The arrival of the Prince of Peace
Peace be to you, sisters and brothers in Christ. I am Doctor Matti Repo, Bishop of Tampere, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Let me greet you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
It is Palm Sunday today, and we remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Let us hear the Gospel reading from the Gospel according to St. John, chapter 12, verses 12 through 19.
“The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!’ Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written: ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’ His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crow went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’”
The King is coming to town. But how is he to come? What kind of a vehicle should he choose? What would be suitable for his honor and glory? Perhaps a golden chariot, pulled with six white horses, all in gilded harness and driven by knights in shining armor, accompanied by soldiers in uniform. Or maybe the king would ride himself a white stallion, wearing a crown of diamonds on his head? Or, if it were to happen today, perhaps the king would be taken to the city hall in a black limousine, with police motorcycles making way ahead of him, and followed by a caravan of black vans bringing dozens of security men in black suit and shades?
The kings of this world are not afraid of showing how important and powerful they are. They do not fear looking what the privileged people look like, dressed in high fashion, and decorated with medals of honor. They have no shame to show that they are superior to those subservient to them. And why should they feel ashamed of it? After all, this is what the world loves – it loves to see people of honor, it loves to swarm around celebrities, it loves to read about royal families and follow closely their doings. Maybe that gives an experience of living close to the rich and powerful? Maybe that opens a window to peek into another world and let me feel I am part of a better life, a life without trouble, with no poverty, no hunger, no sickness, just a life of beauty and success?
This king, who rides into the city of Jerusalem, truly makes an impressive entry. But he does not arrive like a worldly king. He does not drive in a chariot; he does not sit high on a warhorse. He does not boast with his power like a warrior. He does not swing his sword to show how fearful he is to his enemies. He does not make an entry to show how different he is to each other and how much more important he is. He comes riding on a donkey. He is not elevated above the people whom he is to rule; on the contrary, he comes into the midst of his people just like one of them. And yet, he makes a difference. His entry is a triumphal one: he is celebrated and cheered by the people. Ordinary people, men and women, young and old, all alike get close to him to greet him. They shout: Hosanna, Praise be to God! Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!
Why do the people greet him so enthusiastically? Simply because they recognize him as the true King, the Messiah they have been waiting for. It was written in the Holy Scriptures of old that the Messiah will arrive sitting on a donkey. He is to be greeted with branches of palm trees, his way is to be laid with clothes, and for him shall the gates be opened, right into the midst of the people. This King is already known to his people. He has a reputation of being on the side of the poor, of the hungry, of the oppressed, of the weak, of those imprisoned, of those submitted to injustice, and of those taken captive by evil spirits. The people have seen him heal the sick, feed the hungry and even raise a dead from a tomb.
This Messiah brings hope to the people, but not to the powerful, not to those in their palaces, not to those commanding their armies, not to those doing violence. Instead, he stands on the side of those who have been neglected. He has come to defend the vulnerable against all evil. But all of this irritates those in power. The adversaries of Jesus, including the high priests and pharisees, get annoyed. They do not want the people to follow this King, this Prince of Peace, because they know he challenges them and their values.
They get worried for their own position. The pharisees can see that the crowds are on a move. The whole world is going after him! They can see there is power in the people, a power stronger than the one they have, even stronger than the one in the arms of the Roman legions residing in the city. This King is stronger because he can conquer people from innermost being. He conquers them from their heart to their head and to their hands. When this King enter a city, he occupies no palace, but instead, he occupies the soul of every human being who listens to him and believes in him. He changes people’s hidden thoughts and values; he transforms them from inside out. He makes them into children of God, children of love and compassion. He makes them his followers and turns them into advocates of justice and mercy. That is what has always made his adversaries nervous, and afraid of his power, all through centuries until our times.
This King is alive today and rules millions of people all around the world with no sword, no spear, no shield. This King rules with love and mercy and brings justice and freedom wherever his word is heard and heeded.
But not all those who received this King into Jerusalem kept cheering to him. After Jesus had been arrested and taken to trial, the wind changed. For the beginning, they crowds greeted him with joy. But soon they turned into a mob willing to deny the Prince of Peace and to demand a murderer to be set free instead of him. Soon, they would claim they have no king at all, but instead, an emperor (John 18,40; 19,15). No king but an emperor! But the emperor sat on his throne in Rome and had nothing to do with the ordinary people in the distant Judean province. Only that he had the absolute power to oppress them.
An emperor does not need to submit himself to a dialogue with the people. He is backed by his invincible legions, he has the weapons, he has all means and machines for violence. And he can use them on the Prince of Peace. By the authority of the emperor, Jesus is judged to death. Jesus is flogged, mocked, and murdered. He is crucified although he came to bring hope to the people. But he nevertheless still keeps transforming human beings from inside out, even today.
Did the people of Jerusalem gain anything good from the emperor? Only after a few decades, the Roman legions crushed the rebellious, destroyed the city of Jerusalem with its magnificent temple and slaughtered thousands of innocent people. The blood of ordinary people ran on the streets, and those that kept their life were forced into exile. There is no hope in emperors. There is no peace but only violence and oppression to be expected from those with armed legions if the Prince of Peace is not let into their city.
There is only hope in Jesus Christ, who came to sacrifice his life. He is a loving King who came to save the poor, to lift the oppressed, to defend the weak and to protect the vulnerable. Let us receive him in faith, let us pray that he will have mercy on us.
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Saviour. You who came to Jerusalem, come to our city, too, and give us your peace. Amen.