A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on April 17, 2011.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 21:1-11
One of the many fables told by the ancient Greek sage Aesop is called “Hercules and the Wagoner.” In this tale, a farmer was driving his wagon along a miry country road after a heavy rain. The horses could hardly drag the load through the deep mud, and at last came to a standstill when one of the wheels sank to the hub in a rut. The farmer climbed down from his seat and stood beside the wagon looking at it but without making the least effort to get it out of the rut. All he did was curse his bad luck and call loudly on Hercules to come to his aid.
Then, it is said, Hercules really did appear, saying: “Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it? Hercules will not help unless you make some effort to help yourself.” And when the farmer put his shoulder to the wheel and urged on the horses, the wagon moved very readily, and soon the farmer was riding along in great content and with a good lesson learned.
The moral of the story? “Self-help is the best help. Heaven helps those who help themselves.”
Like many stories, this fable expresses a great truth about life. But not the whole truth. A more modern story teller named Jack Haley also speaks truth in a story he tells drawing from his career in the NBA.
In case you don’t remember the name Jack Haley, he is a former professional basketball player who played for several NBA teams, including the Chicago Bulls. In the 95-96 Bulls championship season, Haley was injured most of the year. He did play, however, in a game when Bulls star Michael Jordan scored 50 points. In that same game, Haley scored one point. After the game, Haley famously told reporters, “One day I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren that Michael Jordan and I scored 51 points together!”
The moral of the story? Even when we do our part, there’s usually a higher power at work that’s responsible for our success.
The morals of both these stories, while apparently contradictory, are true. And the truth of both is evident in the Palm Sunday parade.
Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem is vital to the Christian story. It is the signature plot of Palm Sunday, and is recounted in all four gospels. Even though John’s account of the story is the only one that mentions palms, the Christian church has called this “Palm Sunday” for centuries.
The details of the story are well-known. Jesus enters Jerusalem, at least according to Matthew, for the first time as a 33-year-old adult who has taken the nation of Israel by storm. For the past three years Jesus has performed miracles that are mindboggling, and taught God’s word with a clarity and an authority never before seen. But Jesus’ primary mission has yet to be accomplished. The culmination of his ministry can only take place in Jerusalem, God’s holy city. And it will unfold during the most dramatic week in history, or what Christians call “Holy Week,” that spans from Palm Sunday till Easter Sunday.
The way Jesus enters Jerusalem is unforgettable. Though Matthew’s account makes it sound like Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, it is more likely he rode in on a mother donkey trailed by her colt. A large crowd marches before and after Jesus, laying cloaks and branches on the road before him in a manner fit for a king. They sing hosannas to the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and the bystanders, shaken by it all, ask, “Who is this?”
Millions of Palm Sunday sermons have been preached about this story. Many of those sermons, including some of my own, are quick to point out that Jesus could not have pulled off the Palm Sunday parade without help. Like Hercules in Aesop’s fable about the wagoner, these sermons focus on the human contribution to the story.
Jesus didn’t get the donkeys for himself—two of his disciples fetched them for him. Jesus didn’t stride into Jerusalem on his own two feet—a donkey carried him. And enthusiastic fans cheered for him. And so forth, and so on.
There is truth to this human side of the story. God has chosen in his infinite wisdom to work in concert with human beings (and even animals) to accomplish his ultimate ends, and the Palm Sunday story is a vivid illustration of that truth.
But even more, the Palm Sunday story illustrates the power of God to accomplish what no human being could ever do, or even conceive of doing. In fact, it reaffirms that at the end of the day our salvation is the Lord’s doing; and it ought to be marvelous in our eyes.
To help us not miss this point, the creators of the lectionary juxtapose several wonderful scripture passages that paint the picture of Palm Sunday in far richer detail than Matthew could do alone. And so, for example, they add Psalm 118 to our readings, not arbitrarily, but because Matthew 21 quotes several verses from this great psalm to help us understand the meaning of Palm Sunday.
Psalm 118 is the concluding psalm of the Hallel collection of psalms (113-118) sung by Jews during their celebration of the Passover. Passover, you remember, celebrates how God not only spared Israelites from his punishment of the Egyptians, but how God delivered the Israelites one amazing day when he parted the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites might make a miraculous exit.
It is the exodus that prompted faithful Jews to give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! And it was the day of the exodus that inspired Jews to say, This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
In case anybody was confused about who was responsible for the exodus, the author of Psalm 118 writes, This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. The root word for “marvelous” is the same Hebrew word as “wonders” used in Exodus 15:11. Exodus 15 records the song that Moses all the rescued Israelites sang in amazement immediately after the exodus. Exodus 15:11 reads,
“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”
To say the Lord is marvelous is to say he can do wonders nobody else can do. In the game of life we may do well to score one point. But not to worry, because God will get his 50 every time.
Yearslater, after Israel had been brutally defeated by her enemies and dispersed into exile, Israelites would continue to draw strength from Psalm 118, believing that the same God who rescued them from Egyptian bondage would one day restore their nation. Another of the lectionary passages for today, Isaiah 50, was written during the exile, and it picks up on this very theme.
Apparently there were Israelites who had given up on God during the trials and tribulations of the exile. And the way they expressed their cynicism was by saying that God’s previously long and powerful arms must have grown short. In Isaiah 50 God wastes no time setting the record straight. In verse 2 God asks,
“Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?
Or have I no power to deliver?”
In other words, no matter how bleak life may seem, never, ever bet against the wonder-working power of God.
In time, of course, God did arrange for the Israelites to return home to their beloved Jerusalem. Even so, the Israelites continued in their sinful ways, and before long the plight of God’s chosen people once again looked bleak.
So centuries later God took the supreme step in redeeming his people, more dramatic even than the exodus or the restoration of Israel. God sent his only Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world for abundant, eternal life. The name of his son was Jesus.
Jesus was a stunning specimen of a human being more powerful even than the mythical Hercules. But he never tried to conceal the fact that he was beholden to his heavenly father for all he said and did. In John 5:30 Jesus is quoted as saying, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
For this reason, we can be confident that Isaiah 50 was highly significant to Jesus as he prepared for his role as Messiah.
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
That I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
It was God who gave his son the tongue of a teacher as he taught with unrivaled authority, and it was the son of God who said, “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).
Morning by morning he wakens—
Wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
As we read the story of Jesus, we should never lose sight of the fact that for many years prior to his ministry, Jesus awakened each day to listen to the Word of God, and was formed by that Word so that his soul was spiritually strong enough for the task ahead.
How did Jesus endure the suffering and rejection that followed the Palm Sunday parade? It was the Lord who helped him, who empowered him to set his face like flint, who ultimately vindicated him on that day we call Easter Sunday.
It was this spiritually fortified Jesus who entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. Like the other gospel authors, Matthew is quick to emphasize the gentle humility of this new brand of king. Quoting the prophet Zechariah, Matthew writes,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look your king is coming to you,
Humble, mounted on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
As a leader, Jesus was a refreshing change from the arrogant kings of Rome and the power hungry rulers of the synagogue.
But don’t confuse gentleness with powerlessness, humility with weakness. This same Jesus had the supernatural power to know about the availability of a mother donkey and her colt in a nearby village. Of course, this supernatural knowledge did not protect Jesus from being eventually arrested, unfairly convicted, severely beaten, and ultimately crucified.
But again, we should not underestimate the power of this Savior. The same prophecy from Zechariah used by Matthew goes on to predict that the rule of this new Messiah, riding on a colt, will one day extend from one end of the earth to another. Today, in the chaos of our own world, we wonder if this day will ever come. But the Lord assures it will. It will be the Lord’s doing. And it will be marvelous in our eyes!
Do human beings have a role to play in the coming of this kingdom on earth even as it is in heaven, or are we just along for the ride? Of course we have a role to play. The Great Commandment proclaimed by Jesus in Matthew 22, and the Great Commission issued by Jesus in Matthew 28 suggest that God is counting on us to bring the kingdom home by loving him with all that we have and are, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by making disciples of Jesus from among every people group in the world.
We have a lifetime of work—indeed, many lifetimes of work to do for the kingdom of God. We are not just here to bide our time, die and go to heaven. We have meaningful work to do. God is counting on us.
But for those who are sick at heart and discouraged beyond words, for those who are downright cynical that the world will wind up anywhere but in the waste basket, let me assure you that the same God who parted the waters of the Red Sea and freed the Israelites, who returned the Israelites to their homeland, who raised the crucified Jesus from the dead and began the Christian church—that same God will redeem this world and lead us to our ultimate home where every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, where every tear will be dried from our faces and we will rejoice forever.
This will be the Lord’s doing; and it will be marvelous in our eyes!