The people of God were not a people who stood head and shoulders above everyone else. Their title as His chosen ones did not mean they had the best of everything, that they were safe and secure and lived a fat and happy life free from concern, worry and fear. Rather, their history was marked by slavery, oppression, and nomadic wandering with no place to call their home. They were well acquainted with the horrors of war, disease and struggle. They had some good times to be sure, times of relative peace and prosperity but it never seemed to last. In fact, in the days of our Lord, when Jesus was doing His great work, God’s chosen people were not a free people, not really. They could worship and observe their traditions, but they were under the authority of Caesar. Rome called the shots and determined their fate. The holy city of God’s people and the Temple which sat at its heart were allowed to be only by the grace of the powers over them. They lived and moved always under the presence of fear. Fear of the might of Rome. Fear of losing more than they had already lost. Fear of retaliation and even death.
Fear, this is perhaps the one all-encompassing emotion in our day as well. Fear of getting a virus that might bring us quickly to the end of our days. Fear we might transmit such a virus to others, to those we love and care about. Fear we might be out of sync with the decrees and the cautions of our local government. Fear of not doing enough, not caring enough, not loving enough for our neighbor. We are afraid the hospitals might be overwhelmed with serious cases and we might run out of beds to care for the sick. We are afraid there might not be enough supplies down at the supermarket so we need to stock-up when and if we can. We are afraid we will not be able to control anything, so we desperately seek to control what we can. We turn on the news and are greeted with more and more reasons to fear.
As always, lurking behind the fear, stands death itself. Just like the ancient people of God, we too are faced with the reality of death. It seems as if the horrors of death govern not only our outlook but our decisions as well. These days I often wonder if our world is a bit schizophrenic. I watch on the news as the people who passionately call for social distancing, everyone staying at home and doing their part to keep everyone else alive, are some of the same ones who would not bat an eye at killing the unborn. Our economy crumbles around us as people lose their jobs, but people press on in the hope of keeping death at bay. People, it seems, will go to great lengths to remove death from their field of view, to once again be able to hide it away until it is convenient for their own use.
In our Lord’s day, God’s people had grown accustomed to the wight of fear and death around their necks. It had marked their lives for a long time, but they began to hear of another way, of something greater than death itself. They heard about a man who was able to turn back the works of the grave. They began to recall promises made to their fathers, promises of life and salvation, promises of one who would free them from death and all the fear that comes with it. Imagine that! Imagine living a life without fear, a life without the terror of the grave. Such freedom would be unprecedented. It would be a greater gift than the loosing of any chains that tie you down. To be able to see death but pay it no mind, to hear the cries of the afraid and, instead of joining them, to speak words of hope and confidence which defy what you see with your eyes. But they had heard of just such a person, one who could give such gifts, who could set them free from fear and He was coming to them, coming to the people of God.
We are told that when they heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, “They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel’” (John 12:13)! They welcomed Jesus like you would a king ridding in on a victory lap. Their joy and excitement are palpable. It pours out of them as the celebrate His arrival into their city. If this one can overcome death, then He can turn back fear and truly set them free. “Hosanna!” they cry. Hosanna is the cry of the faithful. It literally means “help” or “save us.” It was a plea for God to deliver His chosen ones, to set them free again. They direct their cries to Jesus, to the One ridding into their city, humble and lowly riding on a donkey.
We are told all this unfolds in a spontaneous and wonderful way. The antidote to fear comes riding into their city. This is the One who destroys death itself, the One who called Lazarus from the tomb, the One who will not be stopped, and He is here right in their midst. In fact, we are told how later they remember what was written by the prophet Zechariah. It is a proclamation that all God’s children would do well to remember this day. “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” The declaration is for the end of fear. Why? Because the King has come, the true King, the King who rules over death and life itself. And if He comes to you, what else could you possibly be afraid of?
This king is unlike any other king mankind has ever known. He is certainly different than all the ancient kings who ruled over the people of God. He will not lead them into error or turn a blind eye to the promises of God. He is the maker and keeper of the promises. He is the perfector of the covenant. At His word wind and waves come to a halt, demons fly from His presence and the dead rise again. He is not like our rules and authorities. He is not looking to score political points or wield fear in order to secure reelection. He arrives on a donkey, unconcerned with prestige and honor among His peers. He comes to turn it all over on its head to end the control of fear and the finality of the grave.
This King comes to you full of grace and truth. He comes not to condemn but to save. He stands unmoved before the great enemies of mankind. He stands in opposition to sin, death and the power of the Devil. He will not move. He will not back down. He only goes forward to bleed it out for your freedom. Today, we welcome our King and we know where He will go. We know where this week leads. We know how quickly the shouts of, “Hosanna!’ turn into the horrifying cries of, “Crucify Him!” Yet, he rides on. He continues to come for you; for the broken and hurting, for the afraid and the lonely. He goes boldly forth into the Valley of the Shadow of Death to end deaths tyranny and sins dominion.
And during the global pandemic, amid a world captivated by fear and the specter of death, He moves undeterred for your salvation. He comes to you this day. He comes to you in Word and Sacrament. He comes to you on the lips of a brother or sister in Christ. He comes to you in the most lowly and unsuspecting of places, and He comes to set you free. He says to you, “I forgive you all of your sins. The debt has been paid. Your King has come. You are free!”
There is no stopping the coming of Christ. The Pharisees complained about not being able to stop His work saying, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him” (John 12:19). No virus will stop Him. No government order of lockdown and no social distancing will restrain the love of Chris for you. This will be one heck of a week, more profound than any we have experienced together, but Easter is still coming and with it comes life and assurance, peace and the end of fear.
All glory be to God.