Text: Matthew 21:1-9 [First Sunday in Advent]
Today the Christian church changes its colors from green to purple. Although some churches use the color blue during Advent, we retain the traditional color purple at Trinity because of its history and its meaning.
As early as the time of Moses, the citizens of Tyre and Sidon, two cities on the coast of present day Lebanon, were producing purple dye from a sea snail called the spiny dye-murex. The deep, rich purple dye made from this snail became known as “Tyrian purple.”
Tyrian purple became the color of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates all around the Mediterranean. In the Book of Exodus, God instructed Moses to have the Israelites bring him an offering including cloth “of blue, and purple, and scarlet” (Exodus 25:4). This was to be used in the curtains of the Tabernacle and the garments of priests. In the Iliad of Homer, the belt of Ajax is purple, and the tails of the horses of Trojan warriors are dipped in purple. In the Odyssey of Homer, the blankets on the wedding bed of Odysseus are purple. In 950 BC, King Solomon had artisans brought from Tyre to provide purple fabrics to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 2:7, 3:14).
Among the Greeks in the Hellenistic period, Alexander the Great, the emperor of the Seleucid Empire, and the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt all wore Tyrian purple. Among the Romans, the “toga picta” of nobility was solid purple, embroidered with gold. During the Roman Republic, it was worn by generals in their triumphal processions. In the Roman Empire, purple was more and more associated exclusively with the Emperors and their officers. Jesus, in the hours leading up to his crucifixion, was dressed in purple by the Roman garrison to mock his claim to be “King of the Jews.”
When we Christians “put out the purple” for Advent and Lent, we are making a claim about Jesus. We are claiming that he is of royal blood and that he is our king. Our Gospel lesson announces this claim, quoting from Zechariah 9:9, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey!” Jesus is your king–you claim it, you say it, but do you mean it?
Was Jesus of royal blood? Yes. This was proven long ago by the Apostle Matthew, at the beginning of his Gospel (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew gives a genealogy from Abraham down to Jesus, whose title “Christ” means “prince.” Among Jesus’ ancestors listed are these well-known kings: King David, King Solomon, King Rehoboam, King Hezekiah, and King Josiah. There are actually fifteen kings in direct succession from David to Josiah. They all ruled over the southern tribes before the Jews went into captivity. Jesus is a direct descendant of all of these kings. The Evangelist Luke also gives a genealogy from King David to Jesus, through David’s son Nathan (Luke 3:23-38). So from a genealogical standpoint, Jesus most certainly had claims to be a king of the Jews.
But what kind of king was Jesus? Look at Jesus’ royal parade in our Gospel. It is almost pitiful. He rides into town on a female donkey and her colt–an old, beaten-up “pickup truck” for the poor people of his day. A noisy rabble of his disciples and children cheer him on as he enters Jerusalem, but he is not met by anyone of importance. Not the high priest, not Herod the King, not Pilate the Procurator, not even a centurion was there to greet him.
Any king in his right mind would have come into town with his army, with hundreds of slaves, servants, and officers, with wagons and chariots, and loads of stuff to trade. Any king worth anything would have ridden on a fine battle horse, in a gilded chariot, or in a beautiful carriage. Jesus? He just had a borrowed donkey. Jesus had no army. Jesus had no slaves, servants, or officers. Jesus had no money. He was just an itinerant rabbi, with a mobile school of the most primitive sort, without even a place to call home.
What kind of king, then, was Jesus? The synoptic Gospels report that, on Good Friday, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Yes, it is as you say” (Matthew 27:11). The Apostle John gives us more specifics about this dialogue regarding Jesus’ royal identity:
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 9:33-37)
What kind of king, then, is Jesus? He is first and foremost the king of truth. What kind of truth? Saving truth–it is the truth about your sin before God, about your Savior, about his work of salvation for you, about the forgiveness of your sins, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting. On another occasion, Jesus said to the Jews:
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth a time is coming and has now come, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge, because he is the Son of Man. (John 5:24-27).
Jesus was born, he came, and he testified, all for the purpose of proclaiming the saving truth about sin and salvation, about the Law and the Gospel, and also for the purpose of taking upon himself the punishment for the sins of the entire world by dying on the cross. And he will come again, to judge both the living and the dead.
How does this saving truth about Jesus apply to you today? Hear again those words of Jesus to Pilate: “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Are you on the side of truth or the side of error? There is no middle ground, according to Jesus. Either you listen to what Jesus says and believe it, or you plug your ears and harden your hearts, in any number of ways.
Our modern world has made it very easy for you to reject the words of Jesus. Central to “modernity” is freedom from religion, specifically from Christianity. “Modern” thought repudiates the Judeo-Christian belief in God, arguing that God is a mere relic of superstitious ages. It started with Descartes’ principle of “certainty,” whose only guarantor is no longer God, the Bible, or the Church, but an individual person’s subjective judgement.
“Modernity” has resulted today in the idea, even among so-called “Christians,” that the only “truth” is whatever they personally accept as true. So if they don’t like the words of Jesus or his apostles, too bad for Jesus and the apostles! Christians who think like this probably don’t realize that they have rejected Jesus as their king. He is not the king of truth to or for them. If Jesus was their king, then they would listen to and believe the words of Jesus and his apostles, as found in the words of the New Testament Scriptures.
Is Jesus your king? I don’t mean metaphorically. I don’t mean in a culturally-symbolic way. I mean in truth and in fact. Is Jesus your king or not?
In our Savior’s name. Amen.
[Some passages in this sermon are from the Wikipedia articles, “Purple” and “Modernity,” accessed Nov. 29, 2014, revised and edited by Martin Noland]