Fathers Know Best
Did you read the title carefully? It's not the 1950s TV show "Father Knows Best" but "Fathers (plural) Know Best." This Palm Sunday we're going to learn from our fathers dating from the early 300s to the middle 1800s. Here we go.
First we learn from our own Lutheran fathers. They broke from Church history which celebrated this as Sunday of the Passion and instead they celebrated Palm Sunday. They used the triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the main Gospel reading which had been and still is read for the entrance rite of the palms. The 1943 hymnal kept with our Lutheran fathers in following that tradition. All our hymnals since then have not (Reed, Lutheran Liturgy, 498).
Going back still further we come to Ephrem the Syrian who flourished 363 to 373. He observed, "He [Jesus] began with a manger and finished with a donkey" (ACC, II, 147). Now you can make the donkey seem royal, by saying when a king came in peace he rode into a city on a donkey not a horse. And it's also true; that David proved Solomon not his brother was David's pick to succeed him by having Solomon ride his mule. Likewise, you can definitely see royalty in the way Jesus sends for the donkey. You see it in the Greek more so than the English. It's not, "The Lord needs it," but, "The Lord of it need He has."
Sounds pretty royal, kingly, stately, doesn't it? But your fathers know best to tie the humility of the manger with the humility of the donkey because Jesus sends for a colt, a small donkey. Picture an adult riding a Shetland pony, feet dragging the ground, much too big for it. Jesus looks no more kingly as an adult on a colt than He did as a baby in a feeding trough.
Yet the wise men owned Him as their king despite the manger and the Jerusalemites did despite the colt. I don't wish to deny this; neither did Ephrem the Syrian, but Father Augustine who was born almost 50 years after him, puts the right perspective on this. Augustine asks, "What great thing was it to the king of the ages to become the king of humanity" (Ibid.)? What great thing for the one who could have commanded eagles to fly Him into Jerusalem to ride in on a donkey's colt? What great thing to be hailed as the bringer of David's kingdom when you were the One who gave it to him in the first place? What great thing is it to be hymned by humans on earth when you have been hymned by angels in heaven?
Your fathers know best. What is played out before us is not a frog kissed by the Jerusalem crowds becoming king. It's the opposite. The King of kings is becoming a frog. It's as a father of the fathers St. Paul says, "He humbled Himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross!" He's riding into town to be falsely accused, arrested, beaten, ridiculed, spat upon, and crucified as a common criminal. This Route of the Kings is for Jesus a Rotten Row. Rotten Row is the name of a bridle path in London's Hyde Park. Its name comes from the corruption of the French route du roi. The French named it "Route of the kings" for the various English kings who use to ride there. The English misunderstood what the French were saying and so corrupted route du roi to Rotten Row (A Browser's Dictionary, 337).
But nobody corrupted the route of this King. Your fathers know best. It was always going to be a rotten row for Him. And this goes back to the manger mentioned by Ephrem. Paul says, "At just the right time God sent His Son born under the Law to redeem them that were under the Law." You are going to have a pretty rotten rode to ride if your mission is to redeem, rescue, save those who are under the Law. Look at your own life, your own thoughts, your own words, your own actions. How do these stack up against God's Law? What's it going to take to wash you from the filth, the stench, the slime of your sins? What's it going to take to satisfy the wrath of God against such sins and a sinner like you?
This is what Jesus rides into face not just for you, not just for me, not just Christians, believers, or good people but for everyone. You might remember how when a parent was mad at one child you'd scatter because that wrath could burst forth against anyone close. Jesus rides into town facing God's eternal wrath that was kindled against humanity in Eden, stoked by Babel, Sodom, the idolatrous Old Testament Church, the adulterous David, a whole world of unbelief, and you. That's why Augustine said Jesus' riding into Jerusalem "is an indication of pity, not an increase in power" (ACC, II, 148).
You know those slogans that became popular after 9/11? "Firefighters run into a building when everyone else runs out." Yes, and soldiers run into combat zones when everyone else runs out, and doctors and nurses run into disease when everyone else runs away. But no one runs into not only sin, not only Death, not only the Devil, but the wrath of Godexcept Jesus. And He does so because He doesn't want you to. He does it out of pity even for poor, miserable sinners who are neither poor nor miserable in their sins because they not only don't know their sinners; they like their sins.
But some must know they need saving for they don't cry "Hurrah!" like you would to cheer a king coming to your city. They cry "Hosanna!" Your fathers know best. Augustine points out that Hosanna is a word of prayer, of supplication. He regards it as spontaneous much like an interjection which all languages have. Augustine uses examples from his native Latin which are the equivalent of our "Hah!" or "Oh" (Ibid.)! Hosanna means "save now!" That prayer comes spontaneously to the lips of the cheering crowd.
Really? Did they know what they were being asked to be saved from? Do you? Weren't some in the crowds waving their palms, which was like the national flag of Israel, really only praying to be saved from Roman taxes, Roman oppression? Or maybe some just wanted to be saved from sadness, from loneliness, from sickness, from a grinding, boring life. Though they could've known better based on Jesus' own teaching, I can understand how they could have missed the point because they had yet to see the Good Friday cross or the empty tomb. The real question is what about us? We've been to the cross and the tomb, so do we know what we're being saved from?
You will get nothing out of this sermon, this service, true Christianity in general if you are looking to be saved from this economy, your oppressive work environment, your loneliness, your sadness, your sickness, your boring, grinding life. If these are what you see as the real problems of your life join a political party or a union. Take up a hobby. Join a social group. Join a gym. But if your problem is your sins that haunt you, the Death that stalks you, and the Devil that taunts you, then you're in the right place.
Jesus comes as the Righteous One. Having been born under the Law He succeeded in doing for a lifetime what you can't do for one second. He kept the Law. He never gave into the temptations of worry, unbelief, greed, lust, hatred, and despair that you do everyday. He never sinned, not once in word or in deed either. He comes as the Righteous One to bear the sins of the unrighteous world. He comes as the Living One to bear Death. He comes as the only one ever to defeat the Devil to be given over to him. He comes as the only Beloved Son of God to bear the wrath God rightly has against a world of sinners.
At this point we have to jump from the 5th century Father Augustine to a 19th century father of Texas: Jim Bowie. In the 12 day siege of the Alamo Santa Anna had relays of musicians play a traditional death melody over and over and over again. One author says, "Jim Bowie probably died humming it" (Browser's Dictionary, 323). In the midst of singing "All Glory, Laud, and Honor" and "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna," sing too "Ride on, Ride On in Majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die. The angel armies of the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching Sacrifice." To pay for sins, to defeat Death, to cast the Devil out of heaven, to appease the wrath of God, Jesus must die and a doleful tune is playing in His head as He enters the battlefield. Oh that we might live humming it.
Your fathers know best, and this time we turn to the oldest in this group, Methodius. He died in 311 which means he lived in the late 200's. It might sound schmaltzy to you but hear him out. He says, "Instead of our garments, let us spread our hearts before Him" (ACC, II, 148). First, think of what a garment meant to a 1st century person, and remember the Old Testaments prohibitions against keeping a garment as a pledge overnight. A 1st century person might only have one garment to wear, to keep warm with, to keep out of the weather with. In that crush of people if you put your cloak down for Jesus to ride on you stood a good chance of losing your one cloak or getting stuck with someone else's ratty, tattered one.
It would be hard to lay down your cloak, but your father Methodious is right. It's harder still to lay down your heart, but not like you think in love. Jesus doesn't need your love. That's not what Jesus rides into Jerusalem to get. He rides in to get your sins, your pride, your opinions, your misbeliefs, your sinful self. He comes to get the bill for all the sins ever committed, to die the Death everyone deserves to die, to suffer under the hands of the Devil the punishment God's Law requires of sinners, and to satisfy the wrath of God that has been burning since Eden and added to by your sins of just today.
As Jesus enters lay down before Him your heart stained by sins, smelling of Death, bearing the inscription "Property of Satan" and see Jesus wrap Himself in it to face God's wrath. Don't get on the donkey with Jesus. There's no room. Only He can do this. That's why God the Father sent Him into the world, and that's what the Church fathers of all time have known best. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20120401); Mark 11: 1-10