Palm Sunday - "Save Us Now!"
Today is Palm Sunday---the beginning of Holy Week, and the day we celebrate Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
We celebrate in an unusual kind of way: Unleash a bunch of kids waving palms into the sanctuary, while we belt out celebratory songs at the top of our lungs--all the while trying to keep from having some over-exuberant, palm-waving kid poke our eyes out... or at the very least give us a nice lashing on the cheek.
Can you imagine if someone walked into a church for the very first time in their life on Palm Sunday? What do you think they would make of all of this? I imagine that they would have a few questions, don't you?
The first one would be, "What in the world is this????"
And then the second one would be:
"Is this some sort of cult? Am I going to be forced to wear robes, sell my house and live in a commune of some kind if I start hanging out with these people? I mean, they seem normal enough outside of the crazy palm waving and the singing---Ouch! that kid almost put my eye out!!!"
The funny thing about all of this is that there were people on that first Palm Sunday who were just as flummoxed. They had no idea what was happening when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with scores of his followers marching beside him waving palms, shouting and singing.
The people in Jerusalem that day had been living in expectation of a Messiah, a Savior, someone who would throw off the yoke of Roman oppression and set the world to right.
Then Jesus showed up and blew up their expectations.
Which is kind of what Jesus always did. And kind of what Jesus is still doing.
His arrival that day was a sign and symbol that just when everyone thought that all was lost, that God was never going to rescue God's people, help was on the way. But... The Messiah, the "One Who Saves" defied convention.
You see, Jesus didn't fit their neat categories, their expectations of what a Savior ought to look like. They wanted a strongman, someone who had bluster, confidence, an army and enough moxy to actually stand up to the greatest military superpower in the world and win.
They were at the end of their rope. Tensions were high. The world was falling apart around them. All seemed lost.
And then God showed up in an unexpected way and offered them rescue from all of it.
God is still doing the same thing through Jesus. And we still do what so many of those people in Jerusalem did so long ago: We have our own clear ideas of how Jesus should look and act, how Jesus should save... and so many times Jesus shows up and looks nothing like the Jesus we've imagined.
I want us to remember this one very important thing today--hang on to this, because it is the thread that runs throughout my sermon. When everything is falling apart, when you feel like all has been lost:
Sometimes the only thing you've got left is the One thing you needed all along.
Let's read Matthew 21:1-11
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”[a]
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna[b] to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[c]
“Hosanna[d] in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This is kind of an odd story, isn't it? So what was Jesus doing? What was he up to here?
Well, to our 21st century eyes, this may not seem like much... but to the first century habitants of Jerusalem who were gathering in the city for Passover, this was meaningful. It was street theater. Full of symbols and signs of what Jesus wanted people to know about him, and who he really was.
In short, Jesus planned and carried out a messianic entry into the city. He was throwing down the gauntlet, daring people to accept him as the Promised One.
There were roughly a quarter of a million people in Jerusalem for Passover. For the Romans, when you had that many people, who hated Roman rule in one place, it was a recipe for disaster unless you were on top of it.
Some scholars believe that around the same time that Jesus was entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey that Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor rode into the city on a huge white horse, surrounded by his calvary, carrying huge banners with the Roman eagle emblazoned on them, and followed by marching soldiers, armed to the teeth.
Jesus enters differently. He comes into the city on a donkey, bringing to mind a prophecy from the prophet Zechariah about what the true king, the true Messiah will look like.
His entry also serves to show what true Lordship looks like in God's economy. It's not the military industrial complex of Rome, it's not the vulgar display of power---it's something altogether different... servanthood, gentleness, humility, self-giving.
There are also a couple of loaded key phrases here in the text: "This took place to fulfill," is the first one. The Gospel writer is offering some commentary to help the reader understand what was happening. This moment had been foretold. This was what God had promised his people.
The second phrase that is loaded is "Son of David" which we find in the cries that are being uttered by Jesus' followers. This phrase is directly connected to the cultural imagination of the Hebrew people. A Son of David was someone who would be a healer king, a ruler who would bring restoration and peace to the people of God.
Even the palm fronds were highly symbolic. Palms were a nationalistic symbol for the people of Israel. When Judas Maccabaeus overthrew the Syrio-Grecian king Antiochus Epiphanes and led Israel into a period of self rule his arrival in Jerusalem was heralded by the waving of palm fronds.
The text tells us that this commotion set the whole city on it's ear. It says that the city was stirred, or trembling. The actual word is the Greek word seio which is actually used most often to describe what happens during an earthquake.
In fact, when Jesus dies, the Gospel accounts relate that the earth shakes by using that same word.
So there's all this highly charged stuff going on, filled with meaning, causing an uproar and then it gets even bigger. Because the crowds with Jesus are shouting and singing "Hosanna! Son of David! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
The word Hosanna is an Aramaic word that means "Save us now!" It is not widely used in the Gospels, but is connected to Psalm 118, which is part of the Great Hallel, a prayer that is only prayed or sung during the highest of the high holy days in Judaism.
So when everyone was shouting those phrases, the crowd knew where the phrases were from. It was the kind of prayer you would know.
Let me read Psalm 118:15-29 to you--this will blow your mind:
15 Shouts of joy and victory
resound in the tents of the righteous:
“The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!
16 The Lord’s right hand is lifted high;
the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”
17 I will not die but live,
and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
18 The Lord has chastened me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
19 Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
All the signs where there! It was very clear what Jesus was trying to do. He was telling all of Jerusalem that the Messiah had come, that God had kept his promises.
And the city missed it.
And the crowd that was with Jesus... when things got bad, when he got arrested... they ran away and hid, or denied him.
The people gathered there that day had known nothing but oppression. They had seen the cruelty of the Roman Empire firsthand. Their own leaders had sold them down the river. Even their revered religious institutions had sold out to the Romans--the high priesthood was up for grabs to the highest bidder. The Temple complex was run by what amounted to a priestly mafia, bent on getting as much money out of it as they could.
It was the eleventh hour and everyone was crying out for rescue. They cried out for salvation, but when salvation came it wasn't on their terms. They had a Messiah in mind, and it wasn't Jesus.
The reason why this story is so meaningful... the reason why we need to tell it and retell it... the reason why we wave our palms and sing our songs...
Is because we need to be reminded how easy it is to miss the Christ when he comes riding into our lives. When Jesus arrives to rescue us, to redeem us, to restore us... do we see him? Do we embrace him? Or do we miss him? Or betray him? Or turn away when he doesn't meet our expectations?
You see we want Jesus on our terms, don't we? We want our Jesus to look, and sound and think and vote like us.
We want Redemption to be triumphant. We like to win, and so salvation should look a lot like winning, instead of dying to ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Jesus were Jesus would have us to go.
We are totally fine with a Jesus who is not going to demand anything of us, not ever going to cause us to re-examine ourselves or change anything about us that might be uncomfortable or unwelcome change.
And yet we all are crying out. "Hosanna!" "Save Us Now!" "Hosanna!"
Because the world feels like it's falling apart around us doesn't it? We see the images of innocent children dying from poison gas in Syria. We hear the war drums being beaten. We find ourselves not able to trust our governments, our most popular religious leaders seem obsessed with bigger and more.
Or in our own lives---we feel the pain of loss when a loved one passes away... we wonder if there will be enough money at the end of the month... we sit and listen to the doctor's bad diagnosis ringing in our ears... our relationships are strained... we feel like our kids are hostages to fortune...
It feels like there's nothing left. And we cry out "Hosanna!"
And here is Jesus, riding into our lives in the eleventh hour, when all seems lost--offering us new life, redemption and restoration on his terms. Offering to help us find our lives if we lose them for his sake.
Reminding us that sometimes the only thing you've got left is the One thing you needed all along.
Where in you life do you need some rescue right about now? Maybe it's time to name it. And then turn it over to the Savior, the One who comes in the name of the Lord to seek and to save all those who are lost, including you... and me.