“Blessed Is the One Who Comes”

Scripture – Matthew 21:1-11

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, April 2, 2023


Pastor and professor David Lose tells of an experience he had one Palm Sunday. He was visiting a congregation in Washington D.C. — a vibrant community of faith nestled into “a historic and challenged urban environment.”[1] As is the custom in many churches, this congregation marked Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with palms and cries of “Hosanna!” But this community didn’t stop with a procession down the center aisle, or even with a parade around the sanctuary. No — the faithful of this congregation took their witness to the streets. They marched out of the sanctuary and into their neighborhood, waving palms and shouting praises as they made their way through the streets of our nation’s capital.

As the congregation marched, the residents of the city looked on. Lose writes: ”Most folks glanced our way for a moment and then returned their attention to the conversation or cup of coffee they had been enjoying.”[2] Some smiled their encouragement. Others appeared perplexed, watching the spectacle before them with puzzled looks on their faces. Many were indifferent — paying little attention to the band of Christ-followers making its way through the streets.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem certainly caused more of a stir than that palm-parade through downtown D.C. But, like the procession that spilled from the nave into the neighborhood, the spectacle on the streets of Judea’s capitol city elicited confusion. When Jesus rode into town, all Jerusalem noticed. And all Jerusalem wondered about the identity of the one hailed (that day) as David’s Son. Matthew — alone among the Gospel-writers — records the reaction of the city folk to Jesus’ arrival: When he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil. Literally, the whole city “shook” — so impactful was this moment that the city quaked with bewilderment: Who is this?

It’s not surprising that the city folk would ask this question, especially given the ambiguous nature of this spectacle …

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem closely resembled the rituals by which kings or conquerors entered cities in the ancient Mediterranean world. Conquered subjects would have known the drill: their job was to stream through the city gates and greet the victor on the road, pledging loyalty and obedience with their cheers. If they didn’t follow the script — well, the conqueror could prove unkind and destroy the city out of spite.[3]

Yet Jesus’ triumphal entrance also evoked Jewish tradition. The scene began at a location steeped in significance: It began on the Mount of Olives, the very spot where — according to the prophet Zechariah — the Lord would “begin the final battle against the nations and inaugurate a new creation.”[4] A renowned rabbi and prophetic preacher riding in from the Mount of Olives would have ignited the hopes of a subjugated people — a people who were watching for the long-awaited Messiah. These people were watching for a descendant of King David, specifically — a righteous ruler who would cast off the oppressive yoke of Rome and restore peace and prosperity to Israel.

The crowds must have thought their long-expected Messiah had arrived. That’s why they welcomed Jesus like a king — stripping branches from trees to spread palms before him, as their ancestors did for rulers of ages past. That’s why they lifted their voices to welcome him: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” It is a cry of praise — Hosanna. But the Hebrew word derives from, and gives voice to, a profound plea: Save us! Save us, Son of David!

Yes, the crowds greeted Jesus as a king. But, at the same time, he was unlike any ruler Jerusalem had ever seen. Jesus rode — not on a milk-white war horse — but on a donkey, an everyday beast of burden. Actually, according to Matthew, he rode on two donkeys: a colt and its mother … Giving us an amusing portrait of Jesus straddling two animals, as if the Gospel-writer wanted him to appear even more undignified. But the donkeys were a fitting choice for Jesus. After all, he was not some high-ranking official or military victor flanked by soldiers with armor and spears. Rather, Jesus was a peasant from a podunk town in Galilee, flanked by common folk who — for one reason or another — thought this man might change the world.

It’s no surprise the city folk were confused. It’s no surprise that Jesus’ arrival shook Jerusalem to the core and left its inhabitants bewildered and wondering: Who is this? Who is this?

This is not just the question of a city in turmoil. It is the question of this day — a day the church calls by two names: “Palm Sunday” and “Passion Sunday.” It is the question of this — the holiest week of the year — the week we rehearse the story of Jesus’ final days and proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Really, it is the question of the ages: Who is this?

Matthew goes on to give us some sense of who this Jesus is … and who he is not. This is one who comes in the name of the Lord to disrupt the religious establishment, for Jesus rides those donkeys directly to the temple mount, where he overturns tables and heals those who have been deemed unclean and excluded from sacred space. This is one who, even in his final days, identifies with “the least of these” and calls upon his disciples to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and clothe the naked and care for the sick. This is one who will not abandon God’s way of justice and peace, even when — one by one — his followers abandon him. This is one who will remain faithful to his mission, even though the political and religious elites find him so threatening that they are determined to arrest and crucify him.

The week that begins with a hope-filled spectacle on the city streets ends with a horrific spectacle outside the city walls. Jesus — who, days before, was hailed as king — will hang on a cross reserved for criminals and slaves. No longer the victor, but the victim of an empire that trades in cruelty and fear. Jesus — who begins the week surrounded by cheering crowds — will end the week utterly alone, save for some faithful women who watch from afar. By the time he reaches Calvary, his other disciples will have betrayed and denied and abandoned him … The one who comes in the name of the Lord will even feel abandoned by God, and will cry out from the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? And, then, he will breathe his last.

One commentator remarks: “Passion Sunday asks that we pause to witness an atrocity.”[5] I would suggest all of Holy Week asks that we pause and give witness. The suffering and death of Jesus is, indeed, an atrocity … It’s an atrocity that forces us to reckon with the long-standing violence of our world. It’s an atrocity that exposes the depths of human brokenness, and asks us to confess propensities to perpetuate or tolerate the suffering of innocents. It’s an atrocity that challenges the notion that might makes right … or, at the very least, that might wins.[6]

This, of course, is not the first atrocity we have witnessed this week. Our nation has become tragically accustomed to atrocity. Heinous acts of violence, like the one we witnessed on Monday, hardly surprise us anymore. Though I hope and pray these shootings still shock us … especially when the victims are children and the staff who are trying desperately to keep schools safe. The suffering and death of these children of God is another atrocity that forces us to reckon with cultures of violence and our unwillingness to act. And, until we act, we will be trapped in a cycle where hatred is armed, and its might wins again and again and again.

Like the city of Jerusalem, we are in turmoil. We are shaken to the core. We have questions for and about the God who seems to have abandoned us to our sin-sick world.

Still, as we pause in witness — as we reflect upon the cross that looms in the distance — the answer to that enduring question begins to emerge: Who is this? This is one who comes not in power, but in weakness; not with might, but with mercy; not with a sword, but in peace; not with hostility, but in love. This is one who comes in the name of the Lord … not because he will restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory, but because he will inaugurate the Kingdom of God — a realm characterized by justice and peace. This is one who does not run away from suffering or pain, but who remains with us, even in God-forsaken places. This is one who defies the death-dealing logic of this world and teaches that might will never make right, for there is something far more powerful … and that is the power of love. It is the only thing that can save the world.

This, my friends, is who Jesus is. It’s imperative that we can answer the question that threw Jerusalem into turmoil. Because, as people who worship the crucified king, who Jesus is defines and determines who we are. Which means that we are called to proclaim a different way. We are called to bear witness to the power of love, even in the face of hatred and violence and death.

Doctor Otis Moss tells a story about this kind of witness.[7] When Moss was new to his position as Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, his congregation was thrown into the national spotlight. It was 2008 and certain media outlets were airing snippets of sermons delivered by Moss’ predecessor in an effort to discredit one of Trinity’s more prominent members, Senator Barack Obama. As you might recall from a story I shared earlier this year, the intense media attention attracted the unwelcome attention of bad actors across the nation. The congregation started receiving death threats — at least a hundred a week — some by phone call, others by hand-written letter. Then, one day, those threatening violence showed up in the flesh.

They came from the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist congregation known for spewing hateful and violent rhetoric while picketing gatherings in churches and cemeteries. On this particular Sunday morning in 2008, the members of Westboro Baptist stood outside Trinity United Church of Christ, shouting racist epithets through megaphones as families arrived for worship.

Otis Moss had a decision to make: Should he ignore the protestors? No. If he did that, some in the neighborhood might confront them, and the situation would escalate. Should he address them himself? That would have little impact. Then Moss had an idea. Or, as he tells it, the Holy Spirit “dropped an imaginative flash of inspiration.”[8]

Moss went to the atrium, where members of the choir were gathering for their weekly procession into the sanctuary. He asked them to turn around and walk outside, instead. “Muster up the kind of faith our ancestors had,” Moss preached. “We are going to march outside and surround the protestors, but we are not going to touch them. We are going to sing to the glory of God so loudly that our voices, the voices of love, are going to drown out the shouts of hate.”[9] And that’s what they did. The choir spilled onto the street. One hundred strong, they encircled the protestors and lifted their voices, singing: This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine …

And, then, the deacons of the church did something else extraordinary: they invited the members of Westboro Baptist to join them in prayer. To no one’s surprise, the protestors declined. But that didn’t stop the deacons of Trinity Church from joining hands and lifting their voices to God. The picketers from Westboro Baptist were flabbergasted; they didn’t know how to respond to this turn of events. As Moss reflects, “The protestors were overwhelmed by something they were not used to: the spirit of God’s love.”[10] So they climbed clumsily into their vans and drove back to Kansas.

As the congregation of Trinity United Church of Christ so effectively demonstrated, we are called to proclaim another way. We are called to bear witness to the power of love, even in the face of hatred and violence and senseless death. We are called to declare through our prayers and our songs, our proclamation and our service that we worship the one who comes not with might, but with mercy; not for judgment, but with grace; not in enmity, but in love. Yes, we worship the one who comes in the name of the Lord to show us the kind of power that will change the world. A power that will shake the foundations and loosen the death-grip of hatred and violence. A power that can make a way, that can save us from ourselves and set us free: The power and promise of love.


Prayers of the People

Gregory Knox Jones


Eternal God, we focus our thoughts on that decisive day Jesus rode into Jerusalem surrounded by supporters. In harmony with your will, he refused to project the coercive power of force, in favor of the persuasive power of love.

We are awed by the courage of Jesus to face his adversaries armed only with love and truth and a passion for justice. God, if we could muster just a fraction of his fearlessness, we would draw closer to the life you beckon us to live.
We would reject our self-centered ways and love without restraint.
We would dismiss self-serving fiction and seek your truth.
We would spurn favored status and devote ourselves to the common good. Lord, inspire us to overcome our apathy and to become more faithful in following the way Jesus showed us.

Everlasting God, there are times when the evils of our day overwhelm us. We witness countless acts of greed, deceit, prejudice, and injustice; the fact that school shootings have become routine declare how lost we are as a society.
We pray that political leaders will pass common sense gun laws.

Mighty God, you command us to treat others the way we want to be treated, to love with Christ-like love, to promote justice, and to strive for peace.
Fill us with courage so that we may act as a counterforce to the darkness gripping our world.
Where others have sown seeds of depravity and destruction, may we plant seeds of beauty and blessing.
May we embody the qualities of your kingdom, and may we never hesitate to establish them on earth.

And now we join our voices as one in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples and passed on to us, praying: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.



[1] David Lose, “The Question of the Day,” Dear Working Preacher (April 9, 2014), www.workingpreacher.org.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See: Stanley Saunders, “Commentary on Matthew 21:1-17,” www.workingpreacher.org.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Greg Carey, “Commentary on Matthew 26:14-27:66,” www.workingpreacher.org.

[6] See: Lose, “The Question of the Day.”

[7] The following illustration comes from: Otis Moss III with Gregory Lichtenberg, Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2023), 98-101.

[8] Ibid, 100.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 101.