16 March 2008

Homily - Palm Sunday

Look, the Humble King
John 12:12-36
(Procession Gospel & Alternate Holy Gospel)

It was a ticker-tape parade for a battle that would come several days later. The King was entering His domain. So the color purple on the altar reminds us of our King’s true royalty. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” But our King had no special attraction about Him. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him” (Is. 53:2). On this Palm Sunday we behold an unattractive King, a King without worldly pomp, a humble King. And while this King may be humble on earth, both then and now, He brings us into His eternal majesty. Look, the humble King!

Look at Him humble on a lowly donkey. St. John’s version of the procession into Jerusalem is quite simple: “And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” But this was no mere happenstance. The other Gospels tell the story of Jesus making preparations to ride on this donkey. He sent two of His disciples to find a young donkey, untie it, and bring it to Him. Jesus knew what He was up to. Earthly kings and rulers ride on whites stallions or in Lincoln Continentals or bulletproof limousines. But Jesus? He’s a different kind of King, a humble King. He rides on a donkey not even full-grown. He rides in His ticker-tape parade on a borrowed little Chevy pick-up truck. Look, the humble King!

The prophet Zechariah had foretold this lowly procession. He prepared the Jews then and us now for our humble Messiah. “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.” Jesus never intended to come into the world in majestic, splendid, awe-inspiring pomp and circumstance. He never intended to come in the ways of the world. So, we dare not expect Him to come in majestic, splendid, awe-inspiring ways in our day, either. He did not come to teach businessmen the successful methods of business. He did not even come to cleanse society of the riff-raff of drunks, thieves, gamblers, or perverts. No, He came to bring salvation, not a social agenda. Leave the social agendas to earthly rulers and workers. Jesus brings the Gospel of salvation—the Gospel of forgiveness and life in Jesus, the Gospel meant for everyone from earthly rulers to businessmen to society’s riff-raff, including politicians who get exposed as perverts. The Gospel of salvation in Jesus may and does indeed bear fruits that benefit society; and that’s very good. But Jesus’ mission was to bring heaven to you, not turn this present earth into heaven. Look, the humble King on His lowly donkey!

Look at the humble King with His bewildered disciples. His disciples did not understand these things at first. Even Jesus’ inner circle, His trusted cabinet, did not grasp what He was doing and saying by riding on a donkey. Sure, they knew He was the Savior. Peter had confessed Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). They had heard Him teach the people and tweak the super-religious Pharisees. They had seen Him perform His miraculous signs. What on earth was He doing riding a donkey? That they just could not—or maybe would not—understand.

And we are just like them. King Jesus comes in lowly, humble fashion, and even today His followers do a doubtful double take. Jesus comes in the lowly, humble waters of Baptism. What do His followers do? Seek some other, man-made, more spectacular source of strength and life with God. Jesus comes the lowly, humble words of Absolution spoken by the mouth of a pastor. What do His followers do? Rely on themselves to create their own clean hearts and forgive themselves apart from the spoken words of Jesus’ forgiveness. Jesus comes in the lowly, humble meal of Communion. What do His followers do? Treat the meal as if nothing of consequence were happening in the eating and drinking or forget that eternal life comes through this very Meal. We disciples do not understand all these things.

What saved the disciples then? What saves us now? “When Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him.” Only after Jesus suffers the betrayal, the denial, the mock trial … only after He suffers the sentencing, the flogging, the cross-carrying … only after He is spiked to the rough wood and hangs there for six hours, suffocating, burning with agony … only after He dies a wretched criminal’s death … only after He lies lifeless in the tomb … only after He rises from the dead—only then do we understand these things. The King came to suffer, die, and rise again. The King came not to bring earthly health or wealth, power or prosperity. No, the King came to bring treasures far more valuable, much longer lasting: life and peace with God. You can’t put a price on that! But you may receive it—simply receive it; receive it in faith—just as you do with any free gift. Look, the humble King with believing disciples!

Look, the humble King despised by proud Pharisees. The Pharisees put Jesus’ name on the “Jerusalem’s Most Wanted” list. He committed no crime, no treason, and no terrorism. He didn’t even hurt anyone. But the Pharisees plotted and schemed how they might rub Him out and kill Him. You see, Jesus had stolen something from them. He took away their religion. They spoke good things of God, but then they despised God’s works and God’s people. They looked down on other people for not being, well, as important or religious as they. Of course, they could not judge people’s hearts. But that did not stop them from seeing the outward differences or problems and then judging in their own hearts. Their own hearts did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Their own hearts trusted in themselves and their own efforts to please God. That’s what Jesus took from them. And He did it by raising the dead, by loving and forgiving sinners.

Our lowly, humble King takes away our self-centered religion too. He tears down everything in us that makes us think we belong to ourselves. He tears down everything in us that makes us think we are better than others, by what family we come from, by what church we attend, by what standing we have at work or in the community. He takes it all away and nails it to the cross in His own body. And in return He gives us His life—a humble life, a servant life, a life that receives eternal gifts from God, a life that seeks to serve God by serving whatever humble person crosses our path.

Look, our humble King revealed in His dying and rising. The Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps they only saw Jesus from a distance as He entered Jerusalem. No doubt, they wanted a face-to-face meeting with the Lord of Life, a personal encounter with the humble King. Philip told Andrew; Andrew took Philip, and they both told Jesus. King Jesus responded with a mini-parable: “I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” How would the Greeks see Jesus? In His dying and rising. How do we see humble King Jesus? In His dying and rising. “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That’s where He paid the price to bring you into life eternal and the never-ending kingdom of God. He died, went into the ground, but then came out alive. And now humble King Jesus bears much fruit in you by delivering the fruit of His dying and rising to you.

Dr. Luther put it this way: “If I now seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ … in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross” (AE, 40:214). No, we cannot go back to the cross to find forgiveness—no, we weren’t there when they crucified our Lord, and we can’t go there in time or space. But King Jesus can and does bring the fruits and benefits of His cross to us. Look, humble King Jesus enters His new Jerusalem, His Church, riding humble and mounted under bread and wine. Here He enlivens and strengthens us. Here He resuscitates and sustains us. Here He reigns for us.

As an excellent new hymn says: “Now He who bore for mortals’ sake / The cross and all its pains / And chose a servant’s form to take, / The King of glory reigns. / Hosanna to the Savior’s name / Till heaven’s rafters ring, / And all the ransomed host proclaim / “Behold, behold your King!” (LSB 444:4) Amen.

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