Read Psalm 118:1-2,19-29 and Mark 1:1-11 ..
How often do we really celebrate our Lord? How often do we have a day where we march around and sing in honor of our God? That’s how we start out celebrating Palm Sunday, remembering the day when the crowds of Jerusalem offered a procession to celebrate the one who came to live, and walk, and work, and dance among us. This week we begin our service with glad songs and waving palm branches. We seek the joy and the attention of our beloved God. Hosanna!
I keep coming back to that strange word, "Hosanna." You've got to admit that it is not a term that comes up in everyday conversation. If you are like me, the last time you uttered "Hosanna" was probably last Palm Sunday. It is a strange word that is difficult to define. Scholars' best guess is that "Hosanna" is a contraction of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah, meaning to save or deliver, and naw, meaning to beseech or pray. So you might translate the shouts of the crowd as: "We beseech you to deliver us." Or as we more commonly say today "Save us." The people cheered. They tossed branches from the nearby trees to the ground, and they called out, "Hosanna." They looked upon this prophet who was rumored to be the Messiah and they cried out to him, "Save us. Save us." The meaning of Palm Sunday hangs on those two words, on the plea of those crowds so long ago that we echo today.
Hosanna originally comes from Psalm 118:25: "Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!" But by the time of Jesus this Psalm verse had found its way into common parlance as a greeting and blessing, so even the not particularly religious would know the term.
The crowds that lined the street cheered Hosanna for Jesus as he entered the city in his humble way. Some of the people there had already heard of Jesus and were followers, thrilled to have him come. But not all of them.
I imagine many of those gathered there that morning had been drawn in by the noise of shouting. And like any good crowd at a parade, they joined in, crying Hosanna! and waving branches with the others, enjoying a moment of spectacle in their day. After all, people are drawn to what is popular, to who is popular. We cry out for the one everyone else cries out for. We cheer with everyone else. We all cry out Hosanna, just as those crowds did long ago. We cry it triumphantly, gladly, rejoicing in the glory of our king. We smile as children call out, waving their palm branches aloft. We mimic the actions of the crowds around Christ.
The crowds that morning cheered together for Jesus. They were excited to see him, joyful even. Everyone who heard became caught up in the excitement and joined in the cheering. But facing this week, we have to ask, how did they go from cheering his entry on Sunday, to calling for his painful, bloody death on Friday?
I think it is because Jesus didn't behave they way they wanted him too. They were crying out Hosanna, Save us. Please, Save us. The crowds cried to Jesus for salvation, but they didn't get the salvation they wanted.
It is a complicated thing to ask, "What does God save us from?" When you ask people that question, the most common answer you get is "hell," or at least I did. I’m not sure if that’s because the people who I was asking knew I was a pastor or not. Occasionally I would get answers like the devil, and one in awhile "myself."
Now the people lining the streets of Jerusalem weren’t primarily concerned about "hell" when they were shouting out to Jesus. Hell wasn’t a concept in the Jewish religion, or at least not as we understand it. If the gospels hint at the crowd's motivation, it was that the people wanted to be saved from the Romans. They wanted deliverance from an occupying army, from the conquering empire. That was the whole point of having a messiah in their minds. But Jesus didn't come with armies to save them from the Roman government.
Instead Jesus disrupts the status quo. He over turns the stalls of the money changers and drives them out of the temple. He preaches peace and forgiveness instead of war and freedom. He doesn't do what they thought he would. The people wanted salvation, which they defined as "freedom from the Romans." When it became apparent that Jesus was not "that kind of Messiah," the people's jubilation quickly vanished. "Save us," they cried, but then Jesus did not set about saving them in a manner that they could recognize. He did not take up a sword and send the Romans fleeing. Instead, he threw a fit in the temple, costing them money. Instead he went and had supper with his friends. Instead he went and prayed in a garden. He didn’t do any of the things he was supposed to do. It only took a few days for the crowds to switch from crying "Hosanna" to the shouts of "Crucify him."
I asked a group of teenagers once "if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?" One of the youth piped up, saying "Death." Another joked that God could really help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test. Then one of the seventh graders said, "Pressure." And "My parents' expectations." Then another, shy individual, almost in a whisper said, "Fear. I want God to save me from my fears." All of these answers struck me as more sincere than "hell." Though you could argue that their comments gave a pretty clear picture of what "hell" looks like to a teenager.
How would you answer that question today? If you really thought about it, what do you want God to save you from? When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, "Hosanna," do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Save me from anger. Save me from cancer. Save me from depression. Save me from debt. Save me from the strife in my family. Save me from boredom. Save me from the endless cycle of violence. Save me from humiliation. Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist. Save me from bitterness. Save me from arrogance. Save me from loneliness. Save me, God, save me from my fears.
When we cry Hosanna, what are we really asking for?
Palm Sunday begins an intrusive time for Jesus. He has quit preaching and gone to meddling. It began to go bad when it became clear that Jesus was a threat to the way things were organized in the city of Jerusalem. Jesus was most welcome when it was believed that he would help you with illness, raise your brother from the dead, cure your cousin's blindness, and make the demons go away; but he does not stop there. Jesus wants to redirect our lives as part of saving us.
On Palm Sunday it becomes clear that when God saves our lives he not only blesses, heals, teaches and leads, he also confronts and disturbs. Palm Sunday is the moment when it becomes clear that God is concerned with saving more than our spiritual and physical health. He is concerned with our moral health and has claims on the power centers of our lives. You see we have little trouble with Jesus in churches or in the hospital.
But Palm Sunday reminds us that God is not satisfied with being Lord of our spiritual lives or our inner lives, that is easy enough, but on Palm Sunday Jesus goes down town and enters the law offices, the financial districts, the brokerage houses and the halls of government and that is where the trouble really got started.
Because we are broken in more than one way. And some of the ways we have been broken we are comfortable with. Some of the ways we are broken, we don’t want to be saved. And yet, we cry Hosanna. We ask for God to save us.
If you cry out to Jesus to save you, you have to be ready for the changes that he will make of your life. Calling out Hosanna with the crowds, is inviting the Lord to come and save you and you don’t get a call in how you get saved. But at the end of the day your life will never be the same.
Despite our resistance. Even though we kick and scream and do not want to change, Jesus died for us anyway. Even though we cry for his crucifixion, Jesus saves us anyway. He responds to our cries of Hosanna with such love and joy that our lives will never be the same again. Jesus saves us, even as we condemn him. Christ stays with us even when we are at our worst. We know what is coming this week, but we aren't quite there yet. We who stand among the Palm Sunday crowds know that the Word will soon be beaten, mocked, and killed. We know, too, that that is not the end of the tale
But for today, is there any better way to commence Holy Week than with palms in our hands and "Hosannas" on our lips? Is there any more faithful way to embark on this sacred journey than to ask God, out of the deep, honest places inside of us, to "Save us... please, save us"?