Palm Sunday (April 5, 2020)
“Save Us Now” (Matthew 21:1-11)
Browsing the news on the internet this week, I ran across a series of videos with images of cities shot with drones flying over them during the “stay at home” orders we have received. The images were haunting, especially with the ethereal music that was also being played. Empty streets and downtown hubs which would normally be bustling with cars and people. Cavernous baseball stadiums void of exuberant fans. Little playgrounds void of laughing children. A lone carousel sits silent, still, and unridden. A solitary figure strolls across an otherwise empty plaza, which even the pigeons and seagulls seem to have abandoned because there are no humans to leave crumbs behind for the birds to scavenge.
This is quite the opposite of the scene near Jerusalem we heard described a few moments ago. You can be sure that they knew nothing about “shelter at home” or “social distancing” and the question of whether to wear facemasks or not. The narrow alleyways and streets and courtyards of Jerusalem were jam-packed with travelers arriving for the Passover to celebrate with their families who lived in and around the city. Many of these folks had also witnessed or heard about the fact that Jesus of Nazareth had raised Lazarus from the dead in the village of Bethany, just to the east of Jerusalem (although Matthew doesn’t record this for us, only John does). Even the opponents of Jesus who had been plotting to kill him were crowding around to witness his arrival. They were the Jewish leaders: the religious Pharisees, the aristocratic Sadducees, and anyone else who thought that Jesus was a threat to their social, political, and religious position in the community. They were looking for an opportune time to seize him but held back for fear of the crowds who were crying out to him, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
The crowd echoes the words of Psalm 118, part of which we prayed together today. Psalm 118 is one of the great “” psalms, called such because of their frequent use of the word “Hallelujah” … oops … not supposed to say that until Easter. Sorry. Translated, “hallelujah” means “Praise the Lord.” These psalms were used in festival processions as people went up to Jerusalem, especially for the Passover festival which commemorated God’s rescue of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Once again, the people sing these words as Jesus approaches Jerusalem on the back of a donkey’s colt.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” they cry out. Calling him the “Son of David” shows that they acknowledged him to be the promised Messiah who would be the greatest descendent of King David. “Hosanna” means “Save us now!” What did they want saving from? Centuries ago, they had been enslaved by the Egyptians. That rescue was complete. But they had also suffered at the hands of the Babylonians when their ancestors were exiled in Babylon for seventy years until God restored a remnant in the Promised Land. Now, they were under the thumb once again of a foreign empire, the Romans, and the people fully expected the Messiah to come as their conquering king. It was time for Jerusalem to be the capital not only of Judea but of the world and for all nations to flock to Zion in praise and worship of Yahweh and for the wicked to be destroyed. “Hosanna to the Son of David” were politically charged words. Now the Romans had a reason to get rid of Jesus, too. Was he coming to start an insurrection? A revolution? Was he about to enlist this crowd to join his army of 12 in order to attempt a coup like the Maccabees did against the Greeks before Rome came to power?
Save us. Now. Fast forward a few days later and it sure doesn’t look like Jesus us. Not now. He didn’t look much like a conquering king, not with a crown of thorns and a bloodstained scarlet robe the soldiers had placed on him. Not with his back torn to shreds by their whips. Not with their spittle dripping down his beard that they had spewed upon him in mockery. Not with him hanging in shame and agony, naked and nailed on a cross. Nope, it looked like Rome was still in charge. Even his little army of 12 abandoned him and ran off, hiding in fear, except for one who stayed with Mary at the foot of the cross, and another who betrayed him and ran off to hang himself with a noose.
Save us. Now. Fast forward to our day. Does it look like Jesus us? Now? Does he seem distant and uninterested? Silent? Is he too weak to conquer all the problems we are facing right now? Are we making demands upon God about the way in which we want him to save us and how and when? We are often not satisfied with the way God chooses to work among us. Who of us are satisfied with our predicament right now? And yet what is God teaching us in these moments?
He is teaching us to look to him for all our good, even in these days of uncertainty, these days of fear, yes and even these days of boredom. Jesus does save us.
He saved us then. He first came in all humility as the Baby in the Manger, God in the Flesh. In all humility, Jesus lived as the Perfect Man for us, fully obeying his Father as a trusting child, and doing so in our place because we have not perfectly obeyed our Heavenly Father. And in all humility, Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to a cross where he bled and died bearing the burden of our sins and the sins of all humanity.
He saves us now. He is not distant and uninterested. Jesus is our Immanuel. God with us. He is present among his people, the Body of Christ. He comes to us now with his forgiving love and mercy in Word and Sacrament, calling us to faith and keeping us in the faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, giving us strength and courage to face the days ahead and to humbly care for each other in this present time of need.
And he will save us later when he comes again. But this time, it will not be in humility as on Palm Sunday. Then it will be in exaltation, with all his divine glory, as our Resurrected and Ascended Lord, and the Church will sing, “Hosanna! Save us now!” Then he will be our conquering King, once and for all doing away with all evil, all sin, all wickedness, all injustice, and all disease that brings death and all that would distance us and keeps us isolated and fearful. And the dead in Christ will rise to live before him in eternity because the image of his death and resurrection were already imprinted on them in their baptism.
Before we close, I want to see if you remember when you last heard this Palm Sunday account. It wasn’t a year ago last Palm Sunday. We this reading about the Triumphal Entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem twice in the Church Year. We first hear it on the First Sunday in Advent. Why would we hear about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey in Advent? Because Advent is about God coming into this world on his rescue mission which culminated not at the manger but at the cross with an eye on his Second Advent, his Second Coming. Advent is also about anticipation and hope. We need that message today. We need to lift up our eyes to the Lord in anticipation and hope, because we know that with every passing day … and when we are confronted with signs of the times that Jesus said would occur until he comes again – wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, and yes, pestilences – we are told to “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). And on that great and final day, believers of all nations will be gathered together again, streaming into the gates of Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and those streets paved with gold will be jam-packed with saints and angels singing praises to Jesus, our Crucified and Risen Savior, our Paschal Lamb.
But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in
The King of Glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. (LSB 677 stanzas 7, 8)
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!