16. April 2011
Matthew 21:1-9; Matthew 26:1–27:66
Jesus knows literature and perhaps the theatre, too. How do I know? It seems his and the Father’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit infused the Triumphal Entry, or Palm Sunday as we call it, with one of the most classic of literary techniques. Irony – a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character (OED).
Do we really understand the situation as ironic? I’d wager that we too are quick to find fault in the characters in the story. The street urchins, rabble-rousers, sick, maimed, prostitutes, thieves, and the like have no idea what kind of king they’re getting, do they?
They’re not complete fools. They know that his appearance is just as Zechariah had foretold. They even understood that Psalm 118, the appointed Passover Hallel psalm for the day, was being fulfilled before their own eyes. They sang that Psalm, loud and clear: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
But do they really get it? They know he is king, but do they know that they are leading him to the cross? Do they know his crown will be made of thorns? His royal robe will be the purple soldier’s tunic of mockery? His scepter will be the bruised reed placed in his hand? The victor will triumph in shame, torture, and death?
The hymn writer captured this so well last week: “Sometimes they strew His way And His sweet praises sing; Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King. Then ‘Crucify!’ Is all their breath And for His death Thy thirst and cry.”
Ah, how ignorant they are! Look how they exalt him, even casting their cloaks upon the road in deference to his lordship! Yet, even they, with Peter and the rest of the disciples, will at worst hand him over to death and at best flat out deny him three times. Only John and the four women will stand by as he gives up his dying breath. Look how quick they are to abandon him! Look how quick they are to yell out with murderous tongues!
Jesus isn’t being contrary by finally allowing the crowds to exalt him as the king just as they’ve wanted to do for years. He’s not just making a dramatic entry for effect. It isn’t even the kind of tragic irony the Greeks would know. Jesus knows full well what he is doing, how it looks, and what it will finally mean to his church. But to all—the bystanders, the disciples and the procession—its full significance will not be known until later. St. John writes: “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.” (John 12:16)
We know why he entered humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Our celebration, waving palms, and proclaiming “All Glory Laud and Honor,” is quickly followed by these words: to thee, Redeemer King.
Redeemer King. Not just any king. He isn’t riding a war horse, with the bloody sword of triumph, and the enemy’s crown in his hand. He comes, humble and lowly, riding on the littlest of the beasts of burden. He isn’t the victor, yet. His triumph and glory is not yet realized. He has taken disease, paralysis, and possession into his body but he does not yet have the wounds to show for it.
This fits his purpose, glory shrouded in humility, victory shrouded in defeat. The redeemer king is the king born to die. He has come to redeem you, by taking upon himself our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross. (Collect) Its easy to recognize the irony of Palm Sunday if we consider what he aims to do. He rides in as a king, on a war horse that usually carries baggage. He will be raised upon a throne that doubles as a torturous Roman execution tool. We know what these things mean, even if the rest do not.
All the skirmishes in his ministry, the washing in the Jordan, temptation in the wilderness, the wedding feast, the feeding of the 5000 and 4000, the healing, the miracles, the exorcisms are all our fault. That’s right, Jesus’ ministry was and continues to be for you.
We are born into a body of death, so Christ gives new birth in Holy Baptism. We succumb to the temptations of the evil one, so Christ conquers the tempter’s charm. We are married to the lust of our flesh, so Christ rends what no one should have joined together. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, so Christ gives us his own flesh to eat and his blood to drink. We suffer in our bodies because we daily sin much and deserve punishment, so Christ transforms suffering into the path of glory. All creation fell in Adam’s fall, yet even the winds and waves obey him. Each of us is born under the possession of the devil, so Christ declares upon us, “out unclean Spirit and make way for the Holy Spirit!”
Perhaps, the irony is that we have taken up the Palm processional to begin the liturgy, when its true meaning is known to us. We know that by declaring Christ our King, we are delivering him over to death. We process into church in celebration of the death of our Lord. His victory is by death. His throne is the cross. His most glorious moment is shrouded in great darkness. Thunder and earthquake sings of the glory, not angels and trumpets. The very Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, is the son born to die… for you.
Tragic, yes. Ironic, no. Christ knew what he was up to. Saving the world from all unrighteousness is ugly business. So also, you know what he was up to. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Christ is our passover lamb, the necessary sacrifice. But like no lamb before, he rose from the dead and will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him. Therefore, all of us who are in Christ, will never see death.
Every Lord’s Day we celebrate Christ’s death until he comes again. Every Sunday is Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter rolled into one. That’s why we sing the Sanctus every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We join with the angels before the throne, singing: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. We join with the Psalmist and the host at Jerusalem singing Hosanna, blessed is He that cometh in in the name of the Lord! Our Lord, the triumphant King is here. Our Lord’s kingdom has come.
In the blessed Sacrament, the King rides on the most humble of means, bread and wine. We receive this precious gift for the forgiveness of sins. We can pray with confidence: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven is here and the kingdom has come. His will is done here on earth when the heavenly feast is distributed. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Jesus, our King. Hosanna in the highest.
Its not ironic at all, really. Its exactly what the Father has been planning since before the world began.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church