Before I get to our New Testament reading, I’d like to ask that you participate with me in an imaginative exercise. For centuries, Christians have adopted a number of reading practices designed to help them be more open to God’s word, and to allow scripture to connect with them in a deeper way. One of these practices involves using our imagination, and it helps if you have someone read the scripture to you. So, while I’m reading this passage from Matthew’s gospel, I’d like to ask you to listen carefully as you hear this text. Listen for the details, the words that tell you of the sights, smells, and sounds of this time and place in Jesus’ life. Imagine yourself in the story somewhere, and try to experience every detail that you can.
Now, listen for and imagine the Word of the Lord as it comes from Matthew 21:1-17.
[Read Matthew 21:1-17]
Where did you see yourself? Were you in the crowd, waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna, ‘Save us now’? Or maybe you were spreading your cloak on the ground in front of Jesus, taking a quieter approach. When I tried this exercise early in the week I envisioned myself waving my palm branch and shouting just as loud as anyone else in the crowd. The second time I tried it, I merely stood back and watched as people crowded around Jesus at the temple, and he healed them. Later on in the week I tried it a third time, and this time I tried to push out of my mind everything I knew about Jesus. I tried to envision the entire scene as someone who knew nothing about what was happening. I saw a poor carpenter’s son riding on a donkey, coming in through one of the smaller gates of the city, and being hailed as a king. Suddenly the entire scene looked a bit ridiculous, and I found myself wanting to yell out, “Hey man, nice donkey!”
This wasn’t a true king’s procession, with attendants waving royal banners and his majesty adorned in shining armor and sitting on top of a massive warhorse. No, this was a poor Jewish Rabbi. People were waving parts of trees, not royal banners. He wore no armor. And to top it all off, he rode a donkey. There’s something comical, something silly about the whole scene that begs to be made fun of. Hey man, nice donkey! And with that, I would have snapped a picture with my phone and posted it on facebook. It would have gone viral with hundreds of funny comments. Nobody would have ever seen anything like it, ever.
You know what? I think that’s exactly the point that Jesus is trying to make. I think if he had wanted to, he could have staged a more triumphal looking display. He could have come into the city carrying a sword, or wearing a crown, or riding a more stately animal. But he didn’t. He could have come into the city looking a lot more like those other kings out there, especially the king, Herod. But he didn’t. Instead, he turns the entire idea of a triumphal entry on its head. Either he’s ridiculous and comical and not to be taken seriously, or… this is a very different kind of king we have here, isn’t it?
Did you follow Jesus as he entered the city of Jerusalem? Did you stay close to him as he turned over the tables of the money changers outside the temple? Was that just some strange caricature of madness? Maybe Jesus was just unhappy with money being so close to worship. Or maybe, once again, there’s a deeper meaning here. I want to caution you against assuming that the merchants and moneychangers in the temple were just bad and greedy people who got what they deserved. To the contrary, they were conducting business as usual for that time and place. They fulfilled a necessary function, changing people’s money into the official temple currency so that they could buy animals like doves for the temple sacrifices. They promoted a religious system in which guilty people could “get right” with God just by putting down a few coins and handing a bird to the temple priest. They provided a way for the unclean sinners of the world to become clean again.
The thing that may have set Jesus off wasn’t that they were there – in fact, they were right where they were supposed to be. It was that they placed an intermediate requirement between the people and God. They placed a barrier in front of unconditional love and forgiveness. They spoke of a God who stayed far away from the unclean people of the world. As Jesus rages through the temple, turning over tables and cages of doves, we have to wonder… Is this just the ridiculous action of a madman looking for trouble? Or is this a very different God than the one we’ve been taught to worship?
Did you see what happened after Jesus entered the temple? Suddenly the people who weren’t supposed to be there gathered around him. They were the blind and the lame, the detestably unclean characters of the world. They were the children, many of whom would have been orphans or runaways with no real status in that society. The blind, the lame, the children… these are the people who come to Jesus in the temple after he “cleanses” it. They are the ones who are forgotten and overlooked in all the usual temple affairs. They have no doves, no money, no ability to buy or sell or worship in the customary way… and yet, in the eyes of Jesus these are the very people whom the temple should care for the most! The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. And the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Hosanna, indeed!
I think that Matthew, and Jesus as well, means for us to connect the hosannas – the hosannas at the city gate lead to the hosannas at the temple doors. It’s no accident that the first thing Jesus does when he enters Jerusalem is head straight for the temple, and that says something important about who Jesus is and what he’s come to do. It tells us that this is no common king, who displays power through military force or fancy adornments.
It also tells us that this God we worship is no conventional God. God absolutely does not wait for the sinners of this world, all of us included, to find our own way out of our sinfulness. God does not withhold forgiveness and mercy until we have the right money, or the right words, or have the right person intercede for us. No, this is a God who comes to us right where we are and just as we are. And it’s a God who calls us to follow, not to the throne, or to the treasury, or even to the temple, but to the cross. It’s a God who comes to us where we are, and calls us to follow into the city, into the crowds, into relationship with the people on the outside. It’s seems a simple truth, but it’s a truth of which we need to be reminded from time to time.
Well-known pastor and author Fred Craddock had this to say about it:
“You know why I think [Jesus cleansed the temple]?…Let me tell you. I think what happened to the temple is the same thing that happens to all good, fine, well-meaning institutions… They can get fixed and hardened in place and lose their original purpose. It can happen to a temple. It can happen to a church. It can happen to a school. It can happen to a government. [It] starts out serving the needs of people, meeting the needs of people, and something happens in the course of time and now the people are serving [it]. And you never remember what day it was that it happened. It just drifted into it and somebody has to come along and say, ‘Now what’s the point again?’”
What’s the point, again? The point of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem isn’t that the city was bad, or the temple was bad, or the people in it and around it were bad. No, the point was that Jesus walks right into the middle of a city and a temple full of very holy, and majestic, and sacred-looking things, but that had forgotten what it means to reflect the holiness, and the majesty, and the sacredness of God! Jesus comes into the city not looking very holy, or majestic, or sacred at all… just a poor guy on the donkey. But looks can be deceiving. By doing so, Jesus reminds us that the temple is holy only insofar as it reflects God’s love for all people. A king is majestic only insofar as he cares for his subjects. And a temple or church is sacred only insofar as it is used to care for the sacred, and nothing is more sacred to God than another human being.
All those blind and lame people who weren’t even within shouting distance of the temple? They were sacred to God. All of those children who were overlooked and unnoticed by the temple leaders? They were sacred to God. All of those around us in the community of Mint Hill who have never heard of us or been greeted by us or cared for by us? They are sacred to God. This church, the one in which we now worship God, is holy and sacred space only insofar as it is used to care for them.
We as Christians must never forget our true purpose, and this Palm Sunday is a perfect time to be reminded of who we are and whose we are. Today we follow Jesus and his donkey into Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and crucified. And he will do it for the sake of all those who cry out, “Hosanna!” – Save us, Lord! That’s you and that’s me, but it’s also those surrounding this house of worship who have been forgotten or overlooked. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday ultimately points toward his death on the cross on Good Friday, which was not just for the sake of those inside the temple, but those who were outside as well.
Imagine that. Imagine yourself in the midst of the temple with Jesus, standing, sitting, or crawling with all of the blind, the lame, and the forgotten children. Imagine yourself singing “Hosanna!”, save us now! Imagine that you’ve never seen anything like this before. And then, imagine yourself following him. Follow him into the city, into the crowd, into the throngs of believers and doubters, clean and unclean alike. Follow him to the upper room, to the table, and ultimately, to the cross. Follow him… to the bright new dawn of Easter morning and beyond, into the streets, into the community, and into the world. Follow him – all the days of your life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 “We Are God’s Temple,” A Fred Craddock Collection (Bell Tower Productions, 2001).