It was Harold Wilson, the British Prime minister, who said that "A week is a long time in politics". For politicians, events quickly change, new situations arise and the unexpected happens. I like the more recent update by an American journalist who said that "a week seems like an even longer time in politics… thanks to the 24-hour news coverage, Facebook posting and Tweeting about every mind-numbing absurdity of the 2016 presidential campaign". Echoing Francis Urquart in 'The House of Cards', "You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment".
And for you and me things can quickly change. Within a week, you might have been taken into hospital and had an emergency operation. Within a week, the relative peace at home will have been shattered by the birth of a baby. Within a week of having an interview for a new job, and then having to sell up and move away. Within a week, being made redundant and still having to pay the mortgage. Within a week, a sudden and unexpected death in the family.
What a difference a week makes! Things can quickly change. Consider a week in the earthly life of Jesus. From Palm Sunday to Easter Day – and with Good Friday in-between. From public acknowledgement, to a terrible betrayal. From a shameful death on a cross, to a joyful resurrection from the dead. Holy Week begins today. And in the Christian year, we travel with Jesus from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday to Easter Day. We journey with him from Gethsemane to his interrogation. From the cross to the empty tomb. Each year we are challenged to answer for ourselves the question asked on that first Palm Sunday - "Who is this?" (Matthew 21.10). Who is Jesus Christ and what am I to make of him? 'Who is this?' This man riding on a donkey. This man who died on a cross. This man who rose from the dead. 'Who is this?'
1. Two crowds
It is thought that during the Passover there were upwards of 100,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem. They came from all parts of Israel and from all parts of the Mediterranean. These visitors to Jerusalem would have been intrigued by a man riding on a donkey surrounded by a noisy crowd and so they asked, 'Who is this?'
I used to wonder why it was that within a week the crowd on Palm Sunday (who welcomed Jesus with such enthusiasm) soon became the crowd who called for his execution. Was it that they were easily swayed? That they had soon changed their minds? That they had fallen under the influence of the religious authorities? I think now that there were two crowds, two different groups. Some were friends. Some were enemies. To his friends and supporters from Galilee, Jesus was the prophet from Nazareth. They had followed him for three years. They had heard his stories. They had seen his miracles. They had come with him to Jerusalem as fellow pilgrims. They threw down their cloaks. They cut down palm branches. They cried out "Hosanna" (v.9).
But alongside the Galilean crowd were members of the Jerusalem establishment, made up of the political and religious leaders – the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Levites, the priests and their supporters. Those who felt most threatened and made to feel uncomfortable by the prophet from Galilee. Those who had so much to lose if what Jesus said was true. It was this group who called for his death. Of course, as we know, on Good Friday, that most of Jesus' supporters disappeared. They were fearful. Frightened of what might happen to them. Scared of the implications of being identified with the prophet from Galilee. It was the hostile crowd who remained to the bitter end.
And what about for each of us? Too often we happily blend in with the crowd. Not willing to stand up and stand out in the face of opposition. Happy to be with the majority. Reluctant and fearful about being in the minority. Ready to run and to hide. Jesus always makes religious people feel uncomfortable. Just like the residents in the town of Fair-Speech in John Bunyan's, 'The Pilgrim's Progress'. They were 'Mr Smooth Man, Mr Facing-both-ways, Mr Anything, and the parson of the parish, Mr Two-Tongues'. Bunyan said:
"We are always most zealous when Religion goes in silver slippers; we love much to walk with him in the street, if the sun shines, and the people applaud him".
At the beginning of this Holy Week are you willing to identify yourself with Jesus, the prophet from Galilee? But not just to say nice things, churchy things, vacuous things… but to stand up, to welcome him, to acknowledge him and to confess him as your Lord and Saviour?
2. Two donkeys
I'm fully aware that this sermon might become known as the 'donkey sermon'. You may remember in Charles Dickens' novel 'David Copperfield' there is the delightfully eccentric, but warm-hearted, Betsy Trotwood. She objected to donkeys on the green in front of her house, and when she spotted them used to shout out to her servant, "Janet – donkeys". And they then chased away both the donkeys and their keepers! In Matthew 21 we don't have Betsy Trotwood but we do have two donkeys - a mother and her colt. The other gospels only refer to a single donkey – but here there are two donkeys – and they are mentioned three times (vv.2, 5, 7). Now, what are we to make of this? The scholars get very excited and try and give both plausible and implausible explanations. Some of their suggestions are quite silly. So, what are we to make of it? To be honest I don't think that there is a simple answer.
We could say that when Matthew quoted words from Zechariah 9.9 he took them quite literally, or even failed to grasp the fact that sometimes expressions were repeated to give emphasis. It might be that this was a fact that the other gospel writers overlooked. Jesus commanded that a donkey be obtained, and as she had her colt with her, rather than separate them they both came along. But there is a problem with the phrase – "and [Jesus] sat on them" – did he sit on one donkey, or somehow like a circus-rider sit on two donkeys? Were the cloaks draped over two animals or just one? Did the 'them' in verse 7 refer to the donkeys or to the cloaks? Many of the early painting of Palm Sunday portray two donkeys, whereas modern pictures have only one. So how can two be portrayed? An early Italian artist painted the usual two donkeys. Jesus sat on the larger one and underneath was a tiny donkey a foot or so high! I leave it to you to ponder over the two donkeys!
Whatever the explanation, the point is that Jesus sat on a donkey. He rode into Jerusalem not on a horse (a symbol of power) but on a donkey (a symbol of humility). A horse would suggest war; a donkey peace. From Palm Sunday Jesus was no longer concealed, but revealed for all to see. It was plain to see what sort of Messiah he was. His path led to suffering and humiliation and not to political power and military might. His every action, his every word revealed his true identity. Jesus was a king, a servant king. And to be a Christian is to identify with the servant king: the king who didn't live in a palace but began life in a manger; the king who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners; the king who identified with the poor and who washed their feet; the king who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey; the king who lived and died a poor, naked man on a cross and was interred in a borrowed tomb.
At the beginning of this Holy Week are you willing to identify with such a man? Who came to us, humble and riding on a donkey? How much does his example force you to ask questions about yourself and your lifestyle? If you are a Christian believer, how much does humility feature in your life? Not to be proud of your humility, but to reflect the humility of Jesus to those around you. Not to lord it over other people. Are you prepared to go the extra mile? Are you prepared to wash the feet of the unlovely? Are you prepared to put others before yourself? Are you prepared to be ready and willing to live a life that reflects that of the Lord Jesus?
3. Two questions
Later in the year, we as a church family are asking 'The big question'. We can ask a question and we can ask a friend to ask a question. Have you already thought of one? Will it be simple? Will it be profound? Will it be profoundly simple? How will it address life and faith issues?
And what about the big question in verse 10? 'Who is this?' It's an important question, isn't it? It's a question that we all have to ask but some here haven't yet found the answer. 'Who is Jesus Christ and what am I to make of him?' Many of you here today have found the answer. Some of you here today should ask the question and discover the answer. Did you notice that within these verses (and today we are just looking at these verses) some answers are given?
i) Who is this? Jesus was a prophet (v.11)
He is seen as the prophet from Nazareth. In other words, 'a prophet well known in Galilee' but not yet in Jerusalem. Or it could refer to 'the eschatological prophet' of the last days (Deuteronomy 18.18). The one who was promised of old. The one who fulfilled scripture. This is hinted at in verse 4, where it says that "this took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet" in Isaiah 62.11 and Zechariah 9.9; and from a Psalm in verse 9 "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (Psalm 118:26).
ii) Who is this? Jesus was the Son of David (vv.9, 15)
He "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20.28). He came as 'great David's greater Son'. Three times the crowd cried out "Hosanna to the Son of David". Hosanna means 'Lord, please save', 'Lord, save now'. It was a cry that includes petition, acknowledgement and acclamation.
iii) Who is this? Jesus came to the Temple (vv.12-15)
He came into the Court of the Gentiles and drove out those who had turned the courtyard into a market. The cleansing of the Temple was an acted-out parable. The Temple was meant to be a place of worship for Jews and Gentiles – but it had become a place of trade and business. The Temple should have reflected the glory of God to the world but it had become inward looking and corrupt. The Temple had become redundant and Jesus provided a radical alternative. The Temple was a signpost that pointed to the reality that was fulfilled and embodied in Jesus.
iv) Who is this? Jesus the healer (v.14)
In the Temple – the place where heaven and earth were said to meet – Jesus had healed the blind and the lame. Even the Temple authorities saw that he did wonderful things. But their response to Jesus was critical and hostile. "They were indignant" (v.15) to the cries of the poor and to what Jesus was doing for them.
I said that there are two questions… there's the important question in verse 10, but where is the other question? Well, it's not actually written down! But it's the big question that broods over Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. During the next few days could I encourage you to reflect on these things? Try to read a chapter a day of Matthew 21-28, and as you do so ask yourself: 'What do I make of Jesus Christ? What is my relationship to him?' You may be one of those people who needs to commit yourself to him for the very first time; or to recommit your life to him. You perhaps need to admit that your faith has grown cold. You have lost your first love. You have gradually drifted away from him. Your faith is more routine and no longer a relationship.
In Holy Week, it's good for each one of us to look again at where we stand before the Lord. When on Maundy Thursday we recall that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. When on Good Friday we remember his death (he died for my sin in my place). When on Easter Day we celebrate his resurrection (he conquered death and rose again). Hallelujah! So, what is your answer to today's 'Big Question' – Who is this?