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

So tell me, how has Jesus shown up in your life during your Lenten journey, and how has reality matched your expectations?

Throughout Lent, we’ve heard of miracles and conversations with Jesus that changed lives – sometimes entire communities.  All of these stories have something in common. In every case, God shows up in unexpected ways. And the signs Jesus performs all point to one truth: Jesus is the Son of God.

Jesus might be asking us, “Well, what did you expect? Didn’t you think I would show up? Don’t you know that I am with you, even to the end of the age? And shouldn’t you expect me to be faithful to work in your lives, just as I did then?

If nothing else, the season of Lent teaches us to be alert to God’s presence as we grown in faith. That growth doesn’t just happen – we cultivate it through service and solitude, prayer and study, fasting and feasting. And we have to expect God to use us in unexpected ways.

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 we read 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)

Let me call your attention to a few details you might not have expected. First – the palm branches. There aren’t any.

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.’ Given that they were starting out from the Mount of Olives, it’s quite possible 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.

But here’s another one of those unexpected details – did you catch it? Jesus apparently rode TWO animals: a donkey, and a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I don’t think Matthew is describing Jesus as a trick rider in a circus, standing atop two horses, one foot on each, as they gallop around the arena. 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)

We need to remember that a triumphal entry was not unique to Jesus. Theologians Marcus Borg and Tom 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 of chariots and horses to show off Roman military power [1]. No wonder the people are in turmoil. They start shouting: “Please save us!” That’s what the word ‘hosanna’ means.

As Jesus headed down toward the edge of the Kidron Valley, he would have passed a graveyard. The Mount of Olives is a prime burial spot in Jewish tradition, feet pointing toward Jerusalem, and the Beautiful Gate. 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 Galilee, certainly not Messiah.

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!

And 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 you expecting? Do you expect Jesus to show up in this church? Do you believe he cares about you, and is here with you now?

As Jesus leads us into Holy Week, he invites us to consider that the way he shows up for us may not be what we expect, but if we can get in the habit of looking for him, we will see him.

The procession has reached its destination. Christ’s passion is about to begin. Welcome to Holy Week. But beware – it may not be what you were expecting.

[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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.