A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 17, 2011.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying 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. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.*’ 4This 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.’ ¨6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd* spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The 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!’ ¨10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
Humans are inquisitive creatures. We explore, inquire, and question. We do these things because we are intelligent. So when we meet other persons, we try to learn about them. Then we try to make sense of what we have learned, or make sense of what we don’t know based on our efforts to learn. We do these things because humans are inquisitive creatures.
That’s why no one should be surprised that humans try to understand God. Given the inquisitiveness arising from our intelligence, it would be more surprising—no, it would be amazing—if we didn’t try to understand God. For humans to be disinterested, unquestioning, or un-moved to explore, inquire, and question God would make us no different from birds, trees, fish, and frogs.
So we try to understand God because we are inquisitive creatures. And we try to understand God because we somehow sense that God matters to us. Somehow we’ve decided that God matters to us in profound ways. This may explain why sacred literature in every period of history is full of examples showing how much humans have tried to understand God.
When Jesus entered the outskirts of Jerusalem near the start of the Passover festival on what Christians now commemorate as Palm Sunday, Matthew’s gospel states at 21:10 that “the whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?'” Who was this man who entered the city of Zion riding a donkey? Why were people responding to him as if he was a royal personality?
“This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus was recognized by name, hometown, region, and religious occupation. Yes, Jesus was a preacher from Nazareth in Galilee. But people are more than the sum total of their name, address, and vocation. I suspect what stirred the passions and controversy was what the crowd that went ahead of Jesus shouted. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (v. 9). Hosanna means “save now.” For centuries the Hebrew people had waited for a messiah—an anointed savior—to come and restore their nation.
Jesus was a preacher from Nazareth in Galilee, to be sure. That was not disputed or controversial. The controversy was that some people were thinking and speaking of Jesus as the savior who had been long promised and predicted. Some people—including a few of his closest followers—believed and hoped that Jesus would overthrow the despised Roman occupiers and restore Israel as a national power. The people who held that view of Jesus were glad to hail his entry into Jerusalem as a coming savior and ruler. Others were convinced that Jesus was nothing more than a preacher from the unimpressive village called Nazareth whose ministry had been largely conducted in the northwest Palestinian province of Galilee.
The controversy concerning Jesus was not about his name, address, or line of work. It turned on whether Jesus would fulfill hopes for national restoration that had been simmering in Jewish hearts for centuries. Is Jesus the savior? The crowd that shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” thought so. Others weren’t convinced. And others were sure that they didn’t want anything to do with Jesus if he was claiming to be the promised ruler. What does that controversy have to do with you and me at the start of Holy Week some twenty centuries later?
We must come to terms with the God-claims concerning Jesus. The Christian testimony elevates the controversy far beyond anything the people of his time and place realized. For us, the issue concerning Jesus was about more than getting rid of the Romans. Yes, we herald Jesus as savior. Yes, we sing praises about Him. Yes, we affirm that Jesus came in the name of God. But we make an even more controversial claim. The Christian testimony is that in Jesus Christ God has offered Himself for our close inspection. In Jesus, God has moved nearby. In Jesus, God has spoken with a human tongue, worked wonders with human hands and shared our human experiences. God has done all this and more, in Jesus, to reveal God’s love for us and to us.
Beyond anything thing else, the Christian testimony about the identity of Jesus is theological. In Jesus Christ, we proclaim that God has approached humanity. In Christ, we declare that human efforts to climb to God, lay hold on God, or somehow capture God must yield to what God does and is doing to disclose, reveal, and draw humanity to God. God has done this in Jesus.
We declare this not only because we are His creation, but because God has joined our experience in Jesus Christ. God has humbled God to become part of our blood, sweat, tears, and suffering. God knows our grief. God knows what we go through when we’re hungry, lonely, abandoned, betrayed, rejected, abused, oppressed, and even when we’re murdered.
So Jesus when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey something much more controversial was happening than met the eye. This was not just a preacher coming to town, but the Word of God. This was not the latest political figure coming to the Passover. No, God was doing Passover in person! It was God on a donkey! What a contrast! Those with aspirations to rule often entered major cities with armies, soldiers, and stallions. Jesus, the God-Man, entered Jerusalem on a donkey surrounded by the down-trodden people of everyday life because God chose to reveal Himself to us in humility. Divine power was camouflaged in humanity. We cannot truly comprehend Jesus until we come to terms with the God-claims surrounding his life.
Jesus reveals the divine potential of our humanity. At the same time that Jesus revealed God to us, He also exposed what our humanity can become for God. We humans struggle with the issue of potential. Something tells us that we are supposed to be up to great things. Somehow we sense that we are here for high purposes. Yet we struggle to make sense of that high calling in the face of all that is low about us. While we are sensing a call to be holy, there is something also that seems to always pull us down.
History might suggest that we should not hope for much from humanity. We have made great strides in science, the arts, commerce, and technology. Those great strides encourage us to take confidence in our high purpose. But then we look at the great evil done across history. The hands that can heal have been used far too many times to cause hurt. The minds that create have been employed too many times in the cause of destruction.
Jesus shows what God intended us to be. God intended us to be like Jesus. God intended us to love God and humanity. God intended us to be tough and loving. God intended us to be wise and patient with those who are slow to understand. God intended us to suffer and refuse to hate, to be hungry yet refuse to steal, to face danger yet refuse to abandon our principles even in the face of death. Jesus showed us how God expects us to live, and even how God would have us die—with a prayer of hope on our lips even as we experience the throes of death.
If you want to know what humanity was intended to be, look at Jesus. If you want to know how humans were intended to love, look at Jesus. If you want to know how humans were intended to forgive, look at Jesus. If you want to know how humans were intended to grow morally, religiously, socially, and intellectually, look at Jesus. If you want to see all that God wants you to see in human potential, look at Jesus.
And if you want to be all that God wants you to be, follow Jesus. If you want to live as God wants you to live, follow Jesus. If you want to walk with God, talk with God, and live for God in every breath and heartbeat, study Jesus. But don’t study him with your head. Meet Jesus in your heart. Meet the Jesus that was more than a donkey-rider. Meet the Jesus who was more than the man from Galilee. Meet Jesus, the God-Man. Meet Jesus, the grace and truth of God walking and talking and loving and forgiving. Meet Jesus. Know Jesus. Follow Jesus. And then become, like Jesus, uncommon.
The uncommon life of God’s love that’s revealed in Jesus is divinely possible for us, but not naturally so. It results from the power of God’s Spirit operating on, in, and through us. We can share in the uncommon identity of Jesus, but we can’t copy it. Jesus calls us to follow Him in that life by trusting the Holy Spirit to change us to become like Him, not to leave us as we might prefer to be.
The issue for you and me today, tomorrow, and always is whether we want to share the uncommon identity of Jesus. The good news is that we not only know what the uncommon life of Jesus looks like. We also know that God has promised it to any person who will trust God’s Spirit to do in us what we can never do and to transform our living in uncommon ways. We can trust God to bring these uncommon results to pass in us by God’s grace. Jesus shows that there’s nothing common about God, and God never intended anything common about us.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.