“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Palm Sunday is from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the prophet Zechariah. Dear friends in Christ, the people had heard that Jesus was coming. Of all the miracles that this man had performed, none had been more amazing than the raising of Lazarus. A man who had been dead for days now stood among them alive! And He was alive because of Jesus! “The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard He had done this sign.” Their response was to greet Jesus with as much fanfare as they could muster. “So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” At this moment, none noticed that Jesus came not on a chariot at the head of soldiers, but instead on a donkey followed by the twelve out of work Galileans. All they saw was the glory, the triumph, of Palm Sunday.
The entry of Jesus of Nazareth into Jerusalem was a far cry from another entry that occurred centuries earlier. Joseph the son of Israel entered Egypt as a slave, as one beaten and abandoned by his brothers to die, then sold to the highest bidder. He carried that memory of betrayal and deception into Egypt. He had come to visit his brothers, and what was their greeting? “They took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” But that was not the only pit that Joseph would find himself in. He served his Egyptian masters faithfully, only to be falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. And what did Potiphar do? “Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison.” The Hebrew word here for ‘prison’ is the same term used for ‘pit.’ Joseph entered Egypt as a slave, tossed from one pit of bondage to another.
The prophet Zechariah in our Old Testament lesson uses the language of Joseph’s story to describe situation of fallen humanity. We too are prisoners, prisoners in a ‘waterless pit,’ a prison from which we cannot set ourselves free. And what is that prison? It is the prison of death. If you think about it, you know that he speaks the truth. Death is inescapable, it is unavoidable, it has us in its shackles and it does not intend to let go. The penalty of being a child of Adam and Eve is death, and not just an earthly death, but eternal death. This seems unfair, this seems unjust, but so was Joseph’s imprisonment. We cannot advocate for ourselves, we cannot hatch an escape plan, we are more prisoners to death than Joseph was to the Egyptians. We cannot escape it. Why is this? What would make us prisoners to this impersonal force, this abstract concept that is too terrifyingly real, prisoners of death? In Psalm 107 we find the answer: “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High.” Because of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, we are corrupted with sin, we are born in rebellion against God. We have no peace with God because our every thought and action is opposed to Him. But we should not simply blame our first parents- we have all done plenty to add to our bondage. Lent is a season of repentance and self-examination, and I know that when I do that the results are painfully clear. I deserve the prison of death, there is no way around it. And so what can we do? We have little recourse but to cry out to God for help, for deliverance, for salvation. Once again, Psalm 107 teaches us this: “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart.” There is the promise throughout the Old Testament that God will act to deliver those who are in prison- you, me, and all humanity. And if Zechariah has identified our condition as prisoners in the pit of death, he also has pinpointed God’s deliverance.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, you king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” There is a tension on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters in triumph, but as Zechariah teaches us, He also enters in humility. There was no army accompanying Him, no heavenly choir, no majestic war steed. Instead He rode a donkey and the voices of children and those beaten down by sin that greeted Him. Jesus entered Jerusalem more like Joseph entered Egypt than a king coming into his glory. But this is nothing out of the ordinary for Jesus. That same tension has been following Him throughout His life. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, true God Himself, the Second person of the Trinity, became man and was born in the lowliest of circumstances. From the moment of His birth He humbled Himself, even as the angels sang. Saint Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson: “[Jesus] made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jesus made Himself nothing! Zechariah prophesied that the Messiah would come in humility, and in Christ his words are fulfilled. The seeming triumph of Palm Sunday is only a precursor to that great act of humiliation yet to come. We hear again in our Epistle lesson: “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For Jesus Christ had come to answer our cries for deliverance, He came to rescue us from the pit of death, to rescue us from the inescapable penalty of temporal and eternal death. And He would do this by His blood, as Zechariah teaches: “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” We who could not set ourselves free were released from our bondage by the blood of Jesus. He humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross, and He did this to deliver us! That is what we look toward on this most holy of weeks- we are looking toward the moment of the cross, for there Jesus, the one who entered Jerusalem in seeming triumph, would hear those cheers turn to jeers and the palms turn into scourges. There at the cross He would suffer for us and in our place, placing Himself in the pit of eternal death for us. He allowed Himself to be bound so that He might set us free. The Jewish authorities, Pilate, and the Roman soldiers all had a part to play, but the only reason they could even touch Jesus was that He had humbled Himself to death for you and me. His love for us is so great that He was willing to lay all that was rightfully His aside and instead take on the form of a servant. “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” And we truly are set free by the blood of His New Covenant with us, as we hear in the gradual for Holy Week: “Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised inheritance.”
Through His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, Jesus has not only released us from our prison of death, He has established peace between God and man. God speaks through Zechariah: “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and He shall speak peace to the nations.” The rift between God and man is now bridged by Christ’s suffering and death- He can proclaim ‘peace’ to us all, because that is the result of His work. His message is peace, peace to all people, because as Zechariah tells us “His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Jesus Christ, the humble yet triumphant king, now proclaims His universal rule, entering into human hearts through the Word and Holy Baptism to set people free, just as He came to you when you were in bondage and rescued you. His salvation is for everyone, just as it is for you and me.
We are then set free to become prisoners of another sort. Jesus calls out to us through Zechariah, “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” We were prisoners to death, but through Christ we are set free to become prisoners of hope. We now are in bondage to the hope of eternal life that fills us. We have been taken captive by the promise, we are in chains to the forgiveness of sins. What a wonderful message! We belong to God, we are attached to His promise even more strongly than we were attached to death! We are set free to live in the ‘stronghold’- the stronghold that is Jesus Himself, as He is our rock, our redeemer, our protection in every step that we take in this dark world. We seek our refuge in Him, for He has come among us. “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He!” His Word, the Baptism in which He claimed us as His own, and His physical, tangible coming to us in the Lord’s Supper- those form the stronghold to which we cling. They set us free to look toward ultimate peace, the peace between God and man that He won for us, and the peace which we will ultimately experience in eternal life.
As I said earlier, there is a tension in this day. We see the triumphal entry of Christ, with the crowds crying ‘Hosanna’ and we are tempted to see only glory. There is glory to come, but first must come suffering, first must come humility even to the point of death. Only then, only by defeating our enemies and paying our price on the cross, can the glory come. On this day we look toward the week ahead, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but we also steal a glance toward Easter. For it is on that day that the tension breaks, and the glory shines forth, as Christ rises triumphant over death, our prison warden, the one who held us captive. We steal a glance toward Easter while saying with the words of the Introit: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, He is the king of glory!” Amen.