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"Who Is This Guy?" -- Palm Sunday, 3/17/08 -- Jeanne Gay "Who Is This Guy?" -- Palm Sunday, 3/17/08 -- Jeanne Gay

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   Discussion: "Who Is This Guy?" -- Palm Sunday, 3/17/08 -- Jeanne Gay
Jeanne Gay · 10 years, 3 months ago


Who Is This Guy?

Sermon preached by Jeanne E. Gay

March 16, 2008 (Palm Sunday)        Summit Presbyterian Church
Matthew 21:1-11     Philippians 2:5-11

Palm Sunday. Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the people line the streets. They throw tree branches and clothing on the street to make it softer for him. The crowd shouts “Hosanna”!

Palm Sunday is a little weird for a lot of us. That “Hosanna” thing—when else during the year do you say that word? I asked the kids to give us a more contemporary version of this procession, because “Hosanna” does really mean “Yay” or (in Philadelphia) “Yo.” I’m guess that if Jesus were coming into town today, the crowd would sound more like one at a parade for a sports team that actually won the title. (That is, if Philadelphia ever had winning sports teams.)

Let’s practice, though. I’m going to ask the kids to wave their streamers and noisemakers again, and the rest of you can wave your palms. I want to hear excitement! Here comes Jesus! Whowee!


One of the things I noticed as I worked with this text is that the people are never described as individuals: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks,” it says. “The crowds … were shouting. … The whole city was in turmoil.” This was a mob scene!

And what were a lot of them saying, in between their hosannas? “Who is this man?” I’m not sure all of them knew any more about who they were shouting Hosanna for than I would be if I got caught up in a parade for whatever Philadelphia team ever did win their championship.

The other problem with Palm Sunday is that we know what’s coming, don’t we? This crowd that’s shouting “Hosanna” today will be screaming “Crucify him!” just a few days from now. Shame on them for being so two-faced, huh?

We know too much. We can’t be fully present to what this day means because we know what’s coming. We see Palm Sunday in terms of Good Friday, just as we see Christmas in terms of Easter, and Pentecost in terms of whatever we know about early church history. It’s an important skill to have, this being able to hold two or more things in our minds simultaneously.

I remember the Easter when my son, Andrew, was three. We had gone through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, and then after the Easter celebration, he turned to us and said, “But I thought Jesus was a baby!” I spent a couple of awful moments trying to get the image of a crucified infant out of my head, and then I realized that Andrew was young enough to have just figured out a little about this “Jesus” only a couple of months earlier when we did indeed talk a lot about Baby Jesus, and he didn’t yet know how to hold both images of Jesus in his head without getting them confused.

Let’s try looking at Palm Sunday for a few minutes here without confusing ourselves with everything that we know is coming.

We’ve got Jesus coming into Jerusalem and the crowd shouting for him. They quote Psalm 118: “Hosanna to the Son of David! / Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! / Hosanna in the highest heaven!” And they say, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Friends, this crowd in Jerusalem didn’t know Jesus like we know Jesus. “Who is this guy?” they were saying to each other. And the best answer that came was, “a prophet out of Galilee.”

CNN not being very reliable in those days, most of these folks would never have heard of Jesus. There would have been a lot of out-of-towners in Jerusalem that day—in the big city for the Passover celebration. Some of them would have encountered Jesus, others would have heard a little about him, but many would have been clueless.

And what would they know if they did know something about Jesus? Well, they might have heard that he was a teacher with some mighty radical things to say. It’s very likely that they would have heard that he had healed some people. “A prophet out of Galilee”—okay. These were people who were not unacquainted with prophets: Elijah, for example, had also taught and healed, and there had been others in the more recent past, so this image of Jesus would have been in the realm of the familiar.

If they had unusually close access to the people who had been following Jesus for the past months or years—the disciples and others—they just might have heard whispers that this was the Messiah. ha mesiach! God’s anointed one, the one who would rescue the Jews from Rome’s control and bring back the glory days of David and Solomon. Now this really was exciting!

“Who is this guy?” A prophet, maybe even the messiah!

But have you noticed what’s missing? What about Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Redeemer? They didn’t have a clue—and how could they? It was in dying that Jesus redeemed our sins, right? Jesus the Savior was raised from the dead—and that hadn’t happened yet!

So they were excited about a man, a special man, a prophet, perhaps even the messiah. But they didn’t know the Jesus we know—Jesus the Lamb of God, the Alpha and Omega, the Author of Salvation, the Light of the World. Our Lord.


The question I have for you is, “Who is the Jesus you know?”

It’s possible that some of us are like many of the folks in the Palm Sunday story, just going along with the crowd: “Well, other people seem to be excited about this guy, so I guess he must be pretty special.”

You may be like my son at three, stuck on Jesus only as the powerless, innocent baby of the nativity. Tender and mild, no crying he makes.

Or maybe you know a bit about him and figure he’s a pretty impressive spiritual guru. “That Jesus, he really had it all together!”

Perhaps you know him as a wise teacher, something like Mohammed or Buddha, only more so.

Or maybe you’ve latched onto the radical compassion of his teachings and are inspired to overthrow the status quo in response to his demand that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

On the other hand, some of you may be much more eager to know what some of the folks who’ve been studying the historical Jesus call the “post-Easter” Jesus. The Jesus who died so that our sins could be forgiven. The Jesus who brings comfort to our souls. The Jesus who answers prayers and intercedes with God on our behalf. The Jesus who will come again in the end days.

I’ve been reading about Christianity in Asia or Africa, as I have over the last few months, and I’ve been struck by the many different ways of seeing Jesus expressed in those cultural contexts. In parts of Africa where ancestor worship has long been part of the local religion, where people’s ancestors are the ones who intercede with the gods on their behalf, Jesus is known as the Great Ancestor. Among the very poor in Korea, called the minjung, Jesus is a shaman who takes away people’s shame in the face of oppression. One of the things that has struck me about Christians in other parts of the world is that aren’t hesitating to ask, “Who is Jesus for us in our culture and at our time?” They don’t limit themselves to the historical Jesus of first-century Palestine or to Jesus as the Western Church has taught about him for the last two millennia.

Who is the Jesus we know? Are you “limiting” Jesus so that he is a pale image in your mind? Are you stuck with residues of the way people understood Jesus centuries ago—ways that may not work for you? Like King Jesus or Jesus as Lord—in a country where we have no kings or lords and don’t have the same understand of those terms as people used to.

We all need to go back to the Bible to read what Jesus said and did, and rediscover him for ourselves—more fully. Because if we’re stuck with a single understanding of Jesus, or if we’re stuck because the image we have of Jesus doesn’t really make sense to us, then we are, eventually, betraying Jesus in the same way that those folks in that original Palm Sunday procession eventually betrayed Jesus.

Who is the real Jesus? Here’s something that Choan-Seng Song, Professor of Theology and Asian Cultures at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, wrote in answer to that question:

The real Jesus is not that cement Jesus pieta with a gold crown. The ready-made Jesus encased in a statue, enshrined in a cathedral, endorsed by church traditions and doctrines, is not the real Jesus.
Jesus is the love of God that creates the miracle of life in the world.
Jesus is the pain of God mingled with the pain of humanity.
Jesus is the hope of God that people show in the midst of despair.
Jesus is the eternal life of God which people live in the midst of death.
Jesus is, lives, becomes real when God and people reach for each other to bring about a new world out of the ruins of the old world.
Jesus is the light of God’s salvation [that] men and women kindle in the darkness of hell.[1]

So here’s the question for you: Who is the Jesus you know? Who is the Jesus you have a relationship with?

Knowing Jesus can be easy: Here he comes! Yay, Jesus! But really knowing Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus in all his aspects, is a narrower path.

It’s the beginning of Holy Week. We’re on our way from the excitement of Palm Sunday through the mystery of the Last Supper, the shock of Judas’s betrayal and the agony of the crucifixion, to the glory of the resurrection. It’s time to go back to holding all the Christian holidays—all that we know about our faith and our Lord—in our minds at the same time. It’s time to let go of our easy relationships with Jesus and look toward the glory of living completely in him. It’s time to welcome into our lives ALL that Jesus is.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Let us pray.

Lord: Like the crowds in Jerusalem, we like to shout your praises. Hosanna! Yay, Jesus! But we also know that we have not always been willing to see you clearly and know you completely. Much that you are is a challenge to us, and so we focus on the parts that are easy for us to understand and live with.

As we begin this Holy Week, make your compleat presence, the fullness-of-you, known to each of us. And inspire us as individuals and as a church to continue to strive to see you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly.


[1] C.S. Song, “Oh, Jesus, Here With Us” in R.S. Sugirtharajah, ed. Asian Faces of Jesus. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997, p. 146.

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