I titled this sermon “The Unexpected Messiah,” and this has been a few weeks of the unexpected, hasn’t it?
This week has been a week of frustration trying to work from home, restlessness from being cooped up, of isolation from not seeing family and friends, of anxiety and anxiousness over this pandemic and all the fallout from it. But it has also been a time of unexpected blessings: time with my wife and kids, time that makes one thankful for all that we have, time being forced to do a little more of what the Bible calls sabbath.
And now, here this Sunday, I did not expect to be giving a sermon in front of a laptop today. But I also could not have expected everyone to pull through and come together to make the online service possible. These days are teach us in a new way what it means to be the church. So this has been a season of the unexpected, and now we are here on Palm Sunday, ready to enter Holy Week. I have to ask, if we have made preparations for how the world can give us unexpected twists and turns, are we ready for how God can show up unexpectedly? Let us come to God’s word for what we might hear from him today. The reading is Matthew 21:1-17 from the NRSV:
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
What do we expect kings to look like? What do we think of when we think of power?
Three hundred years before Christ, there arose a man named Alexander the Great. One of the most successful conquerors of all time – up there with Napoleon and Genghis Khan.
A Macedonian prince, schooled by the brightest in the world, his tutor was the philosopher Aristotle, and early in his life, the prince burned with a violent ambition for conquest.
After his father’s assassination, Alexander assumed the throne at age 20. Alexander feared rebellion, and so, he quickly worked to eliminate all possible challengers to his throne. He killed his cousins, two princes, his father’s other wife, her father, who was a general, and her daughter. He killed his whole family.
Once he had done this, he pursued his real agenda. He assembled his army: 48 000 soldiers, 6000 calvaries, 120 ships with crews that amounted to 38 000, and battle after battle, he conquered the known world.
His army was nothing short of impressive. Without radios, without motors, without any of our modern luxuries, his army ran with an efficiency and discipline that would make modern generals blush.
He was without a doubt one of the most formidable commanders in world history, ingeniously outflanking armies several times larger than his own. His victories are the stuff of legends.
In ten short years, his army had conquered all the way to Egypt then out all the way to India, where his soldiers finally persuaded him to turn back and go home.
When he came through Israel, he laid siege to the cities, and as they fell, he ordered his soldiers to kill all military-age males and to take all male children to sell them as slaves, funding the war effort.
Along the way, he founded 20 cities, most of them creatively named, “Alexandria.” As the army returned home, Alexander figured that he would set up a new capital in Babylon, however, one day, at age 32, after drinking some wine, he fell violently sick and died. Most historians suspect it was an assassination.
Alexander’s life was short, but spectacular. This young man conquered the known world by age 30. If you could describe his life in one word, it might be “glorious”: the glory of battle, of brilliance, of victory and conquest. That is why they call him Alexander the Great.
History is full of these kinds of “Greats”: Rameses the Great, Antiochus the Great, Cyrus the Great, Herod the Great, etc.
When Alexander conquered a city he rode in on his favourite horse. He rides his mighty horse, Bucephalus.
Look at almost every city in the world and at the heart of the city is a statue of its great man riding a horse.
Look Rome. Look at London. Look at Washington. Even look at Ottawa. They all proudly display the conqueror on the horse. It is the fundamental symbol of worldly power: The man on the horse, who has brought peace by victory. This is our image of power, wealth, stability, glory. This is what we expect a king to be like. Riding in with his army on the stallion, a Brucephalus.
Jesus did not ride in on a horse. Jesus did not do what we think kings should do. He wasn’t the messiah God’s people were expecting. He came in an unexpected way to give an unexpected message. And who Jesus is and what his message says, still today, two thousand years later, upsets our expectations of what we think God to be.
That is our challenge this morning. Jesus is still the unexpected messiah.
1. The people had the wrong expectation
Throughout the Old Testament, it is the people’s perennial temptation to want a conqueror on a horse. The people saw the great kings, and unfortunately, they wanted to be like the nations.
Look at the horse in the Old Testament, and frankly, sorry horse-lovers, the Old Testament does not look well on horses. Nearly every mention of horses is negative.
Why? Horses were exclusively used in war. You used oxen for farming. You used camels for long travel. Horses were much more expensive. They were kept for a singular purpose: battle.
Horses were the tanks of the ancient world, able to outflank foot soldiers and plow throw them like a knife through butter.
Israel’s prophets watched men like Alexander the Great riding on their horses. Deuteronomy warned that if Israel trusted in human power and a human king over God, the king will trust in his military more than God and lead the people astray. Deuteronomy 17:16 warns that the king must never accumulate horses, “lest they go back to the ways of Egypt.”
But they did.
The Old Testament is a sad narrative at many points. It is the story of God longing to be the king of his people, for them to trust him and accept his reign over their hearts and lives, but they resist for they want a king like the nations do. They want the wealth and security and grander of an empire. And they were willing to follow other gods, if those gods promised these things.
The apex of this quest is during King Solomon’s reign. His God-given wisdom brought wealth and prosperity beyond measure. 1 Kings records that he had so much gold that silver was virtually worthless, as common as rocks. But then he grew arrogant. The Bible records that he started to accumulate horses. It says he amassed 12 000 horses and 1400 chariots. He started to stockpile weapons.
He brokered alliances with pagan kings, and they gave him their daughters in marriage. His greed caused him to collect women like he did gold and weapons. And these wives persuaded him to worship their idols, perhaps because they promised power. Solomon grew corrupt. His kingdom began to fracture from insurrection as he grew more and more oppressive. The nation broke in two after his death into North and South, and as the two dynasties of kings constantly fell into idolatry and injustice, God finally removed his presence of protection.
Israel gets conquered again and again. First by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans in the time of Jesus. Israel lived under the shadow of empires and emperors, in oppression and occupation.
One hundred years before Jesus, the Jews revolt against the a Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanies. Antiochus bans Jewish worship and proclaims himself god. He nicknames himself the “Anti-messiah” the “Anti-Christ” in mockery of the Jewish God. The Jews are outraged and are rallied by their high priest, Matthias the Hasmonean. He gathers an army in the wilderness, and his five sons lead the army, headed by his firstborn, Judas the Maccabee. Maccabee means “the hammer” by the way: Judas the Hammer.
The Maccabees succeed in retaking Jerusalem. They come riding into Jerusalem on their warhorses. People cry out in adoration spreading their cloaks on the road. The people greet them by waving the symbol of their house. Can you guess what that is? The palm branch.
Now the Maccabean revolt was not particularly successful. Israel very quickly becomes a vessel kingdom to a larger empire, but the memory hangs on. People long for the good old days. They are nostalgic for the glory of the Maccabees. They long, you might say, to “Make Israel Great Again,” and so, the people greet Jesus with palm branches because they expected he was going to raise an army just like the Maccabees. He would be the next hammer. He would be a conqueror on a horse: Jesus the Maccabee, Jesus the Hammer.
The irony for us Christians is that we wave palm branches on a day like this, because that is what the passage describes. I have fond memories of holding palm branches in church when I was little. They seem so harmless. But since we are removed from this history, we do not realize why they were holding them. The palm branch was a symbol of revolution. It was like the hammer and sickle.
Perhaps this might change your feelings about waving a palm branch on Palm Sunday ever again. Or perhaps, maybe it is a reminder that we too can still today expect God to be something other than what he truly is.
In my experience, I know many people, Christians included, who assume God is like an invisible Santa Claus in the sky, existing to just give us stuff. This is the God that if you just believe in him, and if you are nice enough, which everyone generally is, you get stuff. You can get whatever you want out of God, and getting stuff is really the most important thing.
Other expectations are far less jolly. There is an expectation of God where God is so moralistic and angry, people live in constant fear and guilt. Their religion can be summarized in one line: “Don’t mess up or else.” This god claims to be loving, but only so long as you obey, never question, never stray.
This is a god that is a reflection of our own failed perfectionism. This god’s grace is limited because we are limited. We expect this god’s grace to be limited because we expect god to act just like us. If we know that we don’t measure up to our own standards, why should god be any different?
Still others believe God is absent from their lives, absent in the same way perhaps their fathers are. Where was God when I needed him most? Somewhere else, with his children, he clearly cares more about than me. This is a God that is never around and no matter what we do, we can never get his attention because nothing is ever good enough.
Still others believe in a God that approves of their politics. God is American. God is western. God is white. God is male. God is on our side. Our nation is God’s nation. Our war is God’s war. God hates everyone I hate.
What is it for you? What is your expectation of God? How have you put Jesus in a box of expectations the Gospel does not fit?
Can you say to yourself today as Isaiah 55:9 says: God your ways are not my ways and your thoughts are not my thoughts.
This easter time, are you ready for God to surprise you? Are you prepared for Jesus to show up in unexpected ways?
The people in Jesus’ time weren’t ready.
2. Jesus gave an unexpected message
Israel expected Jesus to be a conqueror on a horse. They expected him to come in and rally the troops like Judas Maccabee did, to conqueror the nations like Alexander the Great. But Jesus, as we know from the Gospel of Matthew, did not come riding in on a Brucephalus. He did not come with an army, with golden armour or sword. He did something unexpected.
He rode in on a donkey. Donkeys are work animals. They have stubby legs, best for carrying heavy loads, not for speed. If you have ever seen someone ride a donkey, you know it is not the most dignified of animals.
The people wave palm branches, hailing Jesus a warlord King. Jesus counters this with the prophecy of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes the first part of:
Look, your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he
Humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The next verse is important:
He will end the chariot from Ephraim
And the war-horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be ended,
And he shall command peace to the nations
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
The donkey is not only the symbol of humility, but it is also the prophetic sign of non-violence. Jesus is not their warlord. Jesus is not there to start a war. Jesus is not against the Romans. Nor is he merely the king of the Jews. He is everyone’s king. His kingdom cannot be reduced to this nation or that land or that tribe and that tongue. He desires peace for everyone.
In the 1970’s a Christian by the name of Oscar Romero preached to his church in El Salvador against the oppression they faced. He would be martyred for speaking out against these oppressors. So, the people wanted to rise up in revolution, kill their oppressors. They wanted Romero to tell them God was on their side, that God would approve of their violence. This is what he said:
“We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross; the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”
Jesus was a disruptor, a resistor, a revolutionary, just not the one they wanted him to be. His is a revolution of love, of justice, of peace, of reconciliation.
The people wanted him to kill all their enemies. Jesus did something more profound and ultimately more dangerous. He exposed the enemy within our hearts.
St. Augustine once said, “It is arrogant to believe that our enemies can do more damage than our own hatred.”
The people were expecting Jesus to come into the temple and perhaps give one of those iconic speeches a general might give, like Mark Anthony’s “Friends, brothers, countrymen, lend me your ears.” They expected him to preach a message that vindicated them and pronounced vengeance to their enemies. We are God’s people! They are not! Kill them, end this occupation, establish your kingdom, make us rich like in the days of Solomon! It says instead that he starts to overturn the tables.
Now let me put to rest an old misconception about this passage: Jesus was not surprised and outraged because there was commerce occurring in the Temple. the priests of the temple were not just having bake sales and fundraisers. In fact, what we know of the temple is that it was very important to the city that it did carry on commerce: The temple contracted barbers, clothing makers, incense makers, goldsmiths, etc. The temple kept a lot of common people employed. This is not the issue.
The issue was not commerce per se, but a certain kind of commerce. Jesus says that the practices turned the temple into a house of robbers. What was the robbery? The text says: Jesus overturned the money changers and dove sellers.
From what we know of temple practice, the temple refused to allow any goods or services to purchased with Roman money. The Temple had its own currency that you had to buy it first at an increased rate just to go buy something else. The temple regarded Roman money as unclean money, and unfit to be used to buy sacrifices with, but conveniently the temple did not have a problem taking that money off a person’s hands. Out of their hands and into the priests’ pockets, who conveniently not defiled to have large sums of it.
What sacrifice was being bough there? The text says doves. That is interesting because the law in the Old Testament allowed two options for a sin offering. If you sinned you could either sacrifice a goat or a dove. Goats obviously cost way more than doves, so if you were rich, you would obviously use a goat. Doves were the choice for the poor.
What we know of temple practices of this day is that doves were being sold at an exorbitant price: two gold coins per pair of doves. The poor had to pay several months of income just to get a pair of birds to sacrifice to God. In other words, the temple was exploiting the poor. The Temple was selling forgiveness. They turned grace into oppression, into a get rich quick scheme.
So the liberator on a donkey, comes into the temple he is supposed to drive out the Roman occupation from, but instead, he starts driving out the religion’s true sickness: greed, exploitation, apathy, hypocrisy. That’s unexpected.
Now we scowl and condemn those Pharisees, how do we do similar things?
How do we limit God’s grace to only those who we think are worthy?
What walls of exclusion have we built for who can come into God’s houses and who do we try to keep out?
Where have we used God’s name to justify our agendas?
How have we invoked our faith to remain comfortable and privileged?
Who have we blamed in order for that to stay the way it is?
If Jesus came into our churches, our lives, while we shout “Hosanna!” what tables would he overturn today?
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from our culture, full of unbelievers and doubters,” Jesus comes and clears the temple of our own faithlessness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those people that are ruining the environment,” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own wastefulness.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, make sure I have enough money,” Jesus may come and clear the temple of our lack of generosity.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, save us from all those greedy CEO’s and corrupt politicians;” Jesus may come and clear out the temple of our own hypocrisy.
If we shout out, “Hosanna, keep me safe from the coronavirus,” Jesus may come and remind us of our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society.
As we shout out, “Hosanna,” are we prepared to have God work in us, break us open, overturn our expectations?
3. Who do we expect Jesus to be?
You will notice in this narrative that Jesus had many people respond to him. Some good others not. Which ones are we like?
First, there are the crowds, who proclaimed hosanna with the palm branches, expecting Jesus to be the next military leader. These were the same fickle crowds that just as soon as Jesus was not going to do that, they turned to yell out, “Crucify, crucify!”
When they didn’t get what they wanted out of Jesus, they turned on him. Will we do the same? Will we reject God just because he does not do what we expect him to do? Are we God’s fair-weather friends? Or will we trust God through thick and thin?
The second is the money changers and the Pharisees. These are people invested in the religious system staying the same. They have made their faith all about them. These are people whose identities are built on the idea that they are right and others are wrong. Out of some misdirected sense of piety, they decide who is in and who is out. And of course, they and those like them are the ones who are in and would prefer to keep it that way.
Are we like that? How are we invested in our churches staying the same? How are we invested in our churches looking just like us?
The last group is the sick and the children. The text says that Jesus, after clearing the temple immediately started healing the sick. If you had an illness in that culture, you would have been deemed unclean. In other words, you were excluded from the temple. You could not sacrifice. You could not have forgiveness.
This is not quite the same thing as being quarantined, for the ancient world believed that if you were sick it was because of your sins. You were cursed. You were clearly a sinner.
Jesus healed them, which means Jesus showed them grace and forgiveness that no one else would or could.
This is so wonderful that little children start praising him as the Son of David.
While we take care of those that are affected by sickness in our community, I think if we understand what sickness meant in Jesus’ time, we have to realize something with it. We are all in need of Jesus’ healing.
Without Jesus, we are all excluded from grace. Without Jesus, we are all unworthy.
Without Jesus, we are lost. Without Jesus, we are all broken. Without Jesus, we cannot expect forgiveness.
If we can admit that, can we confess that Jesus everyday – every day – surprises us with even more grace. Why? Because he is just that kind of messiah. He is just that kind of God.
May this prepare us for what lies ahead this week.
As we think about Good Friday, may we trust even more the surprise of the cross: that when we were content to murder Jesus, Jesus was content to love us. Jesus has died our death to offer us his life.
As we think about Easter Sunday, may we trust even more that surprise of the empty tomb, that all that has gone wrong in this world will be put right.
And if we know that Jesus is so unexpectedly patient, unexpectedly loving, unexpectedly gracious, may we be inspired to live that kind of grace out in our world a bit more too.
In a world of ignorance, of greed, of arrogance, of worry and fear, may you be this week a witness for Christ that your neighbours did not expect.