What Did You Expect? Sermon on Matthew 22:1-11 Palm Sunday A

April 9, 2017

So tell me, how has Jesus shown up in your life over these past five or six weeks, as we’ve been asking God to unbind our hearts? What did you expect when we began this Lenten journey, and how has reality matched your expectations? Let’s do a quick review.

First, we learned that the “E” word, Evangelism, doesn’t need to be a scary thing. Evangelism is simply sharing your faith with other people. Even a reluctant evangelist, like Ananias, can tip someone into God’s love like a domino, starting a chain reaction that can go in unexpected ways. Kris shared her story of bringing her grandchildren to church after they had questions about her Nativity set. Like Ananias, Kris tipped someone into God’s love.

We learned that, before we can effectively share our faith with others, it needs to be a healthy and mature faith. We need to develop a strong relationship with God, going deep with Jesus often in prayer. So we set up the prayer wall, and began adding our prayers to it, prayers for people and situations God had laid on our hearts.

During the third week of Lent, we looked at the trinity of relationships – our relationship with God, with each other, and with those outside our church. We saw that unresolved conflict within the church can prevent people outside the church from developing a relationship with Christ, and some of us must have started working on resolving a few conflicts, because a spirit of peace has begun to fill this place. At least one visitor has noticed this.

In week four, we learned what brought Sue into a life of faith when we played the “Who Am I?” game. We heard how our own personal story is a powerful means of bringing others to Christ. The Samaritan woman at the well showed us that the Kingdom of God is for all who believe, regardless of backgrounds, ethnic roots, or cultural differences. Christ offers living water to all, a well springing up to eternal life. And we have jars of that living water to offer to others.

Last week, the paralytic who was let down through the roof, and Lazarus who was brought up from the grave, drew our attention to barriers that prevent people from wanting to know Christ. Some barriers are internal, and others are external. Bo Wright shared his and Dru’s experiences as they looked for a church when they moved here to New Ulm, and why they settled on First Church as their church home.

All of these stories, whether from our own experiences or from the Scriptures, have something in common. In every case, God has shown up in unexpected ways.

Ananias didn’t expect that his ministry to an enemy of the gospel would be the domino tipping Saul into God’s love, any more than Kris expected bringing her grandchildren to church would open a way for her son-in-law to start living his faith.

When you started weaving prayer ribbons into the prayer wall, you might not have expected to have those prayers answered as quickly and dramatically as they were.

Euodia and Syntyche probably were not expecting their disagreement to become a model for reconciliation in the church, but we have seen long-broken relationships unexpectedly beginning to heal.

The Samaritan woman at the well certainly did not expect the Savior of the World to engage her in conversation, let alone welcome her into the kingdom of God, any more than Sue or Bo and Dru expected to find a church home when they first ventured through our doors.

Jesus might be asking us, “Well, what did you expect? Didn’t you think I would show up if you asked me to? Don’t you know that I am with you, even to the end of the age? Didn’t you expect that I would be faithful to work in your lives, if you invited me to do it?

Unbinding your Heart gives us the two things that must be in place if we are to effectively share our faith with others. First, our own spiritual lives must be well-tended. We must be alert to God’s presence in our own lives every day. Spiritual maturity doesn’t just happen – we have to cultivate it through prayer and a devotion to God’s Word.

Second, our eyes must be open and receptive to what God would have us do next. If we want to do effective ministry, we have to expect Jesus to show up. We must expect God to use us in unexpected ways.

Jesus has shown up all over the place in this Lenten journey. Where have you seen him?

[Show and Tell here – pass the microphone…]

Jesus loves to overturn our expectations about him, and about God’s kingdom. The triumphal entrance into Jerusalem is a great example. This time, as you hear this familiar story, pay attention to the unexpected details in it.

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 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. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “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.” 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 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!” 

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 22:1-11)

Did you hear anything unexpected? Let me call your attention to a few details. And it might be easier to see them, if we use a few pictures.

First – the palm branches.

It’s actually John’s gospel that tells us they cut palm branches to lay in the road for this procession into Jerusalem. Matthew just says ‘branches.’ We’ll look at another possibility in a moment.

This is the view from the Mount of Olives, near Bethphage, looking across the Kidron valley.

Looking down from the Mount of Olives, you can see right into the old city of Jerusalem.

On the morning we visited the Mount of Olives, we were greeted by this gentleman and his donkey. He was offering us rides – for a price, of course – on the same kind of animal Jesus rode into Jerusalem. But here’s one of those unexpected details – did you catch it? Jesus apparently rode TWO animals: a donkey, and a colt, the foal of a donkey.

When I heard this as a kid, I imagined Jesus as a trick rider in a circus, you know, the one who stands atop two horses, one foot on each, as they gallop around the arena. But I don’t think that is exactly what Matthew had in mind when he threw in this detail. He was reminding his readers that Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy of Messiah from Zechariah 9:9-10:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-10 ESV)

And about those branches… Matthew doesn’t say they are palm branches. Mark 11:8 says leafy branches. Luke 19 doesn’t mention branches at all. Just garments. Given that they were starting out from the Mount of Olives, it’s quite possible that the branches they cut came from olive trees, as well as palms. An olive branch is the symbol for peace. But that interesting detail might not really be important. What matters here is that people recognized Messiah. They just weren’t expecting a Messiah quite like this.

Nathan Hale writes,

To understand this you have to understand that the whole idea of a Triumphal Entry is not unique to Jesus. In ancient Rome rulers would make triumphal entries into cities after a military conquest, usually on horses with chariots, displaying the plunder and glory of their conquest. … The people, seeing what Jesus is doing, think he’s coming in to Jerusalem to triumph over their enemies, the occupying Romans! …

Borg and Crossan note that at the time Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the east, Pilate was entering Jerusalem from the west, in just such a Roman procession[1]. No wonder the people are in turmoil. They start shouting: “Please save us!” That’s what the word ‘hosanna’ means.

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Hale continues, “In their excitement, they are missing that Jesus does things very differently. He makes no show of wealth–he borrowed his ride after all. And again, he’s on a donkey. Certainly kings rode donkeys in the ancient world, but they were seen as peaceful animals. Not like a horse, bred for war, a donkey is raised for acts of service. The crowd misses what Jesus would later make explicit–that his is a spiritual, not a political kingdom. It’s a kingdom marked by reconciliation, not war. [It’s] A kingdom that is not concerned with making weapons, but in making peace between God and man.” [2]

The roadway is paved now, to avoid erosion by tourists and pilgrims. But when Jesus came this way, the road would have been steep and probably unpaved. You can see the southern part of Jerusalem as we head down toward the edge of the Kidron Valley. Off to the left, you can see a graveyard.

Here’s a better view of that Jewish burial ground, on the east side of the Kidron valley, along the slopes of the Mount of Olives. This is a prime burial spot in Jewish tradition, feet pointing toward Jerusalem, and the Beautiful Gate, awaiting the coming of Messiah.

There it is. The Beautiful gate. The king’s entrance into Jerusalem, and into the temple. The gate has been sealed up for centuries, but Jewish tradition holds that when Messiah comes, he will descend from the Mount of Olives and enter through this gate to bring final victory for Israel, and peace to all nations.

The only problem with this tradition, we now know, is that when Messiah did come down from the Mount of Olives, the Jewish leaders did not recognize him. “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” They weren’t expecting a prophet to come out of Galillee, certainly not Messiah.

He wasn’t what they were expecting. But Jesus wants people to expect him, however he shows up. Are we expecting Jesus at our church?

Matthew knew there would be times when the church might have questions and doubts. Probably his little congregation already had struggled with challenges and arguments over the best way to follow Jesus. Every congregation does. Growing pains, conflict, and just plain distractions can wear us down. If we’re really on a journey with Jesus, it’s going to be exciting, and a little bumpy from time to time. Anything really good, really worth doing, is hard occasionally. What Matthew wants us to know, what Jesus wants us to know, is that we don’t walk this road alone.

Matthew really drives this point home. It’s his gospel that ends with the Great Commission. The last verse he leaves us with is Jesus saying, “I am with you always, to the very end.” We are completely assured of Jesus’ presence with us. Always. The question is not, “Is Jesus with us?” The question is, “Are we expecting him?”

Do you remember the story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee in a high wind? His disciples think he must be a ghost, and Peter says, “If it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” so Peter climbs out of the boat and heads toward Jesus. But when Peter notices the strong wind, he becomes frightened, and beginning to sink, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30)

Does that sound familiar? Hosanna!

We often think the point of this story is that Peter failed at walking on the water. But when Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” he is not asking Peter why he doubted his own ability to walk on water. Jesus is asking Peter, Why did you doubt it was me? What were you expecting?

What are we expecting? Do we expect Jesus to show up in this church? Do we believe he cares about us, and is here with us now? If we are going to continue this journey in God’s Spirit, we need to keep expecting Jesus to show up.

Seeing Jesus is not a happenstance. It’s a habit, formed over time as we grow deeper in faith and cultivate spiritual maturity. If we can get in the habit of looking for him, we will see him.

Now comes the life-long, steady journey of letting the Spirit transform us. Remember, Jesus promises to be with us on this journey. No matter what you were expecting, you can count on this. Jesus is with us always. As he leads us into Holy Week, he invites us to consider that his plan for us may not be what we expect, but we can always expect him to stay with us.

So, let’s get ready for Holy Week. Let’s prepare our hearts and our minds to welcome people into our midst who really need to hear the Good News. And let’s continue to walk together in faith, making disciples and teaching them the things Christ has taught us, knowing that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age.

* This sermon is adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dawn Darwin Weaks, as provided through the gracenet.info website. These sermons are licensed for use, in whole or in part, by purchasers of Unbinding Your Church.

[1] Marcus Borg and John D. Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, quoted by John Rollefson in Feasting On The Word, Year A, Volume 2, 153.

[2] http://nathanrhale.com/4-weird-things-about-palm-sunday/

 

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