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Palm Sabbath, April 8, 2001
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke chapter 19 and follow along as I read verses 28-40. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
28 And when he had thus spoken, he went before, ascending up to Jerusalem.
29 And it came to pass, when he was come nigh to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount called the mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples,
30 Saying, Go ye into the village over against you; in the which at your entering ye shall find a colt tied, whereon yet never man sat: loose him, and bring him hither.
31 And if any man ask you, Why do ye loose him? thus shall ye say unto him, Because the Lord hath need of him.
32 And they that were sent went their way, and found even as he had said unto them.
33 And as they were loosing the colt, the owners thereof said unto them, Why loose ye the colt?
34 And they said, The Lord hath need of him.
35 And they brought him to Jesus: and they cast their garments upon the colt, and they set Jesus thereon.
36 And as he went, they spread their clothes in the way.
37 And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen;
38 Saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.
39 And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples.
40 And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Martha Koystra is all over television, bookstores and magazine stands. Everywhere you look, she's dispensing advice about designer decorations and exquisite entertaining. But who is this diva of domesticity? We know her as "Martha Stewart." She changed her name to obtain marketing leverage.
Few people understand the marketing value of a name better than those in the entertainment industry. That's why we see Demi Moore in the movies but not Demetria Guynes, which is her real name. It's why we may listen to Sting, but not Gordon Matthew Sumner. We read a novel by Toni Morrison, not by Chloe Anthony Wofford. We'll watch Jennifer Aniston on Friends, but not Jennifer Anistonapoulos.
Some entertainers buck the trend. Like Melina Kanakaredes, the star of the critically acclaimed television drama Providence, but not many because names have power. A marketing executive at Nike scouting for a fresh face to function as a spokesperson has a choice between offering a multi-gazillion-dollar contract to an Eldrick or a Tiger. Who do you think got the cash? The Tiger, of course. Eldrick Woods is the winner of the three major professional golf championships, including the Masters, but the name "Eldrick" somehow doesn't work. Tiger does. Tiger has power.
The power of a name is nothing new to those who are students of Scripture. In Genesis, Jacob wrestled all night with a divine being near the river Jabbok. Jacob hung on and refused to let go until the "man" blesses him. The man complies, changing his name from Jacob to Israel, a name that means "The one who strives with God" (Genesis 32:22-32).
Later, Moses encounters the Lord God at the burning bush and asks for his name. God answers "I AM WHO I AM," meaning that his very selfhood is tied to his mighty acts, and he will be exactly what he will be throughout the course of history (Exodus 3:13-15). "I AM," says the Lord, and that is the strongest name in history.
But it isn't only the ancients who find deep significance in names. James Bruning, a psychologist at Ohio University, has studied naming for over 30 years, and knows that names can carry the weight of expectations. His advice to parents testing a name for their baby is to put some adult signifier in front of the name to see how it works. Like Mr. or Mrs. or Doctor or President. Doing that, he says, knocks out a lot of possibilities.
Would you go to a "Doctor Cody Kennedy"? Maybe, but you'd want to check his diploma first. How about casting a ballot for "President Buffy Sanders"? Would you want her finger on the nuclear trigger?
Some names look great on kids, but then don't fit as well as they move into adulthood and old age. It's hard to picture a future in which the nursing homes are filled with Briannas, Destinys, Austins, and Tylers.
By the way, did you hear the story about the pregnant woman gets in a car accident and falls into a deep coma. Asleep for nearly six months, when she wakes up she sees that she is no longer pregnant and frantically asks the doctor about her baby.
The doctor replies, "Ma'am you had twins! A boy and a girl. Your brother came in and named them."
The woman thinks to herself, "No, not my brother ... he's an idiot!" She asks the doctor, "Well, what's the girl's name?"
"Wow, that's not a bad name, I like it! What's the boy's name?"
OK, that is a bad joke, but this is a true story. According to the Associated Press (October 8, 2000.), Honduran authorities are attempting to limit bizarre names for children. The problem involves legally registered first names that parents in this Central American nation have given children in recent years, and which Honduras' National Electoral Tribunal feels are weird. The Tribunal, which oversees the country's public birth registry, announced that it will ask the country's legislature to forbid parents from registering children under "extravagant or offensive" names, and allow children to sue parents who gave them "gross or insulting" names. Particularly irksome are naming practices in Gracias a Dios - a province of eastern Honduras whose name translates as "Thank God."
"It is common [there] for people to employ names usually used for automobile parts," the Tribunal said.
Sounds to me like the Tribunal has a good case.
Names are important, and thus it comes as no surprise that the mob who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem just a few days before his execution were mired deeply in a culture of names.
An account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem occurs in all four gospels (Matthew 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-18). Interesting differences exist between these accounts. These differences represent shifts in emphasis as each gospel writer brings his unique perspective to bear upon the incident. In all four accounts, Jesus is greeted by the crowd with words loosely taken from Psalm 118.
Psalm 118 itself does not explicitly state that the "one who comes in the name of the Lord" is a king or other messiah figure. The overall tone of the psalm, however, is one of victory after persecution and combat with a powerful enemy. It is a victory processional psalm extolling the Lord's saving help. The image one gets from the psalm is of a crowd of people who have been saved by the Lord's intervention, and their leader leads them into the temple to give thanks.
The scene described by the psalm is like the scene described by the gospels as Christ's triumphal entry. Psalm 118:27 mentions cut branches brought into the temple for the procession. Psalm 118:19-20 mentions the gate through which the victors march. It is described as "the gate of the Lord" through which the righteous enter (118:20). Psalm 118:22 is also a well-known verse to readers of the New Testament. It is the verse that states "The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone" (cited in Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7).
But an even more interesting echo of Christ's life in this psalm is in the Hebrew of verse 21. It reads in the English, "I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation." In Hebrew, the verse literally reads "I thank you because you have answered me and have become for me yeshua." "Yeshua" is Hebrew for "salvation," and also it is the basis of the name Yeshuah, which we know in its Greek form, Jesus. So we might read PS118:21 as "I thank you that you have answered me and have become my jesus." This is a Christian prayer. God has become Jesus to me. Thus, God has become salvation to me.
In addition to the use of Psalm 118, all four gospels mention that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey. In the gospel of John, Jesus does not acquire the donkey until after he has been greeted by the crowd, but both John and Matthew make it clear that the choice of the animal on which Jesus rode was a fulfillment of the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew 21:4-5; John 12:15).
Mark and Luke do not specifically mention Zechariah in connection with this Palm Sabbath procession, nor does one need not refer to Zechariah for the image of a king being led into the city triumphantly riding on a donkey. This is the scene which David planned from his deathbed to designate Solomon as his successor (1 Kings 1:32-40). David ordered that Solomon be made to ride on his own mule and be led up to the city from the east where the whole city came out to greet him and declare him king.
Perhaps because of the imagery of placing the new king on the old king's mount, Mark and Luke make it clear that the donkey Jesus rides upon was never ridden by any other person. Jesus is not a successor of King David. He is not like any other Israellite king, for his kingdom is not of this world.
The ritual of spreading garments in the road in front of a king entering a city also occurs in the Old Testament. We studied this just recently in our Wednesday Bible study. II Kings 9:13 descibes how Jehu was greeted that way by the inhabitants of Samaria after his purge of the descendants of Ahab
Ironically, Jesus' entering of Jerusalem on a donkey is usually misunderstood as an act of extreme humility, or as a parody of kingship, by those who are overly influenced by the reference to the humble messiah of Zechariah 9:9. To Western eyes, the donkey is a humble animal, a very unkingly animal. But to the ancient Israelites, the donkey was the animal of choice for hill country chieftains like David. Horses, though perhaps more powerful runners and more exotic as imported features of advanced chariot armies, tended to be vulnerable in battles on rocky, uneven ground. The royal animal of Israelite Kings was a mule or a donkey, who could be relied upon not to break a leg while racing up to higher ground. Jesus' entrance into the city on a donkey, therefore, was not a humble rejection of royal symbolism, but a direct reference to the inauguration of David's son, Solomon. It was the first ceremony of inauguration for a Davidic ruler. Jesus mad it the last such ceremony. He was the culmination of the line of David, the final king of Israel.
Luke ends his account with a clear indication that Jesus intended the crowd to understand this royal symbolism. When asked by the Pharisees to silence the crowd, Jesus states that if they were silent, then the rocks would proclaim him king. This, along with the fact that it is Jesus who instructs the disciples to acquire the donkey, thus staging this re-enactment himself, demonstrates that here at the last, Jesus wanted to show himself to Israel as their true king, a king beyond and above any they had known before.
But let us return to names and naming. In our text today, even the advance team sent ahead to Jerusalem used a name as authority for their preparations. Jesus said, "If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say, 'The Lord needs it.'"
Later, when Jesus is riding on the donkey toward the city, a tumultuous crowd engulfs him as he nears and enters the city. It is not a quiet scene. What the people are shouting is both fascinating and revealing: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" (vv. 35-38). They praise God for all Jesus' deeds of power, and cry out blessings on the one who comes in God's name. To know the name and believe the name is to invoke the power.
Of course, the hysterical fans thought they were applauding Tiger Jesus. They were cheering for the triumphant, miracle-working hotshot from Galilee, the guy who had a reputation for driving long, for chipping out of pharisaical sand traps when he had to, and sinking the ball of religious arrogance into the cup of humility from 30 feet away. That was the Jesus they wanted. What they got was the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
They had expectations. Jesus did not attempt to meet their expectations. He was less interested in insurrection than in resurrection. He had no intention of being a media-created darling, signing autographs and playing to his adoring fans.
We could predict then what will happen next. Jesus soon managed to alienate the public. A couple days after Palm Sabbath, he goes makes a scene in the temple, chasing out money-changers and snake-oil salesmen who had turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves. His relations with the media became stormy. He boasted that he would destroy the temple that had taken the Herodian Corps of Engineers 40 years to build and then rebuild it again in three days.
His language became dark and dangerous. He spoke more frequently about his impending death. For a "king" who had come in the "name of the Lord," this was decidedly unkingly, untigerly behavior.
This was confusing to the crowd. Confusion still surrounds the figure and name of Jesus.
Kathleen Norris, writing in her book, Amazing Grace [(New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 161-162.] says,
When I first began to attend church services as an adult, I found it ironic that it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out.
I often felt a void at the heart of things. My Christianity seemed to be missing its center. When I confessed this to a monk, he reassured me by saying, "Oh, most of us feel that way at one time or another. Jesus is the hardest part of the religion to grasp, to keep alive." I told him that I probably felt Jesus' hand in things most during worship, whether I was in church or at home, or at the monastery. Just a look around at the motley crew assembled in his name, myself among them, lets me know how unlikely it all is. The whole lot of us, warts and all, just seems so improbable, so absurd, I figure that ONLY Christ would be so foolish, or so powerful, as to have brought us together."
As a part of today's Palm Sabbath crowd, we have to wonder: What is the name of Jesus to us? What does it signify to me?
For some, he is not much more than a self-help guru. For others, he is synonymous with a "health-and-wealth" theology. Believe in jesus they say, and you will be healthy and wealthy. For still others, he is a liberation leader or a cosmic king or a compassionate friend.
The name Jesus means "he will save." If the Jesus we praise today is anything less than a Savior, then we have lost sight of who he was and what his mission was all about.
Jesus came to save us. Of course that leads to another question: What did Jesus come to save us from? He did not come to save us from a bear market or a bad economy. The biblical answer is: Jesus came to save us from the power of sin and death.
That may evoke some of the old categories that often are linked to sins of the flesh, sins that are easy to dismiss by many of us as having no relevance. Moms advice was "Don't smoke or chew or go out with girls who do."
But while we may have avoided some sins, we still may be very far from the kind of spiritual life that we want for ourselves. We may be without even one person we can say truly loves us. We may be utterly, hopelessly bored. We may feel that we lack a power in our lives that keeps us on the path of righteousness. We may be hanging tooth and nail to our sanity while our world crashes upon us.
Jesus came to save us from all that. Jesus came to save us from ourselves.
We find salvation not in the Tiger, but in the Lamb. Amen.
Heenan, Andrew. "Real names of famous folk," www.famousfolk.com
Mirsky, Steve. "Name recognition," Scientific American, September 2000, 112.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 04/11/01