One of my favorite passages of Scripture is the Road to Emmaus from Luke 24, in which our Lord appears incognito to two disciples, “and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” I’ve often wished that St. Luke would have preserved our Lord’s own Old Testament Commentary for us! Think of how much sermon material I could get from something like that! On the other hand, it would probably mean throwing out my prized Church Fathers collection, let alone my Spurgeon, my Poor Man’s Commentaries, and my Jameson, Faucet Brown stuff. At any rate, it is always good practice to look at the Old Testament while keeping the question of how this points to Jesus in mind. Yet sometimes, we can get seemingly contradictory pictures of the Messiah from the Old Testament, pictures that only make sense in light of what we read in the New Testament. Take, for example, Zechariah 9:9, quoted in our Procession of the Palms liturgy:
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.
This is well known to Christians because of the Triumphal Entry that we commemorate today and every Palm Sunday. But if you turned to Daniel 7:13, we see the Messiah coming in a different way:
And behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
In the Talmud, Judaism’s official traditional supplementary texts to the Scriptures from the Rabbis, representing Rabbinic views from around Jesus’ day until the early Middle Ages, there is an attempt to reconcile these two passages based on whether or not the people of Israel are worthy of the Messiah’s coming:
R. Joshua set in opposition two verses: it is written: “And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven,” while elsewhere it is written, “Behold thy king comes unto you lowly and riding on a donkey.” If they are meritorious, he will come with the clouds of heaven. If they are not meritorious, then he will come lowly and riding upon a donkey (Sanhedrin 98a).
From the New Testament, we now can see that the better way of looking at these two passages is to note two comings of the Messiah. The first time he would come with humility, symbolized by riding into Jerusalem on the donkey. But when he returns, he will come riding on the clouds, similar to how he ascended into heaven on the clouds after his Resurrection.
We do not typically think of the Triumphal Entry or Palm Sunday as being about humility. After all, weren’t the people praising him? Weren’t they laying their coats down, waving palms, and singing “Hosanna! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!”? Yet, the Scriptures do use Zechariah’s prophecy to illustrate that his entry was a demonstration of our Lord’s humility. Though the procession of the palms and recitation of the Triumphal Entry is a very old tradition for the Sunday before Easter, an even older tradition is to focus on our Lord’s humiliation in the Passion narratives, as we saw in our long Gospel reading today. If Jesus is riding into Jerusalem humbly in Matthew 21, he is being bound, beaten, mocked, humiliated, tortured, and slain in our Gospel passage from Matthew 27. Notice how our Collect sums up the theme of the day:
Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Do you see the two factors cited in our Collect as “examples of his great humility”? First, he took upon him our flesh. Second, he suffered death upon the cross. Our Epistle passage explains this in one of the earliest Christian hymns. Please turn in your bibles to Philippians 2:5, found on page 134 in your Prayer Book:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, set aside his glory to become one of us. The Immortal One took on mortality. The Creator put on flesh. The Lord of the Universe became an obedient servant. The Holy One was executed like a common criminal. And this had been the plan from the beginning. The Son willingly and eagerly took on this rescue mission, a plan that would require his humiliation and death, because of his love, and the Father’s love, for fallen, sinful humanity. The Prophet Isaiah said, “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.” The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the wayward sheep, becoming the one true spotless Paschal Lamb, sacrificed for us.
This was not cosmic child abuse by the Father. This was a demonstration of God’s love, with all three Persons of the Trinity playing their part. Indeed, Christ humbles himself willingly; he had the power to end his suffering at any time. Remember when Satan tempted him at the beginning of his ministry and the beginning of our Lenten readings? Satan was trying to talk him into taking the easy way out. Remember the mocking words of the of the chief priests, scribes, and elders: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.” Again, tempting him to end his suffering in a display of power.
But our Lord doesn’t take the easy way out. Our Lord remains on the cross, he suffers and dies, not because he was forced to, but because he knew it was the only way to rescue us, the only way to redeem creation. Nevertheless, death and humiliation don’t last forever. Verse 9:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus didn’t need to become Lord. He was always Lord. He didn’t need to aspire to the Glory of the Godhead; glory was his from eternity. By virtue of his Lordship, every knee would have bowed anyway, should he have shown his full glory. But God wanted us to bow from love rather than by coercion. God wanted to redeem us rather than damn us. Any parent or teacher can understand. We have the power to force our children into compliance, but it’s much better for them to listen and obey of their own volition. I’d much rather my daughters’ respect come with love rather than fear. That said, Jesus’ Lordship is glorious and powerful, and that means it will humble us, and sometimes frighten us. I’m reminded of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Great Lion (who symbolizes Christ) is never safe, but he is always good. And this is important as we head into Holy Week. We don’t look at Jesus’ humiliation in the same way that the Scribes and Priests did. We don’t look at him like the Soldiers did or even the common people. He’s not to be pitied or mocked. Rather, we echo the words of centurion and his companions who “were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’”
Just two verses prior to our Epistle passage, St. Paul writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant that yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Then we have our passage: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” Because we have been crucified with Christ, participating in his death through the Sacraments, we can also exercise his humility. If he didn’t consider equality with God as something “to be grasped,” something to jealously cling to, we also can become humble before each other rather than insisting on our supposed rights. We don’t have to look out for number one. It’s not every man for himself in the Kingdom of God. No, we are all redeemed slaves who have been rescued from sin and adopted into Christ’s family. None of us deserve to be here, we are all only here by God’s grace.
This is also important to remember as we begin Holy Week. Holy Week is not just about remembering Christ’s death and passion, it’s also about changing us through it. It’s about humbling ourselves as we consider his humility. It’s about dying to self as we consider his death. And it’s about looking forward to our own resurrection and glorification as we consider his Resurrection and Glory, knowing that Easter is a promise that we will be with him one day in his fulfilled kingdom. The first time he came on a humble donkey and was met by the praises of pilgrims. Next time he will come on the clouds, met again by pilgrims, saying “Blessed is he who cometh in the Name of the Lord.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.