Sermon: Palm Sunday; Matthew 21:1-11

Capping off my fourth speaking engagement this week, here’s my Palm Sunday sermon.  It’s a different sort of form, so I just went ahead and clued folks in to what was coming and made big helps with a refrain along the way.
If you care, the form is:

Intro:  A1, 2, 3

Hinge: B1′, 2′, 3′


At the end of the day, though, what you say is more important than how you say it.  Major credit goes to Fiona Moore-Keish who inspired the intro, and to David Lose from whom the “riches to rags” stuff comes.  I can’t add the many footnotes due him in post format, but here’s the sermon from which the ideas came: From Riches to Rags.

Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11
Philippians 2:5-12

It’s an all too familiar scene. You’re putting a child to bed and have struggled mightily. First there was the issue of the pajamas.

“No, I don’t like that pair, I want the purple ones.”

Well, I’m sorry honey, but the purple ones are in the wash. How about these nice red ones?

But I hate the red ones!

After the pajama situation is all worked out–often after generous pouting and tears–you move to step two: brushing the teeth.

I don’t need to brush my teeth, I brushed them yesterday.

Well honey, we need to brush our teeth every day.

But I hate brushing my teeth!

So the familiar dance of toothbrush and clenched jaw ensues: threats may be brandished, counting slowly from one to ten may help, maybe singing that teeth brushing song does the trick and, finally, pajamas are on, teeth are brushed, and its finally time to go to sleep.

But wait….

Daddy, you said you’d read me a story.

[Glancing at watch] Ok, we have time for one quick story. How about this one.

No Daddy, I want to read this story.

That one. We must have read that one a thousand times! You have that one memorized, and if I make even the slightest mistake while reading, you scold me. If I accidentally skip a page, you start screaming. You already know it, but you want to read that story, again?

What is it about children and reading their favorite stories, night after night, just so? Goodnight Moon again. The Very Hungry Caterpillar again. Where the Wild Things Are again. Parents all over the world are sure the story has been read enough, but children know better.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today, in churches all over the world, Christians are reading the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, palm branches thrown on the road before him, shouts of Hosanna! ringing in the air. Again. Every single year, the Sunday before Easter, the church reads this same old story. And part of me wants to shout, like many a parent over the years, “What do you mean we have to read that story again?”

On one hand, it’s the same old story, an uncomfortable one of a dashed hope, a story that stirs sad memories, and provokes regrets. What do you mean we have to read that story again? On the other hand, the story could be read as optimistic, it gives us a glimpse of God’s goodness. So this sermon is in two parts: first it reflects on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with the staid approach of a weary parent. Second though, it turns the page, considering the Palm Sunday procession in the light of the cross, and with the eyes and ears of children.

First: What do you mean we have to read that story again?

It reminds us of the pomp and circumstance, the wealth and prestige of royalty. Today’s gospel story points to the Old Testament kings and their royal processions into important towns. Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem is reminiscent of the hope throughout the Old Testament that this next king might be different, that true peace might be achieved, that God’s reign might rule supreme–but as turns out, over and over again, that Old Testament king, as do all human kings, ultimately disappoints.

The story connects to many an Old Testament tale.

  • Of how the Lord instructed Moses to take a day and feast, to celebrate with palm-fronds and leafy branches, remembering the Lord.
  • The story recalls King David’s instructions for anointing his successor, King Solomon. King David decrees that Solomon have a royal escort into town, so shouts of “Long live King Solomon” are raised, amidst crowns and jewels and royal scepters.
  • The story recalls the crowning of King Jehu, cloaks on the road, trumpets sounding, but hopes later dashed.

But those kings were a disappointment; none was the messiah. Despite the parades, the pomp, and the palms, the kings were flawed, their rules ended, and the world was still stuck in sin. What do you mean we have to read that story again? No thanks, I don’t want to be reminded of flawed kings and dashed hopes.

What do you mean we have to read that story again? That embarrassing story. We want a savior who goes from rags to riches, who picks himself up by his boot straps and shows by his strong work-ethic and family values that he is truly fit to rule.1 We want an uplifting story in which the characters improve, boost their social standing, and go on to great things. We want the rags-to-riches story of the young woman who starts from a humble birth and through hard work, frugality, and sheer ingenuity gets to the top.

Things were looking up for Jesus. Though he was born in a manger, to poor parents in a back-country town, he studied hard and attracted a following. He teaches and heals and eventually enters Jerusalem in a parade of celebration. The crowds shout, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and then…not a coronation, an execution. Hear that story again? No thanks, I’d rather not be reminded of Jesus’ fall from celebrity status.

What do you mean we have to read that story again? That story of the crowds carpeting the roads with cloaks, waving palms, and spreading the message so that all of Jerusalem went wild with excitement. That story of the crowd mentality, partying in the streets, sure that all was well until, only days later, another crowd shouted “Crucify him!” and would not rest until he was.

Do we have to read that story again? Because if we’re honest, we’re not sure which crowd we’re in. Though we try to shout Hosanna, our efforts fail. All of us, each of us, cries later in that other crowd at Pilate’s headquarters, “Crucify him.” By our actions, by our lack of actions, by our going along with the crowd, by our living as we do, we can’t help but remember that crowd at Jesus’ trial, the crowd below the cross at calvary.

Hear that story again? No thanks, I’d rather not worry about my place in the crowd.

But here we are, reading the same old story, once again. Like the parent, finally giving in and reading that children’s book one more time. Here we are, entering Holy Week, telling the story again because it’s our story to tell, because if we read one more time, we just might understand it a bit better, we might hear something new.

A late friend of mind, an avid reader, had a rather peculiar habit. When she bought a new novel, she read the back cover, then she read the first chapter–nothing strange yet–but next, instead of beginning chapter two, she’d flip to the last chapter and read to the final page. Only after reading the last pages, after knowing how the story ended, she’d flip back to chapter two and enjoy.

I think that’s what Matthew had in mind. His gospel is for readers who already know the end. Surely, Lent is not over, the fast is not broken, Easter dinner is not set, but we can’t help but read the story while anticipating the end.

And so, yes, like children we can shout, “But I want that one, read that story again.”

What do you mean we have to read that story again?

If we read the Palm Sunday story again, remembering the end, we’re struck how Jesus is unlike previous Old Testament kings. Jesus’ wealth is measured in love, his crown is one of thorns, he rides into town not on the royal racehorse, but on a donkey borrowed from a stranger. He attacks enemies with…humility. He puts himself…last. He gets knocked down…and turns the other cheek.

This is not the story of a disappointing king, a short-lived messiah, it’s the story of King Love himself.

What do you mean we have to read that story again?
David Lose writes Jesus’ story is not one of rags to riches–a carpenter from Galilee making it big in Jerusalem. But, for our sake, it’s a story of riches to rags.

We know this story, Matthew has it in mind from the start. From the very beginning there are clues that Jesus is neither the rags-to-riches folk story, nor the come-from-behind movie plot of Hollywood.2 Instead, Jesus is just what we know him to be from the beginning: an outcast for our sake, a teacher of the truth, a lover-of-all beyond anything we’ve known.

It’s not an embarrassing story, it’s a story of God incarnate. Philippians reminds us, though Jesus “was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross!” Riches to rags, indeed.

What do you mean we have to read that story again?
If we read the story again, recalling the crowds with the palms and the crowds shouting crucify him, we might just remember that Jesus was with them all, and better yet, Jesus is for us still.

No matter in what crowd we find ourself, Jesus took on the cross, suffered and died, lost all that he had, for you. Not because God had to punish Jesus for our awful sin, but because Jesus loved us so much that he took on our lot, our life, to show us what true love is. And so as we consider our place in the crowd, the great heavenly crowd of all the saints, we can give thanks for God’s freely given promise in Christ.

What do you mean we have to read that story again?
Here we are, another Palm Sunday with Holy Week ahead, and we find maybe it’s a story worth reading after all. In fact, it’s the ultimate story, the story that gives all others meaning.

The king is here, from riches to rags he comes, and from the crowd we can cry, “Read it again, oh read it again.”


  1. Sarah says

    I really, really enjoyed this sermon – heard the refrain. didn’t hear a sermon yesterday – music and prayers and scripture so we did read the story – but it didn’t feel like the same thing. So your sermon, and Teri P’s, did it for me. Thanks!

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