November 30 2014, First Sunday in Advent
Who is This?
Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, St. Matthew 21:1-13
The road the Roman army built to connect Jericho to Jerusalem winds upwards 3,000 feet over the course of its 17 miles. It passes through Bethany and Bethphage, villages on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives.
After crossing the mount it traverses the steep Kidron Valley and then enters Jerusalem. But every traveler must pull up atop the mount, which stands 300 feet higher than the temple hill and 100 feet above Mount Zion. He pauses to marvel at the panorama of the city before and below him.
As the Feast of Passover approaches, thousands of pilgrims from Galilee throng the highway, intent on offering their sacrifices to Yahweh in His temple on this high holy day and celebrating Israel’s exodus from Egypt with their compatriots.
Look yonder now. Among them is a Nazarene named Jesus. By no means is He entering Jerusalem for the first time . . . but it will be His last. He is a prophet; on that point everyone is agreed. On many other points travelers from Galilee and residents of Judea alike find His biography a jumble, His purpose a mystery.
He seems a man like any other; He has no exceptional stature, strikes no commanding pose that draws others to Him. Yet He has done wondrous works . . . turning water into wine . . . even raising the dead! What mere man can perform miracles such as these? Are they not signs of . . .? Who is this?
As He makes His way through the villages and between the farmsteads the clamor rises. Jesus seems unperturbed. Up til now He has shunned crowds as others dodge lepers . . . and plunged into the midst of lepers, bringing His healing touch.
When He has healed the sick and even the blind, He has admonished His beneficiaries not to proclaim Him.
But now He seems to invite a public spectacle. On His frequent journeys over the span of three years and more He has always walked; now He sits astride a young donkey. Look, the multitude are spreading their clothes on the road and bringing palm fronds to lay in His path.
This is a reception fit for a returning king or a conquering general. But . . . a donkey? Should He not straddle a warhorse, a formidable beast, snorting and stamping?
Israel’s prophets of yore had promised a Messiah, One who would liberate the people living in bondage as Moses had done, One greater than Moses. Could this be He? Who is this?
Listen! The people have invoked the prophecy of Zechariah:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
Can this be He? Listen again; notice what they add:
"Hosanna to the Son of David! `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' Hosanna in the highest!"
Hosanna? Once it meant, “Save us.” In these times it is an acclamation. Are they praying to Him for salvation or hailing Him as their king?
What else do they add? “Son of David.” For their promised Deliverer will be of the line of their forefather, the all-conquering King David who routed the Philistines and lifted Israel to her greatest glory.
As He enters Jerusalem the ground seems to shake. The Judeans, bedazzled, cry out, “Who is this?” The Galileans reply with one voice, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”
A truthful response . . . but is it adequate? A prophet? The prophet? The final prophet? Or One yet greater still?
Look again at the solitary figure mounted on the donkey. Look closely and you may make out up ahead the shadow of the cross. Encompassed by a multitude, He is utterly alone. He speaks not a word. Like those prophets of old, He makes His statement by symbolic acts, a parable enacted.
Humble, lowly, He arrives upon a borrowed donkey. Or is it His? Has He claimed it as Creator of all and so Owner of all? Who is this?
Is He human or divine? Indeed.
Militant or peace-loving? Just so.
Royal or humble? Without a doubt.
Obedient or triumphant? By all means.
Bound for crucifixion or resurrection? To be sure.
Upon His donkey, He comes into Jerusalem, the royal city of His father David; Jerusalem, the holy city; Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.
A triumphal entry of One born to suffer? Oh my, yes. For only from suffering arises the humility to conquer the arrogance of sin, the sin of arrogance.
But enough! you protest. Enough of a picture that defies focus. Who is this? Say it plainly, is He man or is He God?
If He is not fully man, able to take the sins of all mankind upon Himself, He cannot save us. And if He is not fully God, who alone can forgive sin, He cannot save us. Then must He not be both God and man?
Today, beloved, we may give thanks that our forefathers in the earliest days of the church took the question head-on: Who is this? They struggled with it mightily, sometimes bitterly. They knew they must, for they must produce a creed – not to define Christ but to describe Him in terms to which all the faithful must agree.
We may wag our heads at their excesses here and there, their ornate disputation that turned them from the compassion their Lord called them to, but we must not degrade their contribution to the deposit of faith. . . their gift to us.
Cast an eye abroad today and you will see many trying to make God understandable. The Creator penetrated by the mind of the creature? Preposterous. Our fathers in the church would have none of it. We are eternally in their debt.
For this very question, “Who is this?” is the fulcrum of our being. Every one of us must face up to it. Is He the political Messiah for whom so many in Israel yearned, come to free us from the struggles of this vain life? Or is He the Holy One of whom the prophets spoke, born to suffer to take away our sin?
Jesus Christ is coming. Prepare to meet Him again. And rejoice, Christian; sing out “Hosanna!”: Save us! “Hosanna!”: We praise You! Amen.