The First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, St. Matthew 21:1-13
Who Is This?
Who is this? “And when He had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”
As the Feast of Passover draws nigh, thousands of pilgrims from Galilee throng the highway bound for Jerusalem, intent on offering their sacrifices to Yahweh in His temple on this high holy day and celebrating Israel’s exodus from Egypt with their countrymen.
The road the Roman army built to connect Jericho to Jerusalem winds upwards 3,000 feet over the course of its 17 miles. It passes through Bethany and Bethphage, villages on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives.
After crossing the mount it traverses the steep Kidron Valley and drops into Jerusalem. But before he descends every traveler must pull up atop the mount, which stands 300 feet higher than the temple hill and 100 feet above the pinnacle of Mount Zion. He pauses to marvel at the panorama of the holy city before and below him.
This tableau re-forms itself each year as the Passover approaches in springtime. But this time something more is afoot. An undercurrent roils the surface.
Yonder now, behold! There in the crowd is one from Nazareth of Galilee, called Jesus. By no means is He entering Jerusalem for the first time . . . but it will be His last. For three years He has stirred the masses like a bubbling cauldron.
Some have sat at His feet gazing up in adoration. Others have branded Him an agitator and an enemy of the nation . . . and pledged to kill Him.
Give Him His due. He is a prophet; on that point all agree. But along these dusty roads prophets come and prophets go. True prophets . . . false prophets . . . Are there mixed prophets? Oy vay! Who can say? But this one is certainly a prophet.
On many other points both His fellow travelers from Galilee and the residents of Jerusalem alike find His biography jumbled, His purpose a mystery. A carpenter’s son; that much is known. As common as an olive tree.
But clearly He has an agenda. He’s up to something, make no mistake. He makes outrageous claims. Some say He thinks He’s the Son of God! We’ve seen His kind before.
Look at Him. He seems a man like any other. He has neither height nor bulk. He couldn’t swagger if His life depended on it. He strikes no commanding pose that makes of Him a magnet.
But the stories! He has done wondrous works . . . turning water into wine . . . even raising the dead! What mere man can perform miracles such as these? Are they not signs of . . .? Who is this?
As He makes His way through the villages and between the farmsteads the clamor rises. Jesus seems unperturbed. Up til now He has shunned crowds as others dodge lepers . . . and plunged into the midst of lepers, bringing His mystical healing touch.
When He has healed the sick and even the blind, He has admonished those He has blessed not to proclaim Him. But now He seems to invite a public spectacle.
On His frequent journeys over the span of those three years He has always walked. What else for one of His station? Do carpenters travel in chariots? But now He sits astride a donkey.
Now, about this donkey and her colt. He has sent two of His disciples into a village to fetch them. If any villager should challenge them they are to say, “The Lord has need of them.” Not “our Lord” or “your Lord” but the Lord. A curious locution. Does He suppose He is Lord of all?
Look! The multitude are spreading their clothes on the road and bringing palm fronds to lay in His path.
This is a reception fit for a conquering general or a returning king. But . . . a donkey? If He is such an exalted personage, should He not straddle a warhorse, a formidable beast, snorting and stamping?
Israel’s prophets of yore promised a Messiah, One who would liberate the people living in bondage as Moses had done, yet One greater than Moses. Could this be He? Who is this?
Listen! The people are invoking the prophecy of Zechariah:
“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” (9:9).
Can this be He? Listen again; pay heed to what they add:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!”
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” is from their Passover song, Psalm 118, which tells, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” One prophetic voice after another sings out in fulfillment.
And Hosanna? In the prophet’s day it meant, “Save us”; a plea for rescue. In these times it is an effusion of praise: Hail Him! Are they praying to Him for salvation or celebrating Him as their king?
What else do they add? “Son of David.” For their promised Deliverer will be of the line of their forefather, the all-conquering King David who routed the Philistines and saved his people, who lifted Israel to her greatest glory.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem the ground seems to shake. The Judeans, bedazzled, cry out, “Who is this?” The Galileans reply with one voice, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”
Yes, but . . . A prophet? The prophet? The final prophet? Might He be One yet greater still?
Look again at the solitary figure mounted on the donkey. Look closely and you may make out up ahead the shadow of the cross. Encompassed by a multitude, He is utterly alone. He speaks not a word. Like those prophets of old, He makes His statement by symbolic works, a parable enacted.
Humble, lowly, He arrives upon a borrowed donkey. Or is it His? Has He claimed this brute creature as Creator of all and so Owner of all? Who is this?
Is He human or is He divine?
Come to conquer or to scatter peace?
Royal or common?
Humble or exalted?
Bound for crucifixion or for resurrection?
Who is this?
Upon His donkey, He enters Jerusalem, the royal city of His father David; Jerusalem, the holy city; Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.
But did not Isaiah tell us the One who comes to save would come to suffer?
A triumphal entry for a Suffering Servant? Amen. For only from suffering arises the humility to conquer the arrogance of sin, the sin of arrogance.
But enough! you protest. Enough of a picture that defies focus. Who is this? Say it plainly, is he man or is He God?
Aye, there’s the question. For if He is not fully man, able to take the sins of all mankind upon Himself, He cannot save us. He cannot redeem what He does not assume. And if He is not fully God, who alone can forgive sin, He cannot save us.
For we are they who thronged the highway to Jerusalem. Jew, Gentile, it matters not. Babylon or Rome or Mecca. The enemy from whom He came to save us is called by the name Sin.
Then must not our Deliverer be both God and man?
So He must be. This is His Advent, His Coming. Not to judge – the judgment awaits His second coming. But to save.
Today, beloved, we may give thanks that our fathers in the earliest days of the church took the question head-on: Who is this? They struggled with it mightily, sometimes bitterly. They knew they must, for they must produce a creed – not to define Christ but to describe Him in terms to which all the faithful must agree.
Cast an eye abroad today and you will see many trying to make God understandable. The Creator penetrated by the mind of the creature? Preposterous. Our fathers in the church would have none of it. We are eternally in their debt.
For this question, “Who is this?” is the very fulcrum of our being. Every one of us must face up to it. Is He the political Messiah for whom so many in Israel yearned, come to free us from the struggles of this vain life? Or is He the Holy One of whom the prophets spoke, born to suffer to take away our sin?
Do you find it surpassing strange that the lectionary elves place this episode before us today? As we embark on the path that leads to the manger they bend our thoughts to the road that leads to the cross.
Perhaps not so strange. He came, He died. He came to die. The 12th-century monk Hugh of St. Victor considered the matter:
“I think of God, born of a woman, a wordless baby, swaddled, crying in a cradle, sucking at the breast. I see Him later, seized and bound, wounded with scourges, crowned with thorns, spattered with spittle, pierced, nailed, and given gall and vinegar to drink. First, He bore indignities, and later outrages; and yet, if we look for the reason why He condescended to the one and bore the other, we find not any except (love) alone.”
Love alone. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Will you receive God’s love? Will you receive God’s Son? For these arrayed along the highway shouting “Hosanna!” today are those who will return on Friday to bellow, “Crucify!”
Heart of stone or heart of flesh? Crucify Him and remain rooted in your sinful pride. Hail Him as your Savior and allow God to wrap you in His love.
So begins Advent. Jesus Christ is coming. Prepare to meet Him again. And rejoice, Christian; sing out “Hosanna!”: Save us! “Hosanna!”: We praise You! Amen.