A FACE IN THE CROWD – APRIL 5, 2020

A FACE IN THE CROWD
A Palm Sunday sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
April 5, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, o Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Here we are: it’s Palm Sunday, the final Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. But in 2020, things are very different. This will be no ordinary Palm Sunday at First Baptist or at any other church, for that matter. It will not feature people processing down the aisle waving palm branches and laying them on the communion table. It will not feature the magnificent sounds of the organ playing Fauré’s classic The Palms at the beginning of our worship service. We will not be joining our voices together in singing timeless Palm Sunday hymns like “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” and “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty.” And it is strange. It feels kind of empty…weird…surreal…
Karoline Lewis is a New Testament professor who publishes a weekly commentary on the gospel text for each Sunday. She began this week’s blog by writing, “This is the Lentiest Lent that I have ever Lented.” I am sure there are lots of people who feel the same way about it as she does. I know that I do…
The gospel text for today is Matthew’s account of our Lord’s final entry into Jerusalem. This is the event that we have come to know as “Palm Sunday.” Matthew’s version of the story has many of the familiar elements common to all four of the gospels. You know the story. It goes like this—
The disciples procure a donkey for Jesus to ride. They put their cloaks on the animal to act as a makeshift saddle. As Jesus rode into the city, a large crowd gathered to cheer him on in this impromptu parade. Many people ran into the fields nearby and cut branches off of trees to place before him.1 Others laid their cloaks on the road. And as Jesus approached the city and then entered it, the crowd began to shout…and chant…and sing words like “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” All of these phrases were fraught with meaning. They were words that were shot through with patriotic, nationalistic fervor. It signaled the arrival of the Messiah—God’s chosen one. He was coming to Jerusalem to restore the kingdom of Israel, to save the people and to establish God’s rule over all the earth.
However, Matthew gives us a detail that none of the other gospel writers mention. As the procession was approaching Jerusalem, Matthew writes in verse 8, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road…” (NRSV) The Greek word translated as “very large” here is the word pleistos. It is a
1 Incidentally, even though this day has become known throughout the church as “Palm Sunday,” I think it is interesting that only John specifies that the branches that were waved and laid before Jesus were palm branches. See John 12:13.
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word that means “most” or “at the very most.” Aside from here, pleistos occurs in only two other places
in the New Testament. The first one is Matthew 11:20. In that verse, it reads, “Jesus began to denounce
the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.”
The other occurrence in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 14:27. In this passage, the
Apostle Paul is teaching about how worship is to be conducted, stressing the need for order. He writes,
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must
interpret.” The point is that one could legitimately translate Matthew 21:8 to say, “Most of the people
spread their cloaks…” In fact, out of the 58 different English translations that are available on the
website BibleGateway, about one third of them actually translate the beginning of verse eight as “Most
of the people spread their cloaks on the road…”
For me, this raises a question or two. If most of the people laid their cloaks in front of Jesus as
Matthew says, then it also means that there were some in the crowd who did not. For whatever reason,
they chose not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment and give Jesus a hero’s welcome as he
entered Jerusalem. I wonder why. If we could go back in time and talk to some of the people who were
in the crowd that day—and if we could ask them why they did not participate—I wonder what they
would say. What are some of the reasons that they might give? And what would their explanations
reveal about them? We are going to briefly hear from three people in the crowd who did not participate
in the cloak-laying that day. We will let them tell their own stories. And as we listen to their words,
maybe we will recognize a little bit of ourselves in them as well…


Of course I did not lay my clothes out in front of this Jesus guy when he rode into Jerusalem that
day. Why would I? Listen, I come from a good family that is well respected in the community. My
ancestors and I have been among the social elite in the land of Israel for generations. I come from
aristocratic stock. We have lands. We own farms. We have successful business ventures and plenty of
money in the bank. We own slaves and have many hired men that work for us and do our bidding. That’s
the kind of people that we are—people of prestige and influence. The kind of thing that you are talking
about, laying cloaks in front of someone to walk on, that is something that only the lower classes would
do—those who have no breeding. Those who are the riff raff of society. Those kinds of people can do
whatever they please and no one cares at all about it. But those of us who are known as the pillars of
society? Those of us on the social register? No. We don’t do those kinds of things.
I would never stoop to such an action. It is just not proper for a person of my position and
influence. Where’s the dignity in taking off my cloak and tossing it down in the road so it can be walked
on? And for what—for some itinerant rabbi from a backwater town like Nazareth? Someone who does a
few magic tricks and stunts to amaze the unwashed masses to gather a following? I don’t think so. It just
isn’t proper. Such things are not done by people of my standing in the community. So—no. I did not do
it.
You know, I’ve got a reputation to uphold. Above all else, I am a respectable person. What
would others think if I were to be seen as being a part of this rabble? It would have been embarrassing
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to say the least. Why, if I were to be seen participating in this, my equals and betters would all have
looked down on me. It would have been a stigma that would have taken me a long time to recover
from. I did not want to risk that. So I didn’t do it. However, I will admit that I stood in the back of the
crowd and shouted out a few anonymous “hosannas” now and then when no one else was looking. I
don’t think anyone saw me or recognized me. But that’s it. I did nothing more…


There’s a good reason why I did not take off my cloak and lay it down in front of Jesus as he rode
by. I am a practical kind of guy. First of all, I want you to know that I paid good money for this robe. It
was brand new and was made of quality materials. Before the day when Jesus came to Jerusalem, I had
only worn it once or twice. And let me tell you: I was not about to let it get ruined by laying it down in
the middle of the road and letting people and donkeys stomp all over it. I didn’t care who was coming.
NOT. GONNA. HAPPEN. From early on, I learned the value of a dollar. I’ve worked hard for everything I
have and I am proud of what I have accomplished. There was no way that I was going to lay my
expensive cloak down in front of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. Why, that would have been wasteful…It
would have been like throwing my money away…
You all have heard the old saying, “Clothes make the man,” right? Well, I believe that. I think it is
true. I take pride in my appearance. You know, I think that you can tell a lot about someone by the way
they dress… and by what styles they choose…and by how well-made their clothes are. I do my best to
buy good clothes and make a good presentation wherever I go. I try to “dress to impress” most every
day. And that included that day when Jesus rode into the city…
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to hear firsthand what Jesus had to say. I had heard the
buzz surrounding Jesus, so I made my way to Galilee to hear him for myself. I arrived just as Jesus sat
down on the side of a hill to teach. He launched into a sermon that described what the kingdom of God
was all about. At first, I was really impressed by what he had to say.
One of the things that I remember is that Jesus talked about how God takes care of those who
are his children. To my surprise, he even talked about clothes. He said, “Why do you worry about
clothes?” [I must admit—he had my attention there.] He said, “See how the lilies of the field grow. They
do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of
these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into
the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we
eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these all these things,
and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you.”2
I liked a lot of what Jesus had to say about loving God and loving others that day. All that was
great. But I found myself taking issue with some of the other things that he said that day. I am more of a
“God helps them who helps themselves” kind of person. I want to know how things are going to be
2 Matthew 6:28-33.
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accomplished. I need a plan. I am not sure that I am ready to depend on God for everything in my life—
including what I eat…or what I drink…or what I wear. Seems to be a little bit too much wishful thinking
for my taste…
But anyway, I think that Jesus is a good man. And I liked some of what he had to say. It just
seems to me that parts of his teaching is just a bit too impractical to work in the real world…Still, I
wished him luck as he made his way into Jerusalem that day. But I was NOT going to lay down my cloak
for him…


To begin with, you need to know that I am not from around here. I do not live in Jerusalem or
anywhere in the surrounding area. My home is in the province of Cilicia, which is about 300 miles to the
north. But my ancestry and my roots are most definitely Jewish. I want you to know that I regularly
attend the synagogue where I live most every Sabbath. And I do my best to follow the traditions handed
down to us by the elders even though I live far away from the land of Judea.
I do not get to visit the land of my fathers very often. We Jews are scattered throughout the
entire length and breadth of the Roman Empire. Like a lot of people with Jewish roots, I do my best to
make the trip to Jerusalem every few years to observe the great festival of the Passover and to
reconnect with my people. There’s nothing else quite like it. Worshiping in the magnificent Temple,
recalling the days of old when God brought our ancestors out of the land of Egypt, looking forward to
the day when God will act once again to deliver us out of the hands of our oppressors—it is always easy
to get caught up in the sights, the sounds, and the smells of the celebration. It is always a deeply moving
experience for me. That’s why I happened to be in Jerusalem that day. I had come to celebrate the
Passover festival.
I was going about my business when I heard a commotion outside of the city’s eastern wall. I
had no idea what was going on, so I went there to see what all the excitement was about. As best as I
could tell, the center of attention was a man—riding on a donkey, of all things!—coming into the city. As
he approached, people had lined up on either side of the road. They were singing, shouting and laying
their cloaks and branches on the road in front of him.
Frankly, he did not look all that impressive to me. He looked like just an average Joe. He was not
dressed in regal clothes or anything—just normal street clothes which were not any different than what
I was wearing. And the men who were leading the crowd seemed to be a mixed bag of regular working
class guys—not soldiers or important people or government officials. Nothing like that.
I was puzzled at what I was seeing. So I asked a woman standing close to me, “Who is this guy?
And why are these people making such a fuss over him?” She replied, “This is the prophet Jesus from
Nazareth in Galilee.”
“The prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Never heard of him. It struck me as kind of
strange though. I knew enough of the Old Testament to know that whenever a prophet came to the city
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of Jerusalem, it was usually not a good thing. What’s more, the prophet usually met a bad end. 3 Surely
this Jesus understood that too. But it made me wonder: could this Jesus really be a prophet sent from
God? From what I observed, I could not tell. So I asked around to see what other people were saying…
One guy told me that he had heard that Jesus was some kind miracle worker. He told me a story
that he had heard about Jesus taking a small boy’s lunch, and with it, he fed over five thousand people.
Pretty amazing stuff, if you ask me. I must say that my curiosity was piqued by those words. I wondered
if it were really true…
Then I asked someone else who was standing close by if she knew who Jesus was. She
exclaimed, “Yes—I know who he is!” She went on to tell me that she had heard Jesus speak on a number
of occasions. She described Jesus as someone who had a knack for telling the most wonderful, heartwarming
stories that she had ever heard. She loved listening to him. She said that Jesus just had a way
with words that could captivate any audience. And she said that I should go hear him if I ever got the
opportunity…
A man standing nearby overheard our conversation and excitedly chimed in with his comments.
He said that he loved the way that Jesus always put those “holier than thou” self-righteous Pharisees in
their place. He laughed with glee as he recounted story after story of how the Pharisees would try to
trap Jesus by asking him some tricky question that they thought that he would be unable to answer.
And that Jesus’ sharp wit and keen mind would get the best of them every single time. They could never
catch him or paint him into a corner. The man said that it made for great entertainment any time that
Jesus and the Pharisees got into it…
At that point, I turned my attention back to the road. I watched in silence as Jesus disappeared
into the city amid the crowd that followed after him…
I dunno. The guy that I saw riding on the donkey just didn’t seem to be the sort that could do
the kinds of things that people were saying about him. Nor did he look like much of a prophet, if you ask
me. I guess time will tell. By the way, there is a rumor going around that Jesus is likely to be in the
Temple teaching this week in the days leading up to the Passover. Maybe I’ll go to see and to hear him
for myself. But right now, I’m not convinced that he is who people say he is…whatever that may be…


Three different people from the Palm Sunday crowd telling their stories. Two questions: Would
YOU have laid your coat down on the road? And “Who do YOU say that I am?”4
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
3 Matthew 23:37.
4 Mark 8:29.

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