice and to give his life as a ransom payment for the many.” (Matthew 21:1-28:20, pg. 1039) Today, all over the world, the church celebrates the king who has come and won the victory that no one and no thing can take from him. 2 Corinthians 2:14 says, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” We are part of his triumphal procession today, today the fragrance of the knowledge of him is being spread everywhere until he comes again.
But, we receive him for who he really is. And that brings us to the second part of the passage.
The City & It’s People Respond (21:8-11)
In verses 8-11, we see the crowd’s response as they roll out the red carpet, so to speak, even putting their cloaks on the road itself and laying palm branches before him. The words they say, the titles they give him, the cry they raise, “Hosanna” (save us now!) are all right, but what do they mean? Most in the crowd were probably thinking of the immediate benefits that such a king, such a messiah, would (must, in their minds?) bring. And because of that, by the week’s end, Jesus will be utterly alone and abandoned.
Luke offers us a glimpse here that Matthew does not. In Luke 19:41-44, he tells us that, “When [Jesus] drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Why did Jesus do that? Because he come to meet them at their deepest, most profound need. And he knew that many would not receive him as such.
Russ Ramsey writes “This was the hour of Jerusalem’s visitation. Jesus loves this city. He wept because what the people wanted and what they needed were so far from one another. He knew the full extent of the salvation these people required, and he also knew what it would cost. He knew salvation was unfolding before them in that very moment. The punishment that would bring them peace was about to be laid upon him. … With tears in his eyes he rode on into the city and made his way to the temple while the people parted like a holy curtain, crying, “Please save us.” (Behold the King of Glory, pg. 150)
Friends, our world, our nation, our community is in an hour of visitation. And what I can say without a shred of uncertainty is that the will of the Father is that we, each of us, would repent, turn away from our sin and turn with faith to Jesus, bowing the knee to the true king of the entire world. He comes now anew to us. The benefits of the victory he won on his cross are ever available. On the precipice of Holy Week, we each need to ask ourselves, have we received Jesus for who he is as Savior, and not as we would like him to be? Have we received him or just what he can potentially give us?
Verse 10 tells us that as Jesus entered the city, it was shaken. We are shaken, too. Or, at least, we should be. R.T. France writes, “When the king arrives all the city is stirred (literally ‘shaken’, the word from which we get ‘seismic’!). Whether this is a stirring of enthusiasm or of apprehension is not clear.” (Matthew: Tyndale NT Commentaries, pgs. 299-300). Let us have enough care to not shake off this moment in apathy, but to be shaken in such a way as to see how great our need is and how great our God is to meet us in that need!
And lastly, as we our Lord entering the city where he will be crucified, as we think about the shouts from those who followed Jesus and yet didn’t really understand his coming, we as the church ought to reflect on our own priorities. Carl Trueman, writing on impact of the Coronavirus outbreak, says, “This should remind the church of her priorities. “Redeeming the arts” doesn’t seem quite so urgent when your immediate problem is not that of obtaining tickets to the Met but of potentially dying before the box office reopens after the COVID-19 crisis. … In this situation it is the task of the church to mug people with reality before reality itself comes calling. Yet that note seems to have been signally absent from the public profile of the church in recent weeks. Efforts to fight the virus are important; but so is the church’s task of preparing us for death [I would add: by preaching the Gospel].” (“Deaths Delayed by Carl Trueman – First Things)
Jesus, our king, came that first Holy Week to meet us at our deepest need, win the greatest victory, paying the greatest cost. Let us steadfastly believe upon him, trust him and follow where he leads. A blessed Holy Week to you. Amen.