The God of the Unexpected – Palm Sunday Sermon (April 13, 2014)

The God of the UnexpectedJesus

Matthew 21:1-9

Palm Sunday

April 13, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Expect the unexpected.  That’s a good rule of thumb when dealing with Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.  Expect the unexpected, for he is forever surprising us by the way he acts.  Well, it would be surprising, perhaps, if we weren’t so familiar with the stories.  We know that David is going to beat Goliath.  We know that Noah and his family will survive the flood.  We’ve been hearing these things since we were kids in Sunday School.  Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be well informed about what takes place in the pages of Scripture; far from it.  But I do think that familiarity has desensitized us to the shocking nature of some of what’s in the there.  We barely shrug at the knowledge that our new born Lord spent his first night among the cattle sleeping in a feed trough.  It’s completely normal to us that Jesus spent his time with the outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners, more than with the religious establishment or political big wigs.  While these things may have been shocking to first century Jews, they are not necessarily all that surprising to those of us who have heard them taught and preached since we were kids.

Yet the saying holds true: expect the unexpected, for that’s what you tend to get from the palm-sundaytrue God of heaven and earth.  The history of Palm Sunday is no exception.  Jesus rides into Jerusalem to thunderous cheers from crowds of people who line the street to greet him.  Here, the Messiah, the king of the universe, is finally getting the recognition he deserves.  This is not just hundreds of people in a group following him around the countryside.  This is not even the thousands of people being fed on the shores of the sea of Galilee.  This is Jerusalem, the center of the Israelite universe.  This is Passover, the center of the Israelite calendar.  And here comes Jesus, the rightful king, riding before tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Israelites, not on a stallion or war horse.  He’s not standing atop a pair of lions with one foot on the back of either cat.  He’s humble and mounted on a donkey.  Sure, the crowds are astonished by him, praising him, shouting hosannas for all to hear.  But they have no idea what he’s about to do.  They have no idea how he’s about to do it.  Their expectations are about to be shattered.  Never mind that just a few days earlier Jesus had told them “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise,”[1]  Even his disciples still don’t understand what is about to happen.

But that shouldn’t surprise us.  For if there’s one thing we can expect from God, it’s the unexpected.  The disciples’ expectations were wrong.  The Israelites’ expectations were wrong.  So often our expectations are wrong too.  But God is not interested in our expectations, he’s interested in our salvation – and he accomplishes it in ways that the world considers total foolishness.  The words that Jesus spoke to his disciples about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection were spoken as they were headed to Jerusalem for that fateful week.  Like many the other travelers, their journey took them through Jericho.  As you probably remember, Jerusalem was situated more-or-less at the top of a mountain.  Jericho was the city at the base.  Before pilgrims would undertake the somewhat difficult trek up the side of the mountain to Jerusalem, they would often stop for supplies and rest in Jericho.  It was during this particular stay in Jericho that Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus[2] and ate with Zacchaues.[3]  Even though Jericho is the setting for these and some other well-known stories in the New Testament, the city is mostly remembered for the story of Joshua and the Israelites entering the Promised Land.  That’s another story filled with the unexpected – trumpets and shouts and walls that come tumbling down.  But there’s one more element of that story that I find even more surprising, and it’s one that usually gets glossed over in Sunday School.

You see, as soon as the Israelites had miraculously crossed the Jordan River they set up camp on the plains of Gilgal at the eastern border of Jericho.  There, they gathered their forces and prepared to wage war on the Promised Land.  Picture the forces of Rohan gathering to ride off to aide Gondor in Lord of the Rings, or the Allied Forces gathering together on the Western Front.  Here was the army of God’s people within shouting distance of their enemies who were barricaded behind Jericho’s massive walls.  And what was step one in the Israelite’s battle plan?  What was the first move that this army made?  Circumcision.  Yup, that circumcision.  And we’re not talking about just the baby boys, either.  We’re talking every male in Israel, every soldier, every man of fighting age who had been born during the days of wilderness wandering.  Not one of them had been circumcised during that 40 year mini exile.  Now that it was time for them to take possession of the Promised Land as God’s people, they had to be made God’s people once again.  The promise of the Land made to Abraham and was passed down to his descendants through circumcision.  If these Israelites weren’t circumcised, the promise didn’t apply to them and they had no claim to the land.  So in view of their enemies, enemies who were so afraid of the Israelites and their God that they were ripe for the taking, God incapacitated the whole army for a few days, made them incredibly vulnerable to enemy attack, but in so doing made them his chosen people once again.  The rest, as they say, is history.[4]

joshua-wallsThe unexpected continued from there.  After this brief stopover in Jericho, the Israelites continued on to take possession of the Promised Land as God interceded for them by causing Jericho’s walls to fall down[5] and causing the sun to stand still and giant hailstones to crush the retreating enemies at Gibeon.[6] It may not have been the battle plan that the great military minds in history would have drawn up, but it certainly worked.  Even though it seemed like foolishness to take time for circumcision on the doorstep of battle, that proved to be the deciding factor in how the war turned out.

There is a picture here of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  After his brief stopover in Jericho to dine with Zacchaeus, Jesus now rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  Sure the crowds embrace him now and rejoice in his presence, but that would be the same as the Israelites rejoicing and the Canaanites cowering in fear as the Priests triumphantly entered the Promised Land by walking the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan River on dry ground.  What comes after both of these triumphal entries is shocking vulnerability and weakness – but it makes all the difference it the world.  Just as the Israelites did not ride the wave of intimidation into the Promised Land after their God miraculously stopped the flow of the Jordan River, so also Jesus did not ride the wave of popularity with the masses.  Instead, he became vulnerable like the Israelite army had done through their circumcision.

Jesus’ weakness and vulnerability came in the form of being betrayed by one of his own, captured and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He was bounced around a kangaroo court, being beaten each step of the way, before being sentenced to death and scourged within an inch of his life.  He was then crucified and hung out to dye as travelers mocked him on their way into the city.  To any onlookers, he certainly would have appeared defeated.  But he is no ordinary man.  He is the God of the Israelites, he is the true and living God, the God of the unexpected.  jesus-fallsHe is the one who did not consider his rights and privileges as God something to be clung to, but mad himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.  And being found in human likeness, he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  And he did it for you, to redeem you, so that you could spend eternity with him in paradise.  Just as the shedding of Israelite blood through circumcision on the plains of Gilgal ensured their victory over the nations of the Promised Land, so also the shedding of Jesus’ blood was the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  God worked through the unexpected to do something miraculous for you.

And now he continues to do the same.  We have our own expectations of how a God should act.  We want him to be powerful and majestic.  He should be lofty and above the fray of this world.  We so often act as we expect his holy things to glow or float or be surrounded with angelic voices.  We have a hard time picturing him encumbered in the mundane things of day-to-day life.  Civilizations throughout history have invented for themselves gods who fit this description, gods who are above the normal things of this world.  But we have the God of the unexpected.  He is not above the normal things of this world.  He created them, and he uses them to save us.  He brings his gifts of life and forgiveness to you in unexpected ways.  Simple words, spoken from the mouth of ordinary people.  The same voices that tell their kids when it’s bedtime or order French Fries at the drive through also proclaim your sins forgiven in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  A splash of water on a baby’s forehead.  Normal water.  Not special water that has been imported from the Jordan River, but rather plain water that came from the tap in the kitchen or bathroom.  A wafer of bread or a sip of wine.  Not special bread made from select wheat grown only in the Holy Land.  Not special wine fermented from grapes grown in vineyards in Israel.  Simple bread and wine that were bought from a distribution Word-and-Sacramentcompany somewhere.  It’s no accident that the Christian Church for centuries has used the words of the Jerusalem crowd to greet our Lord’s arrival in the sacrament of the altar.  After the words of institution are spoken, the congregation responds by singing, “Blessed I he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  He who once arrived in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey now arrives among us in, with, and under the bread and wine.  With God, you expect the unexpected.  Don’t be bored by the simple gifts; these completely mundane and normal things are the means of your salvation.  These are the unexpected ways that our Lord comes to you today.

This coming week we will hear again the story of our salvation, the same story that we heard at this time last year, and the year before, and the year before that.  But don’t let familiarity with the story blind you to the unexpected and miraculous within it.  Don’t let the cross become the great, “of course.”  Rejoice in the God of the unexpected, and rejoice in the unexpected things he has done for you.  For they are your salvation.

[1] Luke 18:31-33

[2] Mark 10:46-52

[3] Luke19:1-10

[4] Joshua 4-5

[5] Joshua 6

[6] Joshua 10


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