Sermon: An Upside Down King
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-9
Date: April 9, 2017
This is always a great day in the church. Palm Sunday. Traditionally the Choir prepares lots of special music. And the kids put on a parade, and who doesn’t love a parade. But at the risk of raining on that parade, I must confess that I have always felt that something was just not quite right about this Sunday. First of all, it has kind of a split personality. Most of the time we call it Palm Sunday and stick to the more traditional elements that we are so familiar with. We tell the story of Jesus riding in on a half grown donkey, with people waving Palm Branches, and shouting and singing songs and laying their cloaks down in front for Jesus as he rides. After all we wouldn’t want Jesus to gather the dust of Jerusalem on Him. And up on the wall of the city, the Pharisees and Priests have gathered to watch the parade, and offer their critique on what they see. Most of us know the story. But then it is also known as Passion Sunday because it begins the week that culminates with Jesus dying on the Cross. There’s just something not quite right about a Sunday in the church that starts with a parade of innocents waving Palm Branches to welcome a King and ends with a foreshadowing of crucifixion. It would be so much easier if Palm Sunday was just about the parade. One pastor writes: “Palm Sunday would be easy to understand if it contained only the familiar: kings, colts, crowds and cloaks. In this version of the story, King Jesus would ride into town and confront King Herod, and the one with the biggest crowd would win.” And at first glance that is exactly what it seems to be. But then we look deeper and there’s something not quite right. First of all, this new King doesn’t ride on a fine white stallion like Herod does. Like the Roman governor does. Like Caesar does. Like a King would. Instead, He rides on a half grown donkey. And let’s face it, that’s not exactly the elite of society that are greeting Him. They are the poor, the outcasts. They have to greet him on the outskirts of the city, outside the wall, rather than on main street Jerusalem because they weren’t welcome inside the wall. And those cloaks they laid in his path. Tattered and torn, little more than rags. Not nearly the fine cloth that Caesar would have been greeted with. Not the tribute that a real king demands. There’s just something not quite right about Palm Sunday. And the people shouting the Hosanna’s couldn’t see it. They were welcoming their king on His way to His coronation and so the best they could, they put on a parade that was worthy of the coronation of a king. But for them to see the truth of what was happening they would have had to be able to see the future. They watched the parade through the lens the past, of prophecy. The long awaited Messiah. Finally a King in the line of David. Because in the past tense this looks like a great day. But for those of us who have the luxury of hindsight – who can view this parade from the lens of the future, of the betrayal and crucifixion and death that is to come, there is a darker undertone to it. There is something just not quite right about Palm Sunday.
And through the years I have read the scriptures that record what happened on Palm Sunday and through the rest of Holy Week and I have always concluded that the central conflict around Jesus was this question of Jesus’s authority. The people on the outside of the gate clearly believed that his kingly authority was divine in nature. This little parade unfolds just as the prophets had said it would when the Messiah, the Godly King, entered into Jerusalem. But the Chief Priests and Pharisees put Jesus on trial, essentially over the question of whether His authority was divine or not. And when they concluded that His kingship was not divine in nature, they turned Him over to the Pagans. But the Pagan King, Pilate, seemed unconvinced. “Are you a Jewish King?” You see, in Pilate’s understanding, there really wasn’t a difference between Jewish politics and Jewish religion. Both were equally threatening to Rome. So if Jesus was a Jewish king, then He must be dealt with. So, the way I have come to understand these events, is that Jesus essentially went to the Cross because no one really understood what kind of King he really was. He met no one’s expectations of a King and so rather than deal with their confusion, they simply chose to put an end to it. Earthly King or Divine King, it really didn’t matter so much when He was hanging on the Cross. But then along comes the Apostle Paul to muddy the water. You know I have often wondered whether Paul was one of those on the Wall on Palm Sunday, watching this parade, and imploring Jesus to make it stop. “For the good of all your subjects, silence them. Lest the Romans crack down on us all.” But, Jesus says, it won’t do any good to silence them because all of History points to this day. Creation itself sings this day. sings. And so the Apostle Paul who had spent a life time reflecting on this day, this parade, some thirty years after the fact, writing to the Philippians, while under house arrest in Rome, suggested that the real problem of Palm Sunday, what made it not quite right, was NOT that the people didn’t understand Jesus the King, the Messiah. The real problem was that they didn’t understand Jesus the man.
And so Paul writes this about the essential conflict with our understanding what Palm Sunday, indeed all of Holy Week really was:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2: 5-11
You see most of us understand Jesus as King – as Messiah – as the savior of the world – before we know Him as our Lord – as the savior of our soul. On Palm Sunday the people welcomed Jesus as the Davidic King that the prophets had said for centuries would ride triumphantly into Jerusalem and reclaim the throne of God. Even the Priests and the Pharisees, watching from the pinnacle of the temple feared that it was true. They feared his triumphal entry was going to lead to their unceremonious exit. And they feared what the Romans would do when they realized that the long awaited king of the Jews had finally arrived. They recognized the divine nature of Jesus. They feared it. And so they tried to deny it but lately some in their midst like Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimithea, and Jairus had even dared to speak of it. Had urged them to embrace the divine rather than fight the man. This parade was all about the divinity of Jesus. But what made it not quite right. What they struggled to understand was a King who emptied Himself of His divinity and became like them. And so when He went into the Temple and got angry and turned things upside down, they said what kind of a King is this. This upside down King. And when instead of gathering an army to cast out the Roman occupiers, He stood and wept over what Jerusalem had become, they said what kind of a King is this. An upside down King. And when He and His closest followers gathered for a meal together and rather than let them wait on Him like a King would, He picked up a pitcher of water and towel and washed their feet, they said what kind of a King is this. This upside down King. And when in the garden before his arrest He pleaded with God to remove this kingly mantle from Him, they wondered what kind of a King was this who wanted the divine nature taken from Him like a cup of bitter wine. This upside down King. And when rather than take the fight to the Romans, He allowed Himself to be dragged out to the city square and be humiliated and flogged within an inch of His life. His Kingly coronation that they had sung about on Sunday, now turned so tragically upside down. And they wondered what kind of an upside down King is this who rather than be honored and feared, was instead mocked, and humiliated and tortured. This upside down King. And when at the end of the week He was paraded out of the city, beaten and bloody carrying a cross on his back, their shouts of exultation turned to wails of despair. Their King who they thought had come to save them, had instead become one of them. Outcast. Dying. Hopeless. What kind of an upside down King was this. And when he was nailed to the Cross they still tried to hold on to the hope of a King sent by God. Surely you can call on God to send a legion of angels to save you even now, they shouted. But no -not this upside down King. Instead He died just like the thieves and criminals – the men – who shared Calvary with Him. You see, what’s not quite right about Palm Sunday is that the people understood Jesus’ divinity, but they had no understanding of His humanity. After all the Messiah of God was to be exalted, on High, ascend to the throne of David. He wasn’t supposed to be like them. How could He save them, if He became like them. The last thing they needed was such an upside down King. I suspect that if they had known how the week was going to unfold as it did, they wouldn’t have even bothered with the Palm Sunday parade. And so Paul speaks to their continuing confusion I think, even after many years had passed, when he says.
“Yes, Jesus was Divine. He was from God. He was the Messiah. But He knew that’s not what we really needed Him to be. And so He emptied Himself of His Godly nature, made Himself like us, nothing – outcast – servant – even to the point of dying on the Cross. So that He could be our King. So that we could be like Him.” You see, Jesus did not go to the Cross because He was a man chosen to be King. He went to the Cross because He was a King who chose to be a man. An upside down King who ushered in an upside down kingdom.
An upside down Kingdom, where rather than paraded as exalted and lifted high, powerful and feared, followers walk humbly and in fear of the Lord.
Christianity is a Kingdom where everything works on principles that are upside down in comparison to those principles of the world in which we live.
So to be blessed, we must become a blessing to others.
And to receive love, we must give love instead.
And to be honored, we must first be humble.
And to truly live, we must die to ourselves.
And to truly receive, we must first give away everything.
And to save our life, we must lose it.
And to lead, we must be a servant.
And to be first, we must really be last.
And to truly be filled by God’s Spirit, we must be willing, like Jesus, to be completely emptied.
You see that’s what was wrong about Palm Sunday. Those who paraded Jesus into Jerusalem fully expected Him to be lifted up to His Messianic glory. To save the world. And if truth be told that’s how so many continue to see Jesus. So we have no problem waving the Palm branches, and throwing our cloaks at his feet, and praying that Jesus can somehow make everything that’s wrong in our world, right again. But instead He was lifted up on a Cross, as the sacrifice for each one of us. Not in order to save the world but rather to save us, one soul at a time. You see, they could understand salvation that comes to the world through the Son of God, but they could not comprehend salvation that comes to each one of us through the Son of Man. It is the humanity of Jesus as revealed through the rest of what happened during that Holy Week that makes something about Palm Sunday seem not quite right.
But wait, in this Upside down Kingdom of Jesus, isn’t that what makes Palm Sunday so very right. So rather than this parade ending up at the gates of the city, where we knock on the doors and demand that the world let Him in, welcome Him as King, maybe this parade needs to lead to the gates of our own heart where Jesus is knocking, wanting us to welcome Him as our upside down King. Our upside down Savior. Our Lord.