Sermon for Palm Sunday, AD 2022

Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” If the people of the city of Jerusalem had known scripture, they would have known what was happening when Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey. Jesus comes into the city as a great king, with the acclamations of a king. The people shout hosanna – “Save us!” – to the Son of David, the true heir to the throne.

Jesus will not be led to a throne in a king’s palace. All the city is stirred up by his entrance, but not necessarily for good. The topic of conversation becomes “who is this Jesus?” Some will say, “it’s the great prophet from Galilee!” Others will say, “he’s a blasphemer we must destroy.” Very few will say, “the Son of God.” Jesus will then not be led to his throne by a cheering multitude, but by soldiers with swords and clubs. He will be beaten and mocked by soldiers rather than guarded. He will be led to a hill so weakened that another man will carry his cross. For Jesus will be crucified and his king’s throne is a cross of wood, with the words written above, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

A throne is a place of judgment. From the cross, Jesus declares the true judgment to those before him. Who are there before him? The artist James Tissot created a very striking painting of Christ’s crucifixion called “Crucifixion, seen from the cross.” It is much different from other paintings of the crucifixion, as the only part of Jesus which is seen is his feet at the very bottom of the painting. The perspective is Christ’s, it is a Jesus-eye view. So the majority of the painting is instead the different people gathered around his cross. There is a great mixed group of people, some mourning, some sneering, some just looking on – different reactions to the King of the Jews upon the cross.

Sitting on a low circle of stones around the cross are many soldiers, some sneering, some looking away, some bored with the situation. They don’t even feel the need to stand before the king. These are the ones who mocked him, putting a crown of thorns on his head, a scarlet robe on him, and a reed in his right hand, kneeling and saying “Hail King of the Jews!” Then they struck him and spit upon him. These Roman soldiers show the world’s view of the kingship of Jesus. What kind of a king would be so weak to allow himself to be mocked and spit upon? Jesus is no great Caesar. They do not see him as worthy of any respect.

Do not be like these soldiers. They only see physical might and appearances. Their god is their bellies, they are the fools who say in their heart there is no God. They put their trust in rulers and in chariots. All these things which they see as important will pass away. For everything on earth will die and decay. This world is destined for fire. Caesar will not save in the final judgment. Politics, wealth, status will do nothing in the final judgment. So do not look at the things which seem impressive now, for they do not last. Even Rome’s great empire fell. It is God who raises and lowers kings, but his Son will be on the throne forever.

Before Jesus’ cross there are others mocking. Prominently on the right side of the painting, there is a group of sneering chief priests, scribes, and elders, well-dressed upon their own donkeys. These are the ones who said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” The elders and priests, unlike the soldiers, don’t just despise Jesus for his weakness. They have heard his words and reject them. They don’t want Jesus as king. They are pictured sitting on their own donkeys, richly dressed. In a mockery of Jesus’ entrance into the city, they are the ones who will be seated as kings. They will be the leaders of the people, not Jesus, and they think they have finally put down the one who threatened their power.

Their mockery is similar yet different than the soldiers. The soldiers at least do not need to have a comprehension of who Jesus is or what he claims. The chief priests, scribes, and elders know exactly what Jesus has said and who he claims to be, and they reject him. Even though they recognize the miracles he has done – he saved others – they do not believe what he says. These men have been soundly defeated by Jesus in every confrontation, and now like cowards and bullies mock him in his weakness. So it is with those who claim to be followers of God, but when the opportunity arises will attack others in hate. They do not love their enemies, and thus the reject the very love of God for them. It is impossible to love God and hate your brother, for in so doing you hate the very sacrifice of Jesus, as the chief priests and elders do.

The chief priests are pictured in the painting as standing a ways off, as if they are worried Jesus may actually come down from the cross. Right in front of Jesus are the women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, along with John, the only disciple who did not abandon Jesus. They are all looking up to Jesus, mourning at his feet. All their hope of these last years was put onto Jesus, and now he is being put to death. He has loved them, forgiven them, healed them, saved them. They kneel before him as their king, but their king is dying.

These are the blessed ones, generations yet unborn will be following in their steps. They cling to Jesus even when their eyes see that he has failed. They hold to him at the cross in faith, because they cannot put their faith in anything else. Others, even most of the disciples, would say, “it’s over, Jesus is done. We must have been wrong. There is no saving us now.” Yet these dedicated Christians before the cross of Jesus hold to him even though they do not know how the promise will come true. Maybe they remember his words that on the third day he would rise. But the resurrection is hard to see in times of suffering.  

Jesus cries out before them at the ninth hour, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The bystanders look on, not knowing what he is saying. In the painting there are many dozens of bystanders, not mourning, not mocking, just watching the spectacle. Yet if they knew Christ, they would know Jesus is not calling Elijah. These words are their salvation.

Jesus cries out because he has taken on the sins of the whole world on the cross. Though he committed no sin, the sins of the world have been laid on him as a sacrifice. Every mockery of the soldiers, the sneers of the chief priests, the despair of the women, the ignorance and apathy of the bystanders, the sins of all, even yours, were laid on him on that cross. Jesus Christ, the king of the Jews, lays out a judgment, but it is not a judgment on anyone being viewed from the cross. The judgment is upon him. And the Father, seeing Jesus take upon himself all our sins, gives Jesus the just punishment that we deserved. All the wrath of God is put upon Jesus. He suffers the ultimate suffering and is abandoned by the Father.

So he cries out the words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is not just a Psalm of despair. It is a royal psalm. It is the words of the king. Jesus shows that what he must suffer is the way of the true king. See, all this was the Father’s plan from the beginning. The psalm says:

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me. They sneer.
They shake their heads.
They say, “Trust in the Lord.”
“Let the Lord deliver him. 
Let him rescue him, if he delights in him.”

The sneers and mocking were already known. It is the true king who is mocked. It is the true king who is crucified.

For dogs have surrounded me.
A band of evil men has encircled me. 
They have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me. 
The people think this is the end of a man who would be king. They are wrong. This is the way in which Jesus takes his throne. He is not conquering Caesar, looking for a kingdom of this world. He is not just another wise rabbi. He is the Messiah, the Son of David, the one who saves not only in spite of his death, but by his death. For, as the psalm says,

…he has not despised nor detested the affliction of the afflicted.
He has not hidden his face from him, 
but when he cried out to him, he heard.

The Father heard Jesus’ cry. His sacrifice was accepted. Jesus gave up his spirit and died, but at that moment everything changed. The temple curtain was torn, there was no more need for sacrifices, for Jesus made the final sacrifice for our sins. The tombs were opened and people were raised. Resurrections were happening everywhere. In Jesus’ death, death had already been beaten and was failing. The whole earth shook, rocks split, the earth could not bear to see its creator die.

There in the painting to the left is a centurion, standing nobly before Jesus. At the sight of all these things, that centurion in awe said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Already at his death, all the ends of the earth are turning to the Lord. This pagan Roman soldier is the first to say what all Christians will say before cross – truly this is the Son of God.

Yes, Jesus is truly the Son of God and our king. He shows this no better place than his cross, where he gives a judgment that is both just and merciful. Sin is punished by taking it on himself. So in him, all are forgiven. Even though you are not before his cross with the women and John, you do receive his forgiveness and his righteousness. For Psalm 22 ends,

Descendants will serve him.
For generations people will be told about the Lord.
They will come and proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet to be born—
because he has done it.

This Jesus is your king, he has died for your sins, even when you were not yet born. Though you have done as badly as the mockers and sneerer and bystanders and worse, he offers full pardon. For the punishment for the guilt of your sins was taken by your King. Now your King, buried, resurrected, and ascended, gives the gifts of his death to you, his body and blood. Receive him, trust him, knowing that this is a trust that will never fail. Firmly cast all your hopes, your cares, your sins, onto the crucified King, and say, “Hosanna!” Lord, save us! Amen.

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