A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday (A)

RCL Texts:

Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We tend to assume the uniqueness of Palm Sunday. It is, after all, the beginning of the events that kicked off the first Holy Week some 2,000 years ago. However, while Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is extraordinary, there is more going on in this event than initially meets the eye. Jesus is recapitulating – that is to say, he is bringing to fulfilment and completion – the history of Israel. He does this by fulfilling prophecy, as St. Matthew notes. But, as he has done several times already in his ministry, Jesus also re-enacts a particular episode in Israel’s history. In the Triumphal Entry Jesus is fulfilling the story of Jehu, a military commander and the 10th king of Israel.

Perhaps some of you are wondering – who is this Jehu? Well, Jehu is one of those stories that the Revised Common Lectionary omits from the three-year cycle because he is deemed to be, by modern standards, a rather unsavory biblical character. And yet, the story of Jehu is necessary to unpack the story of the Triumphal entry.

Jehu is “one of those hyper-violent Old Testament characters who make Christians uncomfortable”.[1] God appointed Jehu to exterminate, with extreme prejudice, the entire house of King Ahab. Suffice it to say, Jehu performed this mission with gruesome efficiency; you can read about all the gory details in the book of 2 Kings. At first glance, Jehu seems to have very little to do with Jesus; what does a violent king from the Old Testament have to do with Jesus? Nevertheless, Jehu is a figure of Jesus Christ; the connection is revealed in the cloaks put on the ground.

After one of the servants of the prophet Elisha anoints Jehu as king, the soldier’s under Jehu’s command ask him what has happened. After Jehu announces that he was anointed Israel’s new king, his men “all took their cloaks and spread them for [Jehu] on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’ (2 Kgs. 9.13). Other than the Triumphal Entry, nowhere else in the Bible do subject lay down their clothes to honour a king. This is no mere coincidence, but is part of God’s providential ordering of both Scripture and human history.

Once Jehu is the new king of Israel, he sets out immediately to fulfill his God-ordained mission to kill Ahab’s family. It was Ahab, and more specifically his wife, Jezebel, who brought the worship of the god Baal into Israel. In his zeal to purge Israel of Ahab’s legacy, Jehu effectively ends all Baal worship by killing all the priests of Baal and their followers, demolishing the pillar of Baal and destroying the temple of Baal, turning it into a latrine (cf. 2 Kgs. 10.18-28a). Jehu is not merely securing his throne; he is avenging the deaths of God’s prophets who died at the command of Jezebel. Jehu is cleansing and purifying Israel so that they can return to the Lord in covenant faithfulness and fulfil the purpose for which God has called them. Jehu is zealous for the Lord (cf. 2 Kgs. 10.16). Yet, despite this zeal, Jehu himself falls prey to the temptation of all earthly rules who want to retain power: he tolerates the worship of golden calves at Dan and Bethel (cf. 2 Kgs. 10.31). In the end, Jehu stands along with many of Israel’s other kings with a mixed record.

Centuries later, the kingdom of Israel is under the power of Rome with King Herod acting as a puppet-ruler. It is in this context that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. Though he does not ride a war horse, he is greeted as a king: the crowds throw down their cloaks in homage. In public defiance of Roman power, Jesus is heralded as “the Son of David”: the rightful heir to Israel’s throne (Mt. 21.9). While the expectations of the crowd – that Jesus will defeat Rome and restore the fortunes of Israel – are unfulfilled, leading the same crowd who welcomed him with cries of liberation to turn against him less than five days later, St. Matthew makes it clear that the proclamation that Jesus is the true king of Israel, and indeed king of heaven and earth, rings loud and clear.

Like Jehu before him, Jesus is zealous for the true worship of God. Immediately upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple where he clears it of the money changers and those who sought to turn this most holy of places of prayer into a marketplace. Jesus comes to Jerusalem full of zeal “to defend the honor of his Father against those who defile his Father’s house”.[2] Indeed, in St. John’s account of cleansing of the temple, we read that upon witnessing Jesus’ actions, his disciples “remembering that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (Jn. 2.17b). This quotation is from Ps. 69, a Psalm written by David. Just as the words of Ps. 22 are on Jesus’ lips on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, so too the entirety of Ps. 69 is enacted by the Son of David on Good Friday in His zeal and in His desire to see God execute righteous judgment.

Like Jehu before him, Jesus enacts God’s judgment. However, whereas Jehu enacts God’s judgment in bloody fashion and, the only blood spilled by the Prince of Peace is His own. Jesus exercises God’s judgment not by killing those who betrayed him by demanding his crucifixion, but by sacrificing himself in order to reconcile humankind to God. Jesus enacts God’s judgment of the world on the cross. Through the cross, Jesus takes the violence and death-fixation of the world upon himself and so undoes the very power of violence and death through his resurrection. Jesus defeats death by his death and he vanquishes the power of sin by becoming, as St. Paul says, “sin for us” (2. Cor. 5.21).

Overall, Jesus takes the bloody vengeance and flawed reign of Jehu to its perfect completion; what Jehu foreshadows, Jesus fulfils. Just as Jehu resisted the seduction of Jezebel who sought to woo him to avoid her own destruction, in the book of Revelation we read of Jesus’ defeat of the harlot. So too in the book of Revelation, we read of a multitude “that no one could count from every nation, for all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their lands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7.9-10). Here we see not only a glimpse of eternity, but also the assurance that we here today are part of his multitude who sing the praises of the slaughtered Lamb, the Son of David, who takes away the sin of the world. This much is clear in our Eucharistic liturgy, where we echo the proclamation of Palm Sunday: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

While we are not expected to carry palm branches or to throw our coats to the ground, we can expect that Jesus will come and meet us, even today. However, we must be careful that our own expectations do not govern how we welcome Jesus, lest our cries of ‘Hosanna!’ turn to ‘Crucify him!’  We must see the true Christ, not Jesus meek-and-mild, Jesus the spiritual sage, or Jesus the pushover. We must welcome him as King. To be sure, he is a king that is markedly different than the often capricious and callous rulers of our world, but he is a king nevertheless – indeed, he is the King of kings – and therefore deserving of our reverent praise. The good news of Palm Sunday is that the true King of the world has come. He left his heavenly glory in order to bring his kingdom to earth by taking on a crown of thorns and enthroning himself on the cross. It is this King who invites our allegiance and bids us follow Him.

We must welcome him as the Prince of Peace. Yet, the peace he brings is not merely the absence of war or some romanticized notion of inner-peace that is so popular in our culture; His is a peace that comes through the utter surrender of my entire being to His allegiance. His is a peace that comes that the price of letting Him so cleanse and purify my heart and mind, that my only response is ‘Hosanna!’ which literally means save or rescue. In other words: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Our praise of God begins with our humble admission that, despite our best efforts, we cannot save ourselves; that we are in need of liberation from the devices and desires of our hearts. It is this Prince who will deliver us.

So, let us welcome our King with the expectation that He comes and meets us in Scripture and Sacrament. Let us welcome the Prince of Peace into our hearts and minds and find true freedom in him.

Hosanna in the highest heaven! Blessed is the Son of David! “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen”. (Rev. 7.12)

[1] Peter Leithart, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/04/jehu-on-a-donkey. Cf. also Leithart’s commentary 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Press, 2006.

[2] Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 224.

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