Palm Sunday 2017 - What kind of a king is Jesus?

(Matthew 21:1-11; 27:11-54 & Philippians 2:5-11)
Jesus, the expectant King
It’s Palm Sunday, the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. This fulfilled the words of Zechariah the prophet, ‘Behold, your king is coming, humble, and mounted on a donkey’ (Zech. 9:9). Jesus’ entry raised the hope of a coming king, a son of David. The crowds shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Matt. 21:9). They wanted Jesus to be their king, to rule over them.
Yet Matthew adds, When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt. 21:10-11). There’s uncertainty about who this man is and what kind of a king he might be!
But this is something we experience as well. What kind of a king is Jesus? What kind of a king is Jesus to you? You might know him. You’ve heard stories about him. But what kind of king is he really? And what does it mean for Jesus to be your king?
The first Palm Sunday occurs in the religious capital at the start of the most holy week of the year: Passover. Passover celebrates God’s dramatic rescue of his people from Egypt. This points to the kind of king that Jesus is, as he chooses Passover to establish his reign by going to the cross, bringing God’s new covenant of salvation.
While Jesus is an expectant king on Palm Sunday, by late Thursday and into the early hours of Friday, he is on trial before the authorities. The chief priests want Jesus dead, and they hold their own trial that finds him guilty. But they also know that this is Roman territory. To execute Jesus, they need the permission of the Roman governor, lest they be crushed themselves. So they send him to the governor Pilate, with the political charge that Jesus has claimed to be the King of the Jews.
Jesus, charged as ‘King of the Jews’
We pick up the story in Matthew 27, verse 11: ‘Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”’But Jesus neither confirms nor denies it. He says, ‘You say so’ (v11).
Jesus never calls himself ‘King of the Jews’. The last time we heard this title was back in Matthew chapter two, when Wise Men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ (v2).
This is a politically threatening title. Herod responds by killing many baby boys to remove the threat of another king. But we know that Jesus is not the political threat they claim. Jesus is king, but he’s not the kind of king they’re worried about. So on trial, Jesus doesn’t deny or confirm it. He remains silent, again and again, silent.
Those who know their Old Testament may recall the prophecy of Isaiah 53, of the suffering servant, who just as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so will God’s Servant be silent as he suffers and dies on behalf of his people.
This tells us that while Jesus is charged as ‘King of the Jews’, he’s a very different kind of king. He’s a servant king. God’s Servant king. He establishes his throne by dying on the cross in the place of sinners. Jesus is the king who dies for sinners.
Jesus, the King who dies for Sinners
We get a picture of Jesus dying for sinners through Barabbas, in verses 15-26. For Pilate is anxious about putting Jesus to death. Verse 18 says that he knows it’s out of jealousy that the chief priests have handed him over. Pilate also receives a message from his wife to have nothing to do with Jesus. So he tries to release him, thinking, ‘Ahhh....It’s the custom of the festival to do a favour to the crowd by releasing someone of their choice.’ Pilate gives the option, ‘who do you want me to release to you: Barabbas [a notorious criminal], or Jesus, the one called Messiah?’ (vv. 17, 21). But they choose Barabbas, the guilty criminal. ‘Why, what evil has Jesus done?’ says Pilate (v.23). But the crowd are emphatic, wanting Jesus crucified. ‘Let him be crucified!’ (vv. 22, 23).
Yet, by dying, Jesus sets Barabbas free. In just this little exchange, we have a picture of the innocent dying for the guilty. In a sense, Barabbas represents us all. When Jesus dies, sinners go free, we all go free.
That’s what Passover is about, remember? Passover is about God’s salvation. There was a great cost at the first Passover. Blood was shed in constituting Israel as his people. Here is Jesus, performing this new act of salvation by his blood. When Jesus dies, the guilty Barabbas is set free. And by the grace of God, so am I. We all go free, by the blood of this king Jesus. The innocent Jesus dies in our place. That’s what kind of a king Jesus is.
Jesus, the King for all Humanity
In fact, Jesus is the king for all humanity. Did you notice the other telling of this story from the Philippians reading (2:5-11)? In that poetic version of this story too, the cross lies at the center.
But this is not just a beautiful poem about Jesus. This story extends to all. Verse 6 says, ‘Christ Jesus, who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.’ The language here is both very similar and a contrast to the story of another man in God’s likeness.
The first man, Adam, was made in the very likeness and image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). But Adam did seek equality with God when it wasn’t his. And this temptation to sin represents us all as we seek to be in control and dominate. For me, I know I like planning things. I like my independence. I like making my own decisions. So much of my life is lived in seeking control and mastery over situations and people. But I don’t have authority to do my own thing. I don’t have equality with God. So it’s wrong when I don’t submit everything to God. Every task, every relationship, every good thing is empowered by God. He is the ultimate God and king and I am to entrust myself to him.
Yet Jesus, who can claim equality with God, lowers himself to the cross for the sake of humanity. So that now, the cross lies at the centre of humanity’s story. The Philippian poem goes on in verse 9 to say, ‘Therefore God highly exalted Jesus [who went to the cross] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.’ Every human is to esteem this king, who lived out the perfect life in humble service, despite his equality with God. He is the king for all. Unlike Adam who was selfish in the garden, Jesus does the opposite. As humans, we seek our own advantage and high position. But by his humiliating death, Jesus proves to be the king of all humanity. He is the king who serves, who is a substitute, and who represents all human beings. And there’s another image of this king we see in today’s passage.
Jesus, Mocked as King
Jesus is mocked as king. The soldiers dress him using a crown of thorns, a scarlet robe, and a reed for his hand. They spit in his face and hit him and say, ‘Hail, you king!’ The physical and emotional horror is plain to see.
Yet the Gospel writers give very few of the gory details. It seems they want us to focus on the deeper meaning behind the events. For example, verse 35 says they divide up Jesus’ clothes by casting lots, a fulfilment of Psalm 22. Verse 45 then tells us that there was darkness over the whole land from noon until three in the afternoon. This darkness seems to be a sign, pointing to the spiritual darkness of the experience.
Jesus was betrayed, arrested and facing trial. When did it happen? It was all at night, in the darkness. And now we have darkness while Jesus is on the cross, undergoing spiritual torment, being forsaken by the Father. In the darkness he cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus has been physically forsaken by God. But also spiritually and relationally: Jesus is cut off from the Father and experiencing God’s judgment.
Why has God forsaken him? For you, for me, for us. Jesus was forsaken by God so that we never have to be. The darkness that should have fallen on us falls on him. And there’s nothing worse than being in spiritual darkness.
The King who shines in the Darkness
When you’re in the darkness, you might think you’re heading in the right direction. But in the dark it’s so easy to be disoriented. You can be confused or misled, and end up further away than where you started. Some friends told me about going the wrong way in the dark as they tried to find Jolimont Station outside the MCG. They asked for help and directions, but they ended up further away because of their confusion.
But in Jesus we can have God’s light at the centre of our lives. He shows us the right direction and presence of his light. The Easter story confirms that God’s light never goes out, even when everything else seems dark. Those living in the darkness often become scared to really let the light shine on them. They don’t want God or others to see them. They might find their security through achievement, or appearance, or intelligence, or relationships. But those in the light look to the ‘Sun’, in our case, the Son of God. Through the cross, the Son of God penetrates our spiritual darkness, removing our pride, or anger and insecurity.
For me, it is so tempting to base my identity on being a great minister. On trying to look good before you. But actually, I will never meet your expectations. I can’t rely on my own performance or status. I need God as my light, through Jesus, where my whole life and security is found in him. That is what it means to have Jesus as king.
Jesus is a particular kind of king: A suffering servant, who sets sinners free, and shines in our lives to overcome darkness. We all need this beautiful Jesus to be our king. So we pray, King Jesus, thank you for going to the cross. King Jesus, be Lord and king over every area of our lives. Amen.