Zechariah 9:9-10, Mark 11:1-11
Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018
And the people shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is the story of Palm Sunday. This is a major event in Jesus’ life, and an event near the end of his life. And it’s an event that we have celebrated down through all the long ages of the Church.
I’d like us to start today by thinking about that first word, “Hosanna.” That’s what the people shouted that day. And if you look for it in your Bible, you will probably only find it in this place – in the Palm Sunday account of Matthew, Mark, and John. Luke does not include that word in his account.
The word “Hosanna” is primarily a shout of praise or adoration. One of the more modern translations we were reading this past week said “Hooray!” I wasn’t crazy about that rendering! I think that looses something.
“Hosanna” is a word of Hebrew origin. And though it is not found in our Old Testament, it was a word they used. It was used in the liturgy of one of their festivals called the “Feast of Booths.” The Feast of Booths was a seven day event, where people lived in makeshift shelters – they “camped out!” And they did so to commemorate their 40 years in the wilderness. And throughout those seven days they sung a cycle of prayers – one each morning – that contained this word. And they were prayers of adoration to God.
But! The word “Hosanna” in those prayers carried another meaning. It also had a sense of it that meant “save,” “rescue,” or even “savior.” So those prayers of adoration, also had in them a sense of “praise of a God who saves.” That’s what God had done for them in the Exodus story! He saved the people from their captivity in Egypt. So, “Hosanna” is a word that means “Praise to the God who saves!”
Ok, then there’s this story. By this time, Jesus had become what I’ve often called “Jesus the Rock Star!” Huge crowds now followed him! He was often “mobbed” by the people! And the religious leadership didn’t know what to do with him – because of his popularity. But they felt like they needed to do something, because they also feared the Romans! Because the Romans had a history of ruthlessness against those who would try to free themselves from their rule! And that’s what the people wanted! They wanted that so much that they turned a deaf ear to the very one they were following when he spoke of a spiritual kingdom. They wanted an earthly kingdom. And it all came to a head this day!
Listen again to Mark’s account of this. The people shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Then this! “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” There’s no doubt of their feelings about Jesus this day! Yes, “Hosanna” was a shout of praise! But, as I said, it also carried the meaning of “save, rescue, Savior.” “We praise you that you are saving us!” they shouted! And then the words that showed what they really wanted, the restoration of the kingdom of David! And I wonder if they knew that day what we know, that Jesus was of the lineage of David!
So in all of this, I want to emphasize the crowd’s understanding of this! And then I want to remind you of something I’ve said before on Palm Sunday. As one writer put it, this was an “echo,” a repeat, if you will, of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem of Judas Maccabaeus. Judas Maccabaeus was the great leader of Israel in the time between the Old and New Testaments. There was about 400 years between Malachi and Matthew. And around 150 years prior to this day, Judas had led the successful rebellion against the Seleucid Empire, who had occupied Israel. Who were they? (I hear you cry!) Well, the Seleucid Empire was one of several smaller empires that were left over after the breakup of a huge empire! It was the empire of (?) Alexander the Great. (Everybody remember him?)
That rebellion was a great victory for the people! It gave them their freedom! And at the end, Judas and his soldiers rode triumphantly into Jerusalem in, what has been called, “a procession of palms and laudatory praise.” And some historians have even mentioned that these very words were also shouted that day. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord?” Palm Sunday was an “echo” of that procession!
And one more thing, and I didn’t learn this until recently, part of that triumphant day 150 years before, involved a “grand cleansing of the Temple.” You see, it was often the case that, when other nations conquered Jerusalem, they would forbid their religion and, to demoralize them “religiously,” they would defile the holy Temple. So, the restoration of the Temple, the “cleansing” of the Temple, was very important in that great victory! And so it was on Palm Sunday! Jesus “cleansed the Temple!” And that was yet another element of the “echo” of that previous event. Frankly, the more I look at this story, the more those two events fit together for me. And the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that was exactly what those people were staging that day!
The only problem here, is that the imagery wasn’t quite right. You see, when Judas Maccabaeus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, he rode on a horse. And a horse was the animal a king would ride when entering a city in triumph! Jesus rode a donkey. And a donkey was also an animal a king would ride when entering a city! But! The symbolism was different. A king would ride a donkey when he was coming into a city to make peace! So, the people that day were hailing him as a conquering king, but Jesus was presenting himself as a humble king, he was that king coming to make peace.
That was quite a contrast in this scene! And remember, Jesus was very intentional about this. He could easily have walked into the city, like the rest of his entourage. But no! He arranged for this donkey to ride. And notice it was a donkey that “no on had ever ridden before.” Mark points that out very clearly. Such a donkey was often held out as a special animal. It was reserved for someone very special to ride. And that’s the donkey Jesus arranged for. So in all of this, he was making this very strong symbolic statement! (Just like the people were!)
So then, what does all this mean to us? I think this is a good place to ask ourselves that question. Because the basic problem that day, and what I believe led to the terrible events later that week, is that the people were not able to accept Jesus on his terms. They only cared about their terms. They were so set on having their earthly kingdom, they couldn’t see that Jesus was offering them the heavenly kingdom. And so for some, the shouts of “Hosanna” soon became cries of “Crucify Him!”
What about us? And that question is harder than you think. Harold pointed out a few weeks ago, and I agree, that of the three parts of us – the physical, the mental, and the spiritual – it is the spiritual part we’re most uncomfortable with. Our world inundates us every single day, with concerns of the physical and the mental, the mind and the body. And that makes it very difficult to think about the “spiritual!”
For these people of Israel, the difficulties of their life under Roman rule, and their longing for a kingdom of their own, was before them and on their minds every single day. They couldn’t think of a heavenly kingdom. It’s easy for us to make the same mistake, isn’t it? It’s easy for us to think so much of the earthly life, that we miss the spiritual.
As we make our way through Holy Week now, may we use this as a time when we concentrate on the spiritual kingdom. Jesus told the people “the kingdom of heaven is among you!” I encourage you to think about that. I encourage you to think about where Jesus was, and what he was doing those final days. I encourage you to think about how much he tried to point the people to the spiritual kingdom. And think about how much he wants us to think about that same spiritual kingdom.
Eternal God, we thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to point us to and lead us into the heavenly kingdom. Help us truly to know, this holy week and always, that your kingdom is indeed among us. May we truly, and for the right reasons, say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” These things we pray in his name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen!