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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 9, 2017, Passion/Palm Sunday

 Who Is This?

Psalm 24; Matthew 21:1-11

            In 1969 Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in a popular movie that never won a major academy award when it was made. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tells the story of two real-life bank robbers in the American West in the late nineteenth century.  (Their real names were Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, but they were known better by their nicknames, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)  Since its release, the film has built a virtual cult following, listed last year as one of the one hundred most important movies ever made, where it was forty-ninth among all the movies ever produced.  Butch and Sundance rob banks in the West until they realize they are being followed by an Indian tracker named Lord Baltimore, funded by the Union Pacific Railroad, who no matter where they go, is on their trail.  “Who are those guys?” they finally ask.

            This is really the question that drives Palm Sunday.  Matthew tells us that everyone in the city was asking, “Who is this?”, when Jesus entered Jerusalem.  All four Gospels tell of Jesus’ triumphal entry through the Eastern gate of the city riding a fuzzy little donkey.  Apparently, you cannot really tell the story of Jesus’ Gospel without including this event!  Two controversial New Testament scholars, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, are sometimes known more for what they do not believe about the Bible than what they do.  But this last week I read an article where they estimated that while forty thousand lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, another two hundred thousand pilgrims would have been present for this Passover.  So to picture thousands of people suddenly caught up in this surprising entry by Jesus is not at all a stretch.  Something clearly happened that rocked all of Jerusalem, as Matthew tells us.

            The same New Testament scholars speak of not one, but of two parades, though we have no record of the second.  They say that while Jesus, the champion of the common, lowly Jewish people, entered on a donkey from the east, from the west came a Roman garrison, mounted upon horses of war, in order to keep order over the Jews during their Passover observance, with sedition in the air.

            I think that picture of two parades captures the explosive nature of Jesus’ act.  That is why Matthew says “the whole city was in turmoil.”  The word Matthew uses in Greek is the word from which we derive “seismic.”  Jesus clearly rocked the whole city of Jerusalem by His entry that day on a lowly donkey, clearly in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophesy of a messianic age and figure.  Matthew is so careful to quote Zechariah that he takes Zechariah’s poetry in Zechariah 9:9 and translates it literally into two animals – a donkey and a colt are mentioned by Matthew only.  Fulfilling Jewish prophesy is crucial for Matthew!

            Up until this point, Jesus was hesitant to announce beyond any but His closest followers much about His identity, certainly about any messianic notions He might have.  But with this entry, Jesus becomes a public figure.  The crowds cry out words from Psalm 118, a royal entry Psalm: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”

            Hosanna is a word that means two things.  First, it meant “Praise!”, and the people are caught up in praise as their King enters on His humble mount, clothed not in royal splendor, but in the same clothes the common people wear.  But Hosanna also means “Save us!”, and the people are clearly welcoming Jesus as their savior.

            Everyone in the city was asking the same question: “Who is this?”  The common folk, too long suffering under Roman rule, are wondering, “Is this the One for whom we have been waiting?  Could this be our Messiah?”  The zealots were asking, “Is this our leader, our King, our David, who will rise up and finally strike down Rome?  Has our warrior king arrived?”  The Priests and the Pharisees are asking, “Who is this?” as well, though they clearly see Jesus as a threat to them, to their power over the Jewish people, and to all of Jerusalem, if Rome catches wind of all that is happening.  When Jesus arrives He enters the court of the Temple and upsets the tables and throws out the money changers.  No wonder we are told that Jesus “shook” the whole city.  This action, for Matthew, clearly leads to Jesus’ ultimate arrest and death. 

            But the question hangs in the air, still, two thousand years later.  We have never stopped asking it: “Who is this Jesus?”  It is the question we should keep foremost in our minds this whole week.  We should ask it as Jesus throws out the money changers from the Temple and shouts, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.”

            We should ask it as Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem, “Would that you know the things that make for peace.”  We should ask it when Jesus prays all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane in the wee hours of the morning, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from my lips; nevertheless, not my will, but Thy will be done.”  We should ask it when Jesus gathers at table with His disciples and says, “This is my body, broken for you … this is my blood, shed for you.”  We should ask it when Jesus is arrested on false charges, betrayed by a trusted friend, scourged and beaten, and hung on a Roman cross to die, uttering from that cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

            “Who is this Jesus?”  It remains one of the most insistent, interesting and important questions that the human family still is asking, two thousand years later.  What does this humble king, “this man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” this man who was “so gentle that He would not break a bruised reed, nor quench a burning wick,” what does Jesus have to tell us still about God, and about what it means to be truly and fully human, as the church teaches that He was?

            From the very beginning it is the question: Who is this Jesus?  Karl Barth writes, “God is God, not in the mists of some transcendence, not on the basis of our own opinion, thought or speculation, not in the form of an image projected by us, but in Jesus Christ.”  (The Christian Life, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4.4)  Barth was skeptical that we could ever learn anything about God apart from God’s own revelation in Jesus Christ.  In fact, Barth said, “Jesus Christ is the one sufficient revelation of God.”

            So to ask, “Who is this Jesus?” may well be the single most important question the human family has to ask.  C.S. Lewis said once, “You can’t be neutral about a lion in the room.”  Jesus is the lion let loose in the room!  He demands a response.  Remember how Lewis put it?  Either Jesus is a liar, not a man of His word, or a lunatic, simply daft in His messianic presumptions, or Jesus is exactly who Jesus claimed to be.  You cannot remain neutral about Jesus, as He demands a response from us.

            So as we pause on Palm Sunday, the high water mark of Jesus’ public popularity, do not miss how little stock Jesus put in popularity or power or political and religious prestige.  Palm Sunday reminds us that one man on God’s side is still always a majority.  We also know on Palm Sunday that like a wave, Jesus’ life was sure to break on the shores of human ignorance, fear and evil.  But we learn as well that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us.

            I have been asking the question all my life.  It is the most engaging, important, life-giving question I know: “Who is this Jesus?”  Which makes me glad to join with those voices so long ago, who cried, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest.”


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