This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
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!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.
Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.
Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…
Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”
And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing.
To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.
Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.
Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable.
Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.
Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.
Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!
All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.
And, to be clear, they are true.
There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.
There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.
There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.
Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.
Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.
The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.
Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.
Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace.
The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.
You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.
It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:
At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives.
We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it.
The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.
And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.
Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!
Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city.
The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.
On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”
Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.
What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem.
A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.
At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”
You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.
But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.
By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.
But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.
After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?
Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?
Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?
People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.
On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection.
Hosanna literally means “save us.”
Save us from what?
Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.
And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!
The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus.
Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…
But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?
Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”
It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing.
It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.
We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.
He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.
Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.
Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.
Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.
That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us.
God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.
It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?
The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them.
And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen.