Palm Sunday - Matthew 21:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I wonder if you can guess what I am describing? There were thousands at this riot in North London. It took place during the night and many were injured. Five people were taken to hospital and hundreds were crushed in the melee that followed the initial riot. One paramedic said: “I thought it was going to be another Hillsborough. It was amazing nobody was killed.” One woman was seen being pinned down by five other girls. Fights were breaking out within the crowd, and people at the back simply charged forward crushing the ones in front. Dozens of police tried to control the crowd, but with little effect. A security guard called Gerard Visagie said: "I have never felt so threatened. It was madness. A guard next to me was punched and …had his jaw dislocated. People were punching and kicking me and screaming. We were under siege.” Fire-fighters freed trapped people, and Assistant Divisional Officer William Bird said: "I have not attended anything like this before." So what do you think I am describing? Hooligans at an Arsenal-Spurs match? Race riots in north London? Perhaps an anarchists’ attack on a MacDonald’s? None of them! I am describing the opening of Britain’s biggest Ikea on 10th February 2005, in Edmonton, North London. You may remember the scenes of chaos outside the building as an estimated seven thousand people queued through the day before and the night to get the promised bargains. The shop had promised sofas as cheap as £50 and as result things got out of hand. When the doors were opened, the crowds burst through, and when the shop was closed for safety reasons, the shoppers simply smashed through the glass doors. CCTV footage from inside the shop revealed the full extent of the horror. One burley man was seen holding another against the wall as they argued over a sofa and others fought pitched battles over other pieces of furniture, while all around them people were being stretchered away in ambulances. Appearances can be deceptive can’t they? What at first seems like one thing, yet with a second look turns out to be something totally different.
Now today is Palm Sunday. It’s the day when Christians traditionally consider the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. But for many Christians, it’s a story we think we know so well. We’ve heard it many times, for some of us from our mother’s knee. But like the riots in Edmonton, it’s a scene that we can so easily misinterpret. Because whilst it might appear we can see what is going on, yet take a second look and you discover that there is far more going on than at first we might think. For example, think for a moment how Jesus has conducted his ministry to this point. The very last thing he has wanted to do is draw attention to himself. So, frequently in the gospel accounts, we find Jesus withdrawing from the crowds. He almost seems to dampen the enthusiasm of those who follow him. He even tells some of them to keep quiet about who he really is! He seems to this point throughout the gospels to avoid publicity. So why now does he deliberately stoke the crowds and ride into Jerusalem to the wild enthusiasm of thousands lining the streets? Why now at this time, does he make this very public show? And have you ever wondered why it is that this passage in Matthew 21 which we’re looking at today, is the only time in Jesus’ life where he is said to ride as opposed to walk? All the other times he’s on foot! It’s extremely unlikely he owned a horse or a donkey, but I’m sure he could have borrowed one at any time. But why now? Why take this moment to ride on a donkey in front of thousands of people who are shouting his praise and acclamation?
Well for one very simple reason. Because it’s at this point that Jesus is wanting to make it crystal clear, for those with eyes to see, that he is the King promised in the OT who would come and save and rule his people. It’s now that he decides to reveal his identity and mission clearly and fully. But even when he does this, it is very surprising to find what Jesus reveals about himself. Because Jesus is not the sort of King we might expect him to be. He is a king of an altogether different order. And as we look at this description of that entry into Jerusalem, we find three surprises about this king Jesus, which actually are of enormous comfort to us this morning who would claim to follow him. Because first impressions can be deceptive. Whereas a more detailed look reveals something quite different. So what does Matthew teach us about King Jesus?
1) The King who Controls his own Destiny (Vv 1-3)
2) The King who Comes in Humility (Vv 4-7)
3) The King who will Complete the Victory (Vv 8-11)
1) The King who Controls his own Destiny (Vv 1-3)
So our first surprise is that Jesus is the King who controls his own destiny. Now it has to be said that, as we read through the accounts of Jesus’ final days and hours, the last thing we can say is that Jesus is the one who controls his own destiny. Surely he’s at the whim of the crowds who are baying for his blood. Surely his fate is sealed by Judas’ betrayal, by the religious authorities’ hatred of him and their plans to kill him, by Pilate’s weak mindedness and cowardice. Surely Jesus is a political pawn caught in a much bigger game, a mere insignificant number in the Roman machine. That’s certainly what many students think as I have talked to them about Jesus this past year. Oh, he’s a great guy, they say, but he was a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But actually nothing could be further from the truth. Because actually as you read the gospel accounts more closely you find that Jesus was in just the right place at just the right time. And it was he that was orchestrating everything. He’s there because he wants to be, and even more staggering, he’s the one who is actually in charge. So as you read the story of Jesus’ trial, you find that it is not Jesus who is on trial, but Pilate, the disciples, the religious officials, and finally you and me. It is Jesus who willingly gives us his life to die. No-one can take his life from him unless he himself gives it up. He’s the King in control.
And we see that very clearly in these opening verses of Matthew 21, the very first events of that momentous Easter week. So have a look at verses 1-3: “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.’” Now notice first of all those first four words in verse 1. “As they approached Jerusalem….” Now this isn’t for mere geographical interest. It’s actually of great significance for Jesus. So just glance back to Matthew 16 v 21. This is the time Jesus specifically says that he must die, and Mathew says: “From that time on, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law and that he must be killed.” Jesus knew that there would come a time when he would specifically go to Jerusalem to die. And then come on to Matthew 20 vv 17-19. Again Jesus predicts his death, but this time Matthew says: “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve aside and said to them: ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests, and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death.’” He’s again predicting what is going to happen, and by this time they are already on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus is taking very deliberate action to go to Jerusalem where he knows he will die. So do you see? He’s the one in total control of the situation. And if we’re not yet convinced, then look at how he arranges the donkey in verse 2: He tells two disciples: “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” Jesus knows what he’s doing. He’s the one in control. And whilst we’re not told how he got the donkeys whether it was divine foreknowledge, or whether it was prearranged, or whether he went online to book them up on EasyDonkey.com, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, this king is in charge. He controls his own destiny.
Now why is that relevant to you and I? What comfort can such a truth bring to us this morning. Well surely it is this, that if this King Jesus, the Lord of the universe, can control his own destiny according to his will, then how much more can he take charge of our lives and achieve his will for us completely. You see this Jesus shows again and again that he is none other than the living God himself. Nothing can thwart his plans, not event the mighty Roman Empire. The most powerful man in the whole region, Pilate, is in Jesus’ hands. And it’s this same Jesus who, for those who have bowed the knee to Jesus, rules over our lives. We can have total and complete confidence that our lives are in God’s hands. Nothing can happen to us that is outside of God’s plan. Nothing ever surprises this King Jesus. There is no plan B because there does not need to be. He’s in complete control. And that should be a wonderful reassurance for us, especially as we live in days of uncertainty and increasing chaos in our land. Nothing can snatch us from Jesus’ hands. Now of course that does not mean that everything will go well for us. For Jesus fulfilling his plan meant the cross. But we can be sure that whatever happens, this King is well able to bring us through and he will never let us go or forsake us. Even in the darkest times of bereavement, of depression, or painful long term illness, he’s got our lives in his hands.
Let me illustrate this with a story from the life of Ira Sankey. Sankey was the singer who did many evangelistic missions with the famous American evangelist D L Moody. It was Christmas Eve 1875 and Ira Sankey was travelling on a Delaware River steamboat when he was recognized by some of the passengers. His picture had been in the newspaper because of Moody and his missions, and the passengers asked him to sing one of his own hymns. Sankey didn’t want to sing one of his own, but he did sing another song which was, “Saviour Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” As he sang, one of the verses began, “We are Thine; do Thou befriend us. Be the Guardian of our way.” When he finished, a man stepped from the shadows and asked, “Did you ever serve in the Union Army?” “Yes,” Mr. Sankey answered, “in the spring of 1860.” “Can you remember if you were doing guard duty on a bright, moonlit night in 1862?”, asked the man. “Yes,” Mr. Sankey answered, very much surprised. The man continued: “So was I, but I was serving in the Confederate army. When I saw you standing at your post, I thought to myself, ‘That fellow will never get away alive.’ I raised my musket and took aim. I was standing in the shadow, completely concealed, while the full light of the moon was falling upon you. But at that instant, just as a moment ago, you raised your eyes to heaven and began to sing… ‘Let him sing his song to the end,’ I said to myself, ‘I can shoot him afterwards. He’s my victim after all, and my bullet cannot miss him.’ But the song you sang then was the song you sang just now. I heard the words perfectly: ‘We are Thine; do Thou befriend us. Be the Guardian of our way.’ Those words stirred up many memories. I began to think of my childhood and my God-fearing mother. She had many times sung that song to me. When you had finished your song, it was impossible for me to take aim again. I thought, ‘The Lord who is able to save that man from certain death must surely be great and mighty.’ And my arm of its own accord dropped limp at my side.” Having Jesus as our King does not mean we are spared from pain. But it does mean we can have absolute confidence that he is in control. And the challenge is to trust him. That’s the first surprising lesson we learn from Matthew 21. That Jesus is the King who controls his own destiny.
2) The King who Comes in Humility (Vv 4-7)
But the second surprise we learn from this passage is that Jesus is the King who comes in humility. Now normally you do not associate royalty with humility. Kings are often prone to pride. Power gets to their heads. But not Jesus. So how do we see that Jesus is a humble King? Well we see it in his deliberate decision at this point to ride the donkey into Jerusalem. You see if Jesus had really wanted to be thought of as a mighty king, then he would have come into Jerusalem riding on a massive war horse. A donkey was not the means of impressing your enemies. It would be like George Bush coming into the middle of Baghdad on a rusty old tricycle. Hardly impressive. But Jesus isn’t out to give that sort of impression. No his kingship is of an entirely different order. And his choice of a donkey, or to be accurate, the foal of a donkey, which Mark says had never been ridden before, is very important. Because see how Matthew describes what happens next in verse 4: “This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet: "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.' " The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.” Matthew says that Jesus is deliberately fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy. And it comes from the book of Zechariah. Now you’ll remember if you’ve been with us through this series on Matthew, that whenever Matthew quotes the OT he wants us to go back to that passage and see what he’s saying. So let’s do just that. You’ll find it on page…..
And as we go back to Zechariah, we discover two things about this humble king Jesus. First that he’s the king of promise. Now Zechariah was writing at a time when the people of Israel were in dire straights. They’d come back from exile to a land which was ruined. And it seemed as if God had left them. But Zechariah looks forward to a time when God’s King would return to his people. So we read in verse 9 of Zechariah 9: “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion. Shout Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” And this promise came to mean a lot to the people of Israel. They took it to mean that this was talking about the Messiah, God’s great rescuer King, who would come and restore the fortunes of Israel. So when Jesus turns up in Jerusalem 500 years later doing exactly this, what are all the people thinking? Well no wonder they rejoice! They think that Jesus is this King come to restore the fortunes of Israel. He’s the promised Messiah. Now as we’ll see in a moment, they don’t fully understand what kind of King Jesus is, but at least they make the connections between what Jesus is doing and what Zechariah promised.
Now it’s worth us pausing here to see how wonderful the fulfilment of God’s promises truly are. Because Jesus fulfils not just this promise, but many promises concerning the coming of the rescuer. In fact in the OT there are 48 very specific promises about the Messiah, this promised rescuer King, and scores more which are incidental. But many of these 48 are not things that you can deliberately orchestrate like this donkey incident. One speaks of the Messiah’s birth, others speak of his death. You cannot plan your own birth can you? And someone has worked out that the chances of one person fulfilling just 8 of the promises by coincidence is one in one hundred million billion! Now in case you have trouble like I do working out what that means, then consider this. Imagine if you had one hundred million billion fifty pence pieces, and you marked one of those coins with a red pen. And you then laid out all those coins and asked a friend to find that marked coin on the first time of asking. Well it would be an extraordinary ask, because that many fifty pence pieces would cover the whole of the UK to a depth of five feet. That’s the chances of Jesus accidentally fulfilling just 8 prophecies. But in fact he fulfilled all 48 and many more. Doesn’t that fill you with absolute awe at God’s amazing plan of salvation. Doesn’t it make you want to praise God for his Word. Doesn’t it give you confidence that the OT really is the inspired Word of God. How could it be anything else? For who else could allow for such intricate planning and foresight? That God in his sovereignty should allow that such details be written hundreds of years before, and then even more extraordinarily to be fulfilled in one man. Surely it means that all of God’s promises are totally trustworthy! And only Jesus could fit the match. Only his fingerprints could fit the prophetic DNA. What an amazing Saviour we have, this promised King.
But what will this king do, according to Zechariah? Well we learn a second thing about this humble king, that he is the king of peace. So let’s continue to read from Zechariah 9. See what God proclaims in verse 10: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He, [this promised King] will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” So this promised King will proclaim peace to the nations. It’s military language talking about spiritual realities. All nations will be able to know peace with God. They can be forgiven and given a fresh start with God. And how can that happen? God goes on in verse 11: “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.” It is through the blood of the covenant that we will be set free. In the OT forgiveness was symbolised through the sacrificial system, through animals being slaughtered. But when Jesus the Messiah came, his death on the cross would deal with sin once and for all. That is why this King Jesus has come. And that’s why he had to go to Jerusalem to die. He has come to bring peace. He came to offer us peace with God through his blood shed on the cross. He came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for us, dying in our place that we might know his forgiveness and friendship.
And as we come again to this Easter time, what time could be better than to ponder again the staggering cost it was for Jesus to rescue enemies like you and me and to offer us peace. A peace which was so costly it cost this gentle and humble King his life. You see this King rightly deserves universal adoration. For he is the King of the universe. He made you and me and everything in it. But what did humanity do? It nailed the creator to the cross. But in God’s infinite wisdom that rejection of the King was actually the way you and I can be forgiven by the king as he died in our place. And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey he is making a crystal clear statement for those with eyes to see and ears to hear that he, Jesus, is this promised King who has come to bring peace to the people. And our only response is to bow before this humble king in all humility. For he is the king who comes in humility.
3) The King who will Complete the Victory (Vv 8-11)
But there’s one final surprise for us in this passage and that is that Jesus is the king who will complete the victory. So let’s go back to Matthew 21 and look at verses 8-11: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!" When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?" The crowds answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."” Now it’s pretty clear that most of the people had no real idea of who Jesus was. They ask the question in verse 10, but they have no answer except that he might be some prophet. Clearly their understanding is limited. At the most, they perhaps believed that this Jesus was the Messiah. But they would have understood the title in a very politicized sense. They hoped that Jesus would be a great leader and liberator who would bash the Romans on the head and deliver the land from the hated Roman oppressors. But as we have seen this was not the liberation that Jesus was going to bring. He was not a political Messiah. He had come to bring forgiveness and spiritual peace and freedom with God, which in fact was far more important. And to the human eye, the very last thing that Jesus seemed to be bringing was victory. I mean imagine that you a Roman soldier. You are not exactly going to be quaking in your boots at the sight of an unarmed Galilean peasant riding a donkey into town are you? And when you stand at the foot of the cross, you will not be thinking, “O we Romans better watch out. Clearly this guy is a powerful king.” No, on the face of it, this is a pathetic individual who looks so weak and insignificant, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
But of course that is to look at things at first sight. But to the eye of faith, there is more going on than meets the eye. Because in actual fact the cross was the victory. The way Jesus overcame the evil one and all his minions was through the folly of the cross. And ironically the words that the people say to Jesus in these verses speak of victory. Because they quote from Psalm 118, which is a victory psalm. It’s part of a group of psalms which would be sung at festival times, a bit like the sorts of things people sing at the last night of the Proms. It’s rousing victorious stuff. But unlike the last night of the Proms, Psalm 118 is not mere jingoism. It’s talking about the reality when God’s king comes again. Psalm 118 says, “Hosanna” which means save us. And Jesus will indeed do that fully and finally when he comes again. So interestingly it’s this psalm that Jesus quotes at the end of Matthew 23 when he says to the crowds: “I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” And what’s he talking about? He’s return. For one day he will return, but this time not in humility and meekness, not gentle and riding on a donkey, but mighty and glorious and coming on the clouds of heaven. Because this king is not just the humble gentle king, but the victorious and glorious king who will crush all opposition to him fully and finally when he returns.
CS Lewis puts this in his own characteristically beautiful way in his book the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. At one point two of the children Lucy and Edmund are off on an adventure. They come to a grassy area, and the green of the grass stretches off into the blue horizon. But in the middle of this green blanket there is a white dot, and there is something there which they cannot make out. So they go further forward until they can see what the white dot is, and they find it is a lamb, cooking a breakfast of fish. The lamb gives Edmund and Lucy the most delicious meal they have ever had, and as they are eating, the children talk about how they can get to the land of Aslan, which in CS Lewis’ imagery is heaven. And as the lamb explains the way, a wonderful thing happens. The white fleece of the lamb gradually turns golden and his size changes until he towers over the children as a huge lion, Aslan himself. It was Lewis’ way of saying that the same gentle king who went to the cross as a lamb is the same one who is the just and victorious king, the one who will bring every knee to bow before him.Are you tempted to doubt sometimes that in Christ we do have the victory? Does your heart fail you when you hear the mockers attacking the Christian faith and the Lord Jesus Christ. For this crowd on Palm Sunday turned very quickly within a week from cheerers to jeerers. And when you follow this Lord Jesus more often than not we face those same jeers. But fear not. Whilst appearances can be deceptive, this Jesus has the victory. It’s been won for us on the cross and he will one day return to complete the mopping up operation. For with this King Jesus there is far more than meets the eye. For this Jesus is the King who controls his own destiny, and we can trust him with ours. He’s the king who comes in humility, the one who willingly gave himself up for us, whom we must come to for forgiveness and friendship. And he’s the king who will complete the victory. So surely our response can only be to sing: “Hosanna to this King of kings.”
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