“Who Is This Jesus?” (Matthew 21:1-11)
Today is the First Sunday in Advent. As it’s the beginning of Advent, and the word “Advent” means “Coming,” our readings today–particularly the Holy Gospel–focus our attention on the one who will be coming to us at Christmas, namely, the one who comes to us now in every church service, and who will come again on the last day at the end of time. So who is this one who comes to us in these ways? That’s what our text today gets at.
And because today is the First Sunday in Advent, it is also the first Sunday in a whole new church year. The church year begins today. And so our text today works on that level as well, focusing our eyes on the one who is continuing center of every season of the year–indeed, of every week and day–none other than Christ our Lord.
That’s why the Holy Gospel for today is the account of Christ riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As an Advent reading, it causes us to behold our king who comes to us during this season. And as a reading to kick off the new church year, it works to direct us to the hinge and hub of the entire church year–the hinge and hub of history, really–which is Jesus entering Jerusalem to suffer and die for the sins of the world and to rise again on Easter. Advent, church year–it works both ways.
In this church year, the first in our three-year lectionary cycle, the appointed Gospel featured the most frequently is the Gospel according to St. Matthew. On 38 of these 52 Sundays, the Holy Gospel will come from Matthew. But really, the main question that each of the four gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–the main question they all address is the one we hear the crowds ask in today’s reading, and that is, “Who is this?” As we heard in our text: “And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’”
“Who is this Jesus?” This is the most important question that can ever be asked or answered. It is the question of the ages. Who is this man, Jesus of Nazareth? Where did he come from? What has he done? What is he doing? What will he do? Who is this fellow, and what does he mean for me, for us, for everyone? Just who is he? Yes, this is the most important question you will ever ask or hear the answer to: “Who Is This Jesus?”
We hear some possible answers weaving through our text. One is: “Behold, your king is coming to you.” Another is: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Or another answer to the question: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Let’s explore these possibilities. What these answers might mean, and what they mean for you–this, I submit, is vitally important for each one of us here today.
Let’s start with “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” Sounds pretty simple, fairly straightforward. There was this man named Jesus, from a town called Nazareth in the region of Galilee. That’s just basic information, nobody would dispute that. But the people were calling him a “prophet,” and that takes it a step beyond. What does it mean that they would call Jesus a “prophet”?
At a minimum, it means that they recognized that Jesus was a man sent by God. They recognized and realized he was operating with some sort of divine authority. He was preaching, teaching, and his words were hitting home. Jesus had been calling people to repentance, calling out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus had been teaching the true meaning of the Word of God, and doing it with divine wisdom, beyond that of their usual teachers. It says earlier in Matthew: “The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
Jesus had been doing the works of a prophet, exercising divine power, doing miracles, signs and wonders: healing the sick, casting out demons, calming storms, multiplying loaves and fishes, even raising the dead. This was no ordinary man. God was with him, there was no doubt. It was almost like . . . God was with us, in the person of this man Jesus. “Immanuel,” “God with us.” . . . That’s getting at it, isn’t it? Who is this man?
Well, the people of Jerusalem at least are able to say that he is a prophet. But that may be low-balling him. Earlier Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In other words, “Who do men say that I am?” And they reported what they had been hearing: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” And you could understand how people might get those ideas. There were aspects to Jesus’ ministry that were like those of the great prophets of the past. But there was more. “Prophet” is good, but don’t stop there. And so Jesus asked his disciples what they thought: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter piped up: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now we’re getting somewhere! Very good, Peter!
And that leads us to another answer to our question that we hear the crowds applying to Jesus: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Now we’ve got the term, “the Son of David.” This is adding another layer to our understanding of who Jesus is. “The Son of David” is a reference back to the great king of Israel from centuries before: King David, who reigned in Jerusalem around 1000 B.C. King David was told that one of his sons would reign after him, in a way that would be greater than any king ever. This son of David, a descendant, would have an everlasting kingdom and usher in an age of blessing unsurpassed in the annals of history. And so this was the prophecy of a Messiah, a Christ, an anointed great king to come.
Thus when the crowds welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” this is the one they are meaning. They are acclaiming Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah to come. “Come, Jesus, take up your throne! Save us from our enemies! Reign over us as king, and bring us those glorious blessings!”
Well, although the crowds are right as far as recognizing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of David, it seems they don’t quite get how it is that he is going to usher in his kingdom, and what shape that will take. If they’re thinking just in economic, military, political terms–if that’s the kind of king they’re hoping Jesus will be, driving out the Romans, putting bread on the table and a chicken in every pot, because, after all, we’re God’s chosen people–well, then they’re missing the point. They’ve got the wrong king, and the wrong Jesus.
What kind of a king are people looking for today? What kind of a Jesus do they want? A glory king, a prosperity king, who will bless them with a nice house in the suburbs, and a nice family, and a nice IRA, and a nice SUV that gets good gas mileage? Who is the Jesus that they want? A life coach? A moral teacher who dispenses good advice? A political Jesus–on either side, a socialist Jesus who advocates for the poor, or a conservative Jesus who preaches traditional moral values? Maybe people today–if they give Jesus any thought at all, which is doubtful–maybe they just want a non-judgmental Jesus who approves of whatever they want to do.
What about you? What kind of a king do you want Jesus to be? Who is this Jesus to you?
What kind of a king, what kind of a Jesus, people want may not match up with who the real Jesus is. It was true back then, and it is true today. Who is this Jesus? Perhaps we can find the answer to our question in this verse quoted in our text: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” Because that is how Jesus came, according to his own choosing. He came as a humble king, a Scripture-fulfilling king, riding on a beast of burden.
It was fitting that Jesus would come this way, because he himself is carrying a burden, as he comes riding into Jerusalem. Christ comes bearing the burden of our sins. All the sins we have piled up over the years, all the sins of the world, for all time–this is what Christ is carrying. He is coming to Jerusalem to take our sins to the cross, suffering the rejection of his own people, suffering injustice at the hands of a weak ruler. But in so doing, he will be fulfilling the plan and purpose of God, namely, to redeem the world and to save sinners like you and me. This is how Jesus will reign as king, overcoming sin and death and the grave. This is the kingdom of blessing he comes to bring in, a kingdom of forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation.
Who is this Jesus? He is a prophet, yes, but much more than that. He is the Son of David, yes, but no mere glory king. Who is this? This Jesus is the humble, Scripture-fulfilling, burden-bearing king, who saves us in the way we need to be saved. He is your king today, and your king forever. Welcome him as such during this Advent season, and find out more about him–grow in your faith in Christ–in this new church year that’s just starting today. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”