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Journey to the Cross: Triumphal Entry

April 14, 2019 Sermon
Journey to the Cross:
Triumphal Entry

Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:1-11

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This 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.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Message – “Journey to the Cross: Triumphal Entry”

Have you ever wondered why we in the Church call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a “triumphal entry”?

I asked some people this week – to see if the general sense of others was the same as mine – and I received the answer I expected:  we call Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem a triumphal entry because Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem represented some kind of victory or success.  I mean, people were cheering and yelling “Hosanna in the highest heaven”, so it sounds rather victorious, right? And we associate triumph with victory, with success.

As it turns out, this answer is correct…in a “kind of”, “sort of” kind of way.

To understand what I mean, we need to look no further than the dictionary.  If you consult an English dictionary, even if you just go online and ask Google to define “triumph”, you’ll discover in the second or third definition, which is also the ORIGINAL definition of “triumph” as a noun, the definition that of the word when it was first used in the 14th century and so the definition upon which our calling Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was based.  And the definition is this: “the processional entry of a victorious general into ancient Rome.” Y’all, that’s where this word comes from. Jesus entry isn’t called a triumph simply because it represented a kind of victory or success for Jesus; it’s called a triumph because the kind of scene described in today’s gospel reading, the action of what we read about Jesus doing every Palm Sunday, is literally known as a triumph.  And Jesus’ triumph, it’s something that was extremely important, important enough to be referenced in all four gospels. (I imagine you might be thinking that a rather large percentage of what happened to Jesus is mentioned in all four gospels, but it turns out, that’s not the case at all. In fact, prior to Jesus’ triumphal entry, and depending on how you evaluate similar events and stories when told differently by the gospel writers, as few as THREE stories were mentioned in all four gospels.  So this was and is a BIG DEAL…big enough to be recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, big enough that they ALL wanted us to know this happened, to remember.)

OK, so we call this really important event Jesus’ triumphal entry because Jesus was performing what was known in ancient Rome as a triumph…the processional entry of a victorious general in ancient Rome.  

Except, of course:

  • Jesus wasn’t a military general or commander of any rank;
  • Jesus wasn’t even entering victorious, not by the world’s standards, anyway.  I mean, he hadn’t defeated any human army that we know of, certainly no army that was the enemy of Rome;
  • While Jesus’ entry may have looked like what was called a triumph if you squinted and tilted your head the right way or if you just closed your eyes and listened, it was also VERY different;
  • And I don’t think Jesus was even a Roman citizen, or an ally of Rome, or someone the Roman government would have wanted to celebrate…since we know what the Roman government did to Jesus later in the week.

So we call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a triumph or triumphal, as if Jesus was doing that thing victorious Roman military generals did…except, Jesus WASN’T doing those things.  Maybe Jesus was mocking those things, but Jesus wasn’t really having what was called a triumph.

But, there’s a reason for that.  Because Jesus was revealing that triumph – or success or victory – in God’s eyes is very different from – maybe even opposite of – the human definition of success.

My friends, today is the final Sunday of the Season of Lent.  This Lenten season, we’ve been following Jesus throughout his journey toward the cross to see what we can learn from the last things of Jesus’ ministry.  For the past 4 weeks, we’ve been inside Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week, listening to stories Jesus told to uncover God’s truth in them. Today, we backtrack a bit in Matthew’s gospel.  Today, we backtrack to the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Today, we backtrack to see how Jesus came to be in Jerusalem, where he would be crucified. Today, we are reminded that Jesus started the week demonstrating the same kind of thing he would demonstrate at the end of the week: success, victory, as seen through the eyes of the Creator, and to be truly enjoyed by the created – that’s us – is very different from what people claim victory to be.

In order to begin to understand how Jesus redefined success and victory, let’s take a quick look at what Jesus was imitating, what he may have been mocking, as he entered into Jerusalem.

[Show picture of a Roman Triumph.]

Notice human power and might on display:

  • Lots of big war horses;
  • A chariot;
  • The victor placed in a high, prominent position;
  • Lots of people in the victor’s procession;
  • Distance between the victor and the crowd – separation that signifies difference in importance;
  • Quite a bit of preparation is evident in the banners, signs, and garland;
  • Even a kind of crown for the victor;

Now, take a look at Jesus’ triumph, Jesus’ procession:

  • There are no war horses, just a donkey.  (Actually, this picture, which I chose because it presents the scene in such a similar fashion to the picture of the actual Roman triumph I showed a moment ago, this picture shows the donkey to be much larger than it was.  Take a look at the image on your bulletin cover, which has the proportions more appropriate. A colt, the foal of a donkey, would have been comically small compared to the adult human male, Jesus, riding atop it.) Very different from the power of warhorses on display in a Roman triumph;
  • No chariot;
  • So little pre-planning (pre-planning being a sign of the Empire’s might) that instead of signs and garlands, people decorated the scene with their cloaks;
  • No crown or high position for Jesus;
  • No distance at all, no separation at all, between Jesus and the people in the crowd.  Jesus is one of them, equal to everyone;

I hope you can see that, visually, Jesus’ triumph was very different from the kinds of triumphs that had come before and would come after.  By his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was re-defining triumph, re-defining victory, re-defining success.

It seems to me that the whole point of HOW Jesus entered Jerusalem was about pointing to what success and victory SHOULD look like.  So let’s talk about THAT. Let’s consider what Jesus had to say about victory by his triumph/

For starters, Jesus revealed success shouldn’t have anything to do with over-and-against.  Indeed, Jesus’ actions should lead us to ask: is a victory over other PEOPLE really a victory at all?  No, Jesus demonstrated that victory can be found in peace, in humility, in bringing people together instead of defeating others and then making a big show of it.  Through the triumphal entry Jesus revealed that we should be celebrating unity, that we should be celebrating bringing people together instead of separating them, that we should be celebrating   equality among people instead of celebrating lifting some up more than others. Even our KING, our LORD, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, entered Jerusalem as an equal to the regular people in that crowd.  As God said through the prophet Zechariah, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” My friends, if our Lord and Savior and King, Jesus the Christ, entered humbly on a donkey to reveal humility, to reveal EQUALITY with others as, the hallmark of success, how can we as Jesus’ followers do anything but view ourselves as equal with everyone else?

Second, Jesus revealed that success, victory, is about peace, not war.  It should be obvious from the scene: Jesus entered on a donkey instead of on a horse.  I’ve read that in the ancient world, a king entered on a horse to signify war but entered on a donkey to signify peace.  But even if it wasn’t obvious from the scene, itself, Matthew MAKES it obvious by quoting from the prophet Zechariah. We only get a small portion of what God was saying in that part of Zechariah 9.  That quotation about Zion’s king coming on a donkey, it comes from a passage that tells us the very NEXT thing that king will do is destroy the implements of war and “command peace to the nations.”

Third, Jesus revealed that victory comes from God, from following God’s lead, not from human enterprise that begins with the will of people.  Consider how the whole thing starts. The description of how Jesus came to be riding on a donkey, it’s completely about God guiding these events and about people acting out of trust in God.  Without God’s guidance, without people acting out of trust in God, there is no donkey and so there is no triumphal entry; there is no triumph. Fast forward to parade, itself, and all the people shouting:

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

Do you think this is the kind of thing people tended to shout during a Roman triumph?  Not at all. No, this victory, this success, this triumph, is different. It’s all about obedience to God.

Now, let’s fast forward for just a bit to the modern world, to the 21st century world.

  • There are still people who say – or at least think – victory is about power and might and power over.  Heck, there are Christians who view their faith as being about an over-and-against crusade to have victory over the descendants of people who committed atrocities long ago.  Does that sound like the victory, the triumph, endorsed by a humble King riding on a donkey and presenting Himself as equal to the very crowds who would shout “crucify him!” later in the week?  Does over-and-against sound like something desired by the king of unity, the king of equality?
  • There are still people who say – or at least think – victory is about the peace that will come AFTER we eliminate our enemies, whether they be religious, political, ethnic, national, or any other kind of “enemy”.  Some might cringe at the word “eliminate”, preferring something more akin to forcing them to be exactly like us. I’m not sure there’s much of a difference. What I wonder is this: does that sound like the kind of victory the King of Peace was ushering in by riding into Jerusalem on a symbol of peace instead of a symbol of war and power?
  • There are still people who say – or at least think – victory is about getting what PEOPLE want.  We want stuff. We want certain kinds of food. We want everyone to be like us. We want to get our way.  We want, we want, we want? Do you think the King who pointed to God, to Heaven, in everything He did, the King who gave His life to ensure God’s will of offering salvation to all people be done, do you think THIS King believes any kind of worthwhile victory at all can come from selfish human beings getting what they want?

My friends, Jesus entered Jerusalem in a most unusual way to begin the last week of His earthly ministry.  And He did so to show the people of His day that real triumph, success, victory, in the eyes of God and for the best way of living, looks very different than what was thought by the people of His time.  Come to think of it, Jesus entered Jerusalem in a most unusual way to show people of OUR time that victory looks a lot different than most of us think.

And we need to GET this message if we’re going to have any hope at all of understanding the victory of crucifixion, even the victory of resurrection.  So we celebrate and remember Jesus triumphal entry every year, in hopes that we might be transformed by what we encounter in our remembrance.