When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples ahead and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.
“If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ “
They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.
Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
In churches, we often stage the Palm Sunday procession as a children’s parade – and what a joyful parade it can be! Children love waving palms and prancing around and being the center of attention, and we adults encourage them to wave those palms madly, if only because that relieves us from having to do it.
If it were a Chiefs or a Royals game, we’d be happy to wave some red or blue banner, but wave a leafy green plant in church?
One Palm Sunday I had a brief confrontation with a woman who sang in the choir. She refused to even hold a palm branch in her hand. It was so undignified, she said. I wanted to reply, “So Jesus dying on a cross was dignified?” Happily, I kept my mouth shut.
We want to make Palm Sunday a harmless children’s parade, but Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was neither harmless nor a children’s parade. It was a joyful but potentially dangerous political demonstration. It was one of those events that gets people clubbed down, gassed down, shot down with a water cannon, shot down with bullets, or ground down by any of the many brutal ways that oppressive rulers use to quash political demonstrations.
Jesus entered Jerusalem claiming to be the ruler of Israel, its king and its high priest, and because he made such an audacious claim, the secular and religious rulers conspired to kill him in the most public, most painful and most humiliating way they could imagine – by nailing him to a cross at a major intersection outside the city.
“This is the king of the Jews,” said the sign placed over his head.” Let this be an example to you.
Jesus is fully aware of the risk. Notice how carefully he stages this event. His twelve disciples – those closest to him – are clueless as to what’s happening, just as a few days later they are clueless when he takes them to a secret place to share the Passover meal.
Jesus wants both events to happen without a hitch, and he stages both events secretly. He works through people who are not widely known to be his followers. Why doesn’t he trust the twelve? Because he can’t trust them. He knows that one of them is a traitor, and if he tells any of them, the traitor may get wind of it and tip off the authorities ahead of time.
The donkey is the symbolic animal of Israel’s royal court. Other nations prefer their kings to ride a magnificent white horse. In Israel, the royal animal is a humble donkey. By riding a donkey into the Holy City on the eve of a major religious festival, Jesus proclaims himself king of Israel.
His idea of kingship is radically different from that of the authorities. He comes as the Prince of Peace. They think of power only in terms of brute force. Still, they are so stunned by his claim that it takes them five days to string him up.
We shout “Hosanna!” today because they shouted “Hosanna!” then, but what do we mean by it, and what did they mean by it? “Hosanna” is a cry of joy and a cry for help. It literally means “Save us!”
So when they shout “Hosanna” while Jesus is proclaiming himself king, the people are both accepting and acclaiming him as their king and asking him to save them, to be their liberator, their savior, those lord and master.
Some historians argue that by the time of Jesus, “Hosanna” had lost its original meaning. It no longer meant, “Save us,” they say. It was more like our modern shout of “Hooray.”
I don’t buy it. Even when we don’t know the precise historical meaning of “Hosanna,” don’t we really know, as if by some kind of deep instinct that reaches through differences of time and culture, what it means? When we shout “Hosanna,” aren’t we asking Jesus to save us?
We sure do need somebody to save us, don’t we?
Our nation is divided politically and culturally, and as we approach a major election to determine our future, we are hunkered down in our homes trying to wait out a deadly virus that is likely to kill hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world, that has already infected or killed some people we know and strikes fear in all our hearts.
We are afraid for our personal safety, and for the safety of loved ones, and for the safety of our beloved institutions and life patterns and habits and hopes.
What does Palm Sunday have to do with this?
First, let me note that it’s not just Palm Sunday. For quite a few years now, it’s been Palm & Passion Sunday because too often we want to emphasize the positive nature of the day and ignore the pain that follows. But we just can’t do that and fully appreciate the joy of next Sunday, when God refuses to take the “No” of the cross for our answer and brings Jesus back to life.
Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a deep passion we cannot ignore. We can’t skip over it or edge around it. We have to live through it with Jesus. We have to share the pain of his betrayal and humiliation. And we have to know that he did it all for us.
If we had been there shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday, we might just as well have been there on Good Friday shouting, “Crucify him!” We’re all guilty of failing to love others the way Jesus loves us. Jesus dies because of our failure to love. All our sins arise from a failure to love, and Jesus dies for our sins.
“Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus says, “that he lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).
Throughout Lent we’ve been studying the book Reckless Love by Tom Berlin. In his final chapter, he talks about emulating Jesus. That doesn’t necessarily mean challenging the authorities the way Jesus did. It does mean loving others the way Jesus did and does. In all situations, we ask ourselves, what does Jesus’ rule of love tell us to do? What does love demand of us? What is the loving thing to do at this moment?
Sometimes loving others can lead to great suffering. Sometimes it leads to a cross. In this next week, as we meditate on the last days of Jesus, I ask you to think not only about the suffering that Jesus endures but also why our failure to love others makes that suffering inevitable, and how emulating Jesus also can be our path through suffering to Resurrection.
This message was delivered April 5, 2020, Palm & Passion Sunday, via Facebook Live to members of Edgerton United Methodist Church and others who might find it.