“Holy Week: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb” (Matthew 21:1-11; 27:11-66)
“In like a lion, out like a lamb.” Have you heard that saying before? It refers to the month of March. The idea is that March usually comes in “like a lion”–the weather is harsh and cold–but at the end of the month, March often goes out “like a lamb”: the weather is fair and mild. “In like a lion, out like a lamb”: strong at the beginning of the month, gentle at the end.
That may be true for the month of March, but you can also say it’s true for this week that we’re entering today. “Holy Week: In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb.” You see, that’s how it went for our Lord Jesus Christ and his “march” in and out of the city of Jerusalem. Christ came into the city like a lion–at least in the minds of many–but he went out, he was marched out, like a lamb, a lamb led to the slaughter. What does that mean for you? That’s what we will find out.
Holy Week begins today with this day we call “Palm Sunday.” Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem and is hailed as a conquering hero, greeted with palm branches and loud hosannas. But Holy Week reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Jesus is crowned with thorns and led out of the city like a common criminal, on to crucifixion, death, and burial. So this week, this Holy Week, we see our Lord come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.
A “lion king,” that’s what the people wanted. Someone to march right in and run the Romans out of town. A mighty Messiah, a new King David, someone strong and powerful and aggressive. Someone to get the foreigners out of the country and make Israel great again. That is what many were hoping Jesus would be. A political savior. A lion king.
This idea of a “lion king” Messiah goes back a long way. In the Book of Genesis, there is a prophecy about the sons of Jacob. Of Judah it is said: “Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”
And so from the tribe of Judah would come rulers for the people of Israel. King David was such a ruler, a great military leader who brought glory and grandeur to the nation. And David’s descendants would continue to wield the scepter for centuries after him.
“Until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the nations.” There would come one descendant of David who would be the “Lion of Judah,” the promised Messiah–the “lion king,” if you will. Now Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. He was even a descendant of David. Could he be the great messianic king? He had done such great and wonderful works. His wisdom seemed to exceed even that of Solomon. Could he be the one?
Pilgrim throngs from all over were already crowding Jerusalem for the Passover festival later that week. Excitement was building. Expectation was running high. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem! Let’s go out to meet him! “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
So Jesus enters the city in triumph. But all that week, does he drive out one Roman soldier? No. The only driving out he does is when he clears the temple of Jewish merchants. Instead of denouncing Israel’s political enemies, he denounces their own religious leaders–the Pharisees, chief priests, scribes, and elders. Law and gospel, not sword and club, are his weapons of choice. Is this any way to lead a rebellion? No. But it is the way to bring sinners to repentance. And it is the way also to bring the rage and anger of your opponents down upon your head. And that in turn will be the very way Christ will win forgiveness for sinners, that is, by being struck down by his enemies.
The Lion of Judah is going the way of the Lamb, the way of the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus is led out of the city in disgrace. He is crucified, dies, and is buried. You see, it would take a lamb, not a lion, to free us from our strongest enemies.
Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah had written about a suffering servant of the Lord, who, though innocent, would be like a lamb led to the slaughter. That’s Jesus, the innocent, righteous sufferer. Look at how even the people in our text recognize that Jesus is innocent of any crime. Judas, filled with remorse, admits that he has betrayed “innocent blood.” Pilate wants to be “innocent of this man’s blood,” because he realizes that this man he has condemned is himself innocent. Pilate’s wife was more right than she knew when she called Jesus “that righteous man.” Not only was he innocent of any crime, he was innocent of any sin at all.
But you and I, we are not so innocent or righteous. And that is the reason for the sacrifice of this lamb. Isaiah writes: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We were those straying sheep. But Jesus is the lamb led to the slaughter. You and I have strayed from the green pastures and the paths of righteousness in which the Lord would lead us. We have wandered off into strange and dangerous territory. Instead of loving God, we love to be our own god. Instead of loving our neighbor as ourselves, we love ourselves, and our neighbor becomes an afterthought. This tendency we have to wander from God’s ways, this pattern of bad behavior and wrong thinking each one of us displays–this is what God calls sin. You and I are guilty, and the sentence is death.
But this man Jesus, this innocent and righteous man, took that death sentence for us. And that meant he had to do so as the Lamb, not the Lion. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is why he died: so that all of your sin would be taken away. And it is! Now life, not death, is your eternal inheritance. Now, in Christ, you are at peace with God. Only a lamb, the one spotless Lamb of God, dying as the sacrifice in our place–only a lamb, not a lion, could do all that for us.
But in so doing–in so dying–Jesus proved himself to be the real “lion king.” In what looked like a defeat, he was truly triumphant. By his dying on the cross, Jesus conquered our real enemies–sin, death, the devil, hell. In weakness and humility, Jesus was strong to save.
In C. S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Aslan, the great lion king of Narnia, willingly lays himself down and allows his enemies to kill him. But that turns out to be the way the ancient stone table of the law is broken. Treacheries are paid for. Enemies are put to flight. Aslan the lion is, of course, a picture of the self-sacrifice and victory of Christ.
Because Christ died in weakness, for sinners, and thereby won the victory for us, now you and I can afford to be weak, too. We can admit to being sinners, because we know that God is absolutely ready to forgive us. We can forgive others, because we know God has forgiven us and forgiven them too. Now we can live with pain and setbacks and unanswered questions, because we have hope and we know that this life is not the end. Now we don’t have to struggle to be our own savior, because we know we have a much better Savior in our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Book of Revelation, chapter 5, St. John is given a vision of the throne room of heaven. He is told, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.” Then John looks, and what does he see there at the throne? “A Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” Did you catch that? John is told to look at a lion, and he sees a lamb! A lamb who was slain, no less! The point being, the Lion is the Lamb! Jesus has triumphed precisely as the Lamb who was slain! The conquering Messiah is the crucified one! There is no other. On the cross, Jesus triumphed over our enemies–sin, devil, hell. By his death, he has destroyed death. With his own blood, he has made us God’s own people. And it happened during this week, Holy Week: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.”
Yes, the Lion who is the Lamb is our Lord! And so with those worshipers in that heavenly throne room we too praise our victorious king, the Lion who is also the Lamb: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Or to put it another way: “Worthy is the Lamb whose death makes me His own! The Lamb is reigning on His throne!”