Wrestling with Jesus – on Palm Sunday

This morning we are looking at a passage from the New Testament – from the twenty-first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Of course it’s the familiar story of the triumphal entry – it’s the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on the way to his death.

But before we look at this text, I’d like to take us way back in the biblical narrative for a moment – all the way back to the narrative of Genesis – all the way back to a story about Jacob. In Genesis 32, Jacob is on his way back to meet his brother Esau – a brother he is convinced is murderously angry with him. And when Jacob gets nearer to the territory where his brother lives, closer to the moment of encounter, he sends his whole entourage on ahead. He sends all of his family and livestock and servants on ahead. And he spends the night alone in the main camp. We read these words in Genesis:

The same night, Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then the man said: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So the man said to Jacob: “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” And there he blessed him. The sun rose upon Jacob as he passed the town of Penuel, limping because of his hip.

This passage from Genesis has long been understood as Jacob’s wrestling with God. Ambiguous as it is, this passage has long been understood as an encounter in which Jacob meets God, knows God, wrestles with God, demands a blessing of God, is changed through encounter with God.

Over the past few weeks, Tabea’s 6th grade phys-ed class has been doing a unit on wrestling – learning some of the basic techniques of wrestling. Hearing that reminded me of my own phys-ed days in high school, and the few weeks my class spent learning some of the basics of wrestling. You match up with someone roughly your size and your weight – you keep your centre of gravity as low as possible – you grapple with hands and arms – you get close and feel the weight and strength of the other as you try to pull him down and as he tries to do the same to you. If you both end up on the mat, then you use your legs and your arms and your body weight to pry and push the other onto his back to try and pin him.

Now perhaps this is a rather male image to consider as we think about our spiritual life. On the other hand, it’s both the boys and girls in 6th grade at Ste-Catherine-de-Sienne who have been learning to wrestle. And then there is Tonya Verbeek, 3-time Olympic medalist in wrestling – who happens to hail from Beamsville, where my parents live. Wrestling may not be a typically female activity, but it is by no means an exclusively male activity.

I would say, in fact, that the idea of wrestling with God – the idea of wrestling with Jesus – is an image we can’t do without. When you are wrestling with someone, you know you are engaged with him or her. When you are wrestling with someone the other is decidedly present to you in his or her body:

You know with your muscles,

you know with your legs and your arms,

you know in your breathing,

you know with your skin,

you know in your mind,

you know that the other is there, so decidedly present to you.

You are fully engaged.

The narratives of the New Testament invite us to wrestle with the living God – to engage with his Son Jesus. In our hearts and with our minds, and even with our bodies, to engage with him and wrestle with him and seek him and be changed by him – even if it means walking away from the encounter with a limp – a little less certain, a little less stable in our identity, even, for having encountered him.

In the spiritual life, in the context of Christian faith, we are ever invited to move beyond dispassionate observation of Jesus – to move beyond emotional detachment from Jesus – to move beyond a comfortable and protective distance from him. Rather, to move into proximity with him, with his ideas, and with his story. To be feel him close to us, present to us, grappling with us.

We can say that our passage from Matthew chapter twenty-one represents a kind of wrestling with Jesus.

The gospel of Matthew was written many years after the death and resurrection of Jesus – at least 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In writing down his version of Jesus’ story, this gospel writer had different primary sources to work from – he almost certainly has Mark’s gospel in his hand; he almost certainly had another written collection of sayings of Jesus to work from; and he also has a unique oral tradition of some of those who knew Jesus.

So in our passage from Matthew 21, there is wrestling going on at two levels. On the one hand there is that original band of followers who traveled with Jesus – a group of women and men who wrestled with Jesus’ teaching, who tried to understand who he was, who tried to understand where was going – who tried to be faithful to him and his way. These women and men lived daily with Jesus, in close proximity to Jesus – he was there in body as someone to be engaged with. Not someone to hold at a distance, or to merely think about. Those original followers related to and wrestled with Jesus.

But then in a second sense there is the wrestling of the gospel writer and the community he was a part of – 40 years after his death and resurrection. They had direct and very personal links with Jesus, but they also were at a remove from Jesus. They found their identity in Jesus – they were defined by the stories and the life of the risen Jesus among them. In their own way, in their writing down of the gospel story, they had to wrestle with this Jesus.

We aren’t certain who exactly the gospel writer was – but we will call him Matthew, according to tradition. When Matthew thought about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – when he wrestled with the story of that first Palm Sunday – when he wrestled with what it meant for the identity of Jesus – he did what made the most sense to his community of Jesus-followers.  They looked at their Hebrew bible – our Old Testament.

It’s almost certain that Matthew’s gospel was written within an early Jewish, Christian community. So it only made sense to them to think about Jesus in terms of the history of God with his people. And it’s not surprising that when they thought about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, they went back to the words of one of their prophets – the prophet Zechariah.

In the particular passage that Matthew appeals to in Zechariah, Zechariah himself is already referring back to an even more ancient event. Zechariah is referring back to that historic day when the crown was passed from King David to Solomon. In the book of 1 Kings that event is described as follows:

So the priest Zadok and other leaders, went down and had Solomon ride on King David’s mule, and led him to Gihon. There the priest Zadok took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ And all the people went up following him, playing on pipes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth quaked at their noise.

So in his writings, the prophet Zechariah picks up on that ancient image of celebration, from the coronation of Solomon. In his particular time Zechariah applies that image to contemporary events – probably a celebration of victory over some enemy. So we read these words in Zechariah, chapter 9:

Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion; proclaim aloud, daughter of Jerusalem: Behold. Your king domes to you, righteous and bearing salvation, humble and seated on a donkey, even a new colt.

The gospel writer knows this tradition – Matthew knows this tradition stretching back to Zechariah – Matthew knows this tradition stretching back to the narrative of the Kings, of David and Solomon – the story of a king entering Jerusalem on a donkey.

So as the gospel writer wrestles with the identity of this Jesus – as he tries to articulate who this Jesus is – this Jesus he worships and follows – Matthew has an “Aha” moment. You might say that history is repeating itself. God is again at work among his people. It happened then. It is happening now. Echoes of grace are continuing down the centuries.

So in our passage for today, when the narrator tells how Jesus sent his disciples ahead to get the donkey and its colt, he adds this editorial comment:

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

 Through his own wrestling with the stories of Jesus – through his own experience of the risen Jesus – through his life within a community of those who worshipped and tried to live in the way of Jesus – the gospel writer has discovered that Jesus is royal figure. Lord. King. Son of David. The words of Zechariah make perfect sense to him.

Now it’s not that the gospel writer is just making this up. When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem – a historic certainty – he made his own decision to enter the city riding on a donkey. Jesus also knew the traditions of his people, and Jesus knew the symbolic and political significance of his action. This is a public declaration he is making. Matthew doesn’t make up the idea of kingship by appealing to the words of Zechariah – rather he wrestles with the Jesus he has experienced – and wrestles with the story of Jesus passed on to him – and reaches the only conclusion he can: He is a king.

The crowds around Jesus get the idea, too. In their shouting they appeal to Psalm 118, a coronation Psalm. All four gospels record their words: “Hosanna – God saves – blessed is the king – blessed is the son of David – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The scene in Matthew ends with a question and an answer: “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee’.”

Here, for the original followers of Jesus, and for the earliest Christian community – and also for us, is the specific moment of wrestling. “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Nazareth? Really? Nazareth?

Very early in John’s gospel, Phillip comes to Nathaniel, to tell him about this man he’s met, this teacher from Nazareth. And Nathaniel’s reply is this “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.” Now we don’t know the exact meaning of Nathaniel’s comment, but we know this much – that Nazareth was a tiny village – probably around 400 people living – maybe as many as 2000. Jesus comes from Nazareth. An out of the way, tiny, dusty village, some two thousand years ago in one of the backwater outposts of the Roman Empire. Nazareth is nothing. Nazareth is negligible, at best.

“Hosanna – God saves – blessed is the king – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

From Nazareth? Really.

For the first followers of Jesus – for the earliest Christian community – there is this question to wrestle with – this impossibility to confront. That a man born in a tiny, dusty village – that a man who grew up like anyone else in a small backward town – that someone whose parents and family were known – that someone whose royal lineage was a mere genealogical curiosity; nothing more. Of this one: “Hosanna – God saves – blessed is the king – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

This is a question we are invited to wrestle with, too – an impossible possibility that  might just change us – that might just leave us limping if we get close enough to seriously engage. That this first century Jewish man was a king – a king like no other, indeed – a king who rode a donkey – a king without financial resources – a king who would reign from a despised cross – a king who forgives and redeems – a king whose kingdom of goodness and peace is coming.

In our work – we can wrestle with the king who calls us to service.

In our relationships – we can wrestle with his call to reconciliation.

With our finances – we can wrestle with this king’s call for sacrifice.

In our shame – we can wrestle with his offer of forgiveness.

In our everyday – we can wrestle with what it means to call him our king.

In our prayers – we can wrestle with this one who doesn’t want to let us go.

 “Hosanna – God saves – blessed is the king – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” If we let this truth infiltrate our heart; if we let Jesus get close enough to wrestle with us; we may find ourselves changed by his love – limping along in joyful service to a king like no other.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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