Confessions of Faith in Moments of Time
People always confess their faith. They show what they believe by what they bow before, what the kneel before, what they stand before. People show what they believe by what they do with their hands, feet, and head. A Muslim takes his shoes off before entering a mosque. A Roman Catholic bows before the statue of the virgin of Guadalupe. A Lutheran kneels, when able to, at the Communion rail. Just look at what people do with their bodies in time, and you can see what they believe in their hearts for eternity.
In our text, the crowd confessed their faith by what they did with their bodies. See a group streaming out of of Jerusalem to meet Jesus. St. John tells us, "So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him." The palm branch was like Israel's flag. Israel was a conquered country under the boot of Rome, so technically it had no independent existence, no flag of its own. However, Jewish nationalism didn't die easily, and they used the palm as a symbol of their country. This predates the time of Jesus. In 141 B.C. Simon Maccabees triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Palms were used then as a national symbol. Palms were a national symbol after the time of Christ too. When the Jews revolted against Rome 66-70 A.D., they minted their own coins and put palm branches on them.
So their waving palms is like us waving flags. It's a symbol of faith in their country. It's a symbol that they believe Jesus is the right and proper ruler of their country. You see this sort of faith regularly on TV. Whenever the President's motorcade moves through the streets, you'll see people lining the route waving flags. Put palm branches in their hands and President Bush on a donkey, and you see what went on Palm Sunday. In both cases, the crowds mean the same thing.
But more than faith in their nation is being shown. This is also a victory parade. In this respect, it's like a ticker tape parade in New York for victorious soldiers. From ancient times the palm was a symbol of victory. Warriors coming home after a victory were welcomed with palms. The crowd is expressing their faith that Jesus has done marvelous, powerful things. John tells us they shouted about Him raising Lazarus. Luke tells us the crowds praised Him for all the mighty works they had seen. This is a victory parade.
However, this isn't just a nationalistic victory parade centered on Jesus. With the actions of their bodies they are expressing the faith in their heart that they are willing to submit to Jesus as king. Spreading their garments to form a carpet was an act of submission. The people in the Old Testament welcomed King Jehu in a similar fashion. The only similar thing we have in our society is when soldiers jump to their feet when a commanding officer comes into the room. It's a sign of respect and a show that they are submitting to the higher ranking officer's authority.
What people do in time with their bodies reveals the faith that's in their hearts. This is a principle of divine worship; the standing, bowing, kneeling we do shows what we believe. Today we showed what we believe by what we did with our palms. Originally, the Palm Sunday procession that we began in the fellowship hall, began outside the church building. The congregation carried their palms; often an acolyte carried the Book of the Gospels, and in Germany a Palmesel, a wooden donkey on wheels bearing on it's back a figure of Jesus was wheeled along. They would go outside around their church and then in. In Detroit, in one of the worst inner city neighborhoods a Lutheran pastor still does this. Through this procession, they confess their faith in their Palm Sunday Lord to the surrounding community. Sure, it gives the community a chance to laugh and make fun of those silly Christians, but they are confessing in time their faith that Jesus is their Lord for eternity.
What our bodies do with the palms of Palm Sunday confess what our hearts believe. The palms are not a symbol of our nation, but a symbol of our sinfulness. We take these green palm branches home and place them behind our crosses, crucifixes, and pictures of Jesus. They don't stay green but turn brown and shrivel up even as our bodies do because of sin. We bring the palms back on Transfiguration Sunday and burn them into ashes. Then on Ash Wednesday we come and are marked with those ashes as a symbol of our sinfulness and mortality. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
Yet palms are also a symbol of our belief that Jesus won the victory for us through suffering. We can't see a palm branch without being reminded of the triumph of Palm Sunday and the suffering of Holy Week. The palms are tied to Palm Sunday for us. But how come they are not just a symbol of victory but Jesus' particular victory over sin and death for us? In the New Testament you only have palms mentioned twice, on Palm Sunday and in the Book of Revelation. In Revelation you find them in the hands of those standing in heaven who have overcome sin and death through Jesus' blood . In fact the custom of using palm branches in religious art grew as much out of the palm-carrying martyrs in Revelation as from the branch waving Jerusalemites. The palm branch's connection to heaven use to be shown by placing a palm branch in the hand of a Christian as he lay in the coffin. It was a confession of the faith that the deceased was now in heaven.
We confess our faith in moments of time by what we do with our bodies. But what we believe is not as important as what Jesus believes. Jesus confesses His faith by His actions too. In our text, the crowd correctly identifies Jesus as a prophet. Some Old Testament prophets confessed what God believed about something by what they did with their bodies in time. Jeremiah buys a belt, buries it, and then digs it up as a symbol of how the Lord would destroy the pride of Jerusalem. He buys a pot and breaks it in front of the Jewish leaders as a symbol of how the Lord would break the city and people of Jerusalem. Ezekiel does all sorts of things with his body: lays on his side for days at a time, cooks his food over dung, and goes naked to show what God believes.
So Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey; this is the only time the Scriptures tell us Jesus rode anywhere. Jesus rides in to show He really is the heir to David's throne. Although He never before had acted like the Messiah, the Christ in such a public way, He did now. He accepted their praise and submission. The Jewish leaders commanded Him to stop the crowd from worshiping Him, but Jesus said that their praises were so right that if they were silent the rocks themselves would cry out. Jesus showed by His actions that He believed He was God's promised Savior, Messiah, King.
Riding on a donkey is a sign that He is their legitimate King come to deliver them from what oppresses them. Riding on a donkey is how kings in David's line showed their kingship. Yet, in Jesus' day merchants or lowly travelers were the ones riding donkeys. Conquering kings came on horses. The fact that Jesus rides a donkey, and actually rides her colt His feet dragging the ground like you might see a rodeo clown doing, shows He comes humbly. The enemies of the Church have always understood this. The Romans would later call Christians asinair which means "ass-drivers." Even into the 19th century, some Muslim countries use to require Christians to ride on donkeys not horses to humble them.
The symbol of Jesus riding on a short donkey is beautiful to us. But really it's not a beautiful picture. The donkey at this time of year would be shedding. Donkeys don't smell nice. People didn't wash them like we do our dogs. There's beauty here to us, but outwardly it's a foul, smelly, dirty scene, and well it should be. Jesus comes bearing our foul sins, our smelly wrongdoings, our dirty lusts for us. This is the sense of the Zechariah passage when it says, "See your King comes to you." It's not just that Jesus comes to us, but that He comes for us, for our benefit.
He comes as a sacrifice for our sins. He comes to suffer for our sins. He comes to bear our shame. Jesus comes weighed down with the guilt that you and I only sometimes feel. He comes as befits someone God wants to punish; to hurt; to make pay for every wretched thing He ever did. But, of course, Jesus never did, said, or thought even an unkind thing. So He comes bearing our sins and sinfulness. He does the opposite of what Muslim sheiks use to do. They would ride into a town and as fanatical subjects threw their bodies down, the sheik would ride over them with his horse. Jesus here is throwing Himself down so that God's judgment and wrath would ride over Him instead of over us.
Jesus confesses His faith that He is our king and our sin-bearer, but He does it in such a way that only faith can see Him in these outward actions. In fact, even we need to be told by God that this is our King, so lowly does He come. In our text, the Old Testament quote isn't just from Zechariah. The first line, "Say to the Daughter of Zion," comes from Isaiah. Matthew, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, goes to Isaiah to show that even the Daughter of Zion, which is the Church, needs to be told Her King is coming to Her because She can't recognize Him in such lowliness.
This reminds me of a song sung by both Neil Diamond and Judy Collins. It says, "He reigned a long time from a lonely wooden tower;/ And when He was sure that only drowning men could see Him." It is easy to miss the true Jesus in the Palm Sunday events. You could get caught up welcoming Jesus as a national, a victorious king who comes to deliver you from all the problems of this life. Or you could be offended at how lowly and even silly He looks coming to you on a donkey's colt, feet dragging the ground. Yes, only drowning men and women can see the true faith that is being expressed in these actions of Jesus done in a moment of time.
Only sinners who know that their real problem is not the physical oppressors of sickness, affliction, and trials. No their real problem is the sea of sinfulness that threatens to drown them and sink them all the way to hell. Only drowning men and women who know that they are toast, that they are as good as damned will not despise the life ring that is thrown to them in the suffering, burdened bearing Savior who comes in such lowliness.
Drowning men and women for centuries have gathered waving their palms before a lowly, donkey riding Jesus. They have cried out from the sea of sin saying, "Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." You know when we sing that, don't you? In the Communion liturgy. Our Savior who reigned from a lonely wooden tower comes to us under the humble things of Bread and Wine. In the liturgy we confess our faith that He is here in the same moment of time we are with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. We do this by bowing, kneeling, and most importantly by opening our mouths to receive His Body and Blood for forgiveness, life and salvation. In this way, our bodies in time confess what our hearts believe for eternity. And drowning men and women are saved. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (3-24-02), Matthew 21:1-11