Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
A few years ago I attended a seminar by Dr. Leonard Sweet. He is a prolific Christian author and thinker who has written over sixty books. During the time of this seminar he was working on a book entitled From Tablet to Table, and much of that research was influencing his talking points. He pointed out an interesting phenomenon, about ethnic Jews in the United States. American Jews make up 2.5% of the United States population. Yet, they comprise 48% of the US billionaires. When a list was made of the United States top 200 intellectuals, 76% had at least one Jewish parent. Of American Nobel prize winners 37% are of Jewish heritage, and yet even though they make up less than 3% of the population, 7% of people on corporate boards are American Jews. Dr. Sweet had a fascinating hypothesis as to why as a people, American Jews have been so successful. He set forth the reason for this level of success, is that American Jews know who they are. Many of us put a lot of effort at various points in our lives discovering who we are. Our teens and twenties might have been spent full of rebellion, experimentation, and self-discovery. Sweet put forth that in the Jewish culture, while clearly there is still teenage rebellion, this phenomenon was not as prevalent. The reason he gives is that Jewish families know their story. Every year they gather around the table and they tell their story. The Jewish Seder, or Passover meal, is a highly ritualized time where the family remembers its heritage. They remember where they come from and who they are as a people. Dr. Sweet argues that this grounding in their tradition has allowed many American Jews to not spend time and energy discovering themselves so that they can instead fully devote themselves to professional or cultural pursuits. It is an interesting hypothesis, which is why it has stuck with me. It stuck with me because it emphasized the importance of gathering around the table, which creates a grounding community. It also stuck with me because it emphasizes the importance of story.
In our faith tradition, we do not always do the best job at telling our story. A recent survey of UK parents found that 73% of them did not think their children knew the Easter story. The Jewish faith finds its grounding and focus in the belief that they are God’s chosen people. We should find our grounding and focus in the belief that we are saved by grace through Jesus Christ. In an era when biblical literacy and church attendance has reached an all-time low in our country, it is imperative that we do a better job telling our story to one another. The story of the Christian faith is not the same story as the Jewish faith. We clearly share the same roots, after all Jesus himself was Jewish. Our understanding of God, of faith, and of the messiah is different, but today -Palm Sunday- is one of the places where our faith stories intertwine the most. To better understand our story we need to better understand the Jewish story. Because the story of Palm Sunday is more than children waving palm branches, it is the story of how Jesus is the lamb.
Passover is an important holy day in Judaism to this day. Its practice and celebration is truly ancient, and its start can be found in the story of the Exodus. God had made covenant with Abraham. From Abraham he would rise a chosen people. They would be God’s people, and God their God. Abraham taught this to his son Isaac, who taught it to his son Jacob (also known as Israel), who taught it to his twelve sons. Due to the treachery of his brothers, the youngest son Joseph ended up enslaved in Egypt. But God was with Joseph. What his brothers meant for ill, God used for good. Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt and he had power at just the right time to provide a safe haven for his family that settled in Egypt. Centuries passed and the tribes of Israel grew and became a people. However, over that time they also found themselves reduced to slavery in Egypt. They cried out to God for help, and in God’s timing, God called out to Moses. God sent Moses to the Egyptian Pharaoh with the message, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused. God responded with signs and terrible wonders. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard. He was proud and stubborn. Through nine awful plagues Pharaoh would not relent, and this led to what would be the final plague. The LORD was to go through Egypt and claim the life of every firstborn son. However, to the Israelites God gave special instructions, in these selected verses from the 12th chapter of Exodus:
“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt . . . ‘Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. . . The animal you choose must be year old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. . .On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals and I will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses when you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.”
The lamb was a sacrifice for the Israelite families. The unblemished lamb, gave its life so that the Israelites would be spared of God’s judgement. The 12th chapter goes on to include instructions to observe this ceremony and continue to remember the Passover. In Jesus day this was a major religious festival, and Jews from all over would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Families would come, select a lamb, and care for it. The Passover lamb continued to be viewed as sacrifice on behalf of the family. It was a sacrifice that continued to claim God’s care and provision over them. It was a reminder that God loved them enough to spare them and redeem them from slaver.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday, he was coming during the beginning of Passover. The day that Jesus made his triumphal entry was on the same day that all of the lambs would have been brought into the city. These sacrificial lambs that came from Bethlehem would have come through in the mid to late afternoon into the temple area through the same gate that Jesus entered. The gospel of Mark mentions that after Jesus entered the temple it was late so he left, this means that Jesus likely followed the sacrificial lambs in to the temple. Again this is not a coincidence.
Jesus, the man born in Bethlehem, followed the lambs born into Bethlehem in a procession to the temple. The lambs were being brought there to be selected to sacrifice as a symbol of God’s forgiveness, protection, and redemption. Starting in the evening, families could start selecting lambs to care for. Jesus came in behind this procession to signify that he was God’s pick for the Passover lamb. He was to be slaughtered as the final sacrifice to cover the sins of not just a family, but to cover the sins of the world. Jesus processed into Jerusalem and presented himself as the lamb because as it says in Isaiah, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
As Christians it is not really culturally appropriate for us to celebrate and observe the Passover. In fact the United Methodist Book of Worship states it is only appropriate for Christians to observe the Passover Seder as invited guests in a Jewish home or in consultation with representatives of a Jewish community. That is because the Passover is their story not ours, even though the Passover is mixed into our story. Jesus became the ultimate paschal lamb. Much like the original Passover lambs, the blood of Jesus was spilled to protect us. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross frees us from God’s judgement by opening up a way for us to be reunited with our creator. Much like the Passover lamb led to the Israelites being redeemed from the bondage of slavery. Jesus as the Lamb of God, frees us from slavery to sin and death. The Passover lamb’s life bought the Israelites the grace of being passed over so they could fully live as God’s chosen people, and the life of Jesus bought us forgiveness so that we can fully live as God’s children. The Jewish faith has it’s special meal to remember the Passover, but so does the Christian faith. As we did last Sunday and as we will celebrate this Thursday, at the Lord’s table we remember that Jesus body was broken for us and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. His body broken for me and for you. His blood poured out to offer forgiveness for my sins, for your sins, that is our story.
How well do you know the story? How well do you know your story? If Dr. Leonard Sweet is correct then knowing their faith story is the key to Jewish success and prosperity. Jewish families tell their children the story of their faith and it speaks to their identity. Even if it is not that simple, I do think that he is on to something with the importance of knowing our story. The Christian story of Jesus can and should speak to our identity. Knowing the freedom and life that comes from knowing Jesus as our Lord, savior, and Paschal lamb is the key to peace and purpose. The Jewish tradition is to tell their story to the children, when is the last time you have told the story of Jesus or your story to your children?
For a lot of people Easter tends to become another family celebration and get together. It is a good time to gather around the table, but we should tell the story. It does not matter if your children are little like mine or if they are grown. We should take time to remind ourselves of the story of Jesus. We should take time to share our story: the story of how we have experienced forgiveness, grace, new life, true joy, and a peace that surpasses all understanding because of Jesus Christ, our Lord. When is the last time you have told someone your story? I promise you it is certainly a story worth remembering, and it is a story worth telling.
This morning’s scripture tells the story of when Jesus triumphantly entered into Jerusalem and declared himself God’s chosen lamb. During Lent, and during Holy week is when we do the best job at liturgically telling our story. From the palms of today, to the sacrament of Maundy Thursday, to the pain of Good Friday, to the joyful expectation of the Easter sunrise we seek to tell our story, experience our story, and live our story through corporate worship every year. I hope that this year you are able to make time to join us for those worship experience as we remember our story. Even if you cannot, then this year may you still tell the story. May you tell the story of how God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes him will not perish but have eternal life. May you be willing to tell your story, how your experiences confirm to the depths of your being that Jesus is truth. May we be a holy people, a redeemed people, an Easter people, who can honestly proclaim, “I love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”