Who Is This?
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
By Rev. Nathan Hill
I want to begin by repeating the question you just heard asked of the crowds:
“Who is this?”
“Who is this?”
This is the question asked by the crowds today as Jesus and his ragtag band of disciples made their grand entrance into Jerusalem.
As the city got overflowed visitors from all over with anticipation for the high holy celebration of Passover, the people had heard rumors and caught glimpses of what Jesus had done throughout his ministry. There was excitement building - excitement among some that Jesus was their long awaited Messiah, come to deliver them from oppression.
So, when Jesus began his little procession, they lined the streets, shouting these victory words from Psalm 118:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord!
And the people went even further - they called him the Son of David, an heir to King David’s throne.
The people wanted a King. Desperately. They wanted relief from oppression - they wanted a restoration of the good old days - they wanted to be in charge. And a King could do that for them.
One of the themes that runs through the Gospel of Matthew makes clear that Jesus is King.
The gospel begins by telling us Jesus’ genealogy which is connected right back to King David himself. His birth stories are heralded by stars and celebrated by wise ones from the east. When the current King hears of his birth, he tries to snuff out baby Jesus before he could threaten his rule.
And then, as an adult, he begins saying strange things - that he is ushering in a new Kingdom, a Kingdom breaking in even now, a Kingdom already among us.
And so the people have gathered with their palm branches waving, symbols of victory that a people might wave to their conquering lord. They lay out the cloaks - the 1st century red carpet - in the gospel of John. They are excited and ready, ready for this King to march into the city, overthrow Pontius Pilate, kick the Romans out, and restore the Jewish government.
Of course, not everyone celebrated the arrival of this would-be King.
For the religious leaders, they saw Jesus as a threat to the fragile status quo that was in place. In fact, the first thing Jesus does after entering Jerusalem is to march into the temple and drive the moneylenders out, upsetting a steady flow of cash that filled the temple’s coffers. Uh oh. The Jewish stock market took a big hit that day.
For those in power - especially for Roman leaders, Jesus became another rebel that threatened the sovereignty and domination of the Empire. Another upstart who dared the threaten Ceasar who was the only one who could issue edicts of good news across the land.
And so by the end of the week - Jesus is as far from a throne as one could ever be - hanging, alone and abandoned, on a cross. Even the crowds that had once cheered him on now don’t claim to know anything about him.
And by the end of the week, Jesus’ words about ushering in a new kingdom seem to ring hollow.
By the end of the week, nothing has changed on the surface - Rome is still in power. The religious leaders have their status quo. And the movement Jesus was building has gone into hiding, and I am sure some of them wondered to themselves, “What happened? Was he really who he said he was? Who is this Jesus?”
In an article in the Christianity Today around Palm Sunday of last year, Jonathan Merritt reflected that the purpose of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem wasn’t to pump the people up - but to disillusion them. In Merritt’s perspective, a common thing that happens to Christians, especially in difficult times, that “we expect God to be something and then discover that God is not at all like that. Or we expect God to do something, only to realize that God seems to have [different] priorities.” When that happens - our faith is forced into a crisis. We have to search for God anew - we have to ask, “Who is this?”, again and again.
Merritt reminds us that to those cheering crowds, Jesus was not the King they expected.
“Jesus is a king, but not the kind they wanted. He will serve rather than be served. He will die and not be killed. He enters unarmed, waging peace. This makes a larger point that God does not intend to meet our expectations. Instead, [God] meets our needs.”
Right now, in this time of COVID-19, I admit to you as your pastor that even I am out of a lot of answers. My daughter complained to me last night that she has heard us adults talking about how unusual things are right now way too much. She is sick and tired of it - and I am sick and tired of it too. I am so ready for a return to normal.
Wouldn’t it be great for God to send us a new King, to march in right now, to make all of our problems go away and get things back to the way it used to be? I’d go outside right now and wave my palm branches and thrown down my winter coats on the street and shout at the top of my lungs if that could happen right now.
But maybe… maybe that’s not what we need.
Maybe Jesus is here among us - in ER units, in clinics, in hospital rooms, among grieving families, and leaders struggling to put aside their ego to lead. Jesus is a healer - so Jesus surely is among the healers right now, empowering and encouraging and weeping.
Maybe Jesus is in this discomfort and uncertainty around our economic reality, challenging us to figure out whether we love God or our economy more, suggesting to us that there is more to life than eight hour shifts everyday, trying to look busy and productive. Maybe the discomfort is learning that we are dependent on more than our paychecks to survive.
Maybe Jesus is even here at work in our churches, casting off our limited vision for ministry to help us realize that there is a vast world out there where the gospel needs to go. Jesus is saying - I’m not in your buildings. I’m out here among hurting, broken people who are struggling to breath. Get online. Get outside. Expand your vision to a new generation.
Maybe Jesus is where we need him - not where we necessarily want him.
Even a time such as this, we are invited to ask - “Who is this?”
Who is Jesus today?
And what kind of Jesus will we reflect as we live out our call as the Body of Christ this week?
Will our neighbors see in us a longing for a kind of Jesus who will solve all of our problems so we can go back to being comfortable?
Or will our neighbors discover a witness, a testimony, to a living, resurrect Messiah who is so compelling, they too will ask, “Who is this?”