Sermon for Palm Sunday
Philippians 2:5-11 + Matthew 21:1-9 + Passion History Reading
What a sight it must have been, Jesus the Rabbi, Jesus the Teacher, the Preacher, the Miracle-Worker, loved by many, hated by more, sitting on a donkey, with palm branches and clothing spread out along his path down from the Mount of Olives and up again to the city of Jerusalem, surrounded by people waving their own palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!” All of it, especially the donkey, proclaimed Jesus’ royalty, and His humility, and His saving purpose, because it linked Palm Sunday to what the prophet Zechariah had foretold long ago: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.
The crowds understood, but only to a point. They hailed Jesus as their king, but they thought He would be an earthly king. They loved Him for His humility, because they thought His humility would soon come to an end and be replaced by a glorious earthly kingdom, with glory for Jesus and for them. They all knew His purpose, that He was coming to save them, so they sang, “Hosanna, save us now!” But the salvation they sought wasn’t the salvation He was coming to bring. Not a one of them thought that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to lay down His life as an offering to atone for their sins.
Jesus’ disciples understood a bit more. They had called Jesus the King of Israel long before the crowds welcomed Him into Jerusalem with their palm branches and songs. They saw the humble life He always led, and they were there for the foot-washing you heard about this morning, when their King wrapped a towel around His waist and stooped down to wash their dirty feet, instructing them to humble themselves as their King had humbled Himself. But they, too, stumbled over His humility, and over the humility He outlined for all who would follow Him. What did they do almost immediately after He washed their feet? As you heard in the Gospel, a strife arose among them, which of them should be considered the greatest.
In today’s Epistle to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul, writing after the fact—after Palm Sunday, after Maundy Thursday, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday—addressed this very glory-seeking mentality that was in the Palm Sunday crowds, that was in Jesus’ disciples, and that still dwells in us by nature. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Before He was born into this world, Jesus existed. He was in the beginning with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit. He was “in the form of God,” the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it. He did not consider it robbery to be equal with God. In other words, He didn’t seek to grab more glory for Himself. He already had all the glory anyone could ever want, the very glory of God. But, rather than hold onto that glory, He made Himself of no reputation. Literally, He “emptied Himself.” He set aside His divine privileges as the Son of God and took the form of a bondservant, a slave. He came in the likeness of men. He lowered Himself all the way down to our level.
First, to our level as human beings. We are creatures who depend on God for everything—for the earth to live in, for sunlight, for rain, for sustenance, for health, for the very air we breathe. We are literally at the mercy of God for everything. Jesus lowered Himself to that same level of dependence on His heavenly Father and perfect obedience to His heavenly Father as a creature, as the Son of Man.
Of course, even Adam and Eve were at that level, and it was still a pretty glorious thing. But that’s not low enough. Jesus had to go lower, to the level of sinful humanity. To the level of cursed humanity, obeying, suffering all the way down to death, even the death of the cross.
And He chose it. He chose it all. As we sang in the hymn, “Yea, Father, yea, most willingly I’ll bear what Thou commandest; My will conforms to Thy decree, I do what Thou demandest.”
Jesus’ willing humiliation of Himself teaches us: There can be no glorious kingdom here, in this sin-stricken world. There can be no paradise, no heaven here on this earth, because every single member of the human race is corrupt with sin, and together, we can only end up destroying ourselves, as history has proven time and time again. No. Sin, death, and the devil were our real enemies. And it took the voluntary humiliation of the Son of God to destroy those enemies for us, to take away their power.
But there is a kind of glory in that loving sacrifice, as Jesus told His disciples, Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself. Because Jesus humbled Himself so willingly, so perfectly, purely out of love for us, He earned for Himself, as a Man, all the glory He once shared with God the Father as the Son of God.
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
God has already humbled you by bringing you to a knowledge of your sin and causing you to sorrow over it, calling you to confession and to daily repentance. God has already glorified all those who believe in Christ Jesus and have been baptized in His name by making you His own children and by forgiving you all your sins, promising you an eternal, glorious inheritance in the new heavens and the new earth.
The hard lesson for us, who still drag around our glory-seeking flesh, is that the path to that glorious inheritance for us Christians is still through shame and pain and suffering. The true path to glory is through self-denial and self-sacrifice. The true path to glory is not seeking glory for yourself at all, but rather, seeking how you can humble yourself to serve your neighbor in love. That is the path that was forged for us by Christ Jesus.
Let’s follow Jesus down that path during this Holy Week, by hearing and meditating on His Word. See again just how the Son of God humbled Himself for us and for our salvation. Rejoice in it! Praise Him for it! And learn from Him, so that the mind of Christ may be also in you. Amen.