I’m all shook up – Palm Sunday April 2, 2023

Preacher:  Rev. Phil Schmidt

Matthew 21:1 – 11

There are a lot of things in the Bible which are hard to believe.  For example: according to the Bible, what is the most terrifying thing which could happen to you? You will find it hard to believe but the Bible claims that there is nothing which is more terrifying than to encounter the immediate presence of God. In the Bible, people would rather be buried alive than encounter the living God. Getting too close to God is literally earth-shaking.

God revealed his immediate presence at Mount Sinai, when the people of Israel were gathered at the foot of the mountain after the Exodus. The revelation at Sinai is a defining moment in Biblical history. For the first and only time, an entire people heard the unfiltered voice of God, accompanied by an earthquake. They pleaded with Moses to intervene and speak for God, because if they continued to hear God’s voice directly, they were sure that it would annihilate them. In this context the Bible proclaims:  At that time his voice shook the earth (Heb. 12, 26)

This terrifying presence of God at Sinai is the background to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Matthew differentiates between two groups of people: on the one hand, the crowd of pilgrims and followers who accompanied Jesus when he was still outside the walls of Jerusalem and, on the other hand, the inhabitants of Jerusalem inside the walls. Matthew describes what happened before Jesus entered Jerusalem:

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

As soon as Jesus enters the city, however, he gets a different reception:

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.”

The people who accompanied Jesus before he entered the city celebrated him as Messiah. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, however, were not sure of his identity and were deeply disturbed. As Matthew writes: the whole city was in turmoil.

The word translated as “turmoil” is the Greek word seio, which means “to shake”, It is the basis of the word seismos, which means earthquake, from which our English word seismograph is derived, a device which measures the power of earthquakes. In other words, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, he produced a tremor among the inhabitants. There is a song from Elvis Presley which provides a description of how it feels when Jesus enters a city: “Well, my hands are shaky and my knees are weak! I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet… I’m all shook up!”

When I was 11 years old I experienced an earthquake of 5.7 on the Richter scale, which is a relatively minor quake, but I will never forget how scared I was. I was at school and I could see the walls of the classroom shaking back and forth in such a way that I was expecting the building to collapse and bury us. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time outdoors, because the earth remained unstable for several weeks, producing a series of aftershocks.

However, the trembling which Jesus produced by entering the city was a foreshock, a preview of two coming shakings: namely, at the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew uses the word quake as a noun or verb 4 times:

      • When Jesus died on the cross “the earth shook and the rocks were split.”
      • The centurion and the soldiers guarding Jesus at the cross “witnessed the earthquake…they were filled with awe”.
      • On Easter morning: “Behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone.”
      • The soldiers guarding the grave of Jesus, when they saw the angel opening the grave, “quaked and became like dead men.”

Within the framework of the Bible, a quake is not merely a geological event. The various shakings which Jerusalem experienced after Jesus entered the city convey a theological message: namely, God Himself in the fullness of his glory has entered the city, He is revealing His identity and is changing the course of human history.

This means: If you want to know who God is and what he intends for the world, then look at the events of Holy Week. Project yourself into the Passion of Christ, because in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ you will find God and God will find you. This is why we have long readings today on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil. We find access to God’s immediate presence when we read and hear the story of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.

There is one feature of Holy Week which is especially revealing. As Matthew reports, the inhabitants of Jerusalem began to tremble after Jesus entered the city. They were not sure of his identity, but they instinctively felt threatened. After Jesus was arrested and brought to Pilate, a mob was formed which demanded that Pilate crucify Jesus. The people screamed hysterically that Jesus must be eradicated. It is as though they were terrified of being annihilated by Divine Presence. When Pilate ridiculed the mob by asking them: “Shall I crucify your king?”, they responded by shouting words which are absolutely incredible: “We have no king except Caesar!”  This statement: „We have no king except Caesar! “ is an atheist declaration, because the true king of Israel is God Himself. The mob was saying, in effect: The emperor of Rome is the only God we recognize! By rejecting Jesus as king, they were rejecting the God of Israel as their sovereign. They became atheists, in order to get God out of their city.

To put this moment into perspective, we can consider what a young girl experienced in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev-Regime. When a girl by the name of Irina was 10 years old she lived in the city of Odessa. In the school she had to endure atheist propaganda which was extremely crude. For example, the pupils were told about a Baptist woman who allegedly roasted her children in an oven. The seventh graders were required to perform a play which depicted priests as clumsy idiots. She noticed that atheist teaching was wide-spread. The Young Pioneers, the teachers, the headmaster, the broadcasters on the radio, the whole country seemed to be in a war against God.  It seemed odd to her that authorities were fighting such a desperate battle against someone they said didn’t exist. Irina wrote down her thoughts:

“Can’t they tell they are giving themselves away? Adults tell you there are no gremlins or ghosts.  They tell you once or twice, and that is it. But with God, they tell you over and over again.  So, He must exist—and He must be very powerful for them to fear Him so greatly.” 

Along the same line: 15 years ago, atheists in the UK launched an advertising campaign. Ariane Sherine, a writer, and Richard Dawkins, a well-known scientist and atheist, initiated a movement called the “Atheist Bus Campaign.” Dawkins formulated the slogan “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The organizers asked publicly for donations to put this slogan onto buses. The response was overwhelming. At the end of first day they had £48,000. 4 days later they had £100,000. Altogether they collected more than £153,000. The atheist slogan appeared on 800 buses in the UK. 1,000 adverts were placed on the London Underground featuring quotations from famous atheists. There were also two large LCD screens placed on Oxford Street in London. This campaign attracted world-wide attention. God-deniers in many countries tried to imitate the Atheist Bus Campaign, including Germany. 

The question which I ask myself is this: If I do not believe in God, why would I want to spend money to market atheism? If I believe that God probably does not exist, why would I invest money to spread this ambiguous message? The people who financed this campaign seem to be announcing the opposite of what they claim to believe. By investing so much money into atheist advertising, they are, in effect, saying: we take God seriously. He might not exist, but we have to get rid of him, so that we can live our lives in peace and quiet.  

Correspondingly, the people of Jerusalem became atheists in order to get God and Jesus out of their city, so that they could live in peace.  However, there is no real peace until there is peace with God. God cannot be driven out of a city or out of this world. When Jesus entered into Jerusalem as king of Israel, God Himself entered into the city. The presence of God within the walls of Jerusalem shook up the city – but not just Jerusalem. The course of human history has been shaken up by the death and resurrection of Christ.

May the Lord be praised that he has given us the promise of a final fulfilment which cannot be shaken. He has given us a hope which cannot disintegrate. May the Lord be with us, as we enter into Holy Week, that we may worship him effectively by projecting ourselves into the story of salvation, because when we contemplate the Passion of Christ, we are with God in the fullness of his glory and God is present among us.