The Humble King

A sermon on Palm Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
20 March 2016
(You can listen to the sermon here.)

Texts: Zechariah 9:9–12; Philippians 2:5—11; Matthew 21:1–9; Matthew 26:1—27:66


 

Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey.

The people of Jerusalem recognised their king. They knew Him because they knew the Scriptures and they had come to know Jesus. The Scriptures promised a king to sit on the throne of David, who would bring about the restoration of Israel and the restoration of creation. Jesus came with authority over the powers of evil and over the power of death. And so they recognised Jesus to be the promised king. And so they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

But the rulers of Jerusalem did not recognise their king, because they knew neither the Scriptures nor Jesus. They expected a triumphant king who would come and rule in the way that they understood ruling: to lord it over the people, as the kings of the Gentiles, and their puppets in the Jerusalem, lorded it over God’s people.

And the rulers of the synagogues also failed to recognise their king, because although they studied the Scriptures, they did not recognise Him to whom those Scriptures pointed. They sought the Scriptures in order to establish their own righteousness, and did not recognise Him who was coming to bring to them the righteousness of God. And so the rulers of Jerusalem ,and the rulers of the synagogues shouted, “Crucify!”

And the Roman soldiers failed to recognise Jesus as their king, because they neither knew nor believed the Scriptures, and they saw only the weakness and the defencelessness and the abandonment of yet another Jewish man given over to them to crucify. So they mocked him, shouting “Hail, king of the Jews”, and they crucified Him.

And at the end of that week, the shouts of “Crucify!”, the voices of mockery, and the thrust of nails against human flesh drowned out the songs of “Hosanna”, cast out the faith and the joy of the disciples, and draw the lifeblood out of the battered and abused body of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That night, disciples, enemies and bystanders alike were in agreement: Jesus’ claim to kingship had turned out to be a vain hope, an empty claim. Even the centurion’s otherwise remarkable confession, “Truly, this was the son of God”, was in agreement: this was the son of God. But what is he now? A corpse, a piece of history.

All because Jesus died at the hands of others. Kings who do that cease to be kings, and pretenders—people making a claim to the throne—lose their claim if they die at the hands of others before they manage to take their throne. That’s common knowledge.

But there is nothing common about Jesus. While he was already on the road to Jerusalem with his thitherto faithful but slow-witted disciples, he had had to remind them that while the rulers of the Gentiles indeed lord it over their subjects, this is not the way of God’s kingdom. In the kingdom of God, those who exercise authority do so by serving others, and those who wish to be first must become last and the slave of all.

Jesus Christ, whose claim to the kingdom was not an earthly aspiration but an eternal inheritance, his by right as the eternal Son of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped and clung onto, whether out of ambition, pride or a legitimate recognition of what He was entitled to. He could have done so, but love demanded otherwise: for if He had exercised the power and glory of His kingship, He would have ruled over a kingdom utterly devoid of human subjects.

The whole race of Adam had fled from the kingdom of God in an enormous, suicidal act of rebellion, and God’s justice demanded that punishment be exacted on the rebels who waged war against their Creator and against one another.

And so the Son came down from His glory, emptying Himself and taking on the form of a slave, placing Himself in service to fallen humanity, so that He might redeem mankind and thus fill His kingdom with us, unworthy but profoundly loved rebels.

He came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many, so that the many would have their transgressions forgiven. By His humility, His sharing in the sufferings of human life in every detail, and especially by His bloody sacrifice of His life on the cross, He opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

Therefore, the donkey, the arrest, the crown of thorns, the rejection by believers and unbelievers alike, the cross, the silence of heaven against the cry of dereliction, the shedding of blood and the yielding up of the spirit—these do not speak against Jesus’ kingship, but they are His kingship. When the soldiers knelt before Jesus with His crown of thorns and hailed Him as the king of the Jews, they unwittingly confessed the truth. When Pilate wrote the charge on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews”, he accidentally proclaimed to all the world the truth that Jesus the king rules this dying world by His cross.

The Father bore witness to this truth by raising Jesus from the dead, seating Him at His right hand and placing all His enemies under His feet, and by making the name of Jesus that name that is above every name. As the soldiers knelt before Him, on the last day every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus. All because of the willing obedience of Jesus to go to the cross in our place.

It is to that cross that we, too, must be drawn, because by that cross we are brought into the kingdom of heaven, where Jesus now reigns as king for the church. It is by sharing in His cross that we come to share in His resurrection.

We were baptised into His death of the cross, and by that union with His death, we were brought over from rebellion to submission, from death into life. And having been united with a death like His, we have been raised to a newness of life, imitating and sharing His humility here on earth in confident anticipation of our glorification when He comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Each Lord’s Day, we receive the benefit of the cross as we partake of the resurrected flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, by which we are bound more firmly into the life of the kingdom as our faith is strengthened and Christ’s life takes shape in us in mutual love and service. Both our bodies and souls are being kept for the day of the resurrection, when Jesus comes to destroy every enemy and gather His own into His everlasting kingdom.

As He was about to die, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This anguished question, first cried out by David, an earthly king of Israel, are answered by the very same Psalm:

The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. (Ps. 22:26–29)

Dear friends of Christ, Jesus is indeed king. He rules over the nations, and all the families of the nations shall worship before the Lord, because He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made Himself nothing for us fallen creatures. Because of this unspeakable act of love and sacrifice, we proclaim confidently that Jesus is Lord, and that kingship belongs to Him.

Therefore, though the world may consider us, too, afflicted and well deserving of our humility, we are the prosperous of the earth because we get to eat and worship from the hand of the Lord. We may be afflicted by our sins and the hostility of the world and all the hosts of Stan, but we eat and shall be satisfied. See, even now, the royal table is prepared for the coming of our King who is Himself our food and our drink.

Let us, therefore, come with humility and with joy, to unite our voices with the saints of Jerusalem, and with all the angels and saints in heaven and on earth, to praise our humble and victorious king with loud shouts of Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes to us in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest! Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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