And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them (St. Matthew 21:3).
We are confronted today with what seem to be two very different pictures of the world’s true Savior. We begin our service with a remembrance of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but we quickly move from this ecstatic outpouring of praise and hope to the Cross with its mockery and pain, sadness and death. The terrifying speed of this reversal is our liturgy’s yearly reminder of fallen man’s broken and unstable nature. Within a week, men went from asking God to save them through Jesus to nailing that same Jesus to a tree because their repulsive elders told them to. To be fair, some men just fled and hid while the corrupt government and evil religious leaders murdered an innocent man, but cowardice has always been the fuel upon which malice feeds. Two events: exaltation and humiliation mark Palm Sunday, and in them we see the great portrait of humanity’s desperation and the undying, saving passion of God’s love
If, however, we do look a little closer at the triumphal entry--particularly, as St. Matthew presents it to us--we can already see the signs for what is coming, both the tragedy of Man’s failure to live up to his potential and the great triumph of Man over fear and pain and death. These two paths have always been before us, and they will continue to be the only ways to live until the day we inevitably die. The key to understanding both the triumphal entry and the crucifixion can be found in today’s epistle, where St. Paul writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-9). The humility of the God/Man is on full display in the way God the Son enters His own city--not on a warhorse as Alexander the Great processed into Jerusalem 300 years earlier; no, Jesus rides into His city on a lowly beast of burden. He has come to bear the sin and shame of His people, and so He rides the lowly ass--fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies while enacting a lived out prophetic sign-act of His own. Christ does not ask for the crowd to cheer Him on, the most worthy recipient of praise and honor silently rides as the people scream and shout, stripping off their clothes and cutting down palms to put in His way. But, just like the red carpets and ticker-tape parades of our own time, all of this praise and adulation is entirely fleeting and saves no one. The men and women we are taught to honor in these kinds of opulent displays (the actors and sports heroes, musicians and celebrities our fallen world worships as conquering heroes--as little gods for us to love) none of these creatures can save themselves, let alone us, no matter how loudly we scream or pretend otherwise. Even now, there’s a pathetic video going around of various celebrities singing, “Imagine,” John Lennon’s hopeless hymn to nihilism. It’s much easier to sing about there being “no heaven” if one lives in what to most people looks like heaven on earth; it’s easier to sing about not having possessions when one is singing in a mansion built with the hard-earned dollars of men and women these celebrities would never embrace, plague or no plague.
There is no salvation in sentimentality or idol worship. Salvation does not come to humanity because we really want it or because we deserve it or for any other reason then the resolve of our Creator to keep His promises. The only thing Jesus has with Him, as He rides to His doom and glory, is His unshakeable trust in the promises of His Father. No golden chariot, no royal guard, no armored Cadillac, God the Son has stripped Himself of not only His divine majesty but even the glory we expect to see in the rulers of men--a temporary glory designed to reassure us (and control us) but which in reality provides no lasting help in the great human struggle against sin and death. In the fight against evil, God the Son riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey is infinitely more powerful than all the fleeting powers which demand our fear, all the children of men who wish us to die for them.
And when Christ’s ride is over, when the cruelty of man turns its vicious rage against the Prince of Peace, because His strength lies in the same divine strength which spread the universe across the canvas of the sky, Christ can allow us to do our worst against Him; He can channel all of our anger and selfishness onto Himself--all the broken promises and betrayals, all the greed and adultery, all the rape and murder--God the Son takes it all, bears it all, and shows us that there are no winners or losers in this life; no, there are only those who are ruled by their desires and those who sacrifice themselves to save the world. In our stubborn, willful ignorance it just isn’t enough for God to just tell us this truth we know but suppress; no, God the Son allows the great portrait of human nature to be written in His pain and blood; He allows us to try and uncreate our Creator, to let us see in real-time if our selfishness and collective love of destruction can outweigh the creative love of God. And, my God, in the empty tomb we celebrate next week, we see that it cannot. Christ is His incredible willingness to suffer death at our hands, gave us the ultimate space in which to embrace chaos and murder instead of order and love. To see, forever, just how truly mad and fruitless it is to oppose the God who breathed life into chaos and made the universe, the God who breathes life into our broken souls and makes us new creations.
And so, if we are among those who follow Christ by sacrificing ourselves in humble imitation of our resurrected Lord, we bind ourselves to the true glory which is His. Not the fake glory of the adoring crowd, but the true glory which can only come from our Creator. If we carry our cross, we too will be exalted; even in our moments of greatest persecution and travail, we will be united with the king whose majesty and glory are so great that they shine forth even on the back of a lowly donkey, even on a bloody cross, even upon whatever ground you will be called to make your final stand.