Palm Sunday, April 24, 2016
Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-8
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today, on the final Sunday of the Triodion, Palm Sunday, we wrap up our series in which we have been asking the question “Who is God?” This is eighth part of this eight-part series.
On the previous seven Sundays, we have answered the question a number of ways: God is our Judge, God is our Forgiver, God is Incarnate, God is Essence and Energies, God is our Priest, God is our Hope, and God is our Salvation. We could say a lot more, of course. Today, though, there is one final way that we answer this question, and it is one that sums up all that we have said and even many more things that we could say.
So, in answer to our question, “Who is God?” today our answer is this: “God is our King.”
The Triumphal Entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, which is what we are celebrating today, is nothing less than the entry of a conquering king. We often emphasize His humility here, that He is not riding on a chariot or on a great white warhorse, but on a humble donkey, but we should not so emphasize that humility such that we miss the greater narrative of what is happening. This is the entrance into a city of a conquering king.
The meaning of this entrance would not have been lost on the people of first-century Palestine. Both the Jews and even more the Romans would see this symbol and understand its meaning immediately. This is what in Roman culture was called a “triumph.”
The Roman triumph was originally a symbolic entrance into a city that had just been conquered. But it also was done by various Roman generals after they had made conquests abroad. They would enter into the city in a big parade, usually riding on a chariot and accompanied by a display of their military power, usually soldiers with their armor and weapons, perhaps war elephants and siege engines, as well. Also brought along for this parade were captives that had been taken in the conquests, especially if they were important people, such as a conquered king and his family. Foreign rulers would be displayed for all to see, humiliated in chains and cages.
In many cases, the triumph was the prelude to the assumption of power by the general who was being celebrated. He may become emperor or at least take some part in the Roman government. The reason why this would happen is because he had demonstrated by force of arms that he was someone to be reckoned with.
If his military conquest was over the primary forces of the Roman army, then it was likely he would become emperor and that his army became the new core of the Roman military. His captains would become generals and take up positions within the newly forming government. The client kingdoms of Rome would now submit to him as their emperor.
The triumph of this conqueror, especially if he was going to be emperor, would often be preceded by his evangelion. An evangelion in the ancient world affected by Greek culture—which included Rome—was the public proclamation of either the birth or the conquest of a new ruler. Evangelion literally means “good news,” and it was the good news of the coming of the ruler. Included in it was not only the announcement of the birth or conquest that was bringing this ruler into power, but also in the contents of the evangelion was a general outline of the kind of ruler he was going to be, especially in terms of what he expected of his citizens. The evangelion was the ruler’s covenant with his new people.
All of this is the image that we are seeing today in the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.
Jesus Christ is entering into Jerusalem in a show of force, though it is not the force of physical violence. No, it is the power of God that changes the hearts of men and women.
Jesus Christ is entering into Jerusalem with his soldiers with their armor and weapons. But he does not have legionnaires or war elephants, but fishermen. And they are armed not with swords but with the word of God, and they are protected not with armor but with faith.
Jesus Christ is entering into Jerusalem with His captives in chains and in the humiliation of bondage. But His captives are not earthly rulers, but hades and Satan and death. His captives are the demons, who tremble at His approach. His captives are every wicked thought that is whispered into our ears, tempting us to sin. All these He has made His prisoners, and all these He will shut up into an eternal prison from which there will be no escape.
Jesus Christ is entering into Jerusalem with every intention of becoming not an earthly Roman emperor, but rather the great King of all the universe. And His Apostles, His generals in this mystical warfare, will rule alongside Him on twelve thrones. And all who join Him will reign together with Him. And all the kingdoms of this world will bow to the One Whose kingdom shall have no end.
Jesus Christ is entering into Jerusalem with the proclamation of His evangelion, His good news—His Gospel. The conquering King has come. He has not only been born King of the Jews by His inheritance from the great David, but He has become King of all the nations by right of conquest. But His conquest is not over the Roman army nor any army of this world. Rather, His conquest is over the one enemy that would threaten to defeat us all—He is coming to conquer death, to cast it down from the high places of its rule and to end its dominion over mankind forever and ever.
This, brothers and sisters, is what we see today. And as we shout out “Hosanna!” with those Jews who welcomed Him at that first Palm Sunday, and as we wave our branches in celebration of the coming of our King, we listen closely to the words of His evangelion. We follow closely His generals, the Apostles, Who are claiming this territory in His name.
And what is the evangelion, the Gospel of the Great King of all Kings, the Lord of all Lords, the Most High God become man Who dwelt among us? He has conquered death! And all will someday be raised in the great and universal resurrection of which He Himself is the first-fruits, the first-born from the dead.
And what does He expect of us, so that we may be citizens of His kingdom? What is His covenant with us, His people that He has won for Himself? He calls to us to be converted, to be baptized, to lay our hearts and our whole lives on His holy altar, to follow Him on the way of the Cross, the way of suffering and death. And we follow Him to this death, offering up our whole lives on His cross, not because we seek death or wish to be destroyed. God forbid!
We follow Him because He has invited us to join Him in this great act of triumph. We follow Him because He has invited us to trample down death with Him. We follow Him so that we may also become part of His armies which are reclaiming this world for the Kingdom of Heaven.
So what does this mean for us, in practical terms? How do we do Palm Sunday the right way, and how do we continue what we do today through Holy Week and into our whole lives?
The biggest thing is that we have to learn to think differently. When a new king comes into his kingdom, that means that everything resets, everything is changed, everything has a new beginning. This is not the transfer of power in a democracy or a republic, in which there tends to be more continuity than change from one administration to the next. This is nothing short of a revolution, and the King Who is coming has conquered death itself.
So we can’t just keep living the same way. And we can’t live in the Kingdom basically ignoring the evangelion that has been proclaimed. If we do that, what happens? We will get cast out of the Kingdom at the end. We will not remain citizens. We will be exiled as lawbreakers.
So what do we do? We listen to the Gospel. We make participation in worship a true priority in all its forms—church services, giving our resources, serving each other, loving each other, training our minds and bodies, teaching our children, participating in the sacraments. Those are the behaviors expected of those who will be citizens in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. If we are going to join Him in His conquest of death and be His citizens, then the way is clear. Let us now enter with Him into Jerusalem.
Today, we ask, “Who is God?” And today, we answer: “God is our King.”
And He shall reign forever and ever, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, unto ages of ages. Amen.